“Why those who are privileged need to pay attention to those who are not.” (Prepared for a Herstmonceux Conference)

“Why those who are privileged need to pay attention to those who are not.”   (Prepared for a Herstmonceux Conference)

Written by: Jon M Gerrard and Martin I Itzkow (FRSA)

Our liberal democracy in Canada is at stake.  Many of our communities face complex social problems, even “wicked” problems, conflict between groups, and ideals and beliefs creating societal tensions. We now have many forms of community “resistance” to the status quo. We have demagogues in many places in the world like Donald Trump who are elected and supported because many people in their countries feel they are not being listened to and are frustrated.  It seems that Donald Trump tapped into an existing wellspring of resentment in “middle America” from people who felt they were being left out and left behind by global changes. They feared the loss of good paying manufacturing jobs in the United States and the arrival of many immigrants with whom they felt less comfortable and who they felt did not represent “so-called” “American values”.  

In the past five months in Manitoba we have begun a complex public dialogue and engagement project (5 community “kitchen” dialogues) with people who feel left out, frustrated and not able to engage so that their voices can be heard, listened to and responded to.  Who are these voices? What are they saying? Why should we listen to these people who feel marginalized, disengaged, and are frustrated that they are not being heard, respected and valued, and are being left out?

In Winnipeg, a diverse city of about 730,000 people, we have found many who feel they are being forgotten and not listened to.    They include people from the LGBTQ community.  They include people from the indigenous community.  They include people from the visible minority community. They include people from rural Manitoba who feel our government is too Winnipeg-centred. They include people who are of large or small body size.  They include people with learning disabilities.  They include people who have various other brain and mental health conditions.  They include people who are frustrated with our legal and child welfare system, which has apprehended far too many children so that we have one of the highest rates of children in care in the world.  They include women who feel they are not treated fairly, not rewarded adequately financially, and not listened to in our courts.  They include seniors who feel they are not respected.  In short there are many who feel that our democracy is not working well and not serving them well.  We need to listen to their voices. It is about the social distance between those who are in the majority and those “others” in the minority. The social distance between these groups and communities has been widening.

People with learning disabilities, as we have found, are often marginalized, and infrequently have the opportunity to contribute.  They are far overrepresented among those in our jails, in part because they have difficulty learning and learning is a key to success. It is harder to listen to someone with a learning disability, and yet we must.  With improved understanding of brain plasticity, there are increasingly better ways of helping individuals with learning disabilities to succeed.  When they succeed they can be a very positive force in our society.  When they are rejected, we all lose.

In Manitoba and Canada today, we struggle with the voices of those who were abused in residential schools and with the longer term, intergenerational effects of such trauma.  We are struggling with far too many missing and murdered women.  There remain significant divides in our society which we need to learn about, to bring a better understanding of and to heal.   We all need to listen to the voices of “the other side” to better understand each other’s history and to find a better way forward together.

The voices of the “disengaged” are often “No” voices with alternative views.  Why do we need to listen to these “No” voices?  

We need to listen to the “No” voices because our democracy and our society depends on it. We need to listen to the disengaged “No” voice because we must if we are going to achieve lasting, sustainable progress.

As an example the 1990s national Liberal government of Canada of which Jon Gerrard was a part, failed to listen to the “No” voices with respect to gun control. Tough measures were brought in to ensure better gun control, but there was a failure to adequately respect and listen to those who were opposed to the measures.  The resulting legislation did not adequately account for the opposing views and perspectives.  In the end, the opposition to “gun control” was a significant factor in the eventual defeat of the Liberal government.  But even more significant than this, because the changes were brought in without adequately listening to the “No” voices, as soon as a new government was elected, the “gun control” measures were immediately thrown out, and the results of the time consuming and costly effort were overturned.   If we are going to achieve sustainable progress we have to do better in listening to the “No” voices.

In another example, across Canada measures have been taken in the last 25 years to better recognize same-sex marriage.  Jon Gerrard remembers talking with Andy Scott, the longtime Liberal Member of Parliament for Fredericton in New Brunswick.  He supported same-sex marriage, but many of his constituents were strongly opposed.  Andy took the time to listen to people and to hold town hall meetings to discuss the issue openly.   Though there were many who still disagreed, it was much appreciated that he had taken the time to talk openly and frankly with people and to hear the “No” voices. In part because of people like Andy Scott, same-sex marriage is now broadly accepted all across Canada.   It is also, I believe, because people like Richard Florida wrote persuasively about the positive contribution that people in the LGBTQ community are making to the life and work of creative modern cities, and the lived experience of many citizens who have children who are part of the LGBTQ community.  Yes, it is a human rights issue.  But progress has been made, not just because it is a human right, but also because those who led the way were ready to listen to the “No” voices and to make a strong positive case for change. 

There are those who want to speed ahead without listening to the “No” voices. Often, doing the listening and applying new perspectives through the adoption of new public engagement tools and approaches can break impasses, can actually be faster in getting results, and can achieve results which will last.

It is tough to listen to the “No” voices.  The stories told by the “No” voices are often difficult and complex and can challenge our view of our world and who we are.  But we need to listen to these voices.  We need to understand others. We need to do it better through improvements in our democracy. 

We live in a challenging time.  With social media and fractured news sources it is easy to get information and to find people who support our own worldview.  It is easy to live in our part of the world, and not to deal with “others”.  But, if we as a society are to survive and thrive, we must be open, understand how we need to adapt and hear the world in many different ways. We need to see that conflict if handled well can be productive. We must bring all the voices of our communities to the work of community building.   

From the work we are doing, we see that an effective way to listen to the “No” voices is through more meaningful and evolving public dialogue, more meaningful listening, and through empowering people with “No” voices to be part of the solutions we seek – improving our quality of life, improving our economy, improving our environment. 

In January of this year, Jon Gerrard and his wife Naomi were in South Africa.  42 years ago, in Soweto, Hector Pietersen a thirteen-year-old boy, was shot during a student protest.   While in South Africa Jon and Naomi met Antoinette Sithole (Hector’s sister) and her husband Meshack Sithole.   Visiting Constitution Hill in Johannesburg, it was appalling to learn of the treatment of fellow human beings in the jails of that time.   Meshack is still asking the question “Why” did they do this?  As we look around us today, we need to see our fellow human beings for what they are – fellow travelers on our planet.  The “others” are like us, but they come from different backgrounds and have different abilities and skills.  If we can better recognize the value in those who are “the others” we can all benefit.