These Are Your Neighbours

Image by Ellie Anglin

In January of this year, I began writing a weekly column for Imprint, the University of Waterloo’s student newspaper. Called These Are Your Neighbours, my column focuses on progressive community organizing and collective action in Kitchener -Waterloo. Each week, I interview a local person who is involved in mobilizing members of our community around a common issue and who works together with these people to develop creative ways of addressing and responding to the issue.

The process of developing content for my column has given me a kind of energy and sustained momentum which, until January, I had only ever experienced in short bursts. For the past two months, however, I have felt continuously energized, motivated, and optimistic about our community because of the collective power of “ordinary” people.

The weekly process of writing my column can be divided into the following steps, each of which are equally as important and integral to the whole: seeking out a person whom I’ve never met; talking with them about what they do and why they do it, and; crafting a story from our conversation.

The first step, seeking out people whom I’ve never met, has been surprisingly easy. It is incredible how many community events and organizations I find out about every week simply by keeping my ears and eyes open. But developing an awareness of the different ways that people are organizing themselves is only the first part; I then have to follow-up by writing down the names, places, and times associated with each of the groups.

The second step, talking with people about what they do and why they do it, has proven to be a bit more challenging than simply seeking out people whom I’ve never met. But I’ve found that, for situations in which an opportunity to interview does not easily present itself, the stories become all the more compelling.

I found out about the Kitchener Waterloo Community Centre for Social Justice (KWCCSJ) through a co-worker. We were talking about the activist community in KW when he told me that the KWCCSJ had just opened up in a former industrial warehouse in downtown Kitchener. I was immediately intrigued and went to the centre’s website to look at the “events” page. The event that really caught my attention was a Saturday workshop called “Know Your Rights” led by local legal professional Leah Henderson.

Attended by about 30 participants, the workshop focused on sharing narratives of Canada’s legal system and discussing how our race, class, and gender shape these narratives. At the beginning of the workshop, everyone introduced themselves. When it was my turn to introduce myself, I said that I was there as a columnist for Imprint and I explained that my intention was to discuss the content of the workshop within the framework of community organizing.

Henderson then suggested that participants make a consensus-based decision about whether or not I should be permitted to write about the workshop. Everyone closed their eyes and Henderson said, “Raise your hand if you areuncomfortable having an article written about this workshop.” My stomach tightened. What if somebody raised their hand? I wouldn’t have a story anymore! But I knew that I had to respect the desires of the group, so I held my breath, listened carefully for the sound of a hand raising, and hoped that everyone was comfortable with me writing about the workshop.

When we opened our eyes, Henderson said, “Okay, we’ve decided that you can write about the workshop!” But there were certain parameters: I could not write about participants’ individual personal stories and I could not disclose any of the participants’ names. I could, however, write about Henderson’s personal stories, and I could write about the content of her presentation.

I’ve found that my column on the “Know Your Rights” workshop is particularly compelling because it gives an insider’s look on a confidential meeting, which I had nearly been prevented from writing about. These are the stories that can be difficult to access, and therefore extremely rewarding to share with others.

The third step, crafting a story from the conversations I’ve had, is secretly my favourite step. It allows me to become the closet introvert that I am, reflect on my experience with the person I’ve talked with, and to craft a plotline from the notes I’ve scratched out into my little black notebook.

This is also where journalistic integrity comes in. In most cases, the people I’ve interviewed have been extremely honest with me. They’ve told me things that could make them look really bad if I decided to include it, or focus on it, for my column. They’re honest with me because just as I’ve gotten to know them, they’ve gotten to know me as well. After all, I’ve dedicated the better part of a day, or in some cases an entire weekend, to attending their organization’s event and to getting to know its members.

This is when I have to remind myself that the purpose of my column is to provide an accurate representation of a community organization and to tell the story of that organization from the perspective of one of its members. Of course, this process is never objective, but objectivity is not something I have to worry about as a columnist.

Instead, my intent is to craft a story in which I, the subjective storyteller, tell the story of a community group, from the subjective view of a member of that group. Ultimately, my aim is to give voice to that person and to respect their views, even if they are not the same as my own. However, because it is a column, I allow myself to reflect on the interview and to ask critical questions about the goals of the group.

A column that I wrote on “Culture Camp” comes to mind. Culture Camp is a series of workshops that brings together city planners, architects, and graphic designers to discuss how to make KW attractive to the “creative class.” Although I dedicated most of my column to discussing Culture Camp from the perspective of its founder, ultimately I had to ask, “Who really benefits from changing our city to attract middle class creative types?” Which begs the critical question, “Who does this further marginalize?”

So there you have it. My three step process to documenting the progressive community organizing that is currently happening in KW. Now that I’ve taken a step back to look at all of the community organizations that I’ve written about so far, it creates a vibrant representation of our community, don’t you think? So get out there and join one of these groups! Or write about them! After all, this is your community and these are your neighbours.