Raise Your Voice – Blog Action Day 2015

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Once a year, I make a departure from my usual blog offerings and take part in a global awareness campaign – Blog Action Day.

Though food and community leave lots of room for writing about social justice issues, it’s also important to step back and take a look at what is happening in the world beyond my kitchen and my neighbourhood.

This year, the theme of Blog Action Day is Raise Your Voice and bloggers across the world were encouraged to speak out about the silencing of writers.

A long time ago, I found myself behind the bar in a room full of writers. This isn’t the beginning of a writer’s journey of self-discovery, or self-destruction, but one of solidarity and struggle. The evening was a fundraiser hosted by PEN Canada. The writers and guests, including PEN’s then-president Nino Ricci, were there in support of Little Sister’s bookstore. My friend and I, both of whom wrote for a feminist newspaper at the time, had been asked to volunteer and we gladly offered our amateur drink-pouring skills to the cause.

I’d been following Little Sister’s case closely, because it was my community bookstore and because the censorship they’d been facing was an outrage. I was also surrounded by people following the case, in my job, my volunteer work, and my personal life. It was a lesson in how communities can be silenced and it helped me to learn to look beyond my own areas of privilege to see what other voices were missing from cultural conversations.

When this year’s Blog Action Day theme was announced, the Little Sister’s struggle was the example that came immediately to mind.

Writers may be overtly censored by governments, but they may also find themselves discouraged or discounted because they don’t belong to the right gender, race, sexual orientation, class, or religion. Even published authors can find themselves censored after the fact, if their works aren’t stocked in stores.

In Vancouver, queer and trans voices were infamously silenced by Canada Customs, beginning in 1985, when Customs systematically stopped shipments to gay and lesbian bookstore, Little Sister’s. Little Sister’s took their fight all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada and must still challenge Customs’ decisions to this day.

The film Little Sister’s VS Big Brother documents much of this history, as does the book, Restricted Entry: Censorship on Trial.

The struggle on Little Sister’s behalf was taken up by queer and trans communities, but those activists succeeded in making it a cause supported by writers and artists across the spectrum. PEN Canada took up the cause, mainstream publications reported on the case, and Canadians of all backgrounds stood up for Little Sister’s.

It’s this kind of solidarity that must be shown to writers around the world and at home, when their voices are being drowned out or silenced. The next time you’re in a bookstore, whether it’s brick and mortar or virtual, ask yourself who isn’t there. When you’re exploring the blogosphere or online media, be aware of who is being represented in the bylines. Then, look for ways to uncover those other voices.

PEN Canada or any of its sister organizations is a good place to start. Amnesty International often speaks up for writers and artists in their global campaigns.

Websites like Everyday Feminism, Colorlines, and Wipe Out Transphobia can lead you to writers and perspectives you might otherwise miss.

Whatever avenues of exploration are open to you, take time to search for voices that diverge from your own experience. And when you (inevitably) find silences, raise your own voice in support and don’t stop until everyone is heard.

You can find a broad spectrum of posts under the #RaiseYourVoice umbrella by visiting the Blog Action Day website, their Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, or Google+ pages, or by searching any of the hashtags I’ve included on this post.

Exercise Your Franchise and Vote

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Today, civic elections are happening across MetroVancouver. If you live in Vancouver proper, you can find the poll nearest you using this tool.

Municipal governments make decisions that quite literally affect us closest to home. So, before you get your Saturday started, hit the polls and make sure your choices are counted.

Inequality on the rise in Canada – Blog Action Day 2014

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Today is Blog Action Day and bloggers across the world will be discussing inequality.

Last night a friend of mine and I were talking, after a meeting where the agenda was dominated by ideas promoting the sustainability of the mixed-income housing co-operative in which we both live. Our conversation turned to the BC teachers’ strike, which we agreed was a lost opportunity to focus public attention on the real issue plaguing the province’s education system, the steady loss of equality of education. These discussions share more than concern for the well-being of systems we rely on; they are connected to the growth of inequality across Canada.

Much of the conversation about inequality centres on the concentration of wealth that’s on the rise here. But that’s not the whole story, as the focus of our public infrastructure is changing to mirror those shifts in income. Our system is starving the institutions that benefit all, while promoting those that are accessible only to those who can pay.

Canada is in danger of losing its social safety net and any hope of equality of opportunity for future generations. Exercises like the CCPA’s Alternative Budget show potential for a way out of these inequalities, but it’s going to require the political will of ordinary Canadians.

You can see more posts from around the world on inequality via Blog Action Day’s participant list. One of their partners, Oxfam, has a stream of some of the best posts in Storify. There’s even a WordPress daily prompt round up.

The Power of We

This year’s Blog Action Day
theme is The Power of We, which is particularly appropriate for this blog, because one of my focuses here is community.

This theme brings to mind vast social movements. When change happens, it often seems to have sprung out of nothing – a zeitgeist that moves inexplicably through a population. In fact, the sweeping changes of civil rights, social or environmental movements usually begin with small groups of people, acting locally.

It’s this scale of activism and community that interests me. Local organizing and community-building is the most accessible level of change-making, but it’s also the most invisible. National and regional politics and lobby groups are well-represented in the media, but our understanding of municipal politics, local government, and small-scale activism suffers.

A good example of this is the issue of separated bike lanes in Vancouver. For folks in the outlying suburbs and even for some in the city itself, the bike lanes were a shocking surprise. But, they were the result of years of work by organizations like HUB (formerly the Vancouver Area Cycling Coalition) and BEST. These groups arose because cyclists found themselves travelling the same, unsanctioned bike routes, encountering the same dangers and frustrations, and began to organize. They connected with others in more established cycling cities and slowly began to educate citizens and city officials about best practices for cycling. It’s taken years to get cycling integrated into transportation plans and separated bike lanes are part of that.

The same can be said for the establishing of community gardens, changes to municipal rules around where food can be grown, and bans on pesticide use in city limits. These changes, along with the establishment of neighbourhood farmers’ markets have helped to shift our city’s focus on food production and land use. We can thank groups like Vancouver Farmers Market, Farm Folk City Folk, and SPEC for this.

I’m lucky to live in a place where there is so much involvement by community groups. We’ve got strong neighbourhood associations, an active heritage foundation that works to preserve our built environment, and a wealth of organizations that connect community members across abilities, class, and race.

My challenge to you for this day of action is to look at your local issues and discover the groups that have been working on them. Perhaps you’ll find one that motivates you to get involved and to experience the ‘power of we’ firsthand.

A Post for World Food Day

Zesting an orange.

This post is part of the Blog Action Day 2011: Food project.

Looking at the Internet, you’d be forgiven for thinking that North America is awash in gourmet food, sourced from farmers’ markets and CSA boxes. Many bloggers (myself included) like to write about experimenting with cooking, discovering new ingredients and techniques, and the pleasures of feeding family and friends. But for many people, the issue isn’t the best technique for zesting an orange, it’s whether they’ve access to oranges at all.

The issue of access of food isn’t as simple as distribution of donations, though food banks, once thought to be a temporary measure, have become a permanent part of the landscape in many communities. Food banks are structured as a stop-gap, unable to guarantee the components of the varied diet people need to thrive long-term. As food insecurity continues, more ways of fighting it have spread – like community kitchens and gardens, along with low-cost food organizations like Quest Food Exchange and affordable CSA programs like the one run by SOLEfood Farm. These initiatives move beyond stop-gaps and acknowledge something that often seems to get lost in discussions of food policy – that the poor are as much a part of their region’s food culture as are those with more resources.

So often the discourse around issues of income and access to food revolve around the choices low-income people make. Though the existence of issues like food deserts and affordability are more often acknowledged now, there’s still a moralizing aspect to these discussions. There’s also an underlying assumption that the poor don’t know how to feed themselves, at least not properly. The truth is that our culture condemns the poor for engaging in the same behaviours found in the middle and upper classes. Eating out is a vice or a virtue, depending on the name of the restaurant. Indulging oneself is okay when the chocolate is Scharffen Berger, but less so when it’s the drugstore variety. We need less judgement in our thinking about food and more justice.

It’s one of the things that resonates for me in the Occupy movements that have been happening recently. Relative access to resources gets read as relative worthiness and more and more people are finding themselves on the wrong side of this judgement. I hope it’s going to lead to a dismantling of some of the myths and inequities that exacerbate hunger.

It’s time to stop talking about local and organic food as though it’s an upper class phenomenon. After all, many of the components of today’s food movements are based on methods long used by low-income people. Back yard gardening, canning, and preserving used to be thought of as quaint or frugal. Better off folks were busy moving into apartments with vestigial kitchens and immersing themselves in restaurant culture. Most of us, regardless of income, are a generation or two away from true competence in looking after our own food needs. Let’s all work on creating healthy food systems that don’t depend on exclusivity for success.

Today is World Food Day, hence the focus on food for this year’s Blog Action Day. Conferences and discussions are taking place across the world, focusing on local and international food issues. Here in Vancouver, a youth-focused conference happened today called Food for All. I hope that the coming generation of food activists can overcome some of the stereotypes that prevent us from sustaining equitible foodways at home and abroad.

Watershed Security: Small Hydro in British Columbia

This post is part of the Blog Action Day 2010: Water project.

The problems of mega dams have received increasing global attention over the last decade or more. Small hydro projects, though, are not as well-discussed. In British Columbia, more than 8,000 potential sites for run-of-river hydro projects have been identified and are potentially available to the private sector for development.

Private sector, run-of-river hydro projects are now being widely installed across British Columbia. Though such small hydro projects do not run year ‘round, as small watercourses freeze during the winter months, they are still extremely profitable for the private sector license holders that own them. These projects are potentially greener than mega dam projects, but BC Hydro admits that it “has not assessed them against green criteria.” In British Columbia, we have a history of publicly-owned power generation, which allows for greater public oversight of projects. This is not the case for small hydro projects. With a myriad of private owners selling power to the province, oversight becomes much more complicated. There are reportedly over 800 such projects in place to date.

Small hydro projects do have the potential for less environmental impact, as there is no long-term water retention involved. Indeed, license holders in BC are supposed to ensure minimal impact on water levels and fish habitat, even though this is not mandated under the Water Act. However, all hydroelectric power generation involves either damming or diversion (through pipes called penstocks). These small dams and penstocks, often in remote areas, are subject to malfunction, causing downstream water levels to decrease.

There are other risks to water security involved, including:

• The infrastructure that is put in place for access roads and power lines can cause deforestation and put in place the potential for greater development in watershed areas;

• The de-silting processes that are employed by the hydro projects may have down-stream consequences, as they disrupt the natural transfer of materials that all rivers perform;

• Water licenses trump the rights of local governments and First Nations to manage these resources, making regional considerations secondary.

What happens to the health of our water systems when truly wild rivers and creeks no longer exist? Will energy agreements eventually impact the non-mandatory environmental requirements that are currently attached to these projects? Will fish habitat and drinking watersheds be sacrificed? There are many unanswered questions here, but what is clear is that water health begins with the health of our small creeks, streams and rivers.

I’ve just given you a very small taste of the discussion around this issue. Here are some links, if you’re interested in looking further:

Small Hydro

New Gold Rush

Citizens for Public Power

Freshwater