Five Good Ideas

Five Good Ideas about advocating for change

Published on 28/09/2020

Many of us are seeing the need to create a better world, one that is more just, equitable and sustainable. COVID-19 has caused us to ask a lot of questions about how we can build back better. It’s a moment that has the potential to be profoundly transformative. In this Five Good Ideas session, Paul Taylor, Executive Director of FoodShare Toronto, talks about his own experience in advocating for change and presents his five good ideas for you to use in your own work.

Download session handout

Five Good Ideas

  1. Your advocacy journey begins with what is most important to you.
  2. Advocacy isn’t always about the big stuff (aka public policy).
  3. Curiosity is key! Foster it in organizations and in organizing. Challenge assumptions + keep listening + recognize the box we’ve been convinced to think inside of.
  4. Acknowledge the obstacles and consider they can be overcome.
  5. Be bold! Dream in colour! Better is possible!

Resources


Full session transcript

Note: The transcript has been edited for clarity.

Elizabeth: I’d like to begin today’s session by acknowledging the land where we live and work and recognizing our responsibilities and relationships where we are. As we are meeting and connecting virtually today, I encourage you to acknowledge the place you occupy.

I am and Maytree is on the historical territory of the Huron-Wendat, Petun, Seneca and, most recently, the Mississaugas of the New Credit Indigenous Peoples. This territory is covered by the Dish With One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, an agreement between the Haudenosaunee and the Ojibwe and allied nations to peaceably share and care for the lands and resources around the Great Lakes.

Today, many of us are seeing the need to create a better world, one that is more just, equitable, and sustainable. COVID-19 has caused us to ask a lot of questions about how we can build back better. It’s a moment that has the potential to be profoundly transformative.

In this Five Good Ideas session, Paul Taylor will talk about his own experience in advocating for change and present his five good ideas for you to use in your own work. Paul is the Executive Director of FoodShare, Toronto, and a lifelong anti-poverty activist.

Growing up materially poor in Toronto, Paul has used his own experience to fuel the career, focused not only on helping others, but dismantling the beliefs and systems that lead to poverty and food insecurity, including colonialism, capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchal structures. For full details about today’s session, please download the handout, we’ve put that link in the chat box as well. On the handout, you will also find today’s five good ideas and resources and a bit more about Paul and about FoodShare. So please, let’s welcome Paul and over to him.

Paul: Good afternoon, everyone. You know, thank you, Elizabeth, I’ve watched some of these Five Good Ideas presentations in the past, and every time I’ve watched them, I’ve always been blown away. So I never imagined that I’d be doing one myself, so I have to say it’s a real honor to be here with you today. I hope some of what I share is useful to you in your life and useful to you and your work.

As Elizabeth said, we’re in the middle of some really uncertain times. And I hope that everyone viewing today is in good health and that the same is true for your loved ones. While things may be uncertain and challenging, I think advocating for a more just world is more important now than ever. This experience that we’re all going through together will be transformative, but I think it’s up to us to ensure that human rights like the economic and cultural and social rights that Elizabeth spoke about, are front and center, whether it’s the rights of Indigenous peoples, whether it’s our right to food, our right to housing, our right not to be killed by the police, it’s becoming more and more clear that human rights must be at the forefront of how we navigate the pandemic as well as how we recover from it.

Before I dive into the meat and potatoes of what I’m going to be sharing with you today, I also want to acknowledge that I’m on the traditional territory of the Wendat, the Haudenosaunee, the Anishinaabe and the Mississaugas of the Credit. I try my best to think about the role that I can play in advancing reconciliation every time I hear a land acknowledgement and upholding the rights of Indigenous peoples, whether it’s calling for the long awaited action plan in response to the report on murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls and two-spirited folks, or demanding that our government prioritize something as simple as access to clean drinking water, these are some of the things that I reflect on.

As a Black person on Turtle Island, I see the struggle for Black liberation as being linked to Indigenous sovereignty in important ways. It’s my ancestors, stolen people, who were forced to farm, on largely stolen land. I will continue to resist colonization, the genocide of Indigenous peoples and white supremacy, in solidarity with Indigenous peoples.

I recognize that most of the statements following land acknowledgments don’t seem to connect the struggle for Indigenous sovereignty and that of Black liberation. Many conclude with speaking about the role that we have as settlers, and of advancing reconciliation. Each and every time I hear that I just want to scream – “but I’m not a settler!”

I think of the erasure of Black people and the Black experience, and the role that was played on Turtle Island. My ancestors were forcibly removed from their homes and communities as part of the transatlantic slave trade. So today and every day, I also want to acknowledge those who are on this land as a result of the brutal and horrific enslavement and forced migration of our ancestors.

As I thought about what I would share with you today, I found myself thinking about the roots of my advocacy journey. And I really quickly realized that it’s a journey that started long before I was even born. Actually, there’s no way that I’d be doing any of the things that I do, including my work at FoodShare, if it wasn’t for three brilliant and beautiful Black women that I’d like to introduce you to.

The first is Rebecca Thompson, my maternal great grandmother who was a fierce and strong-willed Black woman. I have the only picture of her that exists. It’s incredibly important to me, and I look at it often. As the great granddaughter of slaves, the value of her freedom was instilled pretty much since birth, and she was really focused on doing everything she could to create the best lives that she possibly could for her family. She taught her children about how important it was to live our lives right up until the day we die. She lived a life full of laughter, joy, and, of course, in my family, good food is very important. I wish I had the chance to eat alongside her at her dinner table.

Maisie Olivia Baker Berg is someone else that I’d like to introduce you to. She is my maternal grandmother. She raised three daughters, with the very little that she had, despite being materially poor, she was committed to making sure that every child in the community had food to eat. She would often say that our future begins with children that are fed that are strong and that are learning all they can in school. So she was famous for her food.

My mother tells me stories of the long lunchtime lineup up front of her house, a lineup of children eagerly awaiting, a taste of what my grandmother had prepared that day. She died in St. Kitts, 27 years ago, and I was fortunate enough to be able to go to her funeral and meet many of the children who are now adults that used to line up to taste the magic that was in her pot.

If you’ve heard me speak before, you’ve likely heard me speak about Bernadine Naomi Taylor, my mom. As a single mom, she raised two Black boys in this city just off of Lansdowne in the West End; and doing so meant that she raised us while consistently pushing back against the low expectations bestowed upon Black boys. Instead, what she inspired was creativity, curiosity, and she always told my brother and me that we could and will achieve anything we set our minds to. She would say – “it’s up to you to make your wildest dreams come true, Paul.”

These women are why I’m here. They’re a large part of why I do the work that I do, they’re why I believe that my wild dream of a more just society is possible. I’ve introduced you to these amazing women for a few reasons. One, we live in a society that rarely recognizes and values the labour and contributions of Black women.

Black women are the backbone of our communities, communities that have been starved of material resources, but somehow they do what they can to lift us up and hold us together. Speaking about the people that came before me, especially the Black woman that came before me, is also about taking up space differently. It’s about challenging a patriarchal and colonial mindset that focuses on the success of an individual. And who are we kidding? It’s most often men.

I find great strength and focus in locating myself in something so much more powerful than my job, my work experience, or my title, or even my organizing. I am the generations before me and that makes me really proud.

Before I dive into the ideas I want to share with you, I just want to take a moment to acknowledge all of the women of colour that are doing incredible and important, but often uncelebrated work to keep our communities alive and thriving. I remember when I was a kid, we didn’t have food, my mother turned to her network of women of colour that would lend her money or drop off delicious homemade food, I’m not sure what we would have done without them.

Idea #1: Your advocacy journey begins with what is most important to you.

Our advocacy efforts and our desire for change has to begin with knowing ourselves, where we’ve come from, and how our experiences have inspired the change that we want to see.

In thinking about those experiences, it’s important to interrogate our privilege, especially the cis hetero white men who often take up the most space, who are we kidding, will often take up all the space and have the most privilege in our society.

It’s really important that we ground our advocacy and our desire for change in an analysis that includes understanding the systems that inform how much power and privilege we have. If there’s an issue that resonates with you, before centering your experience in that issue, it’s critical to interrogate your privilege in relation to the issue, what blind spots does your privilege lead you to have? Who else should you be listening to? And what are those folks articulating that they need and how can you use your power and privilege to support their needs?

Growing up in a low-income household is largely what inspires much of my advocacy and my desire for change. I will never forget going to bed hungry and frustrated as I lay wondering, when things would change. I remember my big dream as a child was that I’d be rich enough to eat at a restaurant, I’d order the biggest thing on the menu, and then I’d order it again.

You know, growing up, I didn’t know about the systems that caused my family to struggle as much as we did. I didn’t know that there were other kids across the country having similar experiences of poverty and sadness, and the ongoing frustration that I felt. For as long as I live, I will never forget that frustration of being hungry and not being able to do anything about it. The work that I do is deeply personal to me. And that’s been really important, because as we all know, advocating for change isn’t easy, but when we’re clear on why we’re doing it, it becomes part of the fuel that gets us through some of those difficult and long days.

Idea #2: Advocacy isn’t always about the big stuff (aka public policy).

I’m going to move to my next idea. And it’s on what we consider advocacy or advancing change. Often when we think about advocacy or advancing change, we think about big policy change. Right now there are conversations around things like basic income, and not too long ago, conversations around increasing minimum wage, and always a conversation on building more affordable housing. Now, those things and when we win at those things are all important, but they’re not the be all and end all when it comes to advocating for change.

There are a lot of other things that have a real impact on people’s lives. And what you might consider something little can be super significant and important and have a real tangible impact on someone’s life. I’ll give you an example.

I was involved in some organizing that brought folks in a community together to talk about issues affecting their lives. But I think even more importantly, we talked about which issues they were willing to address.

I think that’s important, because often the best advocates are those who are most affected by the issue. Here was an example of organization built on relationships. What we did is we prioritized and built in time for people to get to know each other. So it wasn’t transactional, like a phone call saying “will you get involved in this issue?” There wasn’t an email that went out that said, “will you sign on to this letter that we’re writing to the government?” Rather, it was “let’s get to know each other. Let’s get to know what matters to you.”

I think it’s really crucial that we didn’t start with an issue. I’ve seen so much energy go into bringing people together around an issue, but when the issue is gone, often so too are the relationships and all that was built around that organizing. When we ground our organizing and relationship building, and listening, we are much more likely to uncover things that we might have missed.

For the group that I was talking about originally, this was when I was living in Vancouver. The issue that we uncovered through listening and building relationships was around the time that the first bus arrived at a bus stop.

There wasn’t a bus that came early enough to get folks to their work at a local factory, so often what people were doing is they were sharing cabs, pooling in a cab ride to get to work, or they were simply risking being fired for coming to work late. In working with those factory workers and folks in the community who depended on the income of the factory workers, we arranged meetings with reps from the Transit Authority, where they told their stories about their fears about being fired, how much money they were spending on cabs, all to get to a low wage job, and the impact that an earlier bus would have on their lives. Two months later, the Transit Authority introduced an earlier bus, which as you can imagine, had a pretty big impact on the lives of these folks.

So it’s really important for us to remember that advocacy isn’t always the big public policy items, it can be about building relationships, listening, and collectively working on the things that matter to those involved. These are the things that many might view as little things.

I think this is a tension that I bump up against often in a lot of organizing spaces that I’m involved in. There’s an expectation that folks will be engaged with some of the big issues, but how can we expect people to engage with working on bigger issues, if we still haven’t sorted the little things that are having a big impact on their lives?

These are folks that have often been made to struggle the most. I think it’s really important for us to recognize that if we can’t show that change is possible at the micro level, it’s really hard to believe that change is possible at the macro level.

Idea #3: Curiosity is key! Foster it in organizations and in organizing.

The next idea that I want to share is how important it is to be curious and to foster curiosity and our work together. It’s funny when you write something like this, and I think about the points that I want to share, it was kind of tricky because I thought, I could share these things and I was mindful of the audience, and I feel like often in a lot of spaces that I’m in, people are speaking specifically to white folks. I wrestled with that a little bit, so at various points, you’ll hear me share some advice or tips that may be useful for white folks.

Here’s one of them. For white folks, when I say curiosity, I don’t mean the type of curiosity that sometimes inspires white folks to touch Black people’s hair, or the type of curiosity that inspires some folks to ask non-white folks where they’re from. I think it’s really important also to not assume that you have the answer. When you do assume that you have an answer that’s when we’re more prone to things like white universalism, where we have white folks in positions of leadership or leading the solution finding that think the interventions that they’re designing that may work for them, work for everyone else, when in fact they don’t.

Instead, you can be asking yourself: how can I respectfully learn more about something that I don’t experience myself? Are there ways that I can help with issues that are important to other people in their lived experience without taking up leadership space on the issue?

At FoodShare Toronto, I think our approach to developing good food markets is an example of this from an organizational perspective. For those that aren’t familiar with good food markets, they are community-led produce markets, designed to support communities in responding to a lack of access to affordable products in their community. FoodShare subsidizes the produce at these markets, there are almost 50 of them across the City of Toronto, and we don’t own these markets. What we do instead is we lend our capacity and our experience to help communities get them off the ground.

I think it’s especially important for white folks and nonprofit organizations, doing work in community, or as I prefer, alongside community, to remember to be respectfully curious, and when invited to lend your capacity to support the goals of folks in that community.

I think curiosity is so key and when curiosity is nurtured, we’re more likely to analyze issues through a systems lens. Curiosity opens windows of possibility that may not, that we may not have imagined existed before, but curiosity needs to be encouraged. How about at your next team meeting, consider asking these types of questions: Why do we do our work this way? What assumptions have we made about our approach? How is white supremacy affecting the way we do our work? How is colonialism impacting how we see the issue that we’re working on?

For FoodShare, it’s that kind of curiosity and willingness to kind of interrogate an issue, to find out what we don’t know and what we don’t understand, that really led us to launch new research on food insecurity in Canada. And research that I’ll say, ultimately shook how we understand food insecurity in Canada, and the potential solutions to it.

I’ll tell you a little bit about this partnership. Through a research partnership with PROOF food insecurity research group at the University of Toronto, we sought to understand the connections between food insecurity and race, by looking at the experiences of Black Canadians and how it connects to food insecurity. Through our analysis of the data that was available in the Canadian Community Health Survey, we identified that Black folks in Canada are three and a half times more likely to live in a food insecure household than white folks. We also learned that while 12% of white children living in food insecure households, that number skyrockets to 36% and up when we’re talking about Black children.

As we were learning from the initial findings, we were curious to try and understand what was happening, what was causing this? We teased out as many factors as we possibly could. When I say it challenged what we understood about food insecurity, this is what I mean.

For example, when we look at data aggregate around food insecurity, we know that if someone is an immigrant, if someone lives in a single parent household, they’re more likely to be a low-income household. We know that if someone owns a home, they’re more or less likely to be food insecure. We also know that seniors, once they get to that age where they have access, in essence, to a basic income through the guaranteed income supplement in old age security, and their own retirement income, we see food insecurity levels decrease.

This research shook all of that. For Black folks, it didn’t matter whether someone was born in Canada or abroad, the prevalence remained high. It didn’t matter whether or not the household was headed by a single parent or two parents, the prevalence remained high. Around home ownership, we found that the percentage of Black homeowners that were food insecure, was just about equal to 14 and a bit percent, equal to the percentage of white renters that were food insecure.

We looked at how when folks become seniors, their level of food insecurity decreases. This doesn’t happen for Black folks. I think curiosity helped us to cement the significance of challenging anti-Black racism as part of tackling food insecurity in this country.

I’ve been asked this question when I talk about this research, what is the cause of it? What counts for the variants? Before anyone asks me today, I will say it is one thing, it is the prevalence of anti-Black racism in every single one of our institutions and systems, and white supremacy, that’s exactly what it is. Until we commit to challenging anti-Black racism, as part of tackling food insecurity in this country, we’ll never get to the solutions that we hope for.

Idea #4: Acknowledge the obstacles and consider they can be overcome.

My next idea, when it comes to advocating for change, is about recognizing the obstacles we face along the way. For example, in trying to address issues like food insecurity in this country, we face some pretty big barriers. In Canada, food charity has been constructed as our default response to poverty and food insecurity. What we’ve done is we’ve made poverty and food insecurity issues for charity to solve, not one of basic human rights or issues that need to be addressed at the root through effective public policy.

In recognizing that obstacle or barrier, what we have to do is embed overcoming the barrier into our approach to advocating for the change that we want to see. As a result, it’s not uncommon to hear folks from FoodShare and other organizations, including other food organizations, talking about how absurd it is to expect food charity to solve issues like poverty and food insecurity, when we know these issues are really about income.

I wrote an op-ed in the Toronto Star that talked about how we can’t let charity be the reason that governments turn a blind eye to actually addressing poverty and food insecurity. I think we can overcome many of the barriers that we face as we advocate, but we can’t ignore that key part of working for progressive change. We’ve really got to make sure we’re identifying those barriers and building in addressing them into our work.

Sometimes it delays some of the other fun stuff that we have planned, but it doesn’t mean that we should ignore it or skip over it.

Idea #5: Be bold! Dream in colour! Better is possible!

My last idea for today is that we need to be open to radical change. The pandemic has shown us that everything can change in a matter of minutes. It’s also shown us, which I think is of particular importance, what can happen when our governments actually take an issue seriously.

We should always keep this point with us, because I think what the government response has proven is that governments can do so much more than they often lead us to believe. Everything can change, and it’s our organizing and advocacy that can help advance that progressive change.

I’m currently involved with a group of organizations encouraging the city to reconsider how we use city-owned land that’s long been used for golfing. What we’re hearing are folks in these communities saying – “this golf course is in my neighborhood, it’s huge, I’ve never seen it, I’ve never used it.” And these are also folks that don’t have access to enough green space to support physical distancing. These are folks that may not have access to a community garden plot, these are the types of things that we could be investing and building up as community-based infrastructure if we rethink some of the things that we’ve done in the past, now is the time for that kind of radical thinking.

What if instead of golf courses, we use this protected green space for other public and community benefits, like growing food, maybe a community-run good food market, or simply providing access, much needed access to green space during the second wave of the pandemic?

To me very few things scream patriarchy, privilege and white supremacy more than golf. Sorry, if you’re a golf player. If you’re interested in supporting the organizing that’s happening around this issue, you can also reach out to your city councillor before September 30. That’s when they will decide about extending the operating agreements with the city on golf courses, so let them know that you want the community surrounding the city on golf courses to have a say in how that land is used.

Radical change is absolutely possible. The city could transform these golf courses to something very different, something that more folks in the community can participate in, and benefit from. Surely the funding to support the community’s vision could come from maybe some other big expense lines and the city budget. I don’t know, maybe the police budget, just saying. I’m going to end with a reminder to improve radical possibilities, be bold, dream in color, and never forget what my mother taught me, all those years ago, we can and will make our wildest dreams come true. Thank you.

Questions and answers

Elizabeth: Thank you, Paul. So wonderful that you began and closed with your mother, and the women that helped ground you. I think that was such a good place to begin: What grounds us? What gives us our identity? I want to start actually, Paul, and it’s a question that was in the chat box and also one that we received elsewhere, which was, how do you, what do you do when you meet resistance within the organization as you try to advance change? Where you’re working in an organization and that’s where the first part of the struggle begins? What advice would you have or thoughts about that sort of starting place of advocacy?

Paul: Absolutely, I think one of the things that I do when I’m considering where am I lending my labour, so when I’m looking to find a new job, I think about and I assess whether or not the organization is ready for me, whether the organization is ready for curiosity and, in my experience, sometimes I found that organizations aren’t. So I say, “I’m sorry, but I’m not going to work here.” I think because it can be so harmful for us, when we’re doing this work, because we feel compelled toward bigger change that we want to see, if we just face resistance within our own organization every day, I think there are times where we have to just walk away and say, you know what? This organization is not for me.

Elizabeth: So the resistance to change really is all around us. I mean, you described so well the powerful systems at play that create inequality and inequity. One of the questions that we have is how we push for change in an area where governments have shown little or no interest or there’s no political gain. And I think, at the beginning of the pandemic, we saw a fair amount of openness of government, we’re kind of in that sort of opportunity for transformation, but increasingly, we’re getting back to the business as usual. Some of the challenges of ideas, perhaps landing on deaf ears or doors not being open. How do we work with that? What’s your advice there?

Paul: I like to remind elected officials that they’re working on our behalf. And I think so many of us don’t get in touch with our elected officials for reasons that I understand. But also those of us that are in touch with our elected officials, we should be contacting them to let them know that these issues are important to us. They will not move, they will not act on these issues until they feel like folks in their communities really care about them. So we’ve got to find more ways to demonstrate that things like poverty and homelessness and food insecurity, not only do they matter to us, but that we demand and expect our elected officials to support our most vulnerable community members with all of the resources available to them.

Elizabeth: Excellent. From one of the participants: “Thank you for your presentation Paul. What is your take on limitations from funders with respect to advocacy?”

Paul: It’s kind of like, I don’t prescribe to this, don’t bite the hand that feeds you kind of mentality, and I have a similar approach to the way that I approach looking for a job. When you’re looking for funding, we can take funding from anyone and everyone, it’s also an interview process, even though the power dynamic has been constructed in such a way that often makes nonprofits feel very small.

There are times recently when FoodShare has actually had to push back against funders making silly decisions. We explain why those decisions are silly. We push back at the federal government who came up with a funding call that didn’t allow… anyways, I won’t get into all of that, but we push back. I think funders don’t know, just like our politicians, unless we are there to tell them. If they don’t want to give us money because of an issue that we’re committed to or that we’re working on, or that’s important for the people that we’re serving, that we’re advancing, then we don’t want their money. So there are times where we’ve had to say, we don’t want your money, thank you.

Elizabeth: And you have to be ready to say that.

Paul: You do.

Elizabeth: I think you also have to be prepared to get into a real conversation and challenge and get them into a place of being curious and deepening their understanding and to be a better funder and to engage more authentically in the work. And that’s, it shouldn’t be part of the work, but it is part of the work.

Paul: Yeah and I think we have to engage with them with that same openness and generosity, perhaps. And then expect that they’re willing to engage in a conversation about what might be problematic, totally.

Elizabeth: I wonder what advice you have, and this is a question I like, because it’s a question that we deal with at Maytree Policy School, and it’s – “what advice do you have for group that wants to go from making a point to making a difference?”

Paul: That’s a really good question. It’s come up for me a couple of times. It’s also a bit of a red flag question for me, about the organizing spaces that we’re creating, or about the organizations that we’re creating. When I hear suggestions like – “let’s just focus on change,” we’re devaluing making a point, and really only focused on making, what I might call, making a difference. That to me sounds like a bit of middle class white bias, that doesn’t make space for the anger of multiple generations of survivors of abuse, genocide, loss of wealth and health impacts that some folks like Black and Indigenous folks in this country have had to endure.

We need spaces to be angry. What I would say instead is two things. One, create spaces that allow for people to be angry and pissed off and mad. Secondly, I think we need people who are upset and who are making a point, to push folks who are negotiating with bureaucrats and politicians around policy to go as far as possible.

Elizabeth: I like that, reframe it. To the question room, here’s an interesting question. Is it time for a political party, federal or provincial, made up of BIPOC candidates? What do you think?

Paul: That’s a good question. I think there are parties out there, there are parties that have BIPOC candidates, they could do a whole lot better. I don’t prescribe to the assumption that just because someone is Black, Indigenous, or a person of colour, doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re progressive. What I’m interested in is making sure that we have BIPOC folks that are progressive, in positions of leadership, in every space possible. If you want to create a new party, create a new party, and let’s just make sure that those BIPOC folks leading that party, involved in that party, are people who are progressive and who want to advance the types of change that we know is possible that so many of us in the sector are working on.

Elizabeth: Great, another question – “Often the go-to is to send an email to an elected official, a city councillor, an MP, an MPP. When is this effective? What are the other effective actions we can encourage supporters to show support and effect change? And which moments call on which actions?”

Paul: It’s a good question. I think that’s a deeply personal question. I think a lot of it depends on how much you have to lose in a situation. Some of us maybe, with less to lose, might be okay with doing something that isn’t urgent. We send a letter to a city councillor or what have you, they put in a stack, and they figure out this many people care about this issue.

I’m not sure how that works, but I’ve seen some great organizing happen where people have said, there are going to be no evictions today! We’ve had groups of activists and low-income renters block the sheriff from being able to evict folks. That gets a whole lot of attention on an issue where there may not have been a lot of media attention, which allows more people to engage with the issue.

So it really depends on where you’re at with the issue, and who you are, because I think sometimes too in our organizing, if we’re building broad coalitions, there are some folks that might be able to take more risk, and there are some folks with more power. What’s important when you’re bringing folks together is to do a little bit of that assessment, and think about who can show up here, and who can show up there, so that we’re covering a wide array of opportunities to advocate.

Elizabeth: I’ve got some specific questions on food security and some of the work that’s happening in the city. Here is one – “FoodShare made the news the other day about the Flemo Farm becoming operational in the fall of 2021. Could Mr. Taylor please let us know what kind of bureaucracy you’re dealing with, the community needs the food yesterday, what’s going on?”

Paul: Oh, my goodness, we need another webinar for that. Try dealing with the city bureaucracy! The Flemo Farm is a project of FoodShare, looking at underutilized public space, and how can we transform that space to better serve the needs of the community. Similar to golf courses, but we’ve been doing this work around hydro corridors and school fields. There is so much bureaucracy, when it comes to working with large institutions. We’re ready to go, we’ve been ready to go for a long time, the community is ready to go, and the community wants to be growing food. The one thing that I won’t blame the bureaucracy for is the pandemic. I think the pandemic has really, for all of the sites that we work with community to grow food on, caused us to pivot this year and do things a little bit differently.

Elizabeth: So another question sort of along the lines of public space, or looking at the space that we now have available: “Has any thought been given to using empty office space for hydroponic farms?”

Paul: I’m sure it has. There are so many organizations that are curious across the country. It hasn’t been something that we’re necessarily thinking about at this moment, but I can guarantee that there are organizations that either have been thinking about it or after that question came in, there’s a whole bunch of research that’s going to go into that. So thank you for asking that question.

Elizabeth: Here’s a question. I think this represents a number of the people that often come to our Five Good Ideas sessions, this person says – “I’m a frontline worker in a nonprofit organization. It’s been an uphill battle to get my organization to prioritize the communities we serve over our donors. My question is, what can I do to help us move from a charity model towards a community building and a rights-based approach?” I love that question.

Paul: It’s connected to what I was saying earlier. It really depends on whether or not that organization is ready. It also depends on whether or not you feel like you have the energy and the support to be able to try and push that organization.

We know that for, especially for Black women working in these spaces, pushing an organization to do better is often met with hostility. So it’s another one of those things where you have to think about who you are, think about how much power and privilege you have. But one thing I would encourage anyone looking to advance changes in an organization is that you start talking with folks, you start being curious, seize those opportunities over lunch, on a walk together, or whatever it is, to ask the types of questions and inspire the kind of thinking that will kind of help inspire that appetite for more progressive change and moving a little bit more upstream.

Elizabeth: I like this question a lot. “Aside from the golf course issue that you talked about, what are the most urgent and emerging social justice campaigns that you’re excited about, here in Toronto? What do you see that gets you excited?”

Paul: What gets me excited is convincing politicians to do what’s right. I think that work is really, really important. What excites me is when I see people in communities coming together to push back against large institutions that can be oppressive.

I loved the work that I saw of the Queen Victoria Public School, Black Student Success committee, a small group of Black parents and community members that have really pushed the Toronto District School Board to respond to an issue of anti-Black racism.

Those are the kinds of things that get me excited. I get really excited when people recognize the power that we have in community, the power that people have, because politicians sometimes cite all kinds of problems or excuses as to why they can’t get things done, until people start showing up at their doors and blocking the sheriff or those sorts of activities.

I want to share one quick story, that we had a lot of fun with when I was in Vancouver. I was a part of a coalition called the Raise the Rates Coalition. The government, there was a previous government under Christy Clark, was not interested in raising the rates whatsoever. We had had enough, we met someone who looked like Christy Clark. We put out a press release and said that the premier was going to be announcing an increase to welfare. Then we had a press conference and there were quite a few journalists who showed up. For a few moments some believed that Christy Clark was making this announcement. What it did, it got a lot of attention onto this issue and much more conversation around the plight of people on social assistance. What excites me is when we reach for some fun stuff and things that really shake up the discourse in a way that gets things happening.

Elizabeth: Here’s a question that I think you and I actually, when we first met almost a year ago, we had a bit of this conversation about this. This isn’t my question, though, someone else is asking – “how do we move policymakers and the public to understand food security and other social and economic rights as human rights issues?”

Paul: We stop, and we call out organizations and individuals around the table who believe that the solution is charity. There are organizations that actually have as their mission statement ending poverty and food insecurity in communities. We have to stop doing that and we have to let other nonprofits know that they’re actually doing a disservice, every time that they say that they’re ending hunger in communities across the city or country. It’s allowing people and politicians to think that that work is done or well taken care of by the community.

I think we need more people to check out Freedom 90. They’re a group of senior volunteers at a food bank that came up with a campaign on a bit of a play on “Freedom 55.” They are saying they want to retire by the time they’re 90, and they are calling for systemic change. So I think, yeah, we’ve got to push back, and we can’t let that narrative continue.

I think it’s also really important because I see it in classrooms. Teachers and school administration are talking to children about poor people, and saying that what we need to do is we need to go through our cupboards and give people our leftovers. Well, poor people are not walking compost bins, they don’t want your leftovers, don’t need leftovers, they need income to be able to buy their own food.

Elizabeth: Human dignity. Somebody is asking a very specific question about the role of TCHC, Toronto Community Housing Corporation. The question is – “Why aren’t they building community gardens into their building models? What about green spaces and gardens on the roofs of low rise apartments? Do you work with them at all? And I guess it’s also a broader question about thinking about, are government agencies and other big institutional players and what is their role in doing some of this?”

Paul: Yes, so the first thing I’ll say, we do work with them to develop good food markets. Many of the good food markets that I spoke about are actually located at TCHC sites. But I love the question, because it says we have got to think radically and we have got to expect that these, that our governments and government bodies and government-funded organizations are actually serving the public good in all that they do.

For example, FoodShare as a charity, we’ve been doing the work that we’ve been doing. At the start of the pandemic, we recognized that the public good shifted a little bit, we needed to hire as many people as we possibly could. That’s one of the things that we did, we needed to keep people safe that were working with us, and we needed to hire more folks to provide income and revenue to folks. But I think that’s the key piece is really pushing those kind of radical solutions. We have assets, we don’t always need a new tech solution or to build a new thing. We have city owned provincial assets that could be leveraged.

Elizabeth: So two questions on the basic income have popped up in the chat room. “What’s your take on the universal?” So I’ve got to preface this with saying, what is the basic income to you, because I think we all operate with very different, there’s many different definitions out there? What is it and what do you think about it?

Paul: You know it was funny because I think sometime soon, talking about basic income, I’m mindful of policy windows and the heightened sensitivities when people feel that we’re in a policy window. I think basic income is really an income floor. I prefer to use the language of an income floor in this country, but I think what I see happening is people getting excited about this policy, which I think has some potential, but policies don’t exist in a vacuum.

I think there are a couple of things that we need to be thinking about when it comes to basic income. First and foremost, who’s at the table advocating for basic income? Is it potentially a reflection of white supremacy, because basic income is a go-forward intervention? Who has the privilege to come up with go-forward interventions, while people who haven’t, like I said earlier, suffered generations of loss of wealth, health impacts, all kinds of things.

So I think in addition to a go-forward intervention, like the basic income or like an income floor, we need to be talking about restitution, perhaps in the form of reparations. The other thing I would add, is that, again, a policy doesn’t exist in a vacuum. I think we need to talk about human rights. I think in a country as wealthy as this one we should each expect that we should have the food that we need, and housing, and all of those pieces.

What I would like to see is basic income or minimum income used as one of the tools in a framework to achieve a decent standard of living for all. I would expect a minimum income would be there, I would expect increasing minimum wage, but also more of a guarantee of public services, like building affordable housing, providing childcare, pharma care. All of those things that people are also spending money on, I think need to be a part of that picture. It needs to be part of a framework, not just one policy that we kind of hang on to. I also think, if I may add one more thing, that basic income will help take people who are in severe poverty, potentially out of poverty, a basic income does nothing to address anti-Black racism, anti-Indigeneity and the inability to access leadership positions in businesses, organizations, and government.

Elizabeth: So we don’t have a silver bullet.

Paul: No, no, but I think it’s part of the tool belt.

Elizabeth: It’s part of the tools, yes. And such a good point to around all the other pieces. We need affordable housing, pharma care, other elements we don’t want to see lost, and we don’t want to throw people into the open market.

Paul: We cannot, we cannot and that’s a big fear around the conversation on basic income that I hear a lot. People feel that it means, it will mean cuts to those types of services.

Elizabeth: I’m conscious of time, but someone has pleaded – “please tell us more about your golf course idea, how can this be done?” So I’m going to let that be the last question so you can finish off with here.

Paul: So we’re working with a quite a few organizations, including the Toronto Environmental Alliance, who on their website they have a great tool. One of those “email your city councillor” tools that makes it really easy. The big piece is get in touch with your city councillor, encourage folks in your network to get in touch with your city councilor. The council meeting is on September 30, they will decide whether or not they should extend the operating agreement for the five city-run golf courses for another two years.

What we’re saying is that folks in those communities, where those golf courses exist, need to have a say in what happens there. Please encourage your city council to do so, feel free to reach out, I’m on social media, Paul TaylorTO, feel free to reach out and I can help connect you if your organization is interested in getting involved in moving this forward.

Elizabeth: So I’m going to squeeze in another question. Because there’s a love fest going on here, Paul, it’s great. “FoodShare is amazing and your leadership has enabled so many of us in communities through your support platform partnerships. What are your thoughts moving toward building on food-related social enterprises as a food justice model?”

Paul: Income, food insecurity is about income. If we’re doing things to create decent work, and that’s the key, decent work, so many social enterprises create shitty jobs for people in high stress situations, I don’t think that’s necessarily helpful, I don’t think that advances food justice.

If you can create a social enterprise, and that’s something that FoodShare is still chipping away at, we’ve got social enterprises, and we’ve raised the floor on what people make. But we’ve got lots of work to do and I think that is the most important social enterprise. We can’t advance the impact of our work on the backs of our low-wage colleagues. So you’ve got to be creating decent work for folks.

Elizabeth: And here’s a quick answer – “When will FoodShare be featuring or selling another box in support of Black chefs’ growers in the city? The other one sold out too fast, so kudos to you and your team for putting that together.”

Paul: One plug for the amazing team of people that I get the good fortune of working alongside at FoodShare. It’s an awesome team. And when I decided to hang out at FoodShare, it was because of those folks, some who have been there long before me, pushing these kinds of issues. So really pleased to work alongside at the awesome team that I do.

Elizabeth: Nice, okay, so we see a lot of people having to go, what I would like to do is thank you, Paul. Terrific, at the work that you’re doing is outstanding, I think your model of leadership is something we can all learn from and I think these are the conversations that we need to have more of. There are so many people in the city that are trying to make a difference and I think we need to have really straightforward, candid conversations like we did today and name the issues. And we all have to speak for where I am, I have tons to learn, others do as well and we do it through these open conversations. So I’m so deeply grateful that you said yes, immediately, when we asked you to do this/ So thank you, Paul.

Paul Taylor

Executive Director, FoodShare Toronto

Paul Taylor is the Executive Director of FoodShare Toronto, and a lifelong anti-poverty activist. Growing up materially poor in Toronto, Paul has used his experience to fuel a career focused not just on helping others, but dismantling the beliefs and systems that lead to poverty and food insecurity, including colonialism, capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchal structures.

Each year, FoodShare provides a quarter million people with fresh produce, and fights for their right to have access to “good” food on their own terms, rather than charity on someone else’s. Paul’s experience includes Executive Director roles at Gordon Neighbourhood House and the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House. He has also chaired the British Columbia Poverty Reduction Coalition, and served on the Board of Directors of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and as Vice-Chair of Food Secure Canada.