Home > Lessons in School, Lessons in Serving, The Call to Speak out > Embracing our common humanity

Embracing our common humanity

For my community engagement, I had to respond to readings for a week and I chose charity vs. social justice – and, sadly, I wrote this paper in a record time. And I’ve been pretty exhausted all day. So I don’t offer this as a masterpiece, but more some of my reflections from this course and from what I have learned from an amazing community!


About a year and a half ago, I went to meet Erinn, the director of PNC to find out how I could volunteer. At that point, I just knew that they had a drop in for homeless people where they provided a meal. I’ve always wanted to help the homeless and this seemed like the right time to do so. I had sent a resume highlighting my experience working with people and had references lined up. It wasn’t a typical interview at all. Erinn told me about the various things PNC did throughout the week and said I would be welcome at any or all events. Genuinely wanting to care for the poor, I kept asking: “But what would I do? Where would I be most helpful?” Erinn smiled and said to just come. I was so completely unprepared and at lost with this job description!

Bickford and Reynolds acknowledge that it is easier to ask what we can do rather than why things are the way they are (Bickford & Reynolds, pg 231). As the readings in this course point out, it is very easy to donate time or money to a charity without addressing the root causes of the problems, (unintentionally) perpetuating power imbalances, and reinforcing an “us versus them” attitude. PNC is one of the communities that strives to be what the readings advocate. In this paper, I will use PNC to illuminate the challenges with the popular charity attitudes that are rampant in society. I will argue that one of the best ways to get involved in social justice is to recognize, respect and engage people we want to ‘serve’ as people who are every bit as human as us. As Choules writes, it is possible to frame switch from mere charity to social justice as a change “in the direction of the gaze” (Choules, pg. 463).

Addressing Root Causes

Bickford and Reynolds argues that the difference between charity and social justice/activism is that the former keeps people in need of charity while the latter addresses root causes that put the people of interest in the position of needing charity. Charity is often easier – you can give money and feel good about making a difference without getting your hands dirty in the messiness of people’s lives or the systems that have affected them. Working at the root causes takes time and energy and is a complicated journey that often requires some personal sacrifice. The task can be quite daunting when looking at root causes of homelessness and poverty. The causes are complex: mental illness, substance abuse, debilitating health problems, abuse growing up, teenage pregnancy, generational poverty, job loss, inadequate support, and likely many more.

Toronto has an abundance of services for homeless including shelters, soup kitchens and food banks. Each of these serves an important purpose – tonight, there are people without a home and food and there needs to be ways to help them right now and addressing root causes won’t deal with this immediate need.

While PNC doesn’t necessarily address the deep-seeded causes of poverty, it is a community that strives to be a safe place of belonging and relationships regardless of circumstances. Many services have providers and the homeless are the receivers. However, at PNC, anyone can be a volunteer – each person can contribute to the work by setting up tables, greeting people who come for the meal, playing the piano to entertain, or by actually cooking together. On my first day, I was still asking Erinn what I could do to help. She told me that I could cook if I wanted to, or just sit and relax, but that eating the meal and hanging out is the work that PNC does. I experienced a very beautiful, yet humbling moment at 1pm that day when the lunch was brought to the tables and a homeless man served me a generous portion of food before filling his own plate and wanted to make sure that I had enough. Throughout my many conversations with members of this community, I have discovered that while they might have great material needs, they also have social, emotional and spiritual needs that need to be addressed. A simple service provider and receiver model cannot address these needs.

(Unintentionally) Perpetuating Power Imbalances

There are people and corporations who give to charity in order to make themselves feel good, to ease the guilt they feel, or to impress others. There are also many well meaning people who are generous because they sincerely want to help. Regardless of intentions, charity can sometimes do more harm than good. Those who give to charity and are involved in charitable organizations are often coming from a place of privilege and are not personally involved with the community they want to help or affected by the same circumstances.

When people get on board with issues coming from a place of privilege, how they go about raising and distributing funds can keep people in the positions they find themselves in. For example, charitable campaigns often film the most vulnerable who have no voice to promote people to give money to their various cause. These pictures frequently perpetuate stereotypes and disrespect the rights of privacy that the poor also share. Martyn Joseph, a Welsh singer/songwriter who speaks out about injustice, says “We’ll film you in your wasting bones/ with your dignity and pride/ And we carry unexpanded, our brokenness inside” (Joseph, 2006). Brokenness is a common part of our humanity – and yet only those with visible pain get used in media without their consent. As Swanson writes, “[b]ecause charity is an unrelenting positive concept in the media, its unequal power relationships are assumed and accepted” (pg. 138). This can be one form of ‘poor-bashing’ (Swanson, pg. 140).

Disadvantaged people are not naïve to how power plays out. For example, “a prevailing attitude in many communities is that those who serve others might be righting a wrong rather than working to change the status quo” (Bickford & Reynolds, pg. 232). Many marginalized people have been bruised by people claiming to help them and are justifiably suspicious of intentions. Yet, sometimes they submit as a meal under certain conditions is better than being hungry (Swanson, pg. 142).

There is also an unequal demand for justification of one’s needs and choices for recipients of charity than there are for the privileged of society. Swanson writes that there is a “false assumption that people who need charity for basic needs don’t work, or refuse work” (pg. 136). A few months ago, there was a picture floating around Facebook that said, “If you can afford cigarettes, manicures, alcohol and drugs, then you don’t need welfare.” In Toronto, many services to the most vulnerable have been cut and nonprofits generally are suffering to make ends meet financially. While at the same time, greater tax cuts have been given to the rich. In some ways, this is just a redistribution of resources – only the rich do not have to justify their purchases, addictions or lifestyles like the poor do. Anyone who has had to go on social assistance knows the challenges as well as the humiliating and grueling interviews that establish whether you are ‘deserving’ of assistance.

At PNC, we recognize that we are all broken in some way and that we all have something to offer. We have open mic nights where the talent is tremendous and we’ve had art sales with some pretty amazing pieces. Many of the members have played a formative role in my life, and also have been some of the first people to come to my aid in times of need. I learned to overcome some of my fears and anxieties thanks to the love and support of my friends there. Moreover, each of us is entitled to basic human rights regardless of social status. Therefore, social justice is not merely a “choice and benevolence of the powerful” (Choules, pg. 469), but something that each of us must work towards.

Us versus Them Attitude

One of the biggest problems I find with charity – and this is argued well in the readings – is that it reinforces an “us versus them” mentality. Facing my own attitude was one of the many gifts that PNC has given me. When your brokenness is visible, I find that people seem to have a reduced need to hide it and instead are at times shockingly honest. In my early days at PNC, I was commonly asked if I was on welfare. I was always quick to deny it and quick to make it known that I was one of the volunteers – that I was somehow different, and perhaps even better, than them. Ironically, I was on social assistance at the time.

Somehow education, power, ability, socio-economic status determine ‘privilege’. Yet, Choules argues that the “major characteristic of ‘privilege’ is that it is unearned, arbitrary, an accident of birth, the luck of the draw” (Choules, pg. 472). Moreover, privilege is static and can easily be rupture by circumstances (Choules, pg. 473). I needed social assistance after being laid off and not qualifying for unemployment insurance, a situation that I as a young, capable and educated woman never considered would become my reality. Through hearing PNC members’ stories, I have come to realize that we are all only a few steps away from poverty. Martyn Joseph sings of our common humanity, stating that some of us are fragile while others are striving; some of us are fruitful while others are trapped. He sings of how arbitrary our lot in life can be: “It’s a journey, it’s a ramble, it’s a gamble, it’s a phase/ a corridor, a segue way, few hours and several days/ A legacy of poverty, a mishap and a dream/ A walk of benediction, a stumble in the feat” (Joseph, 2006). He concludes that most of us are restless for some reason.

Through hanging out at PNC, I have built meaningful friendships with the ‘outcasts’ of society: the mentally ill, alcoholics, crack addicts, prostitutes and homeless ‘bums’. As we enter the space together, we all are equal and share responsibility in caring and being cared for – so much so that I frequently now forget our differences and simply enjoy hanging out with friends. But this can only happen when we all acknowledge our common humanity – that each of us has strengths and weaknesses, problems, struggles and that each of us has need in some way. Social justice and activism does not require that we are all the same or that we deny the various inequalities that exist. Rather, social justice acknowledges that “[a]ll of us, as members of a society, are in relationships that produce difference” (Bickford and Reynolds, pg. 237).


It is in embracing our common humanity that we move from charity to social justice. That is, we move from an often patronizing position of caring for to standing with our fellow brothers and sisters. When we know these people’s stories and can see ourselves in them and them in us, we can no longer simply turn a blind eye at the systemic problems that continue to keep them in the same status. It is only then that real change can happen.



Bickford, Donna M. and Nedra Reynolds (2002). “Activism and Service-Learning: Reframing Volunteerism as Actions of Dissent.” Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture, 2(2): 229-252

Choules, Kathryn (2007). “The Shifting Sands of Social Justice Discourse: From Situating the Problem with ‘Them’, to Situating it with ‘Us’”. The Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies, 29(5): 461-481

Joseph, Martyn (2006) Some of Us. Deep Blue. CD

Joseph, Martyn (2006) Yet Still this will not be. Deep Blue. CD

Swanson, Jeanette (2001). “Substituting Charity for Justice.” In: Poor Bashing: The Politics of Exclusion (Toronto: Between the Lines), pp. 130-150

  1. November 8, 2012 at 12:47 am

    So true. Humanity. Less privilege, more humanity. That’s what is needed in this world.

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