Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Citizen Edmonton

interVivos is an organization that seeks to mentor young leaders and professionals. In doing so, it holds a number of events on various topics of relevance to the NextGen age group (usually considered to be under 40).

I was invited to be a panelist at interVivos' event on June 18 at The Common. Citizen Edmonton examined different kinds of citizen engagement. My official title for the event as stated in my bio was "Social Activist":

Paula is a freelance communications professional, musician, and activist. She was born and raised in Edmonton where she has a special interest in community and independent media. Paula is the editor and a volunteer coordinator with Boyle McCauley News, and inner city community newspaper, and also works with numerous non-profits, NGOs, and small businesses to provide for their communications needs including writing, editing, photography, videography, and social media. In addition, she is an organizer in the local peace community, performs original songs about social justice at a number of festivals and events, and has been independently documenting Edmonton's activist scene since 2005 at her website

We got started with each of us telling a little about ourselves, and then answering one question from the event's MC. We then did small group speed networking, where the panelists rotated between tables for five minutes each, until we had visited all of the tables. It was a great way to meet a lot of different people and answer their questions in a smaller setting, but those five minutes really flew by!

I found taking part in this even to be very valuable because it was such as a different group of people than normally to which I speak or perform. As a result, I was asked a lot of really excellent questions about who I am and what I do and how others can be more engaged in terms of their involvements with non-profits and activism.

What are some challenges you have faced in activism?
Probably getting the word out there about events and especially getting the media involved. From a personal perspective, I think that my politics often overshadow my persona, in that people who have never met me in real life and only know me from the photos and videos I post, from promoting events, or from standpoints I have taken, expect me to be some kind of crazy, left-wing, granola crunching, tree hugging, hippy. Which is why being invited to an event like Citizen Edmonton was so important to me - because I got a chance to reach out to a different crowd and perhaps dispel some myths about activists. Here are some questions that really stood out for me.

What are some of the issues that tend to attract protests and protesters?
It really depends what current events are hot topics. We've seen recently lots of protests concerning education, cuts to programs for PDD, and the huge March Against Monsanto. People are more likely to attend a protest if they feel a personal connection to the issue, which is why we often see larger attendance at rallies that deal with civic or provincial issues. So, a way to attract people to events is to try to highlight that connection; how an issue affects all of us, even if it is something having to do with Canada's foreign policy or something else seemingly more detached from our daily lives.

How can people protect themselves legally at protests?
Carry a phone that can record photos and video, and be prepared to use it if you see something going on that does not seem right. Be aware of your surroundings, and if someone else appears to be acting strangely or being an instigator, disassociate from them immediately.

How can you tell if you are being effective through your efforts?
This can be measured in different ways. Attendance is one. Getting the message out there is another. Protests seek to attract attention about a topic, so whatever way you can get the message out increases that efficacy. And this is a large reason why I started Radical Citizen Media: to make sure that when protests happen, that they are documented properly so that people can see for themselves what was said, how many people were there, and what the issue is really about - all things that the mainstream media often do not cover in depth.

What role does the media play? How do you connect with the media?
Press releases are often sent out to media outlets prior to a protest, at least in my experience. What happens next is often out of our hands. Mainstream media is often run by advertising, so hands are tied when a protest involves a sponsor or advertiser. Independent media, like Radical Citizen Media, does not have those constraints, but we also don't have the resources, so it can be a Catch-22. However, we do have an effect on the media, because in situations where, for example, attendance is under-reported, we use our photos and videos to show what actually happened, and this has resulted in retractions.

What are the three biggest obstacles in the activist community?
Communication, or the lack thereof - misunderstandings and other inter-personal situations often result in certain groups of people or organizations not speaking to each other or preventing them from working together effectively.
Organizers being disorganized - making sure people know what they are responsible for doing and seeing that it gets done.
Becoming activist elitists - only hanging out with other activist, only going to activist events, cutting ourselves off from the rest of society where we seek to effect change: this is very counter-productive.

I am going to whip out my chequebook and write three cheques. Where are the biggest needs?
I could not answer that effectively without knowing the financial situation of ever non-profit in Edmonton, but I would encourage someone to contribute to whatever organizations they are passionate about rather than just seeking out non-profits based on financial need. That being said, there are also many organizations that have needs beyond money - inner city organizations like Bissell Centre or The Mustard Seed often need practical items.

I was far too busy to take photos or video at Citizen Edmonton, but several professionals were there to take care of that. I'll post them when they become available.

On a final note, interVivos made an announcement that it now has a forest in Manning, Alberta. The trees will be named for the people who speak at event, and the seven of us who were panelists last night are the first seven seedlings. I hope to get out there one day to visit my tree! Maybe I will even hug it.

Taking Back Our Education

Last week, I attended a rally at the Alberta Legislature concerning cuts to education, organized by high school students. Taking Back Our Education saw students abruptly leave classes at 11 a.m., board buses, and head to the Legislature.

Aided by several unions, #TBOE (as it was also called) was a huge success. Hundreds of students and those in solidarity filled the area around the fountain. It was a moment where I could really feel my age. It was also a moment that caused me to reflect upon how I have ended up in life where I am now.

Many people know who I am and what I do, but don't know much about my background. I graduated from the University of Alberta with a B.Ed in Secondary Education (English major and Music minor). I wanted to become a junior high Language Arts teacher. Although I was already into writing and photography, and had actually been doing those things professionally as early as high school and throughout university, I viewed teaching as stable and something I could fall back on if my writing career did not pan out.

Well, there is an old Yiddish saying along the lines of "People make plans and God laughs." And I am sure the Almighty viewed this one as a gooder. I graduated in the mid-90s, in the midst of the Klein government's ravages to education. I, like numerous of my classmates, never made it into a classroom. There were simply no jobs to be had. Those who were lucky enough to find a job often lost it if they did not yet have their permanent contract.

Fifteen or so years later, the Conservative government is still in power and are responsible for more education cuts which will result in the loss of teaching jobs. I can empathize with those young teachers and those who are just graduating with their B.Ed degrees about the uncertainty of their futures.

On the silver lining side of things, those of you who appreciate what I do should thank the Conservative government for the fact I am the activist I have become. If I had landed a teaching job, I probably would not have the time to go out and document protests against all the incredibly destructive things this government has done. And the sheer number of rallies I attend are testament to the fact that this government does a lot of really destructive things.

Wanting to become a teacher should not be a pipe dream. Cutting teaching positions equates to larger classroom sizes, lack of personal attention to students with special needs, and just a lower quality of education overall. We apparently have a government that does not realize that its greatest asset is not actually the environmentally destructive tar sands. It is our future generations. Attending #TBOE gives me hope that a generation of voters (most of the students were in grade 12, so were 18 or almost 18) is coming up who will really be able to effect some tangible changes in the near future.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

A Tale of Two Rallies: Idle No More and Walk for Values

Idle No More Solidarity Summer

On Saturday, June 1, I went to Gazebo Park with the intention of attending a rally relating to Idle No More and Occupy Edmonton. The topic was questionable actions made by the Harper government, and their effects on the country's indigenous population and the population in general.

When I arrived at the park, I noticed another, larger rally taking place. Walk For Values, I learned, is an annual event and supports values like peace, love, and right conduct and is organized by Edmonton's Sai Baba community.

I got very excited when one of my friends in Occupy told me that the rallies would be marching together. After all, they stood for similar values. Solidarity and working towards common goals is part of what movements like Idle No More and Occupy are all about.

As I filmed the Walk for Values people starting their march, I noticed the Idle No More folks were staying behind. Instead of following Walk for Values to Whyte Avenue, I went back to find out what was going on. After all, I have been documenting both Occupy and Idle No More since their inceptions, and that was the main reason I was there.

Walk For Values

The person with Occupy who had originally told me that they had been invited to join Walk for Values now said the invitation had been rescinded on the explanation that they were "political." I found this rather odd considering speakers with Walk for Values were talking about the life and teachings of Mahatma Gandhi - someone who preached non-violence but was very political.

The Idle No More/Occupy rally began and I grew even more disturbed when an elder spoke, saying she had asked an organizer with Walk for Values if she could take the microphone for three minutes just to welcome everyone to Treaty 6 territory. She was refused and said she was told the person "did not care" when she tried to explain that this event was indeed on Aboriginal land. I was not privy to this conversation, but I do respect and trust this woman and totally believe her when she explained to the smaller rally how disrespected she felt.

Idle No More Solidarity Summer

Later on, as a woman from the NWT spoke, the Walk for Values group returned, blaring music (as it was when it left). I think someone realized there was another rally going on and the music got lower and was then totally shut off. I believe that this was done out of respect by someone who realized it was the right thing to do. This redeemed the Walk for Values in my eyes somewhat.

While I admit I am not familiar with the Walk for Values, and an hesitant to paint an entire group on the actions of one or two individuals, I do question the way the elder was treated to the point that I question the entire event. There are many who give peace, love, and other values lip service because, well, it's the right thing to do. When it comes time to walk the talk, things change. Actions do speak louder than words and an organizer should represent what a group is all about.

Walk For Values

At the same time, I have been involved with organizing numerous events where people or organizations try to jump in on the agenda - with their own. This is why an agenda is often referred to as "set" and a reason why sometimes open mics are not a good idea. However, what happened at Walk for Values is somewhat of a different situation, whereby another group was invited to join, so naturally the elder thought it appropriate to speak and according to her, she told the organizer what she intended to say. All things taken into consideration, from what I know of the events, I definitely felt like there was hypocrisy in action.

This is what I think needs to happen: the organizer in question needs to apologize to the elder. The groups involved need to dialogue with each other to emphasize points of commonality and to plan ways in which they can work together in the future. Focus on the common goals - not the politics behind them. If a group that says it stands for "right conduct" does so in a way that excludes other groups, something is wrong.

Idle No More Solidarity Summer