I was invited to be the guest speaker and performer at the Unitarian Church of Edmonton for its quarterly “Social Justice Sunday” on October 28, 2018. The topic was “A Safe Space for Activism.” Visit my blog at Sacred Social Justice for a video of my talk and performance of four songs, as well as my notes.
#HateFreeYEG is a new grassroots community initiative to work towards eradicating Edmonton of hate and racism. The initiative launched on September 30, and I was asked to speak at the launch as a community organizer about how we can eliminate hate, as well as my own experiences with anti-Semitism. Here is a video of my talk, as well as my notes.
I was surprised and honoured to be voted “Best Activist” in VUE Weekly’s 2018 Best of Edmonton. It’s wonderful to be acknowledged by my community in this way.
It’s been a busy and exciting few weeks. I found out that a couple of my micropoems were selected for the Word On the Street project in the McCauley neighbourhood. One is on 107A Avenue near 95 Street, and the other is on 96 Street near 105 Avenue.
Then, on May 24 I received the Edmonton Social Planning Council’s Award of Merit for Advocacy of Social Justice. A major reason I received the award is my leadership at Boyle McCauley News for the past 12 years, as well as my involvement in social justice initiatives like the Women’s March in Edmonton. This photo was taken with Ward 4 City Councillor Aaron Paquette, who was the guest speaker (the event was also the ESPC’s AGM).
The following day, on May 25, I received the first ever MUSE Award from Edmonton Muse. To celebrate the online magazine’s first anniversary, the publisher decided to give back to the community by honouring people who are making a difference. I was thrilled to have my work with social justice initiatives recognized, such as Project Ploughshares, the Edmonton Coalition Against War & Racism, and #CompletingTheStory, as well as my songwriting.
I was invited as a guest speaker for the first annual student conference for the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on March 21 at Balwin School (Belvedere School also participated). The event was organized by Chris Nielsen, MLA Edmonton-Decore. Below is my speech, which was geared to the grades 5-8 age group.
It’s not often that I get to talk to people your age. Usually it’s old people like me. But I am so happy to have this opportunity.
Something I find really exciting is how young people have a chance to make a difference. You have the chance to make a difference in other people’s lives. If you want to change the world, you need to start with the world around you.
I am an activist who believes in peaceful and non-violent ways of protesting. I have been interested in issues like human rights and peace since I was as young as you are. I never liked it when someone was treated unfairly or was bullied. I was bullied when I was a child. So, I don’t like to see other people hurting because it reminds me of how I felt when other people treated me badly.
Sometimes I was lucky and had a friend who would help me when someone was making fun of me. If you see someone being bullied, you can be that friend. Even when we become adults, we still have to look out for each other, because adults can be mean to each other too, and we need to stand up and say when someone’s behaviour is wrong.
I eventually wanted to get involved with organizations that had values I have, and work for social justice and human rights. I got on the Internet and searched until I found local groups to connect with. I was an adult when I did this – we didn’t have the Internet when I was a kid. We didn’t have phones that could take pictures and send emails and play movies. The phones just made phone calls. Yeah, kind of boring. You’re very fortunate that you have a lot of resources literally your fingertips and you can stay informed about what’s going on in the world almost any time. Social media like Facebook and Twitter make it easy to support an idea by sharing and liking. In the activist community, we call that “clicktivism.” It’s great because it is easy and helps people feel involved, like they are doing something important. But it is also important to be active in real life and take part in things with people face to face. And that begins with getting to know each other.
When I was in elementary school, I was the only Jewish kid in my class. It made me feel like an outsider. In grade one, my father (who is now a retired university professor) would visit our classroom a few times a year to explain Jewish customs and traditions, usually around the time of a Jewish holidays like Chanukah in winter or Passover in the spring. Those visits were really important because for most of the other kids in the class, I was the first Jewish person they had ever met and it gave them the opportunity to ask questions about why I celebrated different holidays or couldn’t eat certain kinds of foods.
I was always very shy. In high school, I hung out in the computer lab a lot and became good friends with the other people who hung out there too. One person was also friends with my older brother, and we’re still friends now. He told me that when he was growing up, he used to use the word “Jew” in a very bad way – to mean that someone was cheap with money. But in the social circle he was in, that was considered perfectly fine. He didn’t know that was a anti-Semitic thing to say. He also didn’t know any Jewish people. Then he met my brother, and then me, and suddenly “Jew” had a face and a name. And he realized that you can’t call people that, because it’s wrong. When you get to know people from other cultures and religions, it can open your eyes to just how much racism and anti-Semitism there is out there. Many people simply don’t know any better until they are corrected and they learn.
One of my jobs is editing a community newspaper in the Boyle Street and McCauley neighbourhoods. Much like here, the neighbourhoods are very multicultural. Children who grow up in neighbourhoods like this are very lucky because you get to know people from different backgrounds, and this will help you throughout life as you meet and interact with others in school, work, or wherever you may go. I mentioned earlier that I was the only Jewish kid in my elementary school class. Otherwise, most of the kids in that same class were white. I remember at one point we had a new student who was Lebanese. Sometimes he was made fun of because of the colour of his skin, I am thankful we had a teacher who put a stop to this right away. Racism had no place in her classroom. And I have never forgotten how she dealt with that situation.
We need to treat everyone with respect, dignity, and kindness. It is wrong to make fun of someone for any reason. I mentioned earlier that I was bullied a lot as a child. People made fun of all sorts of things about me: the way I walked, the way I talked, how I dressed, the music I listened to. I had really bad skin when I was a teenager and they made of that – something I had absolutely no control over. I felt terrible all the time, but I refused to change who I was to try to get other people to like me. I think what I went through is a reason I became an activist because I don’t like to see people treated unfairly, because of their religion, the colour of their skin, who they love, differing mental or physical abilities, or any reason. We are all unique, beautiful people and we deserve to be accepted for who we are.
But even when we become adults, we still make mistakes. Nobody is perfect or acts perfectly all the time. We say or do things that hurt other people’s feelings. The important thing is to be strong enough to apologize and learn and grow from the situation. Sometimes the other person may not want to hear an apology or talk about it, and that is their choice and you have to respect that too. Reconciliation cannot be forced. But as long as you are open to it, then you’re on the right path.
In my faith tradition, which is Judaism, we have a value that in Hebrew called tikkun olam, which translates to healing or repairing the world. I want to make the world a better place, and I want to show others how to make the world a better place – that’s you. And then, on your life journeys, even while you are still learning, you can teach others as well by how you treat each other and making a decision that you’re always going to try to do your best in every situation.
I was invited to speak at the International Women’s Day Celebration organized by Chris Nielsen, MLA Edmonton-Decore, on March 9. I was asked to speak about my activism in the context of the Edmonton Women’s March. Here is my speech.
Thank you to Chris Nielsen for inviting me to speak today, and I would like to acknowledge that we are on Treaty 6 territory.
I was hanging out with a friend in November of 2016, when she mentioned that there was going to be a Women’s March on Washington the day after the inauguration, and asked if there was going to be any sort of action here in Edmonton. At the time I had not heard of anything, but went online and found that yes, in fact there were women organizing “sister marches” in cities throughout Canada and throughout the world, and I was connected with the women who were organizing here in the city. Together, we planned the Edmonton Women’s March and on January 21, 2017 4000 people showed up at the Alberta Legislature to proclaim that Women’s Rights are Human Rights.
One of the other organizers, Alison Poste, and I decided that we wanted to continue organizing as a grassroots team, and so we have been doing that under the banner of the March On Edmonton Collective. Most recently, we organized an anniversary event of the Women’s March, which had 1000 people come out again to the Legislature on January 20.
As someone who has been an activist for much of my adult life, I have been drawn to issues such as peace, social justice, human rights, Indigenous rights, the environment, and, of course, women’s rights. I think in some ways, many of these issues are interconnected. There is a saying in activist circles that if one person or group is oppressed, then we are all oppressed. I believe there is truth to that. And certainly, women have been at the forefront of social justice struggles throughout history.
Yet when it came to the Edmonton Women’s March, especially the first time around, we got a lot of questions about why we were going ahead with a march. After all, the Women’s March on Washington was directly in response to the election of #45. What did this have to do with us up here in Canada, in Alberta, or in Edmonton?
I responded then, and continue to now, that we have uniquely Canadian, Albertan, and Edmontonian reasons to march. In many ways, the election of #45 emboldened people who hold intolerant, racist, and sexist beliefs to feel free to spew their venom. We wanted to fight back against a trickle-up effect here in Alberta. We are seeking to raise the level of public discourse in our province, where women in politics and other aspects of public life are free from verbal abuse, harassment, and bullying. We are raising awareness and support for survivors of gender-based violence, as well as the issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. And, of course, there is the issue of pay equity in the workplace, as Alberta is the only province in Canada that does not have equal pay legislation. These are all ongoing, important, local issues.
In the year since the first Women’s March, gender-based violence and harassment has come to the forefront in the news and social media. #MeToo has actually been around since 2006 – the term was created by an American activist named Tarana Burke. But suddenly, in the last year, it’s everywhere.I strongly believe that the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement has become so prominent because women feel more empowered to speak up directly because of the Women’s March movement.
The Women’s March was the largest global protest in history, and we are seeing the ongoing effects of that. Women’s voices matter, and now that we have the ability to speak out and support each other through social media, the ability to organize and mobilize is easier than ever. The challenge now is to move beyond the hashtag and into concrete action.
What does that look like? Sexual assault centres are understaffed and underfunded. People who are seeking help often have to wait weeks or even months before they can speak to a counsellor. Private counselling services can be too expensive to access for many. We also have to acknowledge and deal with institutionalized racism that is endemic in our society. Women of colour and Indigenous women are far more likely to be victims of violence. Shelters that protect women and children need more support, as always.
We also need to see more women represented in public places. When it comes to public art, sculptures, monuments, murals, and even place names, women are woefully under-represented. Where women are depicted, it is often a fictional woman in a stereotypical role or presented in an unrealistic way (such as in terms of their body poses and proportions). Completing the Story is a grassroots initiative that started here in Edmonton and seeks to increase and improve the visual representation of women in public spaces. As a social media campaign, using the hashtag #CompletingTheStory, we point out examples of both good and bad representation, or where it is lacking, in Edmonton and throughout Canada. This is important because when a group is not visible, or not as visible as it should be, it is easier to marginalize that group. Representation matters. Girls need to learn from an early age that they can be and do anything.
And there is much to be hopeful for. Progress is happening. I applaud the government for its legislation clearing the way for renters to break leases in order to flee violence. The announcement this week of more funding for sexual assault centres is amazing and will have such a positive impact. I am encouraged when I see a provincial caucus and cabinet with gender parity, that this will inspire women to run for office or get involved with public life in other ways, such as government boards.
The fact that so many people came out to the Women’s March in 2017 and again in 2018 – crowds which included many people who don’t normally attend protests and rallies, and including not just women, but also men and boys – means that we’re dealing with issues that resonate with a lot of people from all walks of life. This is why we continue to proclaim that Women’s Rights Are Human Rights – because when it comes down to it, the issues that we are dealing with are all parts of working towards a safe, equitable society for everyone.
March 8 was International Women’s Day, as well as the date for the fifth annual #girlbossYEG event organized by InterVivos, a non-profit organization that seeks to mentor young professionals in Edmonton. I was one of 10 panelists who went from table to table (in increments of 10 minutes) at the new London Villas Hub in McCauley to talk about the topic of how to achieve gender equality in the workplace. This is a very timely topic, especially in light of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements where women are speaking out about harassment.
I would start at each table with a brief introduction of myself as one of the co-organizers of Edmonton’s Women’s March as well as a freelance communications professional and digital content strategist. As a result, my workplace is not a traditional office as I am meeting clients and working out of various locations. Most of the issues I have had with workplace harassment involves online bullying – including troll attacks on the March On Edmonton Collective’s Facebook event page leading up to the Women’s Anniversary March on January 10 of this year.
Since I don’t work in a traditional office setting, I am only making a personal statement that a healthy workplace is one with open communication. We need to be open to having difficult, sometimes uncomfortable conversations about boundaries, respect, harassment, and other gender issues, whether they happen organically between workers over lunch breaks or going out after work, or the HR department organizing something. I realize that this is an ideal situation and that not all corporate cultures function like this.
The following is a point-by-point summary of responses to some of the questions I was asked in the discussions.
- Don’t amplify the trolls. They are not there for an honest debate – they want to tie up your energy and wear you down.
- Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences. You have the right to delete materials and block people acting inappropriately on your social media.
- Mantra when it comes to trolls on social media: Block – Delete – Report – Repeat
- Your personal space extends to your social media accounts.
- If someone came to your home and started behaving inappropriately you would ask them to leave. Your social media accounts = your house, your rules.
- Self-care is important when it comes to staying revitalized and not burning out.
- My activism informs my art because social issues inspire me.
- Harassment in the activism community happens in-person as well, because sometimes you get people coming to meetings and events who may not be as enlightened as we would hope (for example, older men preying on younger women).
- Being open to having difficult conversations can also include having boundaries within them, and being allowed not to talk about something if one is uncomfortable or not ready.
This wasn’t my first time taking part in an InterVivos event. A few years ago I took part in a panel discussion with a similar format called Citizen Edmonton, to talk about how young professionals can get more engaged with their communities.