Sunday, May 30, 2010


Some of the people who read my blogs try to allege assumptions about my political views, or my background, or what I am doing or not doing to "help others help themselves", put in a kinder context. Die hard conservatives, or at least people who have convinced themselves that they must support this ideology or be considered a "fringe group", accuse me of being a left-winger. I don't consider myself a left-winger, as many of my friends on the left accuse me of being a conservative of sorts. In the history of blogs here, I have opposed unions, opposed public housing, queried about the accountability of so many government hand-outs, opposed the bailouts of big business, opposed the HST, as well as questioned many facets about the social work and poverty-based industries.

On the other hand, accepting a hard-right ideology to me is no different than accepting a hard-left ideology. I've met and spoke to people who label themselves conservative that cannot engage in an intellectual debate about the topics they claim to oppose my opinions on. One in particular tried to claim climate change was a hoax, but could not claim knowledge or familiarity of a single peer-reviewed study that states this as fact. The person instead insisted that the one individual who brought the issue up was responsible for doing the "homework", not him. To me, this just indicated that this individual actually knows quite little about this topic, but his chosen ideology dictates to him what position he takes.

In turn, they personalize every statement their opponents make, and make assumptions about where they are coming from, as opposed to responding with like arguments that support their own position. I am in the legal profession, and in order to work in this field, I better know how to raise both fact and law to back any argument I make or expect to lose. In other words, to many of these right wing ideologues, anybody that does not agree with them are "socialists" or in the US, "liberals". Those on the left broadly label those on the right as being "greedy". I consider myself a radical centrist, because I believe that politics is the art of compromise, and that public policy should be based on expert review and evaluation, as opposed to political persuasion. Unfortunately, most people base their votes and opinions on stereotypes and when it feels good to put others lesser than themselves down, in order to make themselves feel better.

However, apart from those on the two extremes, there are heuristic reasons why some people tend to make assumptions about others, or blame others for their own misfortunes. In my experience, the very wealthy and even self-made wealthy tend to be more liberal and broad-minded in their vision as a whole, than many in the upper middle class and/or unionized working classes. Individuals who are very wealthy can self-exclude themselves from elements of society they find distasteful or bothersome, and in their own small way, many of them try to make things better for those in difficult circumstances. Foundations bear many of their names, as well as several I know that own companies take specific people under their wing to develop them as persons, increase their skills and eventually hire them. People with this kind of wealth have choices, and for the most part, they realize that.

However, those in the middle and upper-middle classes, have a differential view of how little their personal choices took them to where they are, versus circumstances. Very wealthy people also tend to be well-educated, and growing up, are almost constantly reminded about how "lucky" they are. The kinds of problems that develop in wealthy families tend to come out differently and impact people involved in a different way than the same types of problems for those in middle and upper-middle income families. For the most part, wealth is shared, either through inheritance, through family ties and through cultural connections, such as association with others in the same country clubs, associations, university alumni, etc. The sense of belonging among the wealthier parts of the country does not rely on what one's neighbours think, or what charities they support ... The problems arise in wealthy families are when love is bought with money, and the support does not go with it ...

However, in the middle class and upper middle classes, there is a lot of control, albeit usually as a benevolent dictatorship over the lives of their offspring. Those in the middle and upper middle classes want to emulate the wealthy because they want to be there someday themselves, even though their chances of making it there aren't large. In families, there is programming on the basis of gender, friendships, morality and values, and cultural leanings. While this "benevolent dictatorship" is in effect, offspring in these families also benefit from a large amount of support: cultural, social, emotional and financial. There is a lot said about older kids nowadays not leaving home until they are well into their twenties, and sometimes early thirties ... the offspring witnesses what their parents have been able to take from the world and benefit from, while they themselves fear not being able to do this for themselves. Yet at the same time, there are more parents than there were in the past that have funded or helped fund their child's post-secondary education, helped them purchase their first house, or even paid for a honeymoon when they get married ...

I know this through my own observations of ten and a half years floating through the post-secondary education system. During my time, there were students relying largely on OSAP, but over time, these numbers have dropped, as parents were more able to provide this support. New financial instruments made it possible for middle income parents to provide this type of support. Further, parents of older children often have more than one vehicle in the yard, and encourage their children to learn to drive shortly after they are legally able to. Vehicle ownership and use is as much of a cultural inheritance, as is one's cultural assumptions of what a parent owes their children with respect to post-secondary education. There is a perception among the middle and upper-middle income families that vehicle ownership, purchasing a home, and graduating from university, is a way to "make it".

However, with these new cultural norms, develops a new form of cultural privilege. If you grew up in a family like this, it is difficult for you to picture what it is like for somebody that did not. Some families have the means, but refuse to assist their children into adulthood; others simply cannot afford it and those offspring often have to resort to the public system to obtain what they need, and from past experience, I know this to be a crap shoot. Unfortunately, there are more people who are privileged in a middle to upper middle class type of way, than those who are not, which has led to this biased heuristic.

For example, a child from a low income or working class family knows that they are different from the time they enter the school system. The school system is set up to replicate the values and mores of those that appear to comprise the majority of parents in their catchment area. Those that run for the school board, and those that serve in high level staff positions at the school board also have the same cultural background and privilege as most parents. Those parents of minority situations, poverty, disability and other "differences" are only active or heard from when it comes to special needs children, because that is where the run of the mill educational system neglects people in the most overt way.

It is not that teachers and principals haven't heard of poverty, as you can probably ask any of them and they will relate stories to you about the girl that wore summer shoes to school in the winter or the boy that never had a good winter coat. They don't see these cases as being in the majority of their classes, but these people are noticed. Unfortunately, most teachers and principals alike tend to buy into the same ideology that if someone "works hard", they should be able to escape poverty. Maybe, because their parents worked hard and paid for their education, and they were then able to take advantage of their family's backing and purchase a home, keep family in the loop, and enjoy these types of relationships that not everybody has. To many of them, they think they can do good for the impoverished students by buying a pair of boots for the girl or a coat for the boy, and pretending this will make the school experience for these children better. Unfortunately, more often than not, it doesn't improve things ... the new coat or the new boots might be appreciated (or not), but the family these children come from are not given one added opportunity, one route of escape from poverty or one smidgen of hope.

While the middle or upper middle class teacher does not view it this way (that an act of charity can actually hurt the self-esteem of a child or family), they do not understand what happens in the cultural context that the child lives in. Let me give you an example: e. g. this was a situation I personally witnessed. I visited the home of a new employee I hired at a business I managed about fifteen years ago. Her son who was about eight or nine years old at the time, came home from school with a new pair of boots and a gift voucher for a nearby grocery store. He told his mother that his teacher gave these items to him, after they noticed he wasn't wearing any boots that particularly difficult winter. The boy appeared angry and embarrassed, and the mother who was also my new employee, took the boy to another room to talk privately to him (and not in front of me). I learned later that she and her husband have been struggling to pay bills on Ontario Works for a year or so, and did not even want to tell me about that.

I explained to her that she will not need to worry about that anymore because her job will definitely take them off welfare for good, and that I hired her for her skills and abilities, not for some picky criteria that many employers today use. The long and short end of this was that she made the best employee I ever hired, in any of the places I ever managed or operated. For those naysayers that say that those who work hard will avoid poverty, this woman was an example of somebody that worked hard almost everyday of her life, raising two special needs children, and trying to work around their needs, while making only enough to supplement, not get her family off assistance. She later told me that she felt honored to be working in the organization that I hired her for, and that she found it hard to believe that I actually accommodated her with respect to her health conditions she had at the time, as well as issues concerning one of her young children.

This is something I felt I had to do as an employer, not for her or for anybody in particular, but in order to keep that office running, and have good people working there. I had an obligation as an employer to do this. I was never one to go out to buy a pair of boots for a kid, or give them my daughter's old winter coat, as an act of charity. I was always more interested in what I can do to address the issue to begin with, and do it with dignity. But then again, I was not somebody that was raised in a stable, two-parent, loving household either ... While I am sure both of my parents loved me in their own way, their own mistakes, personal lives and other issues, took precedence over their concern over my welfare as a child. On my own since my teens, I realize what a value a stable household gives to individuals and ensures almost a poverty-proof life for that child, esp when emotional, social, cultural and financial support are all combined.

I was always somebody who would make sure that anybody working for me would include their costs, mileage, parking and other expenses, so they knew they were supported in the work they were doing for my office. I did this for others, despite others never doing this for me. In another office I managed, I sought funding specifically addressing the skills of two individuals in the office I knew were the lowest paid, so I can increase their hours and total pay, without as much as asking for increase in my own salary. These things all took place in the 1990's, during a time of so-called retrenchment in social programming. It is sad, however, when the administration was taken over by somebody else, with a completely different philosophy as to what constituted qualifications, work ethics and results. This individual was really no different than many of the employers I find around here, believing there are no human variables, just a right to exclusionary practices.

Many people find it hard to believe over thirty percent of Niagara residents do not have a driver's license, or lost it for whatever reason. I bump into these people all the time, those who were unable to get around to get their licenses, those who lost them due to a medical problem, or were never able to get it. Virtually none of them are working for much, if at all. Those that have grown up with the kind of supports I describe above, actually believe that the men that don't drive must have got there for a reason, e.g. drug abuse, not paying child support. For the women, it is assumed they have a husband or some other sugar daddy that makes the big bucks, so all they are looking for is minimum wage work. These same people, after saying something like that, are embarrassed after I tell them why I don't drive ... not feeling bad for what they said, but being caught with their words. I am sure I might have educated a few of them over time, but this does not push people out of their comfort zone.

There are middle class folks worrying about losing their jobs, marriages falling apart and people getting into serious accident and illnesses, making them worry about their future all the time. There are folks that conduct a lot of research for example to reassure this sector of the middle class to convince them that they will never become homeless, because they want to make it look like those that DO become homeless are mentally ill, substance abusers or ex-inmates of psychiatric facilities - make these people in worse circumstances appear to be authors of their misfortune in some way, or at least so much "out there" that the same thing will not happen to them. Well, if one has never been involved with any of those things, they're safe, right? At least, that is what the political agenda of this type of research is about ... when in fact, none of these people are safe. I am a witness of this, watching a man who worked for a factory for twenty-eight years end up on the street, another man lose his home after a messy marriage break-up and he lived in his car, and so on ... these stories are not that uncommon, and none of them have mental illness or alcoholism to push them there.

These same middle class folks get reassured that if they "work hard", they will make it. At the same time, other privileged folks, perhaps secure (for now) in their jobs, tell the public under an assumed name of course, how people on welfare don't want to work, and how there are plenty of Tim Horton's jobs available, and everything. If I took this one woman that I referred to earlier that I hired in a fairly well-paid position to a Tim Horton's, she would never be hired - she had two university degrees, a special needs child, and a propensity for migraine headaches, which would throw any normal employer off base ... but she delivered fine for me, because unlike others she apparently worked for, I accommodated her. And even if Timmy's weren't so picky, there will have to be at least 800,000 new openings in places like this in order to get everybody off welfare ... but one can dream, right?

The same people who argue these points claim themselves as charitable and how they would help a deserving person, which is nice to hear, but neither he, nor I, nor even 100,000 people like he or I will be able to help everybody who needs help on an individual self-selective basis like this. In fact, the most needy will be left out, which is why the state took these functions over. Remember the story of Dorothea Dix, who fought to take the ill, the poor, the dying from run-down poor houses into state-run facilities, where they would receive the care and help they needed. And when these institutions became overcrowded and inhumane, people like Claire Hinks, and others fought for their right to live in the community.

Today I am doing something like this. I am continuing to fight for people's right to not only live in the community, among us, but to contribute what they can ... and be given respect and opportunities to do the same. I don't have a background of privilege, whether that be cultural, social, financial or familial ... but I do in fact believe in people, and because people of privilege exist ... I don't feel I need to assist them, as they have this support already. Why do they need me to push and advocate on their behalf, when they already have the resources they need? I am there to provide this to those that truly need the help, ask for it, and provide this assistance in a dignified manner ... so these folks will for once, or once again, feel that they belong - something that no charity, now matter how well intended, can ever do for them.

Your thoughts?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


The last entry in the blog about rights, obligations and privilege drew a lot of blood from my followers. For many, they find my blogs intellectual and heavy on the intellect; others read them and assume meaning and ramifications that are nowhere in it. However, for followers of Kant, Rawls and even classic Locke, people seem to get how my comparisons work. This is the respect for the integrity of the person, regardless of what position they are in society. It bestows both rights and responsibilities on all citizens, and as such doesn't differ because somebody has a million dollar mansion, and the other is on welfare. As equal citizens, we all reap what we sow, and deserve full integrity of our person as we make choices. I critique society's view of the poor and disabled, and separated them into a context of how some see a split between a "deserving" sect and an "undeserving" sect, which always befuddled me, as this context cannot be reasonably decided by an outsider who is not in the shoes of the other. How come something as easy for me to understand is so difficult for some others to wrap their heads around?

In the context of my professional life, I learned to accept and acknowledge all kinds of people, their behaviours, cultures and attitudes. When I first began to work independently in private practice, many things people would say to me bothered me, or shocked my senses. At times, I thought the walls had ears in my old office, as many of the words of the people who have come to see me over the years are reflected in the aging process, and the ghosts and creak of the old building I was in. Over the years, the personification of my environment is such that I learned to find it easier to tolerate and understand, rather than to judge and criticize. I met people in all walks of life, all persuasions, all orientations, all attitudes, and many who have done some terrible things, or have had terrible things done to them. Many have come to me to rant, often loudly, about the injustices and idiocy of the legal system, the very system where I make my living. I can only nod my head, the customer is always right ... the system is what a person perceives it to be, I have tried to fight a lot of fights, which many clients sometimes believe we should have won, but there are no guarantees. I walked into the courtroom many times believing we had a solid case, only to lose, as well as other times, walking in believing our chances were sketchy at best, but we surprisingly win!

My friends ask me how do I deal with the stress of it all. I don't. I sometimes have to walk away. It is not good to carry that much sorrow inside, and then try to understand why this much pain is possible. An instant distraction is what is needed, or I do not do well with continuing what it was I started. Like many of you, I walk the streets of my community, and I see people fast asleep on the benches around the market square, or in the doorways of business buildings on the main streets of downtown. During the day, these same people and others are making their rounds asking for change. To me, these people are no more welcome than the solicitors for some charity standing on the street corner, accosting as many passers by as they can, only to try to part you with your money. This is not the problem; it is merely a symptom. A society that is working well would not have the charities soliciting people on street corners and disparaged people trying to knock up other people for "spare change".

My downtown can be a beautiful place, and in fact, I love it in the spring when the buskers make their way and do an impromptu act across the old courtyard, or by the market, as throngs of people make their way inside to shop for produce and other foodstuff from our local farmers. My downtown can be as informal as my walking into Tim Horton's, meeting various colleagues seeking a coffee after court, or a friend seeking to speak to me about the latest on anything. I walk downtown during the day if I suffer from information overload at the office, only to get it from a different angle in the streets. A true sign of spring is when the city workers begin to water the plants in their holders all along St. Paul Street ... the water dripping from the hose down to the sidewalk below contrasts directly with the beaming sunlight beating down from above. Crowds of people on patios, casually chatting over expresso and iced coffee, as others cycle by ... the relaxed nature of a downtown attracts the positive nature of people.

After I return to the office, I continue on my exciting, and sometimes, dreadful journeys. I preside over some devastating issues, where regardless of which way a party moves, somebody gets hurt. My role is to minimize the damage. I work on litigation cases, which I gather information, conduct a search of parties, draft a claim, assemble it, issue it and file it, and then figure out a way to serve it on the unsuspecting parties these papers are going to. Other times, I write and seek information, and provide feedback to a person as to which way they move their pieces on this ever emerging chessboard. It is just when there are too many chessboards, or too many pieces missing, when I become frazzled. To me, things need to fit together, and resemble calm. My job is to find out where these pieces fit, because they always fit somewhere, just not always where you think they should.

I live a life that some tell me they envy, where I encounter, work with, engage with and partake with, all ranks of life, including the millionaires, the paupers, the persons with disabilities, the legal professionals, the artisans and the poets. Each day, taking a dose of each adds a different something to my world. I have had jobs where I have directly worked with senior government officials, including Cabinet Ministers, whereas the next day, I am assisting somebody who had been evicted from their home to find another. I have been in the worst hovels of this region, even remembering many of their addresses, and have been in the fanciest million dollar homes and private enclaves of the wealthy. I've been in the non-profit sector, where I fondly remember publishing the newsletter, and presenting our position to Parliamentary committees. I still do a lot of that, except today, I share my knowledge and experience with coalitions that are doing their damnedest to change so much of what is wrong.

Being self-employed, some believe I can do and say as I wish, but this is not necessarily the whole truth. In fact, most of the time, I am buried in work, and it is also my role to protect myself from being submerged in minute details, anxiety about what I am to do next week, and the week thereafter. Some tell me I am courageous to take on the region with respect to bringing transit to everybody, but this is something that has pestered me, and it would certainly pester me more, if I sat on my hands like the others did, and just hoped something will happen. As a protagonist, I need to make things happen. I can't sit on my hands when things are so wrong. I knew how to tell as a young child when something around me was wrong, or when somebody was treating me in a way that was improper. I always felt things physically, and in many respects, I can only describe the pain in physical matter. It comes down to that personal integrity thing again; part of my personal integrity involves being and belonging, as well as practicing citizenship rights, and where others do or do not do something that prevents me from fully exercising the same is when my world needs to be shifted right. Things need to change.

It is a falsehood to assume that all people are created equal on this planet ... inequality certainly cuts in a predictable fashion, with some people deemed to be "hard working" and thus "deserving", while others are not so deserving ... but few ever question why the "deserving" seem to be over-represented by individuals in groups that are not traditionally disadvantaged. More whites than blacks curiously end up in the "deserving" pile; more able-bodied than persons with disabilities end up in the "deserving" pile. More men than women end up there as well. This is no accident. One might argue that women, persons with disabilities and blacks do not "work hard" or all come from "bad seed" that seems to keep them back, but we know that as a society, we tend to individualize traits, as opposed to trying to analyze them from a broader world perspective. This is reminiscent of Kelly's attribution theory, where the worst of a situation makes it more the fault of the person it happened to ... almost upstaged from concrete operational thinking, Jean Piaget's analysis for children in their developmental stages. For the most part, those in the "undeserving" category face barriers to their success. This is not the fault of the people with advantage, but it is the fault of those that put policies and programs in place, and distribute wealth and income, or who make hiring decisions.

As I stated earlier, if such policy makers, employers, government officials and others in power, were to learn how to put their feet into the shoes of the other, and govern as though they do not know where they will end up once the rule, policy or law is passed. They may be a pauper, a millionaire, a storekeeper, a student, or a person with a disability. Regardless, the universality of the policy would apply, and unfortunately, we cannot train our rulers to think this way. Our rulers are only concerned with how to retain their jobs as rulers, and not how to truly govern and lead. As long as problems and despair only belong to other people, the rulers of today are not sufficiently dismayed as to find ways to relief them of such. They apply the band-aid, or they apply the punishment, whatever way the wind is blowing at the time. Not a nice way to intellectually determine the world ...

But, as part of my profession, I often have to guide people to make decisions, sometimes decisions that are very difficult, and no matter how we decide, somebody can get hurt. As a leader, I try to balance it the best I can. The result is usually the best result we will get, although I know somebody is hurt. I was once told by a judge that we know a mediation has been successful when both parties walk away with their lower lips dragging across the floor. That means each party takes something from it, as well as gives something up. Much of this is the art of compromise, the skill of making people retain connections, the ability to enable others to figure out how to solve their own problems, not something that is valued highly these days.

I don't know what day or year I will ever hang my hat, or if this is ever going to happen, but I want to leave the world I live in with a set of rich memories, rich understandings, and a philosophy and belief on how to lead, how to change and how to know when it is time to fight.

Your thoughts?