As an activist, I am occasionally asked why I do what I do. Generally, I am hard-pressed to answer the question. I just do it because it’s who I am; it’s the right thing; my parents did it; the world needs our positive response to injustice and oppression.
This past winter I read two books by ordinary people who responded positively to the world in extraordinary circumstances. Fauziya Kassindja was a young, relatively wealthy Togolese woman who, upon the death of her father, was about to be circumcised and forced into an arranged marriage. In her book, Do they hear you when you cry?, she describes how, at age 17, she escaped to the United States where she requested asylum. She was promptly incarcerated. For 16 months she suffered unspeakable horror in the US prison and legal systems. Eventually Kassindja was granted asylum in a ground-breaking case that paved the way for future women escaping female genital mutilation.
The other book I read was Rigoberta Menchú’s biography. Menchú was born into a large indigenous Quiche family in rural Guatemala. Her book I, Rigoberta Menchú documents her community’s culture and history, and its struggle for justice. Menchú tells the story of her own political awakening as she and others around her recognized their position at the bottom end of Guatemalan society. Menchú becomes active in the struggle for indigenous rights amidst severe military repression. Along the way, she loses two siblings to abuses related to migrant labour. Another brother and both of her parents are murdered for political reasons. In 1992, Menchú was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
As I read, I wondered how I would have responded in those circumstances. Would I have been bold enough to speak out, or in Kassindja’s case, to flee? Or would I have buckled? These women’s stories are virtually impossible for me to relate to. I was born into wealth, rights and democracy. I will never experience first-hand the kind of suffering and abuse these women did. Chances of fate have landed me in a different world.
Yet, it’s also the same world. It’s the same world in which 500 Aboriginal women in Canada have gone missing and are presumed murdered. It’s the same world in which millions of Burmese and Zimbabweans can’t seem to shed brutal regimes. And it’s the same world of Hiroshima, Guantanamo Bay, and poverty in our own backyard. It’s a world in which we must all act from our own situation, as Menchú and Kassindja did. This is my world. We’re all in it together.
For Kassindja and Menchú their faith, Islamic and Christian respectively, are central. As it is for me. It is my belief in a good God who created a good world that sustains me in the struggle for a life together in which all have an opportunity to live their full humanity. Advocating for those who have been silent, silenced, or ignored is how I choose to participate in God’s creation story.
The contributions we can bring, as advocates for peace and justice, are at once miniscule and significant. Consider the simple act of writing a letter on behalf of a political prisoner. One-third of all Amnesty International cases show some resolution, either a lessening of oppressive conditions or a release from prison. Consider the Friends of the Lubicon–a few individuals who helped stop logging giant Daishowa. And then consider all those who struggle daily for their human rights to be met, and see no change in their lifetime. The Burmese and Zimbabweans who dream of democracy. Indigenous people around the world who work daily for their rights to be recognized.
A reporter once asked me why I bothered to demonstrate given that my efforts wouldn’t make a difference anyway. I was taken aback. Things do change. After years of lobbying, a small group of us managed to persuade our provincial government to adopt legislation related to sweatshops.
But often things don’t change. HIV and AIDS are still decimating Africa. There are still about 270 prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. Using our voices, pens, feet and hands to work for peace and justice is not a simple ‘I-do-this-and-then-that-follows’ equation. It is a lifelong commitment to continue to dream, to imagine, to struggle for a different kind of world.
I am an ordinary person. I may never accomplish anything extraordinary. And so I do the dishes, weed a row of squash, lead a workshop, write letters, read about Kassindja and Menchú, cook supper, meet with a politician, push my one-year-old son in the swing, try to think about how to respond to my neighbour and her two daughters who are caught in a cycle of dysfunction that plays itself out on their porch daily, make strawberry jam, take note when I see the police interrogating another Aboriginal youth, and dare to believe that our world needs our voices.
the Catalyst, Summer 2008, Vol. 31 No. 3