Posts Tagged ‘social justice’

Unsung Heroes of the Third City

Tuesday, December 27th, 2011

2011 will be remembered as the year when inequality moved from the margins to the mainstream of public discourse. No longer just the purview of anti-poverty activists, progressive economists and the political left, this year figures as unlikely as Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney felt pushed to publicly acknowledge the widening gap between the rich and the rest, or as the Occupy movement has put it: the 1 per cent and the 99.

In Ontario, the loss of high-paying manufacturing jobs, the growth of precarious employment, the dismantling of the social safety net, and the weakening of a trade union movement that once was a strong force for a more egalitarian society have allowed inequality and poverty to grow relatively unchecked for close to three decades. The idea that free markets and globalization deliver prosperity for all has been thoroughly debunked by the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression. Prosperity has been concentrated in the hands of too few at the expense of too many.

And as report after report has concluded, our city has not been immune from these socio-economic trends. As researchers at the University of Toronto’s Cities Centre have documented, over the last 30 years Toronto has become a greatly unequal place, segregated by income into three distinct cities:

City #1 consists of the richer and whiter downtown core and the well-heeled neighbourhoods that abut the city’s subway lines.

Toronto’s middle-income neighbourhoods make up City #2, shrinking in size as we become a more socially and economically polarized metropolis. The number of high-poverty neighbourhoods in Toronto has more than quadrupled since 1980.

City #3 — or the Third City — is made up of Toronto’s low-income neighbourhoods, with their high concentrations of racialized poverty. Generally found in the northeastern and northwestern parts of Toronto, incomes in these “inner” suburbs have declined 20 per cent or more since 1970.

While we have become accustomed to thinking of Toronto’s Third City geographically, as particular areas and neighbourhoods, the Third City can also be understood as an urban condition: a set of experiences that together amount to exclusion from the full political, economic and cultural life of our city. For instance, living in the Third City means not having enough money to take your children to the zoo or museum; it is having to choose between feeding the kids and paying the rent; it is commuting two hours to work on inadequate public transit; it is being denied a job because of your accent, the colour of your skin, or your postal code; it is being charged exorbitant interest rates by payday lenders; it is being denied access to channels of political influence for lack of resources and excluded from civic debates.

Cuts to public transit, child care, recreation centres, libraries and community grants stand to exacerbate this exclusion. People living on low incomes cannot afford to purchase equivalent goods and services on the market — things like private child care or nursery school, owning and operating a car, fitness club memberships or summer camps for kids.

No Toronto neighbourhood has become more associated with the Third City than Jane-Finch. But behind the negative media headlines and dire poverty statistics, there are people working hard to stitch together a social fabric torn by decades of rising poverty and inequality. They are the unsung heroes of the Third City, the people and organizations we hear little about.

Women like Stephanie Payne, the indefatigable matriarch of Jane-Finch who heads up the San Romanoway Revitalization Association (SRRA). The association’s work has led to the renewal of an apartment complex long stigmatized for its association with crime and poor living conditions. Payne and the staff at the SRRA provide programs for isolated seniors, recreation for community youth, and gang-prevention initiatives.

While she is haunted by the deaths of too many of the community’s young men, Payne carries on her work emboldened by positive results as reports find crime in the complex has declined and residents’ quality of life has improved. “This is a dynamic community and people come together when good things are happening,” Payne reflects. “But when I look at the budgets and see this program and that program have to be discontinued, I think what am I going to do with the youngsters out there, are they going to be back on the corner? If they don’t have our supports, they will be back out there. That’s what I worry about.”

Organizations such as Lost Lyrics face the same uncertainty. Lost Lyrics is an alternative education program that uses hip hop culture to reach students who struggle in the mainstream education system and are often labelled as having behavioural issues. Working out of a Jane-Finch community centre, the organization has successfully bridged the streets and the classroom, empowering young people to change their lives and critically engage the world around them. But as Lost Lyrics co-founder Amanda Parris puts it: “under this mayor, our access to resources is steadily shrinking. Our programs are in a precarious position and our capacity to sustain them is riddled with question marks.”

Christopher Penrose runs another highly successful Jane-Finch program, Success Beyond Limits, which provides summer programs, peer tutoring, and co-op opportunities for local youth. He has seen the city’s budget plans and warns: “As things are right now, pre-cuts, there’s not enough. Not enough for programming, to address all the issues our youth face. . . .

“We’ve been to funerals, we deal with youth who have lost people, we deal with young people who come to school hungry. We see the effects of poverty on a daily basis. It’s traumatic. Now we are being re-traumatized by politicians who negate our experiences, making decisions that are going to lead to more poverty, more hardship. It is more than just frustrating; it is hurtful to see the direction this city is going.”

Jade Lee Hoy, an outreach coordinator with community arts organization Manifesto, another Jane-Finch mainstay, echoes Penrose’s frustrations, “When you cut these programs, we are losing talent, opportunity and energies that could be vital to our city.” Lee Hoy notes that neighbourhoods like Jane-Finch are vibrant and resilient places with a strong sense of community despite the many challenges they face.

The likes of Payne, Parris, Lee Hoy and Penrose are people whose intelligence, drive and ingenuity could earn them the big bucks on Bay Street. But they don’t migrate to corporate Canada. Instead, they work daily to cobble together grant applications, counsel the vulnerable and uplift a community. They work to mitigate the effects of poverty and marginalization. And they do so with meagre budgets, little compensation, and an abiding frustration with governments’ lack of commitment to social justice and progressive change.

Of course they reap rewards as well: the joy experienced when a troubled youth turns their life around, the deep sense of fulfillment gained when mentees grow to become mentors, the satisfaction earned watching the transformation of those deemed “at-risk” into those understood by community, peers and parents alike to be empowered. They do this work out of love; love for their community and ultimately love for our city.

As philosopher Cornel West has said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” With cuts to city services and social programs looming on the political horizon, we are about to see just how much love our city has for neighbourhoods like Jane-Finch.

Published in The Toronto Star Dec 23 2011

9 must reads for the 99 percent

Sunday, October 16th, 2011

The Occupy Wall Street movement has gone global. POUND’s Simon Black recommends nine must reads for the ninety-nine percent. Don’t sleep on the books behind the revolution.

Follow the link here.

Cities on High Alert

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011

Here’s my latest op-ed on urban issues for The Toronto Star. They have a habit of changing my titles; this one was originally “The Age of Urban Unrest?”

Last week, New York City’s mayor Michael Bloomberg rang alarm bells when he said that high unemployment could lead to mass social unrest in cities across the United States.  “You have a lot of kids graduating college who can’t find jobs. That’s what happened in Cairo. That’s what happened in Madrid. You don’t want those kinds of riots here,” Bloomberg explained. The mayor was not alone in this assessment. Former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn said as much back in 2008; “unemployment,” he declared, “represents a risk to the stability of existing democracies.”

Bloomberg’s warning came with his endorsement of President Obama’s new jobs creation bill. As a big city mayor, Bloomberg knows too well that the social problems associated with high unemployment, widening inequality, and economic stagnation are most acute in urban centres. Whereas Strauss-Kahn’s words proved prophetic, Bloomberg was learning from recent history.

Since the onset of the global economic crisis back in 2007-2008, cities have seen rising levels of violence and social unrest: riots and looting in the UK, intensified gang violence in major US cities, street clashes in Athens, flash robs in Philadelphia, mass protests in Madrid, ghetto dwellers and security forces facing off in Kingston, Jamaica, rival drug cartels engaged in shootouts in Juarez, Mexico; the list goes on. As many political observers have remarked, a driving force behind the Arab Spring – apart from an unquenched thirst for democracy – is unemployment, and in particular, extremely high levels of youth unemployment.

Non-governmental organizations have started making the connections as well. A recent report from the International Red Cross, entitled Urban Violence: War By Any Other Name observes, “Around the world, cities are experiencing an alarming increase in violence and its resulting misery…Chronic conflict makes daily life in some places almost like living in a war zone.”

And images of urban unrest not only flash nightly across our TV screens and occupy the pages of our newspapers, they also permeate our popular culture as never before: just watch recent science fiction films like Attack the Block, District 9, and Battle: Los Angeles. The city as a place of conflict and civil disorder is part of our cultural zeitgeist.

We have then, it appears, entered an age of urban unrest.

But London is not Philadelphia and Cairo not Kingston. From riots and looting, to mass protest, flash robs, and gang warfare, there are very different types of urban violence and social unrest with seemingly disparate causes. But while poverty, inequality, and unemployment do not tell the full story in all places, they do tell much of the story in many places.

In the case of the UK’s recent disorder, we have learned from The Guardian newspaper that the vast majority of rioters brought before the courts are young, poor, and unemployed. In the Tottenham neighbourhood, where the riots began, 54 people chase every one available job.

Where austerity and cutbacks to government services deepen poverty and unemployment, unrest soon follows.  Two Barcelona-based economists have published research which clearly shows a link between the variables. Empirical data on close to forty European and Latin American countries demonstrates a positive statistical association between government spending cuts, unemployment and levels of unrest, including anti-government demonstrations, riots, strikes and attempted revolutions.

In addition, path-breaking research by social epidemiologists has found that among advanced democracies, more equal societies (and by extension, cities) are also more socially stable and less violent.

In the absence of work and of hope, different ways of organizing human activity fill the social void. The anomie brought on by unemployment and other forms of social exclusion can be addressed through participation in other social groupings, sometimes a gang, sometimes a mob, sometimes a radical political or religious organization. When channelled into movements seeking to address legitimate grievances, as in the Arab Spring, urban unrest, disruption and disorder can be welcomed. History tells us that rough means can sometimes bring about progressive ends, especially when democratic channels are closed to those suffering injustice. Yet few urban denizens welcome the type of violence and disruption that causes misery, damage, and distress in their lives and in the life of their city.

We live in an urban age.  In 1950, less than 30% of the world’s population were city dwellers. Now, for the first time in human history, the world’s urban population outnumbers its rural. As never before, the fate of humanity is tightly intertwined with the fate of the city. And whether we live in Toronto or Tokyo, Lagos or Los Angeles, safety and security are necessary conditions for a flourishing urbanity and a decent quality of life. As even the conservative-leaning Mayor of New York City has realized, addressing inequality, deprivation and unemployment with meaningful government action is central to maintaining social cohesion in an era of economic uncertainty.

Published Oct 11 2011 in The Toronto Star, pg. A19

Appearence on DisRespect Radio

Saturday, February 19th, 2011

Geoff Langhorne hosts a great little radio program on CFMU 93.3 in Hamilton. It’s been going for 8 years now and I’m honoured to be an occasional guest. On this week’s show we discussed the anti-poverty movement in Ontario. In particular, I spoke about the development of the Special Diet campaign, a campaign whose tactics and objectives harken back to the great welfare rights struggles of the 1960s. Here’s a link to the podcast:

http://www.radio4all.net/index.php/program/49501

See DisRespect’s homepage at: http://cfmu.msumcmaster.ca/

Glenn Beck targets Frances Fox Piven

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

For the past year or so, my friend and mentor Frances Fox Piven has been subject to a rather bizarre but nevertheless dangerous campaign launched by Fox News blowhard Glenn Beck.  Beck, whose weekly rants attract 2 million-plus viewers in the U.S., has targetted Piven as one of the conspiratorial leaders of a movement to bring down the United States’ “economic system” and replace it with authoritarian socialism. According to Beck, everyone from Woodrow Wilson to Barack Obama and community group ACORN are indicted in this movement (I only wish Obama had some left-wing convictions!). 

Frances has dedicated her life to the cause of social justice and she was a central figure in both the welfare rights movement and the passing of Clinton-era legislation, the National Voter Registration Act, which sought to ensure low-income Americans could excercise their democratic right to vote.  She’s always believed that it is the mobilization of everyday people that can change politics for the better and bring about a more just society. Her activism and scholarship have advanced the struggle against what Martin Luther King Jr. called the “three evils”: militarism, racial injustice, and poverty.

It’s both sad and disturbing that someone like Glenn Beck, whose ideology and actions are geared toward reinforcing the massive inequalities in power and wealth that characterize American society, is a household name. The Center for Constitutional Rights (http://ccrjustice.org/) has written a letter to Fox demanding Beck end his attacks. We will have to see what comes of this. In the meantime, check out some of the links below:

Here’s Piven’s latest article in The Nation magazine: http://www.thenation.com/article/157292/mobilizing-jobless

And some coverage of Beck’s idiocy in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/22/business/media/22beck.html

Finally, here’s a link to an interview Frances gave on Democracy Now, giving her take on the whole affair: http://www.democracynow.org/2011/1/14/why_is_glenn_beck_obsessively_targeting

Remixing urban education

Sunday, January 30th, 2011

In my latest op-ed on urban issues for The Toronto Star, I discuss the legacy of a little-known urban arts program that developed a number of Canada’s finest hip hop and Rn’B artists. 

Rappers Kardinal Offishal and Saukrates, singer Jully Black, and video director Lil’ X may not be familiar names to Torontonians over the age of 40, but anyone born after 1969 who loves hip hop and R and B is aware of these artists’ foundational roles in Canada’s urban music culture.

Beyond their shared talents, what these names have in common is a little-known initiative of Ontario’s NDP government: a program called Fresh Arts. Fresh Arts was developed under the umbrella of JobsOntario Youth, part of the larger JobsOntario training and employment program the NDP government introduced to address the labour market fallout of the early ’90s recession.

Fresh Arts attracted young people of colour from areas the City now designates as ‘priority neighbourhoods.’ Then, like today, these neighbourhoods were characterized by large immigrant populations, racialized poverty, and high unemployment; most strikingly, youth unemployment.

Staffed by dedicated community activists, Fresh Arts paired mentors from theatre, music and the visual arts with ambitious young artists whose styles and talents were marginalized both by their lack of economic resources and an arts sector that failed to reflect Toronto’s cultural diversity. It was in Fresh Arts that Toronto’s budding urban talents accessed the funding, education, and networks necessary to propel them to successful careers and years of ambassadorship for the city.

Part of the impetus for Fresh Arts was the Stephen Lewis Report on Race Relations in Ontario. The report was commissioned by then-premier Bob Rae following the Yonge Street Riot of May 1992, when simmering tensions between black youth and Toronto police reached a boiling point. According to Rae, the riot “served to remind everyone that there were systemic problems that were not being addressed.”

Lewis documented the social exclusion faced, particularly, by black youth in Toronto and throughout Ontario. Yet like other efforts to address systemic racism that stemmed from the Report (such as the Anti-Racism Secretariat), Fresh Arts fell victim to Mike Harris’s ‘Common Sense Revolution.’ Harris ended JobsOntario Youth, and with it, Fresh Arts.

The spirit of the now legendary program lives on in the Remix Project, a community arts hub which provides space for Toronto’s new generation of urban artists to flourish. Remix participants come primarily from the City’s Priority Neighbourhoods.

Once accepted into Remix, participants are matched with an established mentor who guides them through an intensive program which helps them earn credits toward a high school diploma, apply for post-secondary education and scholarships, or access start-up money for small business projects.

Remix ran on a modest budget until 2005, when Toronto’s ‘Summer of the Gun’ led to increased funding from both the federal and municipal governments, and various foundations. Since then, however, government funding has been minimal, and Remix has had to rely on the goodwill of individual donors and foundations to survive.

With over 200 graduates now making their way in the urban arts sector, Remix has improved the lives of some of the city’s most vulnerable youth. As one recent graduate told me, “Remix showed me the right path when I was in a dark place…the program gives us the opportunity to see another way for our lives. We’re not treated like charity cases, but respected by our peers.”

As the dominance of market logic eclipses social citizenship, programs like Remix are forced to depend on private and charitable sector partnerships to survive. Ultimately, this is what separates a program like Remix from one like Fresh Arts, and charity from social justice.

Although it had minimal funding, mostly from the government, Fresh Arts was grounded in the belief that young people from marginalized communities should have access to resources that better their lives—by virtue of social rights, not the tenuous goodwill of private individuals and corporate philanthropy.

Remix’s funding is neither stable nor predictable, which makes long-term planning difficult.

Indeed, as policy wonks trumpet the idea of the ‘creative city’ and the economic benefits of a vibrant cultural sector, it’s confounding why projects like Remix should have to struggle for every dollar. The city and the province must do more to support such proven successes.

Yet visions of what we can achieve collectively through government are threatened by promises of cutbacks and ‘tax savings’. As the latest city budget demonstrated, cuts to services are the order of the day, with our new Mayor promising more in the near future.

This is short-sighted. Fresh Arts demonstrated the potential of community-driven programs partnering with government to improve the lives of the city’s marginalized youth. Remix is now doing the same. Programs like these are not part of a “gravy train”; as the success of Fresh Arts and Remix graduates demonstrate, they are smart social investments that benefit us all.

Moreover, they are central to building a strong, socially inclusive city that is creative, prosperous, and just.

Published in The Toronto Star Jan 30 2011

Words of the Wise: Dr. Cornel West

Sunday, December 27th, 2009

A dear friend of mine passed on this quote from Cornel West. I’m keeping it close as we enter the new year:

“The country is in deep trouble. We’ve forgotten that a rich life consists fundamentally of serving others, trying to leave the world a little better than you found it. We need the courage to question the powers that be, the courage to be impatient with evil and patient with people, the courage to fight for social justice. In many instances, we will be stepping out on nothing, and just hoping to land on something. But that’s the struggle. To live is to wrestle with despair, yet never allow despair to have the last word.”

Amen to that.