“Providing hope and inspiration for collective action, to build collective power, to achieve collective transformation, rooted in grief and rage but pointed towards vision and dreams” –Patrisse Cullors
By: Meaghan Fallak – Winnipeg
September 1, 2020
We are living in unprecedented times. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced people to stay inside their homes, keep a safe distance from others, and for many lose their jobs and job prospects. Although we are in the process of reopening our economy, the future still remains uncertain for many Canadians. This pandemic has caused the weaknesses and deep systemic inequalities in our institutions to become glaringly obvious. In addition to stresses related to education, loss of income, and health concerns, many people are experiencing an extra stressor, the stress to be productive. Capitalism and neoliberalism have caused the burden of this pandemic to be disproportionately distributed onto already vulnerable communities. The ideology behind these systems has succeeded in dehumanizing groups of people such as the elderly and individuals living with disabilities. While the demands of this pandemic are great, there is a very clear role for grassroots activism and social change in these difficult and uncertain times. Below I will share some writing on hope in uncertain times, discuss the differential effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and discuss community building efforts that have brought me hope in the darkness of this global pandemic.
Finding ‘Hope in the Dark’
Life can often undermine even the best planned social actions. But activists are tenacious, and they have a secret gift, hope. It is often in the most uncertain of times that there is room to imagine a better tomorrow. In her (2016) book Hope in the Dark Rebecca Solnit writes, “Your opponents would love you to believe it’s hopeless, that you have no power, that there’s no reason to act. Hope is a gift you don’t have to surrender, a power you don’t have to throw away”. Finding hope amidst a crisis can feel like an impossible task. Everyone has days where they cannot find hope, and that’s okay. However, hope doesn’t mean denying the difficult realities of our time. It doesn’t mean believing everything is going to be okay. Solnit describes hope as locating itself in the idea that we do not know what is going to happen and finding in that uncertainty a spaciousness that provides room to act. She shares a quote of Patrisse Cullors describing the mission of Black Lives Matter, “To provide hope and inspiration for collective action, to build collective power, to achieve collective transformation, rooted in grief and rage but pointed towards vision and dreams”. This sends a very powerful message that hope need not be rooted in optimism. There are often very serious issues that require taking action against, it’s okay to be angry, but find in that anger a hope for a better future.
 https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/openmovements/breaking-away-narcissism-emotions-and-grassroots-activism-time-covid-19/ https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/can-europe-make-it/social-movements-times-pandemic-another-world-needed/
In these uncertain times we must try to embrace the uncertainty, because trying to control the future is a futile act. Life is always uncertain; we never know what tomorrow will bring. Solnit says it beautifully “It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand”. Find hope in the small victories, in living your life in a way that you can be proud of. There are many movements that have failed to achieve their ultimate goals and there are also small gestures that have changed the world. We must remember that our victories may come in the form of subtle changes and not the grand shifts that we hope for, they may not happen in the timeline we imagine, we may not even see them ourselves, but we must count them anyway.
Disparate Effects of COVID-19 and the Importance of Social Justice Activism
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused countries to make previously unthinkable decisions about the provision of medical care to citizens. Many countries have implemented policies that deny COVID-19 patients with chronic illnesses access to medical services. This leaves disabled communities to suffer and, in some cases, succumb to this virus because of the ableist and ageist policies put in place by their governments. Canada has yet to experience the peak effects of COVID-19 and will likely have to engage in difficult decisions about who will receive medical care. Provinces in Canada are expected to run out of ventilators before the peak effects of this pandemic are realized. It is important to recognize your social locations and be aware of the privileges that they provide you. While this is a global pandemic, COVID-19 has differential impacts and vulnerable communities are disproportionately affected by social distancing measures, barriers to healthcare, and economic challenges. The Canada Emergency Response Benefit has served to perpetuate these social inequalities in Canada by creating barriers to access for many vulnerable individuals and families. There was no additional funding given to individuals unable to work due to disabilities, or those relying on income assistance who receive from about $650 a month to around $1200 per month. A far cry from the $2000 per month that the government has set as the income floor for Canadians.
In addition, many racialized communities are experiencing abuse from their fellow citizens. The pandemic has prompted a rise in racism and xenophobia. Violent attacks against Asian citizens and businesses have been reported across North America. These attacks are motivated by messages shared in the media and even by politicians such as Donald Trump who coined the term “China Virus” to describe COVID-19. This rhetoric of blaming Asian Americans for disease is not new in North America. White settlers have been relying on these tactics to “other” these communities since colonial times. This pandemic has shed light on how deeply racism and discrimination run in our societies.
Crises may act as a trigger for selfish and defensive decisions and turning the other into the enemy. When individuals engage in placing blame on others it perpetuates a “myth of invulnerability” that can be seen in many of the responses to the pandemic. The attitude that “it will affect others but not me”, a myth that perpetuates neoliberal ideologies.
 https://canadiandimension.com/articles/view/we-have-always-been-disposable-the-structural-violence-of-neoliberal-healthcare?fbclid=IwAR0IvDNT-4NNH-MGZEInMuZtum7GOoB5MIw6WYiK25W6dnZLVGAY9piMWUg  https://theconversation.com/anti-asian-racism-during-coronavirus-how-the-language-of-disease-produces-hate-and-violence-134496 https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/can-europe-make-it/social-movements-times-pandemic-another-world-needed/
It appears that some people are more worried about losing their “privileges”, than human lives. This denial of the seriousness of the situation clearly reflects the ideology of a system in which economic growth is worth more than human life.
So, where does this leave us? We are experiencing a crisis. Many of the responses we are seeing are a result of political and economic systems that are not working and have left us vulnerable to situations such as the one we find ourselves in now. This is where grassroots activism comes in. Grassroots activism has a role of creating alternatives to the systems we now have. Schell writes, “change happens first in the imagination”. We can start by imagining new ways to respond to this crisis. We can start by speaking out against racism xenophobia and promoting equal access to healthcare and financial support. We can build communities of support and help our neighbours. Solnit writes of her experience of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, “We who had been through the quake were present and connected. Connected to death, to fear, to the unknown, but in being so connected one could feel empathy, passion, and heroism as well. We could feel strongly, and that in itself is something hard to find in the anesthetizing distractions of this society”.
Building Community Amid a Crisis
Compassion and solidarity have disruptive potential. They have the potential to reveal the failure of systems founded on competitive individualism. Mutual Aid Society (MAS) in Winnipeg and other similar groups are popping up all over Canada. These groups of citizens are showing up for their fellow citizens and lending a helping hand in whatever ways they can. The existence of these groups shows that we need not rely on our government to support us, and we need not succumb to divisive ideologies meant to promote our learned helplessness. Solnit writes, “…to give up the dividing by which we conquer ourselves, the sectarianism, the presumption that difference is necessarily opposition. So does the activism of the moment”. We can help ourselves, and we can help each other. This mutual support not only heightens our sense of community, it has an emotional impact on vulnerable communities such as elderly and new immigrants, helping them feel less alone and more secure, especially in times of uncertainty. Mutual aid also helps individuals overcome the feeling of powerlessness that is endemic during a crisis.
A guide to activism in the time of COVID-19 was written by David Solnit of 350.org. This document has a section outlining steps to creating activist communities of care. In this document Solnit (2020) urges activists to refrain from mocking or dismissing the precautionary behaviours and attitudes of others. Everyone is dealing with this crisis in their own way. In addition, he says that activists should provide assistance on tasks without judgement and be cognisant of their purchases, leaving items that are in short supply for those who need them the most. He ends by saying that activism is no place for xenophobia or racism (Solnit, 2020). These are clear ways that we can start to build communities of trust and care. We can start by checking in on our neighbours and those we know to be most vulnerable. These small actions begin to break down walls that have been built up between us and open up space for further action. Not everyone has the skills or resources to cook gourmet meals for the homeless, or to create isolation shelters for individuals in need. But everyone has the power within themselves to lend a hand and everyone has a voice.
 https://www.wilpf.org/covid-19-coronavirus-capitalism-versus-persistent-activism/  https://www.facebook.com/groups/220944599058149/?multi_permalinks=226949218457687¬if_id=1589467383624540¬if_t=feedback_reaction_generic
Movement of the Spirit in the Wake of COVID-19
“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.” – Martin Luther King
It is in times like these that things are put into perspective and we begin to reevaluate our values and priorities. Personal and spiritual connections begin to play a greater part in our lives. Our eyes are opened to the interconnected nature of our world and the vulnerable nature of human life and because of this we are moved to ask the big questions. What is the meaning of this all? How can I live a life in line with my values and beliefs? This leads us back to helping our neighbour and giving back to the community. For the answers to these questions are rarely selfish. This pandemic has taught us some hard lessons but it has also given us the space to connect with each other and with our spirits in the quest to live a better life.
Solnit writes, “The sleeping giant is one name for the public; when it wakes up, when we wake up we are no longer only the public: we are civil society, the superpower whose nonviolent means are sometimes, for a shining moment, more powerful than violence, more powerful than regimes and armies. We write history with our feet, with our presence, and our collective voice and vision.” Remember that whatever your response to this crisis, you are doing your best. Remember that you have already overcome so much, and there will be much more to overcome. Remember that you are not alone. Remember that success may not look how you imagined. And finally, remember to listen to that glimmer of hope inside yourself that tells you that you have the power to create change.
Resources for Grassroots Activism
350.org’s list of how to stay active during the coronavirus pandemic: https://350.org/coronavirus-organizing/
Patagonia’s Tools for Grassroots Climate Activism (which can be used for other causes):
The Council of Canadians (find a chapter in your area):https://canadians.org/chapters