Written by Paul Taylor
I was intrigued when I saw the prompt for this essay: to write an “activist manifesto for a 17-year-old version of us; a time when we were energized and determined to make a real difference in the world.”
My own activist journey began in my youth, and while I navigate frustration and sometimes exhaustion, I’ve never lost my determination to make a difference in the world. I’m not sure I have anything close to a “manifesto,” but I’d like to use this opportunity to explain one of my core principles, then offer a few ideas that might aid you as you work towards achieving your own vision for a better world.
I believe that food is a fundamental human right. At FoodShare, the organization where I work, our goal is to inspire long-term solutions that ensure that everyone has access to affordable, fresh, nutritious food. We do this by collaborating with and taking our cue from those most affected by poverty and food insecurity—Black, Indigenous, People of Colour, People with Disabilities.
I believe that starting from the core principle of our right to food is critical to building understanding and support for why we work the way we do. Once we’re met with agreement, we can push open the door a little wider. What kind of food do we have a right to? Surely, it’s not what has been interpreted as the right to line up each month for a food bank hamper and the bump and dent produce from the supermarket. Don’t we have a right to healthy, culturally appropriate food? Grown by agricultural workers whose own right to work in safe and just conditions have been protected? In a country which recognizes the rights of its people to an unpolluted environment with healthy air, water, and soil?
Expanding the notion of our collective human rights can steer our society away from the traditional stopgap solutions of food banks and universal basic income towards a much more nuanced concept of food sovereignty — the rights of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.
Whether it’s food, housing, education, childcare, or countless other vital issues, a rights-based framework can lead us to more equitable activism and policy. It’s with this principle in mind that I share the following advice. It’s based on my personal experiences that led me to rights-based organizing, and my observations organizing with Indigenous and other groups across Turtle Island.
“I believe that activism is forged by what’s been done to a person, what affects them, what infuriates them, and most importantly, what gives them hope.”
Your activist journey begins with what’s most important to you.
Growing up in west Toronto, I lived on a factory-lined street where the air was thick with pollution. My mother often worked at three different nursing homes so she could single-handedly support my brother and I. Once the physical and mental toll left her unable to work, our family became dependent on welfare. In 1995, Mike Harris slashed welfare by 22 percent, and soon after our electricity, heat and hot water were cut and my brother and I went to school without lunches. So much for our human rights in Canada.
My upbringing made me acutely aware of who in our society is neglected by our systems and who isn’t. These experiences led me to devote my life to preventing them from happening to others. I am tired of seeing poverty and marginalization inflicted on generations of Black and Indigenous people. And I am tired of seeing people without these experiences try to “fix” the problem on our behalf, often equipped with nothing but charity and sympathy.
I believe that activism is forged by what’s been done to a person, what affects them, what infuriates them, and most importantly, what gives them hope. I encourage you to take time to revisit your own personal history as you move through your organizing work. What privileges were you or others granted? What human rights were you or others denied? These answers will likely be a rich source of guidance to you.
Stay connected and accountable to your communities.
When you devote yourself to social change, you will frequently find yourself in systems, workplaces, and institutions that demoralize you, or that force you to question your beliefs. When this happens, it’s important to stay grounded with your history and your community. They will guide you back to where you need to be and support you in identifying how best to respond.
I find great strength and focus in locating myself in something so much more powerful than my job, my work experience, or my title, or even my organizing—I locate myself among the three brilliant and beautiful Black women who helped raise me. I am the generations before me, and that makes me really proud. Today, I continue to be inspired and guided by powerful women in my life, particularly Black women.
Fostering strong, mutually supportive relationships―be they with family, friends, neighbours, or like-minded folks―is necessary for your wellbeing, and it also keeps you accountable. Movements are the result of countless people working together for a shared vision of the future, especially those who are often uncelebrated as they work behind the scenes to keep folks fed, clothed, and cared for. We need to challenge the patriarchal and colonial mindset that puts people (usually white men) on pedestals, as though they emerged fully formed into the world. Movements are not driven by charismatic individuals―no matter what the media chooses to depict―but by those who know how to support and care for one another.
Don’t start with a goal. Start with curiosity.
From the global climate crisis to accelerating income inequality, the challenges we face are enormous. Activists can become exhausted and disillusioned when they can’t see the fruits of their labour, especially after years of work under oppressive systems. To them I say remember, we’re not chasing a goal but a process. To build a better world, we must build a better way of living together from the ground up.
When I look at what’s happening in our governments, particularly the toxic rhetoric and partisan infighting, I see paralysis. Instead of working together across party and jurisdiction lines to listen to constituents and protect our rights, they focus on the optics of quick wins. There is no curiosity towards a different way of relating, only interchangeable games of offence and defence. Unfortunately, this dynamic can also be found in many movements, sectors, and organizing spaces.
“I think that curiosity is so key to long-lasting and impactful activism. Curiosity opens windows of possibility that we may not have imagined existed before, but it needs to be encouraged.”
I think that curiosity is so key to long-lasting and impactful activism. Curiosity opens windows of possibility that we may not have imagined existed before, but it needs to be encouraged. In whatever space you occupy, consider asking yourself and others these types of questions: Why do we do our work this way? What assumptions have we made about our approach? How is white supremacy affecting the way we do our work? How is colonialism impacting how we see the issue that we’re working on? Whenever you do, I think that you’ll find some powerful answers.
Remember, nothing is fixed. Anything and everything can change for the better.
If I can leave you with one piece of advice, it’s to remember that we’re living through an extraordinary historical moment. Anything can change in an instant―but only if we demand it. No matter what happens, stay perseverant, tenacious, collaborative, and most importantly, curious.
Paul Taylor is an anti-poverty activist, executive director of FoodShare Toronto, instructor at Simon Fraser University and lover of delicious food.