Friday, March 22, 2019

A School Visit for the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination

On March 21, I was invited for the second time as a guest speaker for the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on March 21 at Balwin School in north Edmonton. My talk was very similar to the one I gave last year, focussing on anti-bullying, anti-Semitism, and activism.

This year, I added am emphasis on calling out and stopping racist and prejudicial comments immediately, to prevent them from becoming normalized and becoming the start of a path of hatred. We've seen what unchecked hatred can do with the recent terrorist attack at the mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, and at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh last year.

Some of the young people in the multiracial class shared their experiences encountering racism, but also asked me a lot of questions about being Jewish, mostly about cultural and religious practices. I was apparently the first person most of them had ever met who self-identified as being Jewish. Even their teacher and the student teacher were asking me questions.

Opportunities like this are really important because these young people now could put a face and name to the word "Jewish." Much racism and prejudice often comes from fear of the "other." Now, a Jewish person is no longer an "other" to them. When we get to meet people from different backgrounds, and we sincerely seek to learn about their lives and traditions, it helps to build intercultural understanding, peace, and harmony in our society.

Monday, October 29, 2018

A Safe Space for Activism: Talk and Music

I was invited to be the guest speaker and performer at the Unitarian Church of Edmonton for its quarterly "Social Justice Sunday" on October 28, 2018. The topic was "A Safe Space for Activism." Below is a video of my talk and performance of four songs, as well as my notes. I ad libbed a bit in my talk as well, because I was responding to the previous speaker and adding a few things here and there as well.

Safe Spaces and Self-Care

I come from a Jewish background. In Judaism, as some of you probably already know, there is a concept called tikkun olam, which translates to healing or repairing the world. Much of my activism is rooted in this belief.

There is a lot of talk about safe spaces in the activist community and beyond, especially now in light of the #MeToo movement. When it comes to establishing and maintaining my safe spaces, of course, the support of my family, friends, and community is important. Being able to confide, ask for advice, share experiences, and the opportunity to be accountable and hold others to account is part of having a healthy community. But like every part of society, the activist community is not immune from bullies and predators, which is why having a network of support is so important.

Having safe spaces also includes finding a place and time for self-care. Activists often get so wrapped up in organizing and attending events, that they neglect their own needs, leading to burnout and mental and/or physical health issues. Not being at the best we can be physically and mentally can make us more vulnerable. We need to be safe to say no when we are stretched, and to have the space to explore our own self-care needs.

Music is an integral part of my safe space and my self-care. Like my faith, music also was a formative part of my activism. Through my mother, I grew up listening to a steady stream of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and Peter, Paul and Marie. The folk music of the 60s helped shape my political beliefs and my own musical style, when I began learning how to play the guitar and write songs as a teenager. Music is part of my activism, writing songs about social justice issues and performing at rallies and protests (and events like this).

For me, music is both a creative expression and a place of mental retreat. Putting on my headphones helps take me away from the stress of daily life, can calm anxiety, and sometimes even help me concentrate. Writing and performing music, whether in front of an audience or in the privacy of my home, also cuts through stress and helps me focus. I find that if I go more than a few days without playing music, I get very tense and feel incomplete. Then, as soon as I pick up a guitar and start singing, my sense of grounding and balance is restored. There are proven health benefits of singing, both physically and mentally (these can be researched online), and I can attest to many of them from first hand experience.

Besides being a part of my safe space, music helps me reach out to audiences with messages of peace and love and social justice. I will be sharing some of these songs with you today, and I welcome you to join me in my place of sanctuary.

Monday, October 01, 2018

#HateFreeYEG Lanches

#HateFreeYEG is a new grassroots community initiative to work towards eradicating Edmonton of hate and racism. The initiative launched on September 30, and I was asked to speak at the launch as a community organizer about how we can eliminate hate, as well as my own experiences with anti-Semitism. Here is a video of my talk, as well as my notes.


Shalom and thank you for inviting me to speak this afternoon and to join my voice with all of us here who proclaim that hate is not welcome in Edmonton. I am with the Edmonton Coalition Against War and Racism and the Edmonton Interfaith Centre for Education. I am also a Jewish woman.

As a Jewish woman, the growing resurgence of ultra right-wing hate groups concerns me greatly. My own community has been affected recently, with swastikas being spray painted on buildings in several southwest neighbourhoods. It stands to reason that the same kinds of people who would express hate towards immigrants, Muslims, and people of colour are the same kinds of people who would be anti-Jewish. Also, as a Jew I feel a need to stand up against hatred because of my roots and my faith. Many Jewish people of my generation are the descendants of immigrants and refugees. I am also vigilant against Islamophobia not only because hatred is just plain wrong, but also because of the shared Abrahamic roots of our faiths.

In fact, my commitment to social justice and human rights stems largely from my Jewish background. In Judaism, there is a value called tikkun olam, which translates to healing or repairing the world. We all have that potential within us, regardless of our background, to make the world a better place. It doesn't have to be through grand gestures or high-profile acts – every day, we all have opportunities to make the world around us safer, and to fill it with more compassion, hope, and love.

At various times in my life I have had experiences with anti-Semitism. It's often been a subtle undercurrent, sometimes taking the form of jokes or comments perpetuating various stereotypes like being cheap, or being part of some kind of power conspiracy. Anti-Semitism has sometimes crossed over into sentiments that are misogynist, like body shaming, or calling a Jewish woman a nag, or the ubiquitous Jewish mother jokes. I've been told at times I don't “look” Jewish, as though that is a compliment. It isn't. Some anti-Semitism I have faced or witnessed also crosses a line into been ableist, like being referred to as neurotic or controlling – attributing to one's culture symptoms of mental illness which may or may not actually be real. After all, you don't always know what someone might be struggling with.

I recall when I was accosted by a man on an isolated street in the inner city. He had seen my Star of David around my neck, and thought it was appropriate to stop me – a complete stranger – and ask if I was Jewish. I said yes, keeping a wide physical distance from this person. He then proceeded to interrogate me, asking where I was from, and not accepting Edmonton as the answer. He finally backed off when I gave him some general response about my distant Eastern European heritage. After that experience, I have found myself feeling defensive when someone asks about my choice of jewelry. I enjoy meeting new people and talking about myself and learning about them, but being “othered” time and time again can sometimes make a person overly sensitive to inquiries about their background, which is unfortunate because having conversations about ourselves can lead to greater understanding.

Planting the seeds against racism and hate need to start early. We also all know that kid from school who was always being picked on, pushed around, made fun of, teased, beaten up, and pushed around some more. I know – because I was that kid. I believe that a lot of my values towards kindness, love, and being against racism and hate comes from the fact that I was badly bullied as a child and teenager and I don't want to see that happen to anyone. When we see bullying, when we see people being made fun of because they are somehow different, when we see hatred in our midst we have an obligation to stand up, intervene and say that this is wrong.

In closing, I also wanted to say that I am a board member with the Edmonton Interfaith Centre for Education and Action, and what we do is to seek to achieve peace and harmony and an end to racism in the world through teaching about different faiths, not from a religious point of view, but from an educational one. I encourage you to look us up and see what we have to offer, and to become a member and get involved.

Monday, July 02, 2018

Families Belong Together

I helped organize the #FamiliesBelongTogether solidarity rally in Edmonton on June 30. Here is my speech and a video of my introductory words and chants.


Thank you for coming this afternoon. We respectfully acknowledge that we are located on Treaty 6 territory, a traditional gathering place for diverse Indigenous peoples including the Cree, Blackfoot, M├ętis, Nakota Sioux, Iroquois, Dene, Ojibway / Saulteaux / Anishinaabe, Inuit, and many others whose histories, languages, and cultures continue to influence our vibrant community.

My name is Paula Kirman, and I am with the March On Edmonton Collective and the Edmonton Coalition Against War and Racism, the co-organizers of this event. We would also like to give thanks to the Alberta Federation of Labour for help with logistics, as well as Women for Rights and Empowerment, and No One Is Illegal.

Please tweet and Instagram and Facebook from today and join the cities around the world who are all standing up for the rights of refugees and families today. The hashtags are #KeepFamiliesTogether #FamiliesBelongTogether #RefugeesWelcome as well as our local city #Yeg hashtag.

We are here today to call upon the Canadian government to demand that the U.S. end child detention and to stop criminalizing refugees! Families belong together, and those who have been separated must be reunited. But we are hearing disturbing news that the location of many of these children who have been detained is unknown, that they are not receiving comfort or care, and are likely to be in physical danger due to lack of proper oversights. The emotional scars that these children are receiving will affect them for life.

And the new Executive Order that was signed is not going to make things better. While supposedly ending detention of children, it has brought in indefinite detention of families – and indefinite detention is against international law. We are calling for an end to all refugee detention - not just those of children.

Today and every day, we must call on Canada's federal government to:

  • Condemn the US's exclusionary, racist, and unjust detention and deportation policies in the strongest terms.
  • Scrap the Safe Third Country Agreement
  • Scrap the Designated Country of Origin list, and end the quota restrictions on refugee claimants and asylum seekers
  • End immigration detention and deportation in Canada.
  • Grant Permanent Resident Status to all undocumented and migrant people in Canada, including everyone who has crossed over from the United States.
  • Reckon with all its historic and current practice of family separation of Indigenous, Black and Brown children from their families through slavery and colonization.

    Indeed, we also stand here today to acknowledge Canada's role in separating families, through the history of residential schools, the 60s Scoop, and the continued practise of removing children from Indigenous families and placing them into foster care. In addition, we must examine our country's own treatment of refugee children. In 2016-2017, Canada jailed 162 minors, 11 of whom were unaccompanied. In 2015-2016, the number was 201, 20 of whom were unaccompanied. At least six people have died in immigration detention custody since Prime Minister Trudeau came to power.

    As well, today we have live-in-caregivers in Canada who are bureaucratically separated from their children back in the Philippines. Confusing changes were made in 2014 to Canadian immigration rules which has resulted in permanent resident status for live-in caregivers converting to possible citizenship being blocked, thus preventing family reunification. These changes were devised and implemented by Jason Kenney when he was in Stephen Harper's cabinet.

    What can we do? We need to keep pressure on our Prime Minister, Immigration Minister, and our MPs. Several people are here today handing out letters that you can sign and send. We also have sample wordings and links to the email addresses of federal politicians on our social media and Facebook event for today – we are @WMWYEG on all platforms if you want to connect and get more information.

  • Wednesday, March 21, 2018

    Speech: International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination

    I was invited as a guest speaker for the first annual student conference for the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on March 21 at Balwin School (Belvedere School also participated). The event was organized by Chris Nielsen, MLA Edmonton-Decore. Below is my speech, which was geared to the grades 5-8 age group.
    It's not often that I get to talk to people your age. Usually it's old people like me. But I am so happy to have this opportunity.

    Something I find really exciting is how young people have a chance to make a difference. You have the chance to make a difference in other people's lives. If you want to change the world, you need to start with the world around you.

    I am an activist who believes in peaceful and non-violent ways of protesting. I have been interested in issues like human rights and peace since I was as young as you are. I never liked it when someone was treated unfairly or was bullied. I was bullied when I was a child. So, I don't like to see other people hurting because it reminds me of how I felt when other people treated me badly.

    Sometimes I was lucky and had a friend who would help me when someone was making fun of me. If you see someone being bullied, you can be that friend. Even when we become adults, we still have to look out for each other, because adults can be mean to each other too, and we need to stand up and say when someone's behaviour is wrong.

    I eventually wanted to get involved with organizations that had values I have, and work for social justice and human rights. I got on the Internet and searched until I found local groups to connect with. I was an adult when I did this – we didn't have the Internet when I was a kid. We didn't have phones that could take pictures and send emails and play movies. The phones just made phone calls. Yeah, kind of boring. You're very fortunate that you have a lot of resources literally your fingertips and you can stay informed about what's going on in the world almost any time. Social media like Facebook and Twitter make it easy to support an idea by sharing and liking. In the activist community, we call that “clicktivism.” It's great because it is easy and helps people feel involved, like they are doing something important. But it is also important to be active in real life and take part in things with people face to face. And that begins with getting to know each other.

    When I was in elementary school, I was the only Jewish kid in my class. It made me feel like an outsider. In grade one, my father (who is now a retired university professor) would visit our classroom a few times a year to explain Jewish customs and traditions, usually around the time of a Jewish holidays like Chanukah in winter or Passover in the spring. Those visits were really important because for most of the other kids in the class, I was the first Jewish person they had ever met and it gave them the opportunity to ask questions about why I celebrated different holidays or couldn't eat certain kinds of foods.

    I was always very shy. In high school, I hung out in the computer lab a lot and became good friends with the other people who hung out there too. One person was also friends with my older brother, and we're still friends now. He told me that when he was growing up, he used to use the word “Jew” in a very bad way – to mean that someone was cheap with money. But in the social circle he was in, that was considered perfectly fine. He didn't know that was a anti-Semitic thing to say. He also didn't know any Jewish people. Then he met my brother, and then me, and suddenly “Jew” had a face and a name. And he realized that you can't call people that, because it's wrong. When you get to know people from other cultures and religions, it can open your eyes to just how much racism and anti-Semitism there is out there. Many people simply don't know any better until they are corrected and they learn.

    One of my jobs is editing a community newspaper in the Boyle Street and McCauley neighbourhoods. Much like here, the neighbourhoods are very multicultural. Children who grow up in neighbourhoods like this are very lucky because you get to know people from different backgrounds, and this will help you throughout life as you meet and interact with others in school, work, or wherever you may go. I mentioned earlier that I was the only Jewish kid in my elementary school class. Otherwise, most of the kids in that same class were white. I remember at one point we had a new student who was Lebanese. Sometimes he was made fun of because of the colour of his skin, I am thankful we had a teacher who put a stop to this right away. Racism had no place in her classroom. And I have never forgotten how she dealt with that situation.

    We need to treat everyone with respect, dignity, and kindness. It is wrong to make fun of someone for any reason. I mentioned earlier that I was bullied a lot as a child. People made fun of all sorts of things about me: the way I walked, the way I talked, how I dressed, the music I listened to. I had really bad skin when I was a teenager and they made of that – something I had absolutely no control over. I felt terrible all the time, but I refused to change who I was to try to get other people to like me. I think what I went through is a reason I became an activist because I don't like to see people treated unfairly, because of their religion, the colour of their skin, who they love, differing mental or physical abilities, or any reason. We are all unique, beautiful people and we deserve to be accepted for who we are.

    But even when we become adults, we still make mistakes. Nobody is perfect or acts perfectly all the time. We say or do things that hurt other people's feelings. The important thing is to be strong enough to apologize and learn and grow from the situation. Sometimes the other person may not want to hear an apology or talk about it, and that is their choice and you have to respect that too. Reconciliation cannot be forced. But as long as you are open to it, then you're on the right path.

    In my faith tradition, which is Judaism, we have a value that in Hebrew called tikkun olam, which translates to healing or repairing the world. I want to make the world a better place, and I want to show others how to make the world a better place – that's you. And then, on your life journeys, even while you are still learning, you can teach others as well by how you treat each other and making a decision that you're always going to try to do your best in every situation.