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Engaging Across Experiences for a More Just Society

I have had the privilege of participating in several conferences this spring, each of which touched on a different aspect of my work on poverty in Canada. They explored issues including housing, reconciliation, polarization, income security, and climate change, and brought together church folks, academics, advocates, people with lived experience of poverty, service providers, and government representatives from across the country. 

These cross-sector, cross-community connections are imperative in cultivating an “on earth as it is in heaven” society where all people and all of creation can flourish together. But the polarization we are experiencing in our society right now is undermining this sense of mutual care and our willingness to listen well. Far from just being a matter of getting along at family gatherings or partisan mudslinging, the implications of our polarization can have life or death repercussions on those bearing the brunt of our multiple crises. And sorry, conflict-averse Canadians, but disengaging entirely is not helping, either!

Part of the problem is that our policies are typically designed (and voted for) by people with vastly different experiences from those whom they impact the most. 

Our current policies and institutions do not reflect the lived realities of people living in poverty in Canada today. Instead, they continually favour the middle class and the wealthy, providing inadequate support for those in poverty, often through burdensome and even dehumanizing procedures to prove or maintain eligibility. Millions are left without the means to feed or shelter themselves or their loved ones, while a small but powerful minority bemoan a tax increase on capital gains over $250,000 (bringing it back closer to pre-2000 levels). What does this have to do with polarization? Part of the problem is that our policies are typically designed (and voted for) by people with vastly different experiences from those whom they impact the most. 

This is not just an issue of political ideologies or social media algorithms; polarization arises from the ways in which our communities, institutions, and public policies create vastly different day-to-day realities for each of us, often with very little chance of us meaningfully engaging with those whose realities differ from our own (unless in the context of surveillance and/or service delivery). This can happen through physical zoning policies, media consumption, interactions with public and private institutions, employment and leisure opportunities, and so on.

I remember, for example, when I was working as a supply teacher in Ottawa, how a 15-minute drive brought me to vastly divergent school populations and student experiences. Both schools had wonderful students, families, and staff, but at one school, many kids were living in overcrowded apartments with parents working multiple low-wage jobs, the ceiling tiles were falling off in the school, and parents weren’t able to afford time off to volunteer as drivers or volunteers for school trip; at the other school, the kids discussed their weekend ski trips in Quebec, the parent council had fundraised thousands of dollars for things like playground equipment or school laptops, and beautiful new schools were being built to accommodate the growing suburban population.

There’s ample evidence that the less inequality within a society, the better off everyone is – even the folks at the top.

Guess which group of students was more likely to be aware of the differences in their experiences. 

Unless we intentionally go out of our way, it is easy for us to stay within a bubble of people whose experiences are very similar to ours – particularly if we fit within certain societal norms and privileges. Our separation makes it easy for us to form and maintain simplistic or inaccurate perceptions of people whose experiences and opinions are different from our own, which further exacerbates polarization.

Unfortunately, our current political climate is not helping. Good policy making is getting hijacked by good headline making, and meaningful dialogue and collaboration are being replaced with a circus of strawman arguments, misdirection, and hyper-partisan soundbites. Beyond vying for potential votes in the next federal election, this is impacting the kinds of policy decisions that are being made right now; rather than targeting investments and regulatory changes where they are most needed to ensure all people can access an adequate standard of living, we have policies that direct billions (or forego generating millions in revenue) to maintain the wealth and power of the middle and upper classes and corporations, assuming that these are the voters who will show up and that they’ll vote in their self-interest. 

Readers, whether you’re part of the middle or upper class or have firsthand experience of poverty, I’m guessing you want better than this. I don’t know you and maybe we think very differently about specific policy solutions and political parties, but you’ve made it this far through a “Do Justice” blog, so I’m going to assume we share something of a vision for a more just society, where people don’t have to choose between feeding their kids or themselves; between leaving an abusive partner or homelessness; between living without adequate food or accessibility supports or requesting medical assistance in dying. And guess what? Even if we don’t do it for ourselves, there’s ample evidence that the less inequality within a society, the better off everyone is – even the folks at the top.

Reconciliation, affordability, housing, health, climate change, and other crises in our world require each of us to find our place in advocating for our mutual rights and well-being. We cannot cede our political discourse, media, or community conversations to those who spread misinformation and seek their own self-interest by pitting people against one another. I want to make sure they know we expect better. I want to see the expertise and lived realities of those most impacted informing our policy solutions. Will you join me in asking better questions than who is to blame, or who is “deserving?” Whether it’s at conferences or workshops, over a meal, at school or work, a community townhall, or yes, even over social media, let’s re-engage in this space and shift the conversation for our mutual flourishing. Policy choices got us here; we can choose better.

The Reformed family is a diverse family with a diverse range of opinions. Not all perspectives expressed on the blog represent the official positions of the Christian Reformed Church. Learn more about this blog, Reformed doctrines, and our diversity policy on our About page.

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