Creating a space where each member of a community not only feels welcome but valued and respected is a gargantuan challenge. I have been welcomed into spaces where there are is an unwritten code, or set of expectations, that you must identify and comply with if you do not want to fall into disfavour and subsequently have the welcome withdrawn. All too often the rules are apparent after the fact. Or perhaps, they are never are discerned. Job places, schools, places of worship, and community gathering spots face the same challenge of how to create spaces where people with diverse cultures, belief systems, family structures and appearance can come together in a context where everyone feels valued and in the words of Marlo Thomas – free to be.
I have lost heart that any set of rules will provide all the answers. The Declaration of Human Right and Freedoms was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948 and enshrined the rights and freedoms of all human beings. Subsequent human and civil rights law have codified many of these basic rights. We have had time for full implementation. And yet, in wealthy countries the #MeToo #BlackLivesMatter #IndigenousLivesMatter echo the cries of people waiting for even basic rights to be extended to them. The citing or rules, finger pointing, and defining the work that others need to do, breeds anger and resentment rather than a collective, coordinated effort to do better.
If we are going to make a difference in the quest to create respectful spaces, we are going to need to capture the imaginations of the people within organizations whether it’s a workplace, school, club or social organization. Co-existing in a space does not generate a welcoming or generous climate. We need curiosity and empathy. The kind of curiosity that inspires us to want to get to know each other, the patience to listen to someone’s story and the development of empathy.
The best place to start teaching this process is in schools, where we already have students brimming with curiosity, not afraid to ask questions, and ready to dive into the learning. I have been inspired by Patrick Stewart’s reading Shakespeare’s sonnets and Michelle Obama’s story time online. As part of the process of building community in our school, I decided to put a weekly story on YouTube for my school. For my first book, I chose Fauja Singh Keeps on Going to dovetail with our recent learning about Diwali.
I gathered the book, my tripod, my iPhone, and headed off to read the book to a Grade 5 class. After I discovered there was too much noise and the student response to the book, I headed off to read to the Grade 3 class I was covering. It is a newly published book by Simran Singh with illustrations by Baljinder Kaur that bring additional insight into Sikh culture. Fauja Singh is 108 years old and will live on in my heart. He experiences physical adversity, racism, loss, and becomes the first 100-year-old person to finish a marathon. Fauja demonstrates resilience, perseverance and grace in moving forward to become an inspiration for all of us. Before I went off to read with students, I called one of the parents in my school community to make sure I was pronouncing Fauja’s name correctly. Turns out Bindy interviewed Fauja when she was doing the research for her doctoral degree and was able to provide a great personal story to bring additional insight to our students.
My 15-minute YouTube time limit for Ms. Froese Reads, didn’t allow for me to include the fascinating conversation with students. All of us immediately made the connections with Terry Fox, the Canadian hero who demonstrated the same kind of perseverance and integrity as Fauja. The image of Canadians running beside Fauja was reminiscent of people running beside Terry to encourage him along his route and it made us proud as Canadians. The racist treatment of Fauja in New York post 9/11 was a focus of both conversations. A Grade 5 girl with white skin spoke of her embarrassment about people being racist, even though she wasn’t there. A Grade 3 boy with brown skin gave an impassioned and well-informed speech about how Donald Trump and how his racist beliefs are taking the United States in the wrong direction. These kids heard Fauja’s story. They understand fairness. They empathize. They were inspired by Fauja’s mother ‘s message that “Today is a chance to do your best.” How do we inspired everyone to take a step back and proceed with kindness on a path to equity and justice?
We are at another junction in history where people are pausing to consider our direction. Certainly, it will take a willingness to listen more and to broaden our perspectives if that is to be a path towards equity and justice. The route of how to get to a more social just society is widely disputed. I still hold tight to the principles laid out in the United Nations Charter of Rights and Freedoms. I believe the process of continuing to articulate those principles in a Children’s Charter, an Indigenous Charter, and a Canadian Charter were important to further strengthen these basic rights and freedoms. I will continue to live them and to teach them. I believe in laws and their fair application to provide justice. I also believe in mandatory training to outline expectations in the workplace and in public institutions. Yet, they are not enough.
How do we inspire curiosity and a desire to do better? How do we break down the hierarchical and social structures that inhibit people from sharing their stories with the people in their schools, jobs, places of worship, and the cities we live in? And how do we inspire people to want to empathize? How do we encourage people to give each other the benefit of the doubt and not immediately assume the worst intention? Any environment that creates a fear of making mistakes, is destined to become entrenched in camps. Silence follows fear. Growth requires a collaborative effort to understand. Authors like Margaret Atwood, Wab Kinew and Yaa Gyasi have the ability to shift perspectives within a few hundred pages. Children are responsive to well written books with diverse perspectives, particularly when followed with engaging discussion. Sitting face to face in a room and learning about someone’s journey is magic. As a member, then community fieldworker for Amnesty International, I had the opportunity to listen to the stories or many people who had been imprisoned and tortured for their religion, ethnicity, sexual preference, political belief or relationship to someone else being persecuted and intimidated. They were stories or hope, survival and gratitude. They were inspirational and strengthened my resolve to work for social justice. During the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, hearts were broken listening to traumatic stories of residential school survivors and family breakdown of our Indigenous people. It brought a part of Canadian history, omitted in textbooks, to the forefront of our collective consciousness as a country. Anyone involved in the process has a greater level of empathy and understanding of the complexity and importance of the path to reconciliation with our Indigenous people. Like Fauja Singh, we need to keep going until basic rights and freedoms are part of the lived experience of all people and we don’t even have to ask – Do you feel valued? It will be a given.