Home > Lessons in School, Musical Reflections, The Call to Speak out > Communities of Change: Possibilities or Disempowerment?

Communities of Change: Possibilities or Disempowerment?

I am taking a course on community engagement and had to think through the complexities of ‘community’ – I could write a whole book on this topic, so narrowing it down was quite a challenge. We had to bring in one of the readings (which you will see, I chose an article by Block) so that is why there is just one really academic source. But it’s a good one I think for the purposes of my argument. My professor gave me permission to post my assignments after they are submitted given that all the things I am writing about are actually timely in their relevancy. There have been some edits to maintain anonymity, but this essay was probably the one I’ve written with the most passion.

Introduction

‘Community’ is a term that is a part of my daily vocabulary as I am member of multiple communities including an ‘intentional Christian community’ defines my comings and goings in more ways than any other community with which I identify. Communities can be powerful places of belonging, identity and mutual support. Community can be a vehicle for challenge and change – and indeed, through community, I have witnessed powerful change in myself and other people. Yet, too often, ‘community’ is defined in idealistic terms and crises dash its beautiful hopes when we are faced with the harsher realities of life. In this reflection, I will discuss a recent experience that highlights one of the limits of community. ‘Community’, however defined, is limited by the powers and structures in which it is situated and is often trying to change.

The Courage to Stand

I met Kim Rivera at a children’s play center while taking care of my friends’ children. My neighbourhood is an interesting community as people gather together for support even when they do not know each other. It is highly populated with people considered to be on the ‘margins of society’ and there are many programs targeted towards this ‘needy’ population. Yet, when one neighbour is in trouble, this community is quick to gather in solidarity and support.

Kim is an American conscientious war objector from the Iraq War. She was recruited with an offer of education in exchange for service – an option that her socioeconomic status could not have provided. She thought protecting her country after the ‘9/11’ terrorist attacks and the threat of weapons of mass destruction was a noble vocation.

In 2007, she was deployed to Iraq and discovered the harsh realities of this war. She became increasingly distraught over how innocent civilians – mothers and children – were being treated. Moreover, she felt that she had gone to Iraq under false premises. During her two week respite, she decided that she could not in good conscience fight this war. She and her family fled to Canada, knowing that if she stayed in the United States, she would face punishment for going away-without-leave. Once in Canada, she began to speak out against the war, continued to seek the appropriate means to legally stay in Canada and volunteered her time to serve her neighbourhood. Regardless of people’s stance on war, Kim’s courage is worth noting: Kim stood up against the world’s most powerful military and said that what she was being asked to do is wrong.

A Crisis Emerged

On August 30, 2012, Canadian Immigration Minister Jason Kenney ordered a deportation notice that would take effect just a few weeks later (September 20) (War Resisters Support Compaign, 2012). The community’s response was incredible to watch unfold. Neighbours gathered to show their support for Kim and her family. War Resisters Canada disseminated information across the country and beyond, urging people to contact Kenney to have the decision revoked. Nonviolent protests were held across the country. Within five days, almost 20,000 Canadians signed a petition online that was taken to the House of Parliament.

I witnessed people of all religious, ethnic and political backgrounds form a community to have the Canadian Government allow Kim and her family (as well as other war resisters) stay. Mothers huddled together regardless of background because their hearts ached at the thought of a mother of four children (ages 18 months to 11 years) being separated because she stood by her conscience. Politicians from all parties got involved in the campaign. Influential people and organizations joined, expanding the borders to a global campaign and community. Amnesty International issued a statement claiming that a failure to allow conscientious war resisters from the Iraq war remain violates Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – to which both Canada and the United States ascribe (Amnesty International Canada, 2012). Archbishop and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Desmond Tutu urged Canada to let Kim Rivera stay as the Iraq war is an “illegal war” that was based on false assumptions (Tutu, 2012).

Powerlessness of Community

With this situation fresh in mind, I found Block’s description on community to be despairingly idealistic, simplistic and practically irrelevant to the plights of many communities that seek change. Block writes, “The context that restores community is one of possibility, generosity and gifts, rather than one of problem solving, fear and retribution” (Block, pg. 29). ‘Community’ is often formed in tumultuous times that draw people close together for solidarity and a common goal. Block’s argument requires that people are on a similar (if not the same) page on what is “required to end unnecessary suffering and create an alternative future” (Block, pg. 30). The Canadian government could not reach solidarity in the case of Rivera: Harper admitted that the Iraq War was “absolutely a mistake” (War Resisters Canada, 2009), Parliament voted twice against the deportation of war resisters (War Resisters Canada, 2009a), and despite public outcry, Kenney stood by the deportation notice. If our policy makers and law enforcers cannot reach solidarity, is there any hope for a nation as diverse as Canada? Dictatorship is perhaps the only way to create solidarity with a population that is so diverse in thought, opinion and beliefs. Instead, we need to empower communities to stand and fight for what they believe in.

The reality of communities is that they only possess the power to create change that has been given to them. In Canada, we allow petitions and lobbying our politicians as a means of voicing public opinion. But in the face of those who make decisions, this empowerment holds little power. According to War Resisters, 82% of Canadians opposed the Iraq war. Meanwhile, the Conservative Party applauded Rivera’s return to the United States (War Resisters, 2012). The accountability that Block advocates is impossible when those in power impose their ideals on communities that are challenging and trying to change those very ideals.

In addition, Block oversimplifies the root cause by reframing the problem as “the breakdown of community” (Block, pgs. 33-34).  In this example, community strengthened and multiplied in support of Rivera. Rivera appealed the deportation, asking that she be allowed to stay in Canada on humanitarian and compassionate grounds while she sought other legal means to stay permanently in Canada. The judge ruled that she would likely not face imprisonment, despite the examples of other war resisters who have spoken out against the war, been deported and subsequently detained (War Resisters Support Campaign, 2012). The United States authorities were waiting for Rivera at the border and welcomed her back by escorting her to military prison (War Resisters Support Campaign, 2012). This is not the breakdown of community, but powerful forces silencing the public.

The political fallout of such disempowerment is huge. Powerful structures and people prevent communities from being “communities of possibilities” as Block calls them (Block, pg. 29). A community’s possibility is limited by the lack of power given to them. The more disturbing fallout, however, has to do with the message that we are sending others. The Canadian government handed Rivera over to be punished for objecting to war. The comments in the newspapers spell out the huge array of responses to this action. In a country that values individual thought, expression and beliefs along with its cultural, religious and political diversity, solidarity on moral, political and legal issues simply is not realistic. The insistent deportation of a woman courageous enough to say she will not hurt another human being – innocent women and children in Iraq – gives the message to communities that they have a voice as long as the authorities agree with them. In such a society where unpopular or conflicting voices are silenced, communities lack the power that Block claims will “create an alternative future” (Block, pg. 31). Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada, states that “this isn’t about politics; this is an issue of human rights. This is all about the right to freedom of conscience” (War Resisters, 2012).

 

Conclusion

While thousands of Canadians protested across the country on the day before Kim was to be deported, a smaller community gathered around Kim and her children in a playground. Kim’s eldest son (age 11) knew that his mom was probably going to jail because, in his words, she “didn’t want to kill anyone” (War Resisters Emergency Meeting). And Kim’s community – my community – wept, knowing that there was nothing we could do. This is a sad silencing and disempowerment of a community that fought for change, justice and peace. Perhaps Block was partially right – if we detach ourselves from the problem, we may see that what problems communities are facing are actually symptoms of something much deeper. However, they are not problems of the breakdown of community. Rather, they are problems with how power is distributed in society.

This was not part of my essay – but, I feel that as a follower of Christ, there is hope amidst the broken and messed up word that we live in and Martyn Joseph’s words speak to this:

The trees are great with summer, but the sunrise seems much colder/ We’re teaching brutal lullabies and nurturing child soldiers/ With ammunition from our factories, we’re sending them our best. A metal sash of bullets to where across their chests/

Yet still this will not be/ though all around is rage/ The story’s getting darker with each turning of the page/ Yet still this will not last/ this kingdom of the fool. We’ll be humbled and made low/ when the brokenhearted rule

We legislate much for us/ decree for you much less/ we mouth platitudes on justice/ while expousing lawlessness/ A doctrine of self interest/ is our testament and style/ We fire missiles at the heavens and put the moon on trial.

And narrow is the access/ to our strong rooms and our vaults/ As we toast our toxic riches/ and we reinforce the bolts/ And we’ll film you with your wasting bones/ with your dignity and pride/ as we carry with us our expanded brokenness inside.

There’s a journey that’s now calling/ towards the ocean’s heart/ it’s an offering of mercy/ where we play the self-less part/ We’ll leave our treasures by the roadside/ and our trinkets in the dirt/ Giving back life and ruby riches to the broken and the hurt

(Martyn Joseph, Still this will not last)

 

Works Cited

Amnesty International Canada (2012). USA: Woman detained for conscientious objection. http://www.amnesty.ca/iwriteforjustice/take_action.php?actionid=919&type=Internal (Last accessed: September 26, 2012)

Block, P. (2009). Shifting the Context for Community. In: Community: The Structure of Belonging. (San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers) pgs. 29-36

Tutu, Archbishop Desmond. Don’t deport war resister Kimberly Rivera. The Globe and Mail, September 17, 2012 http://www.theglobeandmail.com/commentary/dont-deport-war-resister-kimberly-rivera/article4544856/ (last accessed: September 26, 2012)

War Resisters Support Campaign (http://www.resisters.ca)

War Resisters Support Campaign (2009a). Immigration Committee Votes Again in Favour of Letting U.S. Iraq War Resisters Stay in Canada. Activist Magazine http://activistmagazine.com/index2.php?option=com_content&do_pdf=1&id=979 (Last Accessed: September 26, 2012)

War Resisters Support Campaign (2009b). Reason #1 to Let War Resisters Stay – Stephen Harper admits the Iraq War was “absolutely an error”. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JYTTbmCL4RQ&feature=player_embedded (Last accessed: September 26, 2012)

War Resisters Canada (2012). Leading Canadian advocates speak out in support of U.S. Iraq War resister Kimberly Rivera. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t0q8MmMPUXw&feature=player_embedded#! (last accessed: September 26, 2012)

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