EMPOWERING DEMOCRACYAn interview with Peter Davison originally published in the Continuous Learning Association of Nova Scotia magazine, Spring, 1991.
I'm a grade six teacher at St. Mary's School on Morris Street; it's my second year there. "Citizenship education" seems to me to be kind of a government term: I think of it as taking responsibility for your society, for things in your society that may be correct, and for things in your society that may be wrong.
When you take responsibility for things in your society that are currently wrong, you start dissenting, because there is a status quo that maintains things as they are now. When you start activities, or dialogue, or public education that is perceived as dissent, that challenges the status quo, and says 'what do you mean, one in eight women are going to be sexually abused this year in Canada?' Why? What are we looking at here, what is the background?' And you start asking some really probing questions. That can start to make some people who are comfortable, uncomfortable.
So one of the most important things about taking responsibility for your society, about being a citizen, is to acknowledge that dissent is healthy, extraordinarily healthy, in a good democratic society.
It's an interesting thing that as a peace activist, I certainly get poked at from all sides, but from a very specific group of people. It's usually men, and men who are over the age 35-40, white, and I would guess middle-class. So the letters and critiques, editorials, op-ed pieces are consistently written by men when they challenge the "peace nostrums" as they call them. I think that says something, because when we look at society as a pyramid, we have a very distinct structure of who's on top and who's down toward the bottom. It's safe to say that white middle-class or rich men are on top, with their partners directly below them, and then it goes down from there to ethnic minorities, less visible minorities, children and on the very bottom of the pile is the environment itself.
So I think it's really healthy when the bottom of the pyramid starts poking up at the top and saying 'there's something going on here; this is not fair, there is an exploitation or an abuse here and something has to be done'. And to fully embrace citizenship, people have to open themselves up to that. ? So the work of good citizenship, I think, is two things: one is awareness, the second is opportunity.
That's what peace activists do: they engage in public awareness, education. Rallies, protest, information workshops, anything that informs people. Once people know, then they can start making a decision about what can be done. Usually their interest level is accompanying an emotion: something that touches them.
In our society there is a very strong message that violence is rewarded, that violence is legitimate because it achieves "solutions". It's important to explore that, and part of that awareness is to make the links with other sectors. For example the peace movement is seen as a "not-war" movement, but in fact the peace movement does relate to the bullies on the school yard, to competitive sports where millions of dollars are spent pitting athletes against one another. It includes violence against women, patriarchy, sexism.
So the "peace movement" is a very integrated movement. It relates to the attitude that we must conquer the earth, because that is a violent attitude, that we somehow have power we can use to subdue the earth to our needs. In that context, 'earth', 'women' and 'another country' are synonymous. So part of the education is to declare the integrations that already exist, but are not easy to perceive. The next step is interest: when people learn things, it's helpful to know that it affects them.
People say: 'What does a war on the other side of the earth have to do with me?' You might be pinched in the pocketbook over oil prices, but it's really more than that. It's a common human suffering when we legitimize the death of other human beings for political power or control of the region or whatever. Those connections have to be accepted.
One of the fundamental jobs of a social change movement is to allow people opportunity, whether facilitating a situation where people make their own opportunity, or presenting an opportunity, it is crucial to any cause.
There's a social change model presented as a wedge. At the thin edge are the activists, people that get out there and protest or whatever, to make their cause known. Shortly after that comes a group known as 'legitimizers': status people, like the mayor who votes for a nuclear-free zone. Then that wedge goes deeper and deeper into the status quo until you have change.
So developing social responsibility involves acknowledging that dissent is healthy, opening oneself to information, not only about a particular issue but in terms of integration with other issues, and then having opportunities to take some action for change.
A really fundamental thing is empowering democracy: making the government accountable is step one. Usually a large part of any campaign is to make addresses and telephone numbers known, and for people to charge their representatives with accountability. This is a really weak part of our democracy, where we think that you vote for someone and they get elected or not, and then you just grump or grumble about things until the next election when you can vote again. It's jut really important to speak your piece, and write those letters, make those phone calls.
There's a real problem with consumerism, because citizenship and social responsibility all revolve around the notion of how powerful we are. We often get people who say 'well what can I do?' The whole concept of social power has been withered by consumerism: where you are told that your power is your ability to buy things. For example, with the kids that I teach in grade six and Nintendo games. The slogan for these games is: "now you're playing with power" and that is such a false portrayal of who we are is human beings. There's no power in getting your fine motor co-ordination going so that you can blow something up in these games.
The Reeboks, the Benettons, all the catch phrases that go with these products portray a sense of our personal power as our ability to consume. Consequently, if you can't consume because you don't have money, you would almost think that you were powerless. Yet in reality, that is the sector of the population that has the right to speak out more, because they can't afford the privileges of people that have a higher income.
That version of personal power is something to be challenged: we have to say that our power and our self-esteem and our ability to make change comes from doing the best we can with our abilities and talents. We all have them, and they are diverse enough. To acknowledge and celebrate them, and find others that are doing the same is important.
People struggling with issues and wanting to do something, but encountering resistance or hostility, whatever it is they're going through, need acknowledgment of what they're going through, that it's real. I'm not sure it's my responsibility to bring them out of that, but to provide them with opportunities to go with it. Or just to listen, to listen creatively or actively, to acknowledge, feed back on the human-ness of their struggle and to share my inside empathy with that, to connect as humanly as possible.
And when the resistance has to do with the apparent hopelessness of changing a situation that is very deeply ingrained in society, I automatically think of figures in history that have conquered the odds. The Mother Theresa's, the Ghandi's, the Martin Luther Kings, show that it has been done and it will continue to be done by people who simply go with the fact that they care.
It's a daunting task, that's for sure. I go so far, and I realize that I just can't not do it, I can't turn away from it. My whole journey into activism fnk it's possible to turn back.
Then I went to a workshop in 1985 where I was really touched by a pediatrician, Joanna Santa Barbara, who simply discussed the effects of war on children and how children feel fear. And in some ways that legitimized the fear I felt, as a child of the movement, if you will, and acknowledged that fear is real and healthy and something you can work from.
I worked at Hope Cottage for a while, with Peter McKenna, a priest who was a tremendous help for opening up the whole justice concept; instead of just giving people food, asking why they don't have any food. You start looking at the structures. So my experience working with an inner-city food mission was really the first place where I started making the connections between the environment and peace and development and poverty and women's issues.
Individuals in my life like Joanna and Father Peter inspire me with their personal witness and commitment. The more stories we tell about people that try their best to make the world a better place the more we bolster and empower what it means to live in a real, by definition, demo (people) cracy (rule).