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Letter to Partners: You can change the world

Jun 29, 2020

From LeeAnn McKenna, Executive Director, Partera International.

The letter that appears below has taken a long time to birth. The first draft appeared on Mothers’ Day.  Since then, the great disruption that is Covid-19 continues apace, Black Lives Matter has surged into the global consciousness.  Every night for four weeks and counting we are watching Black lives, Indigenous lives asphyxiated, beaten and shot.  And our global streets have been filled with citizens protesting the way things have been for far too long. The unthinkable is being contemplated; the unspeakable spoken.  Defund the police.  Imagine a post-white-supremacy world. Teach all of the stories, all histories, not only those of the winners. Get knees off necks.

This letter is a prayer, an invitation, an urgent cry to withdraw consent from the way things are.  And it’s already happening.

Greetings!

If you’re receiving this letter from me, from Partera International, it’s because, sometime over more than 30 years, we have been partners in peacemaking in some space and time, for a long time or a short time. You are in 25 countries on six continents, including right here in Canada, working with, now or in the past, a myriad of justice-seeking organisations. The news that you send, the stories of the creative ways in which you are continuing to live out, put into practice, what you’ve learned, what you’ve taught—is the most precious legacy of these years of work together. I will never forget you. Not that I am hanging up my calling; it never goes away, does it?  There has never been a better, a more important time than now to restitch our connections, tend to our solidarity, to encourage one another with our stories.  And, as part of that, to find room to do some re-imagining and work towards what we could be, what we must be.

Disconnected Connecting

In these pandemic times, the world is changing. Those of us who are able to do so are reaching out, zooming, skyping, WhatsApping, Instagramming. Feeling cut off from human touch and company, lonely, afraid, we are anxious to knit new ways of being with one another as the old ones crumble. Everywhere there are memes and graffiti and posters and parodies declaring that ‘We are all in this together!’  Well, not really. We are certainly not ‘in the same boat’.  Some are enjoying the ocean breezes in their luxury yachts; some are in leaky dinghies and yet others are swimming hard to keep ahead of the tsunami. While the privileged, which includes me and mine, may struggle to accept the gift for what it is—set-apart, sacred time, a holy pause, cushioned by emergency government benefits—others living in profound deprivation, fear and shortages in all of the supplies necessary to survive this plague, are faced with diabolical choices:  who gets a ventilator? who gets masks? who gets fed? who lives? who dies?

And yet, somehow, we are  ‘in this together’.  Many of us are learning new words, phrases and protocols—like social-distancing and N-95s and PPEs (Personal Protective Equipment). We are bound by a global pestilence, told to stay at home—if we have one; to wash our hands with soap and water—if we have any. Some of you still live and work close to the places where we first encountered one another; some of you have returned home from long years in exile.  Some of you live in exile, still, or again, the result of work that puts you at odds with power, far from home and family.  For the Muslims amongst you, I wish you Ramadan Mubarak! –even as you try to figure out how in the world one replaces precious twice-daily visits to the mosque and the daily iftar surrounded by circles of friends and family!

Meaning-making

Today the global loss in lives is creeping past a quarter million. Many more deaths are expected, particularly in those parts of our world where public hospitals and clinics cannot keep up with the millions who die of diarrhoea and malnutrition, where the capacity to both test and treat for the virus is so low, it’s hard to identify covid-19 patients, never mind treat them. For many, starvation will carry them off before covid-19 does so. 

In the midst of all of this, some have written about whether or not there is in this a ‘silver lining’—a stubborn positive behind what appears to be irredeemably negative.  I’m not so sure about that; it sounds like something that a person of privilege would come up with.  Yet I wonder, in the midst of so much economic turmoil and death, is it offensive to make new meaning? Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, wrote, If there is meaning in life at all, there must be meaning in suffering. What, then, is being revealed? and what meaning-making is possible in the midst of this tragedy?

Pulling back the veil:  a revealing and a reckoning

One of the words I remember learning in seminary is apocalypse. While the word has popularly come to be associated with overwhelming violence and destruction, in the original Greek, it means a pulling back of the veil, a revealing of what has been hidden. In that sense, we are living an apocalypse. Things once hidden—or not named—are now starkly obvious. Politicians and economists and communities on zoom are having conversations that seemed impossible such a short time ago.  This is what covid-19 looks like from here.   

With more than two-thirds of Canadian covid-19 deaths happening in long-term care facilities, a veil of privatisation by stealth, atrocious underfunding and neglect is pulled back.  While some scratch their heads wondering why, insisting there was no warning, we didn’t know—the reason, always there, now seems obvious:  the economic system that has dominated our planet for more than a generation is a brutal master, demanding profits at all cost, plundering public goods for private profits.  And we went along with the plunder, drank the kool-aid of neoliberalism.

Underpaid, understaffed, outsourced:  the cost of cheap

Poorly-paid workers—from Personal Support Workers to grocery-store staff—are now seen as the ‘essential workers’ they have always been. The inherent weaknesses of just-in-time supply chains are being revealed for what they are, stimulating visions of close-to-home jobs and food and needful supplies.

Having only recently signed NAFTA 3.0, the ‘free’ trade agreement that binds Canada with Mexico and the United States in a charter for corporate rights, we are now hearing talk from the top of a strategy for the re-industrialisation of Canada. And not just to bring back Canadian jobs from low-wage countries. What about co-creating new partnerships with foreign industry that do not require the maquilladorisation of labour?—an arrangement that had only two purposes: to enrich multinationals, and to supply the industrialised nations with endless stuff, while blinding us to the human and creation cost of cheap. 

Deficits don’t matter any more

I have noticed that the deficit-slayers are strangely silent—those in my country who have steered the upward-flow of wealth into fewer and fewer hands while wages for the rest stagnated and public services were falsely blamed for deficits and dissected, served up for private-sector devouring.  The $20B price of a national pharmacare programme now seems paltry compared to the $250B infusion of pandemic funds into the pockets of workers, self-employed, under-employed, unemployed, farmers, renters, students, small businesses, populations at risk—with the needs of those such as migrant workers and the undocumented yet to be addressed. And, from surprising corners, there is talk of turning all of this into a Universal Basic Income that will replace a fragmented, costly and, often, punitive, system of social assistance, providing all Canadians, whoever they are, with an income, enough for the kind of security that really matters.

Revealing: Race, class, gender, homelessness, mental health, substance use

Covid-19 death tolls disaggregated by race, class, age and gender tell us a bunch of other things we already knew about who’s important, who’s not, about whose marginalisation, subordination and dying is acceptable, not acceptable. We’re noticing that the jobless are mostly women, toiling in service industries, retail, cleaning, child care and personal support; that so many First Nations reserves continue under boil-water advisories, with large families living in substandard housing, multiplying risk. That this rich country cannot manage to meet our ODA (Overseas Development Assistance) commitments.  We’re noticing how unemployment-plus-domestic lock-down is exposing the tinderbox of male violence.  We’re weary of guns.

Housing homeless people now seems possible; the annual billions drained to patch the gaping wounds of misery opened a generation ago by heartless governments now appear both wasteful and unnecessary. New options for quickly-assembled modular housing now suddenly present themselves as more than adequate solutions. We know—don’t we? that housed humans stand more firmly on the ground necessary to address the other epidemics of opioid use and mental illness.

Dress rehearsal for climate catastrophe

We are recognising covid-19 as dress rehearsal for climate catastrophe that it is.  We are seeing the ‘wilding’ of our streets and back yards and parks—all of those places from which our animal neighbours retreat in the face of humans taking up more than their fair share.  We are not flying anywhere and we are surviving the experience. We are standing up to the bullying of big Oil and Gas and their demands for tens of billions to keep their planet-killing industry going, business-as-usual.  We are discovering just how readily we can pivot to new ways of doing things, how nimbly we can retool manufacturing to manufacture something else instead, how much simpler than we ever imagined it could be to transition oil field and pipeline workers into green energy jobs. Should we choose to do so.

People over profits. Period.

Pandemic-induced changes to our health care system will remain and be enhanced, up-funded to close myriad gaps of space and equipment, staffing and wages, administration and accountability. We will re-examine values that prioritise competition over collaboration; we will conduct research differently.  We will ask large questions about how Big Pharma et al get to fence off the commons, patenting the results of publicly-funded discovery and innovation to advertise, promote and sell back to us at immense profits something that was ours in the first place. A C-19 vaccine will remain within the commons. Individuals and corporations with money stashed in tax havens will receive no government dollars, now, and we will hound governments until all such unconscionable hiding places are rendered illegal. 

Numbing Numbers: Ceasefire from battlefields to kitchen tables

And, inspired by António Guterres’ (UN Secretary General) call for a global ceasefire, we will begin the long haul towards an end to war.  Can you imagine those days coming when, rather than building LAVs for the Saudis to advance the deadly misery of  Yemenis, and buying warships from Irving/BAE and CF-18s from Lockheed Martin, we will collaborate with our ‘enemies’ and enemies of enemies in programmes of climate catastrophe mitigation, tree-planting, housing, health care, clean water, of sustainable, locally-benefitting employment?  Can you imagine that day when we will redefine security as those things that have to do with food and shelter and income, water to drink and air to breathe— rather than systems of surveillance and control and death-dealing? What if the people of the USA were to greet news from the Pentagon (the country’s largest project of socialised costs and privatised profits) of nuclear-arsenal ‘modernisation’ with calls instead for universal health care, free education, affordable housing and streets to live in?

We are pulling back the veil on a market of weapons-dealing that adds up to two trillion, seven hundred and eleven billion dollars annually.[i] The numbers are numbing, beyond imagining.  Put it this way: by the time you finish reading this sentence, countries and dealers will have spent $602,000 on killing machines. Or $86,000 per second. What if the world decided to go on a different kind of shopping spree—waging peace from Mindanao and Assam to South Sudan, Uganda and the DRC, from Syria, Yemen and Tunisia, to Iraq and Afghanistan; from Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela, Ukraine and Russia to Myanmar? From Canada’s First Nations’ reserves to America’s ghettos, Brasil’s favelas and Mexico’s chabolas, from the impoverished arrondisements of Paris and Calais, to the internment camps of the world bursting with refugees and asylum seekers:  from Lesbos and Naura, Xinxiang and Cox’s Bazaar to the southern US border?

So what’s changed?

So what’s changed?  Our minds. We’ve changed our minds.

We’re smarter; our eyes see more clearly what was already there.  We now know what’s possible. We understand better the reach of benevolent governments when our essential well-being is under threat—as well as the opportunism of authoritarian governments keen to take advantage of disaster. We recognise Trump’s weakening of EPA regulations and Orbán’s reneging on Hungary’s commitment to the provisions of the  Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women for what they are.  We recognise the focus on profit maximisation that compromises corporations’ capacity to do good, never mind justice; that a model of relentless cost-cutting pressure on suppliers, staffing and wages that might work for Walmart is not the best model for hospitals or schools.   We now know that we’ve accepted lies as truth, voted against our better interests, believed the neo-liberal tales of trickle-down and tax cuts somehow ‘raising all boats’. When they tell us there is no money for essential social services, we will not believe them. We want local, national and global programmes of redistributive justice—which means taxing wealth, sending a large percentage of it back to the bottom whence it came: an economy of just enough.

Midwifing peace 

So what do you think?

Is this Partera dream impossible? stillborn? Or is that baby still growing inside of all of us, in each of you, that future for which you yearn?  We have forgotten that governments govern by consent. What are those things from which we need to withdraw our consent? 

Do you remember the Village Game? that experiential space in which you felt the pillage of colonialism + globalisation’s claws in the sinews of your being? the thrill of resistance? Remember the Mattress Game? the exposure of the pillars that uphold oppressive power? how each small group focussed on one pillar, identifying both its contribution to the situation of oppression and its weaknesses, its vulnerability to citizen activism? This is the time. Clearly, there is a ‘new superpower in the making:  awareness-based collective action’. 

What needs subverting, disrupting? what new thought, good idea, what new refusal to return to a ‘normal’ that was ugly and unjust for much of the world’s population and the future of the planet itself—presents itself for our/your support and action?  But, as we know, that ceasefire begins with us, and the wrestle with the internal pestilence that mars our own spirits,[ii] the every-day reclaiming of curiosity, compassion and courage.

With thanks to Ken Sehested for the artwork

Global ceasefire for us is a call, not just to quit wasting human resources and ingenuity in the business of killing, but a call to set aside grievances large and small—within families, our communities, to cross borders of  race and  class, of clan, tribe and ability, religion and gender; to let go of those grievances as less important than our life together on this planet.  There is no return to normal; our future has been severred from the past. The brutality of competition that scars the body of neoliberalism must be replaced with a political culture of co-operation. We haven’t been very good at this for a long time; we must learn how to do so now. 

Indian novelist, Arundhati Roy, calls the pandemic ‘a portal, a gateway between one world and the next’; that this is what pandemics do—forcing a break with the past, so that a new world can be imagined.  It is our choice.  What will we choose?

‘We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.’  

Dear Partners in Peace:

You can change the world.  You’ve been doing it for awhile now.  What are you thinking? What are you writing? What are you doing? 

Please share your stories on the Partera International Facebook page or by e-mail for posting on the Partera website.

What is the opening, no matter how small or how overwhelmingly large, that invites you to walk in, to make a difference, to help steer us into another world? 

What are your resources, your toolboxes, your wellsprings?

Remember the web of connection that we would weave at the end of a training? What new threads can we create, what old ones can we strengthen and renew for co-operative action?

I am conscious that this piece of writing began with Mothers’ Day and US poet, Julia Ward Howe’s Proclamation; that concludes in these days of Black Lives Matter, of the Movement for Black Lives and demands to defund, redirect funds away from militarised police to social work, poverty alleviation, job creation, mental health and education. Her challenge belongs to all of us. Julia’s Day got tamed; let’s not get tamed.  You, we can change the world.


[i] Cited in Canadian currency.
[ii] A stirring together of Martin Luther King, Jr’s ‘internal violence of spirit’ and Algerian-born Camus’ insistence that La Peste, the plague has its interior counterpart that, untended, threatens metaphysical death.