As you will recall, last month I had the pleasure of attending one day of Working For Change’s Women Speak Out! program. This Monday the WSO graduation ceremony took place in the Toronto City Council Chamber.
I would love to tell you that Rob Ford was there and was moved to life-changing tears, vowing Scrooge-like to change his life and be a better man, but no. The mayor was not present. Neither was the rest of the council – maybe 3 or 4 out of 45 showed up, which is abysmal. I can’t say for sure because while I may be a bit of a local politics nerd, I’m not enough of a local politics nerd to know every councillor by sight.
I really wish the council had turned up, though I realize they have problems of their own. I wish they had been there to hear these women speak.
Months ago on Twitter, where half of my life takes place, I ran across a tweet that went something like this: “From now on insteading of thinking of all the bad things that happened to me as things which hurt me, I’m going to think of them as my superhero origin story.” I imagine the original was phrased better than that, as I think that’s more than 140 characters and if there’s one thing Twitter teaches you it’s to be reaaalllly concise. I can’t track it down anymore, because that’s the way Twitter is, so I can’t give credit to whoever said it (if it is you, please follow me on Twitter because I want to be your friend).
At the time I thought this quip was clever and I retweeted it (probably?); as I listened to the women of Women Speak Out tell their stories, I thought of it again and realized how powerful a statement it really was. One by one these women talked about the humiliations and indignities of poverty – the intrusive and demeaning process you have to go through to get a charity Christmas hamper; the welfare caseworker who said “Don’t you know about the morning after pill?” to the pregnant and destitute woman he was supposed to be helping; the woman trying to choose between feeding her toddler and feeding her pregnant self (these are two different women, by the way); the debilitating illness gained by walking miles every day in the cold because there are only enough tokens for one and your elderly parent needs them to get to their medical appointments. One by one they described struggles with abusive partners, with mental and physical illnesses, with trying to navigate the world designed for the able-bodied with one or more disabilities. But one by one they spoke of the strength and determination they had gained, of the skills and experience they had to share. And every one spoke of her desire to contribute, to help others, to pursue her dreams.
No one talks about the dreams of the poor. Dreams are luxuries for rich kids to indulge in. The poor, be they young, old, or somewhere in between, are supposed to be content with a little meager charity or a low wage earned in boredom. In North America, discourse around poverty either paints the poor as helpless victims of their situation/bad upbringing/heredity or as stupid losers who don’t deserve anything better. There is little acknowledgement that poor people deserve anything more than the most basic of assistance, and almost none that poor people might have anything of value to contribute to the world.
And that’s why I wish Council had been there, because I wish more people in power could have heard these women speak and seen that they aren’t helpless objects of charity or worthless parasites, but women of strength, dignity, and power, capable and desirous of making positive change in the world – that they are heros.