The Francis Report: Life in a Global Context, is a monthly column dealing with globally significant, locally relevant topics by Millstone columnist Arnie Francis,
Last month I proposed that the world is at a crossroads and the rise of cooperative enterprise will outpace the private capital model of wealth distribution in the twenty-first century. This month I’d like to follow the cooperative thread and explore the notion of inclusion, and what that means in a personal, community and global context.
A friend has a tradition of hosting Sunday suppers, where immediate family and a few friends gather over a meal to debrief on the week past and consider the week to come. The conversations are always stimulating, often fuelled by the perceptive minds of the teenagers. Lately the topic of inclusion came up. “That’s accepting others for who they are,” said the 14-year old. “Not exactly,” countered the 16-year old. “Inclusion is more than simply accepting someone. It’s actually including them in your life.” We’d been talking about my long friendship with Big E, my buddy of 20 years whom I had met through an advocacy program1 that matches a person with a disability with a community volunteer. Big E is a jovial, high functioning chap who lives in the City in a residence for people with psychiatric illnesses. Through the years he has developed the confidence to live a pretty engaged life, although it wasn’t always so. Big E is a self-driven poster boy for the kind of society NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous had commented on: “If society could start thinking about the inclusion of people with disabilities in terms of equal opportunity and as a matter of social justice and not just as accommodating people with disabilities then you begin to start removing that stigma that comes with the label of a “disability.””
The inclusion topic had simply been a teaser for a dialogue that touched upon race, religion, gender, sexual orientation and mental illness. We had discussed the Thompson-Reuters series of pictures2 celebrating International Women’s Day 2012, and in particular the photo of an aged woman – one of possibly 400 women abandoned by their families at the Villas Mujeres shelter in Mexico City due to mental illness and economic hardship. What kind of community accepts that? Do we?
The inclusion of diversity in community is a complex science. Wherever we live we want to think of ourselves as welcoming, friendly residents of inclusive neighbourhoods. Typically, it’s rarely so. In Toronto’s ethnically rich and diverse streets the blocks are divided up along exclusive lines: The Danforth Greeks, The Bathurst Jews, The Chinatown Chinese, The Rexdale South Asians, the Rosedale Rich… it goes on. While I was working in Beirut, Lebanon in the late nineties, long years after the civil war, it was painfully evident that the Christian East Beirut and the Muslim West Beirut would survive for generations as two solitudes. In America, “the sad fact is that in most U.S. cities there are effectively boundaries, on either side of which people of different backgrounds live mostly with people like themselves.”3 And rural communities are not paragons of virtue either; who is “in” controls who is “out”. This tyranny of clique-dom is most evident in small-town Canada, where anyone who volunteers for any community activities will have either experienced, or inflicted the terror of exclusion. “First we ask for identification, then we decide whether to welcome the visitor”.4 The real issue is that communities are barely aware of the filter they apply to maintain homogeneity. Can we change this? Do we want to?
Globally, the complexities of inclusion are exacerbated by the politics of nationality. Small and unimportant communities are elevated by nationhood, at least so claimed Lord Durham, former Governor General of British North America. “Churchill, Roosevelt and King used nationalism to unite their nations against brutal enemies for the preservation of democratic civilization. Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo exploited nationalism to fuel an expansionist voracity the likes of which the world had never seen before.” 5 In most corners of the world nationalism continues to divide. The news is replete with examples of how far we have yet to go to create a more inclusive planet. Even in the contemporary world of togetherness expressed by terms like the “United” Nations and the European “Union”, old wounds never appear to heal: “The Greeks… only nominally considered European by other Europeans, … fiercely identify as European. Naturally, this is a huge irritant to Greeks.”6
Perhaps inclusion is too wholesome a goal for us on earth to consider. Whereas…
- the mechanics are German
- the chefs are French
- the police are British
- the lovers are Italian
- and everything is organized by the Swiss.
- the mechanics are French
- the police are German
- the chefs are British
- the lovers are Swiss
- and everything is organized by the Italians.7
Perhaps to invent a world where we value and celebrate each other’s differences we must start at our own dining table. And as we add a few leaves to broaden the table for our newly invited guests we discover that we can find the courage to revel in diversity, not be afraid of it.
“Free speech isn’t free unless everybody is included, including viewpoints that you don’t necessarily agree with.”