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Editorial: A Career as an Activist

Hello, my name is Brenda Cooke. I am an activist.

If you think that sounds a bit like a self-introduction in a 12-step program, you would be correct. Maybe there should be such a program for recovering activists. Quite often, once a person witnesses or experiences injustice, there’s no going back. Before you know it, you are extremely passionate and perhaps even addicted to promoting change. I recently realized that I have been an activist for 30 years, and the time has flown by!

As with most young people, I was taught to earn a living. Because being a musician was not seen as a viable occupation, I was strongly urged to have a backup plan. I went to university and earned my degree to become a schoolteacher, but three decades later, instead of earning a “respectable” living, I am an activist passionate about social and economic justice. So much for practicalities--my career as an activist is just as unviable as being a singer!

Over the years, I have had to adapt my economic aspirations to living well below the poverty line. That has not been a walk in the park. Despite the hardships, I am proud of my work and perseverance. Like other lines of work, activism has its positives and negatives.

Some of the positives in my being a fulltime activist are that: I am connected to a network of people who have similar values and goals; my work might eventually make society more equitable for some disadvantaged people; my lifestyle makes a light footprint on the earth due to a lack of disposable income for me to buy “stuff”; I can quit my work and suffer few social or economic repercussions; I am able to set my own work hours and I can work in my pyjamas with my cat on my lap.

No one employs me for my work. In a society where identity is primarily acquired through what we “do”, activists and their work receive little recognition or legitimacy--not even the highly regarded paycheck.

When people used to ask me, “What do you do?” I would reply, “I am an activist.” Their eyes glazed over and not knowing what to say next, they would cautiously smile and nod, and that would be the end of it. In recent years, I have begun trying to put people more at ease and gently pull them into conversation, if I have any desire to talk about my work or socially connect with others.

On occasion, the people asking me about my work would get defensive and attempt to make me feel guilty for being what they see as an ungrateful sh-t disturber. They are pretty sure that I have it all wrong. It would seem that they know more about the issues facing blind people and how to be an activist in the disability field. This is why blind people are one of the most oppressed groups in Canada--people thinking they know more, taking control over the affairs of our lives and speaking for us. There is definitely room for contribution from others, but if progress is to be made, it should be a supportive role only.

So how do I keep going amidst this lack of support and validation? As a vision impaired person living in poverty, I get a certain amount of validation from my fellow disability and poverty activists, but not so much, because most are living the struggle and have little energy for the movement, never mind for nurturing themselves or others.

In order to obtain support and encouragement, I have reached out to activists in other fields, who may not live or understand the issues of blindness and poverty, but who are savvy enough to know that they should take my word for how I experience things. Activists from other disciplines have similar experiences in their work. I enjoy the opportunity to listen and contribute to discussion outside of the blindness and anti-poverty movements--it’s sometimes a breath of fresh air, even though it is still about struggle.

Recently, I had the privilege of attending “Balm for the Spirit”, an ecumenical retreat for social justice activists held at Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan. It was gratifying to know that someone recognizes that activists need to be rejuvenated every so often just like other workers. Attendees were encouraged to give voice to our struggles, and the negative talk in our heads and from others. We explored what purpose that talk serves, how to overcome struggles, what works and what doesn’t, as well as to remember to recognize and celebrate successes.

The retreat was also an opportunity to quiet our minds and pay attention to the rhythm of our bodies, the beauty of nature, living in the present, and that our role in the grand scheme of creation is only a speck in time. It is important to make the best use of our energy in that brief time, including having a life outside of activism.

I came home from the retreat more aware of the pros and cons of being an activist and being able to put things into perspective enough to carry on. I look forward to other opportunities to understand more about the role of activism, and to meeting fellow activists in a relaxed environment. I am convinced that activists from all disciplines can learn a great deal from each other.

Due to the work of social justice activists in our society, people who are black can ride at the front of the bus, women are allowed to vote, above ground nuclear testing has been banned, Canadians have access to public healthcare, most people with disabilities live in their communities instead of in institutions and much more.

Next time you meet someone who says s/he is an activist--as long as they are not promoting hate and harm--I hope you will venture outside your comfort zone, shake their hand, and have a respectful dialogue with them. Even if you cannot relate to their work, maybe thank them for helping to make the world a better place.

In this issue of the Canadian Blind Monitor, you can read articles about activists and other people who are passionate about some aspect of life, including family, work, the arts, politics, recreation etc. Most of the stories serve to remind that when barriers are removed, people who are blind want and expect the same things as most people--the opportunity to contribute to their communities and to live “normal” lives.