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Anti-Poverty Community Organizing and Learning (APCOL)

Spotlight: Chris Harris Reflects on Social Movements and Community Organizations in Today’s Toronto

In January 2010 APCOL’s Guest Speaker Series welcomed Toronto activist Chris Harris (formerly of the Black Action Defence Committee, BADC, Toronto) who spoke to OISE/University of Toronto students and other community activists. This is the opening part of his talk. Chris sits on the Steering Committee of the APCOL project.


Neighbourhood organizations in the Third World are set up by people’s movements. Sometimes it’s labour, the women’s movement, or the anti-racist movements who get things moving. Those organizations are under-resourced, don’t have any formal support, but respond directly to the needs of the people and form the base for broader social justice and radical movements to transform society. They become the training ground from which militants arise.

State funding provides real political and ideological contradictions in non-profit activism in Toronto. A lot of the funding that flows to social movement organizations and social justice organizations is to fill cracks in the system which are becoming wider with the economic crisis and rising poverty. They are hiring hundreds of new welfare workers because of the number of workers going on welfare, but really this advances the interests of the ruling class that controls the state.

There is this illusion that a lot of grassroots work in activism in the non-profit sector is very progressive and is really having an impact. I agree there is that potential, but we have to move beyond the parameters of a lot of funding programs and agendas that are being advanced by the state through this funding.
Resources for work with Black youths are under code words like “at risk youth” and “priority neighborhoods”, which mask the oppressive relationships in the community. This means problematizing and technologizing the Black community, rather than looking at the systemic issues responsible for its oppression. In response, a group like BADC needs to get funding for work in civil society, but also to sustain parallel political organizations. Then we have a clear separation of social work and political work.

One of the key victories for the Mike Harris conservative regime was eliminating the ability of most community based-organizations to do advocacy work in order to qualify for funding. Today a lot of organizations are stepping up the challenge, bringing social justice work back into the non-profit sector. I am part of that process.

In my work with gangs, I see youths that are experiencing the effects of the neo-liberal policies implemented by provincial governments over the past 15 to 20 years. They are in a state of permanent unemployment. At an earlier time in the history of BADC, the anti-racist struggles of the 70s, 80s, and 90s dealt with racism in the police force, police brutality and police murders of civilians. In the last decade, we have been working on what we call horizontal violence in the Black community. Not Black on Black violence because it is more the impact of the political economy which creates a cut-throat survival situation in our communities. Coming out of decades of anti-racist struggle, clearly we are involved in class struggles now in the Black community.

The fundamental issue for Black youth is class. Many Black youths have to struggle today to enter a stable working class. The jobs that their parents worked in the city are no longer there, the communities that they grew up in are becoming destabilized by the government and through gentrification. Lawrence Heights and Regent Park, relatively stable working class communities with a lot of people of African descent and immigrants, are being systematically destroyed and replaced by Yuppie communities. Lawrence Heights is beside the booming Yorkdale Mall, so the forces of capital are driving out the working class families and building condos.

We see a great migration of entrepreneurs and professionals from the suburbs back into the city. For that to happen, you have to re-locate a lot of working class people from the city out to the suburbs. Regent Park was the beginning of this massive gentrification of the City of Toronto. Similar efforts are underway in Jane-Finch and Lawrence Heights. All over the city there are plans underway, selling off land to private developers. A lot of young people today, especially Black working class youths, are aware not so much of the racial oppression in society but of the class divide. Toronto is becoming a place of “haves” and “have nots”.

There is a huge backlash against Black-focused schooling, but the majority of inner city schools where Black youths are going are already segregated schools. Middle class White families are pulling their kids out of these schools, putting them in private schools or alternative schools for middle class kids. Some of these schools will be shutting down. So really, a lot of our struggles are linked to other struggles on the left. We need alliances with the labour movement, with different social justice organizations like OCAP and with Marxist groups like Basics newspaper, to develop campaigns against unemployment, police brutality and gentrification.

For this, we need institutional development. Two years ago a group of progressive middle class parents of the Dufferin Grove Community at Dufferin and Bloor mobilized to form a social justice school with an environmental focus because they didn’t want their kids in a conservative learning climate. They wanted their kids to have a richer educational experience, where ecology and social responsibility and community activism were at the centre of learning. I believe this school has Grade 1 to 3. They had their own struggles, but they are a relatively affluent community and they were very organized and strategic. In a short period of time they are implementing a school.

That kind of institutional development like the Grove Community School is where we need to be heading as educators. We shouldn’t just be looking to get teaching jobs in the bourgeois schools and the mainstream public schools, but also to be creating really innovative alternative schools. Their alternative programs are linked to social justice organizations, to the social economy that’s extending in our city, and a broad range of forces on the left.

We are going to develop the Norman Richmond Academy for Peace and Justice. In that school, we will develop courses on anti-racism, women’s studies and labour activism and those three will intersect in different courses. We will be integrating youths into different social justice organizations so that there is a real self-reflected practice. The students will be learning theory in a popular education way, and applying classroom ideas in real life. A key difference with the Black focussed school is that we are focusing on working class learning; although Black youth experience racism and need to develop their identity we also need to focus on the survival of the community.

A lot of Black people are being pushed out of the new economy and there is no plan “B” for them. Ultimately its not just about developing the identity of these youths, but they actually need to be engaged in anti-capitalist struggle as they grow into adults for the survival of their communities. And it’s not just Black working class communities, but its all working class people. This school will be opened to diverse youth of colour from the South Asian and Latino communities, as well as a number of White working class youth who have fallen through the cracks. Our school, the Grove Community School and the Black focussed school are all part of transforming the education system.

These institutions of learning really bring forth the contradictions of the society. Addressing those contradictions of capitalism and patriarchy, of homophobia and White supremacy with young people can inspire them and sustain us for the struggles ahead. I think this is a very important moment…


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