Changing the World, One Volunteer at a Time

Nov 26, 2011

YMCA Volunteers’ Recognition Conference Keynote Address
Saturday 26 November 2011
North York Civic Centre
Lee McKenna, 2010 Peace Medallist

Thank you so much for inviting me to be a part of this important event.  In preparation, I asked myself the following questions: Who were my influencers?   What were the ‘hinge’ or ‘crossroads’ moments that took me off in directions I had not imagined?  What are the characteristics in me, inherent to my make-up,  that made me more likely, rather than less likely, to take the road less travelled?  What are the characteristics I desired and cultivated that took me in the direction of the agent of change I wanted to be?  What were the obstacles I needed to shift or transform?

Here are some of the answers that emerged:

1. Colour outside the lines.

I think I always have.  I would also say that my parents likely would have called it something less benign, something like, ‘She breaks the rules.’

So before you think that I am counselling lawlessness, let me give you an example.  There’s a piece of training that I do in war zones called transformative initiatives.  It is one of the most provocative and effective things we do – it includes some stories and role plays in which the result is an overturning of the typical power dynamic, with the powerful and the powerless, the oppressed and the oppressor, in effect, changing places; the powerful is discombobulated and the powerless discovers a power they didn’t know they had, a force more powerful:  non-violence.

At the end of this extended role play, we are drawn to a number of conclusions – and the first one is ‘Break the rules.’

But before you get to #1, you have to get to know the rules, evaluate the rules and then ask:  who wrote the rules? Who benefits from the rules?  If persons of only one gender or one race or one class or one ability or one tribe – and not another, then the rules need to be challenged, perhaps even broken.

In South Sudan, the rules that govern the lives of girls and women go like this:  get married early to a guy who can bring a good bride price, like 60 cows; have lots of babies, cook, clean, look after the children that have managed to survive childbirth or disease or killing or kidnapping, tend the livestock, tend the garden, look after the needs of your husband and never say ‘no’; get along with the other wives and keep quiet.

I asked the women sitting in a circle surrounded by a concentric circle of men, ‘Is there a problem with this image of the ideal woman?’

Well, they let loose.  ‘Why are we bought and sold like property? I am worth more than any number of cows!’ said one.  ‘I am a human being every bit as much as he is!’ says another.  ‘They’d starve if we weren’t there.  Women have no say in decisions that affect our lives and those of our children.  But we are not consulted.  The rules need to change.  All of it needs to change!’

‘So what do you do?’ I ask. They take small steps, at first:  ‘I’m not doing his dishes anymore; he can wash them!’

There is a small gasp around the circle; the outside circle snorts in disgust at this rebellion going on right in front of them!  The women know what they are doing:  they are colouring outside the centuries-old lines of custom and culture; they are talking about breaking the rules.  Why continue to adhere to rules that have you, in effect, complicit in your own enslavement?

Why indeed? echo Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King and all those African Americans and their allies who challenged and broke the rules of Jim Crow – rules that kept ‘coloured’ people sectioned off as separate – still equal, the white folks insisted, but separate.

Why indeed echo the Famous Five in this country who dared to challenge the rule that only men were ‘persons’.

Colouring outside the lines, breaking the rules, actually needs to be preceded by another:

2. Develop critical consciousness.

The development of critical consciousness is the task of a lifetime but it starts when you realise that there are questions that need asking.

It is all too often said of our educational system these days that it has been bent to serve the needs of industry and the corporation, turning human beings into cogs and drones – as if that were our end in life, our goal to make money, to slip into that place on the wheel with our name on it and get on for the life-long ride.

Rather than preparing us for life, engaged citizenry, such a system of education fails to train students in critical thinking, critical consciousness.  It is a term that comes out of the writings of someone you should read – a Brasilian priest named Paolo Freire.

His work, beginning in 1968 with Paedagogy of the Oppressed, permanently altered our understanding of how we learn – or fail to learn.  Working with people of poor communities in Brasil, Paolo Freire mapped out the process by which oppressed people get used to their oppression, how it becomes normalised by various means – to the point the oppressed become complicit in their own oppression, see it as ‘normal’.

Freire went on to identify that point in the spiral at which oppression is ‘problematised’ – that point at which what was normal, slowly or suddenly becomes recognised as a problem.

I can identify several points along the course of my life when what I had long accepted as ‘normal’ suddenly emerged as a problem.  I suddenly saw the norm as oppression, a problem in need of change.

Change comes with the identification of the contours of the oppression:  what does it actually look like?  I can hardly challenge something I do not understand.  Know it well.    Freire called this the stage of conscientisation: bringing to full consciousness the nature, shape, form that oppression takes.  Action for change is then ready to be born.

What that translates into is this:  If someone tells you that this is the way it is and don’t ask questions or it’s always been this way or … well, because I said so – that’s not good enough.

The members of the Occupy Movement have single-handedly changed the discourse of much of the planet on the topic of wealth and wealth distribution.  They dared to ask the questions:

  • So why is it that the banks and financial institutions that caused the problems get bailed out by the governments that created the legislative framework that made it possible for those same institutions to gamble with other people’s money – but I don’t?
  • Why are they ‘too big to fail’ but millions of us – well, that’s OK?
  • How did we get to the point that every single political party thinks the only thing we want is tax cuts?
  • Is infinite economic growth within a limited biosphere not the definition of insanity?

Ask questions.  Take risks.  Dare to say what, very likely, millions of others are thinking.  Critical consciousness.  Don’t leave home without it.

3. Be wary of five-year plans.

We have all learned to speak the language of strategic planning and desired future state and the difference between outputs and outcomes and we all say ‘going forward…’  :  )

A critical indicator of the health of any organisation these days is their possession of – and ongoing work on – a three-to-five-year plan.  And it’s all divided up into goals and objectives and strategies, activities and timelines, outputs, indicators and deliverables.  It’s good to know where you think you’re going and to have some way by which you can figure out whether you got there or not.

The problem arises when those PowerPoints, Gantt charts and pie charts become not so much guideposts as tunnels, blocking out the landscape.

When I look back on the most important moments in my life, those ‘hinge’ moments, those moments where I made a choice that took me not only onto an unexpected path but off the road entirely – none of those moments, none of those choices and where they took me would ever have made it onto any five-year plan of mine. I could not have imagined them as logical future steps in my life as it was; not for one moment.

On 4 April 1985, I was in the midst of 16 years of being a stay-at-home Mum, learning to cook, clean, macramé, garden, pickle, jam, freeze, cut firewood, sew everything the family wore, as well as direct the church choirs and volunteer at the local recycling station and food co-operatives.  Dang near perfect!

I got a telephone call, asking me if I would be interested in volunteering with a Canada World Youth Programme that was coming to our village for four months.  It was an agricultural, farm-based programme with youth from Bolivia, paired with youth from across Canada.

The woman on the end of the phone had heard a rumour that I spoke Spanish.  In her preparations to receive the forty or so young people within the following two weeks, she was going to local meetings to find out if anyone in town spoke Spanish.  The minister of my church volunteered my name.  Except it wasn’t true.  I hadn’t spoken, read, thought, a word of Spanish for about ten years.

I am not typically a mystic in my approach to life but something beyond my understanding made me say, ‘Give me three days and I’ll get back to you.’  I hung up the phone, looked out the window into the blooms of my neighbour’s garden and wondered out loud, ‘OK, now how do you say, “pretty flowers”?’  No idea. Couldn’t come up with it.

I went down into the crawlspace and hauled out my university textbooks and spent the next three days poking around in my brain to determine what, if anything, of this had actually been stored for future use and, with a little bit of dusting, polishing and oiling couldn’t be put back into practice.

I have no spatial logic; perhaps my language logic has taken up some of that unused space in my brain.  At any rate, it was all there and, within three weeks, I was translating in both directions and preparing curriculum to teach the Canadians, both Anglophone and francophone, how to speak Spanish.

The amazing thing is: there is nothing, nothing¸ that I have done in Latin America, Asia and Africa, that does not owe its place in my life to that decision to take three days and think about it.  The fact that I learned to speak Spanish again changed my life utterly.  And I could have said NO.  And missed my life – or at least, this life.

I have more – but will reduce them to a list in the interests of time:

4.  Paying attention is one of the best gifts you can give others – and yourself; along with it comes being a good listener and observer – not just of people but of the times.

5. Perhaps a corollary of that is this:  be curious.  Don’t believe what they say about curiosity killing the cat; boredom kills many more cats and people than curiosity.

6. Read a newspaper every day, something that takes more than a nano-second to read; begin now to build a library, or visit one regularly; reflect on what you read; write it down.

7. Cultivate the quality of love; there is none greater.  If you love your enemies you will have no enemies.

8. Believe yourself to be an agent of change – and then act accordingly.

9. Meditate, pray, do yoga, take time every day to calm yourself, find your centre and sit with that core within you, whatever you might call it, that which is absolutely, completely, totally unassailable, which cannot be taken away from you, even by death

I join with the YMCA in saluting you, the volunteers.  You are already way down the road to being the change you want to see in the world.  Don’t be tamed.  Ask questions.  Know yourself.  Know the other.  Take risks. And love.  And the world will be marked irrevocably by your journey through it.


Muslim-Christian Trainings
Mindanao / Philippines Conflict Transformation
San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico
Sudan third party non-violence intervention