Thursday, April 28, 2011

Conservative Before Their Time

There's a saying about politics, that if you're conservative when you're young, you haven't got a heart, and if you're a liberal when you're old, you haven't got a brain. There's some truth to this one, and I say this acknowledging that I'm one of those old liberals.

Youth are hopeful, optimistic and have a tendency to believe in utopian dreams. So, the liberalism comes naturally. Which is just as it should be. As we age and experience disappointments, cynicism sets in. We realize how difficult it is to change the world, our dreams become more modest, and we're more likely to settle for solutions that are merely practical. Thus the conservatism.

But I'm not so content to go with this second generalization as with the other. I insist on remaining dreamy into my old age. Being optimistic and holding big dreams about our potential, as individuals and as societies, seems more than practical to me. It's dreaming that advances us, not the careful pragmatism of the status quo. Of course, reasoned conservatism has its place, but there are places where it seems so dismally out of place, and one such place is in the young.

And so, I'm a bit depressed about a recent interaction with some young folks about the upcoming Federal elections here in Canada. A multi-generational group of us was talking politics and I was shocked to hear from two young guys, both of whom I regard as intelligent and decent, that they intend to vote conservative. Now neither of them has struck me as particularly progressive, but I'd imagined that the conservative party's regressive social policies, its  poor record on environmental issues, and Harper's autocratic intolerance of divergent views would be meaningful to them. But while acknowledging some philosophical differences with the conservatives, both guys asserted that the reason they were voting the way they are is basically self-interest. One said that actions the conservatives have taken lately have directly benefited the industry he works in. The other said that he feels the anti-regulation position of the conservatives will give him more latitude in his future career.

What bothers me most is that social consciousness seems to figure so little in their views. I worry that they can so easily overlook the philosophy and the positions they disagree with; that they can declare, on one hand, that it doesn't matter to society as a whole who they vote for or who wins, and, on the other hand, that it will support their own work and lifestyle choices to support politicians who stand for values that they are against.

It's sad that they have so little idealism, that at such young ages - their twenties - they are already so jaded and cynical as to discount the importance of their own values.

I must add that there was at least one other twenty-something in that group - a young woman - who was staunchly progressive in her politics. And among other young people I encounter, the question is rarely whether they support a progressive politics, but whether they do so based on knowledge and conviction about issues and principles, or merely because it's expected. I must give these young conservatives credit for that at least, that they don't seem to merely be jumping on a bandwagon of peers. They've formed their own opinions on this. But for their judgements and opinions to be so narrowly and cynically arrived at saddens me. I truly hope they aren't representative of the generation of leaders to come.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

On the Edge of a Void, Looking In

On Monday night, I phoned the police on a client for the first time in a decade. Then, on Tuesday, I almost had to do it again, on another client. In both situations, my clients were distraught, angry, feeling severly at a loss and disempowered. The first is a nineteen year-old female; the second is a twenty-two year old male. She, in her moment of crisis, was feeling a large degree of fear. he was experiencing the frustration of feeling victimized and misunderstood. Each was so emotionally isolated in the moment as to be unable to take in anything that was being said to them by me, or - more importantly - by the loving others who were there with them. In her situation, what triggered the call to the police was the fear that she would harm herself. In the other situation, what was almost triggered was the potential that in his rage, he would lash out at another.

These situations make me reflect on fragility and vulnerability. How do we endure what we endure? How do we survive the feeling the we are coming apart, that the space we are occupying cannot properly hold us and that something will give? There were moments, on both of these nights, when my client turned to me in fury and declared that we were done, that they'd never see or talk to me again. Thankfully, by the time the episodes ended, I was able to give each an embrace that they accepted, and to tell them that I care for them.

I think of the times in my life when I've been incapacitated by my emotional or mental state: deeply troubled, angry, sad, afraid.... I'm the sort that has strong emotional reactions to things. I can carry upsetting scenarios in my head and play them over and over. I can become distracted from what's around me by the dramas that play out in my head. I can easily shift into a frame of mind in which going through the motions seems pointless, which are precisely the times when it seems perfectly reasonable to do the outrageous. Why not scream at the top of my lungs? Why not hit something, or someone? Why not take this or grab that, just because it may offer some momentary distraction, or light, or enlivening pain? I've been close enough to see the potential of going rogue, of flipping out, of embracing the essence of "Don't Give a Fuck!"

But, lucky me....I can imagine such reactions, but I'm just not wired that way. When I'm feeling upset or lost, I generally take a walk. I like walks. They soothe me; always have. From as far back as I can remember, walking out has been a way out. And because I'm not a highly confrontational type, because I often prefer my own company to the company of others, because space and movement and peace appeal to me, I almost always and instinctively avoid things and situations that generate noise and confinement and pressure

I've never been diagnosed as having a mental illness, and I've never thought of myself as such. But I've contemplated the pros and cons of suicide, I've escaped situations that I simply no longer wanted to face, through getting high or by hitting the road. I've secluded myself from family and friends for periods of time. I haven't experienced any of these frames of mind, or of mental and emotional pain, to the degree that so many of my friends, colleagues or clients has. I've only approached those limits, those boundaries into severe dysfunction.

But what of those who veer ever so slightly further down that road toward dysfunction. What about being just a little less able to hang on when emotions are in turmoil. What about having just a bit less of a margin - of support, of respectability, of physical space (a home) to burrow away in. What if - when I find myself in challenging social situations - I had marginally less ability to express and advocate for myself, less in the way of material means to rely on, less of the simple physical and mental health I've been blessed with?

Both of these clients I write about might so easily have wound up in angry confrontations this week. They might have been arrested, hospitalized, beaten, or otherwise hurt, by well-meaning others even, or by themselves. I can't help but think about the narrow margins they walk, every day. Both of them have dreams, and very clear goals they'd like to achieve, but are sometimes blind to the many obstacles they will face on the road to achieving them. They each have gifts too, but where the clearing to display them?

These events haven't challenged my belief, or damaged my faith in what those I work with can do. But they've resensitized me - yet again - to the challenge of fitting into the world, with all its unknowns and all its surprises, and doing so gracefully. It matters in this business of fitting, of having a place, to know and to have command of ourselves. But even to the degree that that's possible, even as it's desireable, is it ever enough?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

An Alternative Education

A few days ago, the Toronto District School Board unexpectedly announced staffing cuts to its alternative high schools. These schools come in a wide variety, from French Imersion to Afro-Centric; Oasis, on whose community council I serve, focuses on Arts and Social Justice, Triangle serves the queer community, and the Skateboard Factory employs a business model in which students design, build, then sell, yes, skateboards, along with offering an academic program. Some schools serve high performing students, while others offer re-engagement opportunities to those who have done poorly in, or dropped out of the mainstream schools.

The staffs of these alternative schools are generally quite small, with as few as five or six teachers, who perform administrative functions as well as teach. Cuts of a single position to such schools theaten to gut curriculums, exacerbate safety concerns and, in some instances, threaten the very viability of programs.

So a call went out this week, for supporters of these schools to attend a meeting of the Board's Alternative Schools Advisory Committee. And the response was tremendous! Teachers, parents and supporters all came out and spoke eloquently, advocating a reversal of the cuts, and citing the many reasons why these schools are essential.

But most impressive were the voices of the students themselves, who presented themselves singly and in groups to defend their programs. Several of them spoke about taking their education seriously or finding it meaningful for the first time in their lives. They spoke of the special relationships they'd formed with teachers; how they'd been instilled with confidence, ambition, an eagerness to learn. They spoke of feeling safe, able for the first time to express and to explore their differentness, free from pressures and threats to conform. They spoke of their schools as families, and as loving communities, where they felt loved, valued and validated. They were bold, spirited, eloquent, and they moved the audience powerfully.

At the end of the evening, the Board President, Chris Bolton, led in the scripting of a motion to express the sense of the meeting, which he committed to introducing in the meeting of the full Board on the following night. The deal is not yet done - another board member present rebutted that, due in part to falling enrollments, the entire school system faced a serious budgetting challenge, and that alternative schools ought not automatically be exempted from cuts any more than mainstream schools, which he felt had come under attack during the meeting. It remained clear however, that the meeting was an effective exercise in citizen activism. One student present, who attends Oasis school, was open-mouthed with astonishment as she listened to Bolton taking up the cause. "I didn't think we could actually change anything," she exclaimed. And that lesson, in and of itself, made the entire chain of events worthwhile.

Below is the letter I submitted in opposition to the staffing cuts:

                                                                                                                                    12 April 2011
Dr. Chris Spence
Toronto District School Board
Dear Dr. Spence,
I am writing you as a concerned member of the Oasis Alternative School Community Council, in response to the surprising announcement of staffing cuts to this school and to other alternative schools in the District.
I must say that I am shocked at this action, which threatens to undermine the viability of Oasis, and, I imagine, of the other schools that will be similarly affected. From a board that has so often, in so many ways, celebrated and championed efforts to create accessible learning alternatives to all children and youth throughout this most diverse of cities, this move comes as a disappointment and surprise.
Please allow me to share my particular perspective on why schools such as Oasis are so desperately needed, and why their staffing and resources need to be increased rather than cut. My background is in the social services. For approximately thirty years I have worked in detention centres, group homes, in schools and community agencies, with children and youth who for various reasons have found themselves out of the mainstream.
My presence on the Oasis Community Council came about as a direct result of my work for two years as a colleague of Dr. Vanessa Russell at the York University Teacher Education site in Regent Park. During and prior to my work there, I worked in Regent Park as a Youth Program Coordinator for Dixon Hall, and as the Coordinator of Community Engagement for Regent Park Neighborhood Initiative. In those roles, I worked closely with the staffs of the Nelson Mandela Park School and the Lord Dufferin School, and with the Pathways to Education Program.
All of my work, at these programs and in previous social service roles has underscored for me the vital importance of alternative routes to education. That such routes exist, and in as plentiful forms and configurations as possible, is so vitally important that I sometimes mistakenly assume that it can go without question. But sadly, as this instance indicates, that is not the case.
I know that others of my colleagues on the Oasis Council will be weighing in with you on the importance of the work that Oasis does. So I will seek to add a perspective which they perhaps will not. This is the perspective from my current work as a Street Outreach Coordinator for the City’s Streets to Homes program, where I work with the Youth team, serving individuals twenty-five years of age and under. My clients come from among the youth who live in the streets, parks, ravines and under the bridges of this city. They are heavily street-involved, meaning that they are heavily impacted by the drug culture and the criminal cultures. They are subjected to incredibly high rates of violence, both by others frequenting the streets and by police. The incidence of addiction and mental illness is very high among them. I could go on.
There is no question but that, along with housing, one of the most successful and certain means by which the lives of these youth can be turned around, is to get them enrolled in an educational program. And when these youth seek educational opportunities, the alternative schools of the District are absolutely their main resource. And while there are a number of successes that stem from enrolment in your various educational options, it is also clear that there would be more of such if there were even more, rather than fewer options for these youth.
A final point, which I think ties all of this together, has to do with the allocation of resources. So often, when critics look at programs like Streets to Homes, as when they examine alternative schools like Oasis, there is the complaint about the inordinate expense of these programs. The per capita staffing needs are higher. The costs brought about by the failure of clients to follow through and stay on track (absenteeism and dropping out) are enormous. Wouldn’t these resources be better spent on those clients (students) from a more reliable and dependable and success-oriented demographic? But what’s forgotten, or intentionally overlooked in these calculations are the extreme costs of not serving these ‘hardest-to-serve’. If schools like Oasis are brought to the point where they can no longer deliver quality programming through the cutting or staff and other resources, ultimately, the youth who are not served will suffer, and the costs to our society will show up in the building and staffing of more prisons, psychiatric facilities, and in funding lifetimes spent on social services, disability, and in treatment facilities.
In closing, I add my voice to what I hope will be a chorus of protest about this most ill-advised decision, to cut staffing where more staffing is urgently needed. Thank you for your attention.
Craig Kirby
Oasis Alternative School Community Council

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Call for a Voter Revolution

A new Federal election was called barely a week ago, and I'm fed up already! The posturing, self-righteous arrogance of the major party leaders is galling. Each one of them gets on the stump and declares that ONLY THEY have the interests of Canadians at heart. The others are only interested in power, or in serving their tiny constituencies, or are simply inept or without conscience. Each gets up and declares his respect for the ordinary Canadian, and tells us that the others think we're stupid.

I'm fed up, but I realize the responsibility isn't with the politicians. It's with the VOTERS. It's with US, because we buy this trash, we condone it, we put up with it, and we vote for them despite it. We have incredibly short memories from election to election. We don't hold politicians accountable on the substance of their records, and we allow ourselves to be manipulated when they turn on each other with dishonest distortions of one another's records, They continue to play the political games that we allow them to play.

Rex Murphy of the CBC, in commenting on the start of this new season of the Canadian political circus, said someting that caught my attention, "People will start to be engaged when the politicians stop being false....Why is it so hard for leaders to say what they think in words they would normally use. Three sentences of what they actually, really mean , in their own voices and words, would change the style of politics forever." In response, a viewer noted that he was dreaming, because so long as the current style of politicking worked, it would prevail. Both of them are right. It's going to be up to US, the VOTERS to bring about the condition that the current style no longer works.

And so, I'm wondering how we in the West can emulate the brave citizens of Libya and Saudi Arabia and Tunisian and Egypt, and foment a citizens' revolution to seize power from the autocrats of this debilitating game that substitutes power politics for reasoned debate and progress on policy. I think it may come down to a similar wholesale rejection of the political status quo - a kind of "throw all the bastards out" mentality that rewrites constitutions and establishes a new legitimacy from the bottom up. It's going to require a democratization similar to what's being sought after in those other lands.

Unfortunately, I don't have a plan on how to bring it about. But I have a couple of borrowed ideas about tools and tactics that already exist in some form that may be pieces of an answer.

My first thought stems from my experience as a voter in Washington State. There, and in several other states - most notably and famously, California - the initiative and referendum tools of democracy are used frequently and to pretty good effect. On almost every ballot, you will find measures - on the city, county and state levels - that have been placed on the ballot by citizen groups (initiatives), or that have been referred back to the voters by the legislature (referenda). This type of direct democratic participation, where citizens get to actually vote on policies, rather than on politicians, ought to take its place as a central and main thoroughfare of legislation. These tools put policy beyond the immediate reach of deal-makers, and they encourage citizens to become more responsible students of the pros and cons of measures, including financing. Very often initiatives and referenda detail exactly what taxes will me created or modified, and for exactly what period of time, in order to finance a desired project.

My second borrowed idea forms a more nebulous proposal. This calls for voters to promote and commit to standards that politicians would have to adhere to in order to receive their votes. These standards would have to be non-partisan to have a lasting effect on the overall fundamentals of how government is conducted. Otherwise, this would amount to no more than a splinter, political movement. An example of the type of standard that might be generated is that politicians refrain from attacking the character of their opponents, or from distorting facts, or their opponents records. Perhaps candidates would be subjected to university-style exams, in which they'd have to demonstrate an awareness of the positive aspects of policies they oppose, as well as the negative aspects of those they support. Non-partisan panels (or, more accurately, multi-partisan panels, made up of supporters of all candidates) would have to judge ads and speeches on their adherance to or violation of these standards.

The hardest part is this strategy is thatvoters would have to follow through and be willing to spoil their ballots, vote for alternate candidates, or abstain from participation altogether when the candidate of their choice violated the guidelines.

I welcome any response to these thoughts. Are any of the rest of you out there as frustrated by the state of affairs as I am? Any other ideas on how else to force politicians to present and debate their views with more integrity, and on how to democratize government, to make it more effective and less the political power game it is now?