Renee: #GiveItUp4Peace Day 7 on the floor

#GiveItUp4Peace Day 7: Today, I marked 7 days sleeping on the floor and without news or alcohol. Its been a week with a lot of mixed emotions and experiences. Day 4 was the most miserable so far, but I find myself getting used to it. Sleep in a warm and comfortable bed is but one of the things that I take for granted most days.

I missed being with my family who were all together on the East Coast for Thanksgiving, but my sadness was all put into perspective after spending the weekend with Mohammed and our new friend Nedal who recently arrived here as an asylum seeker from Syria. We talked about how Mohammed will finally be reunified with his family in 10 short days after the three years it took to sponsor his family to come to Canada, and more than 5 years after he fled Syria for Lebanon. He reminded me about his own time sleeping on the floor of Syrian prison cells after his detention in 2011. For his part, Nedal, who is one of the founders of the White Helmets, spent much of the last 5 years working to saving the lives of Syrians impacted by the civil war. Two weeks ago, he had to leave behind his wife in Turkey in order to apply for asylum because there is no durable solution for them there. He does not know when he will see her again. For now, he needs to find a place to live and just maybe follow his passion and open his own food truck.

These stories contrasted to the beautiful afternoon we spent hiking in Deep Cove on Saturday and then visiting with wonderful new friends on the Sunshine Coast where Nedal treated us to a mouth-watering Thanksgiving dinner that I won’t forget anytime soon. I was grateful to be with such kind and welcoming people who made me feel as though I were right at home.

The campaign has made me face a number of uncomfortable questions. The most immediate one — which I discussed with Mohammed and Nedal — was whether GiveItUp4Peace was somehow exploitative of the experiences they have had. After all having someone like me (who has never really had to give up anything of real meaning) giving up something faced by the communities we serve — to raise money for our work has all the trappings of unrecognized privilege. Perhaps they were being generous and others would likely have different opinions on the same question, but they didn’t have that reaction at all which helped to somewhat put my mind at ease.

I have also been reminded of my time in South Africa with Habitat for Humanity in Mfuleni where I had the privilege of work on several house building projects. I got to know many incredibly brave women who — in spite of structural inequalities and violence against women and black women in particular — were working hard to make their communities safer for women and girls. They were the original inspiration for PeaceGeeks. There was the wonderfully energetic Nontebeko who I got to know well and managed to stay in touch with for some time after I left. There was Noxolo who — at 31 (my age at the time) — was surviving HIV while raising 5 children from separate fathers on her own and who wanted to leave them a house when she died. But in fact it was Mama Belinda who came into my mind. I didn’t know her nearly as well as the other women — she wasn’t around much and was a strong woman who raising two kids on her own. But her house was the first house I worked on and I will never forget the moment when she was handed the keys to her first home. She seemed to me someone who was too proud to cry — but in that moment, there was no fighting back the struggles that she had overcome to get to the point of finally having a home on a piece of land that she now owned where her children could grow up in relative safety.

I also remember being upset at the time that I could only get one of my white friends to join me in Mfuleni to work on these houses. The rest had never been to a township. When I asked why, I was asked back if I had ever visited Canada’s version of townships. It was a deflective and defensive response to be sure, and I had certainly spent time in public housing projects in different Canadian cities. But to my great shame, I realized that not only had I never visited any First Nations communities, I didn’t even know where they were in my home province of Nova Scotia.

For our American friends, the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court this week is a devastating blow. Quite apart from sexual harassment charges he faced, he and Gorsuch prioritize an interpretation of the constitution based voice of the founding fathers in a context before women and people of colour were represented — and it prioritizes that interpretation over the voice of people alive today and the context they are living through now in reality. For a hero like RBG, her literal survival is perhaps the factor that could determine whether all of the changes she successfully fought for on behalf of women and people of color over the course of her life will survive her. Closer to home still, we have not begun to touch what needs to be done in order to reconcile with the wrongs committed against First Nations across our country. As non-profit leaders, business owners, citizens, educators, immigrants and people of privilege, it is incumbent upon us all to learn this history, to understand where we are today and to find ways to stand in solidarity with First Nations communities so they too can thrive in this experiment we call Canada.

Obama once said that the definition of hope is that you still believe even when its hard. His quote has echoes of Mandela’s quote that it always seems impossible till its done.

This Thanksgiving weekend, I am grateful for all the incredible activists, advocates and every day people who work, put their lives on the line and use their voice to make their communities and our world a better places. In these dark times, you are a light that makes our world a brighter place. There is a need for even more people to stand up today and find a voice for what we believe in. We must all use voice and the time we have as an ally of progress and never forget what happens when we don’t.