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Anti-Poverty Community Organizing and Learning (APCOL)

Spotlight: Discussing Activist Learning and Development with John Clarke

by Peter Sawchuk

On September 28, 2010. I sat down with Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) leader John Clarke to discuss how activists and organizers develop, and the future of organizing and social change. Clarke emphasized the importance of opportunities for activist groups to have debates, dialogue, to learn and work with ideas. Here some kind of new political formation – a formation that develops not simply ideas but programs that go beyond activism – is useful to both discuss and define. The following is a condensed transcript of our discussion.

PS: The APCOL project looks at the way that activist learning takes place, and how it depends a great deal on the types of situations and organizations that activist are involved with... The direct action experience when people do it or even just see it as a bystander is, amongst everything else, an incredibly educational thing. So in that sense would you say OCAP is very aware of these kinds of educational moments of the direct action event?

JC: Yes. Our whole practice in one very good sense is about trying to create that kind of an example for people, and trying to create that kind of a model... We are never going to change the world if people don’t have the sense that something can be done. We can’t tell people that we can build a better society if we can’t prevent people from getting evicted or getting their lights cut off or something like that...

PS: And so, is the most fundamental thing of all in organizing, a teaching of a sense of ability to do something, a sense of a kind of agency? And, do people get a chance talking about it at OCAP especially amongst organizers?

JC: I think we do, I mean amongst organizers and sort of long-term activists, I think it is probably more informal, it wouldn’t be in a formal setting.

PS: For instance, it’s not a formal point on the agenda at a meeting or something?

JC: That’s right. It’s just sitting around talking but still we are also very conscious of actually making a case. I mean we make it to the people we try to mobilize to the extent that we are given opportunities to address organizations with classes and that kind of thing. We sort of bring it home. It’s that sort of message that we have, we have some very big ideas about what society should look like but the starting point is defending people... Teaching them they can do something.

PS: So that’s the first lesson?

JC: That’s right

PS: What we are going to do doesn’t matter until we learn that lesson.

JC: Yes, yes that’s right.

PS: Okay, so I think of this idea of learning agency as a kind of fundamental aspect, it’s kind of learning a new sense of your relationship to the world around you. A very big and important lesson. Abstract but really also the most concrete thing of all. But are there other kinds of more, I guess you would say, more technical skills that are needed to be taught to activists? Especially after that first lesson is learned? Is there anything there that is discussed at OCAP?

JC: There is to some degree, there are particular people who become active and start to be active in the OCAP office. And so there are very definite technical measures that have to be addressed about the office but also if we are going to advocate for people there has to be a certain level of knowledge of the systems that we are dealing with. There also have to be discussions about what we are trying to achieve.

We do a great deal of case work but for us the idea of case work is that it’s important because it assists people. Its political role and organization is sort of a dissention thing so we have a lot of discussions with people about the kind of case work we should do, as much as possible avoiding the ‘proper channels’ and using collective action as a way of remedying things because we find it genuinely to be more effective. .

We also find it to be something that gets you something. If you go and argue the case before a tribunal and get a favorable result that’s good, it helps people. But if you can get a community of people to stand up and do something and take an actual stand on it and you win with that same victory I think it’s actually worth more politically. But at the same time, you don’t play games with people. You don’t say we could probably win this with a formal appeal, but let’s have the type of relatively risky office occupation instead because that’s our principle.

I also think that we need to recognize that those ‘proper channels’ have been designed. The word channel is not a coincidental term. I mean a channel is there to provide a controlled, safe way of winning limited concessions. Or in many cases, minimizing damage and as such it’s about making people as powerless as possible.

PS: So do these kind of discussions -- you call them cases -- are they a core part of the process that groups and organizers would go through in OCAP?

JC: Yes, it’s a core part of what we call building our own active place. I think in every case, at least every case that leads to at least a major possibility of an action, or in some case an in-action, in all those cases it is necessary to have some level of discussion about who we are and what we are doing, otherwise people don’t comprehend.

I mean you can’t say to people “well we are going to bring 25 people into the welfare office.” They naturally would wonder why? What’s going on? Why are they doing that? So the case is the necessary opportunity to discuss and explain those things ...
So, first we would have to have the discussion with the person with the grievance and that’s probably the main level of political discussion for people. But then we also would put out a call to our own networks for people to come out and participate, we expect people to come out and participate, and that would be an opportunity in a way to talk about all sorts of expansive ideas and

When people are gathered, let’s say 25 people, you know there is going to be discussions amongst them. What are we doing this for? Which directions could we go with this and what could be achieved through it?... I don’t want to overstate what we do, but probably everyone in OCAP would agree with me that we tend to get so caught-up in the day to day stuff that actually developing our ideas and educating even our members, let alone broader groupings of people that we have contact with, it doesn’t get nearly enough attention...

PS: So in terms of how the left can build on this model or where things might be heading in the future in terms of organizing effectively, what do you think?

JC: I think of something much more community based. In the 30s the unemployed organized on the basis of block community, and I could actually see something along those lines...

We are actually starting to see the beginnings of that in the work that OCAP is doing with the Somali community. We started to find that we were building a real base in the Somali community, in Etobicoke largely, and it’s a fascinating community because it is one where the normal multicultural controls are quite weak... So what we have now is actually an OCAP organizer in the Somali community who is doing fantastic work. So we have got the sort of workings that I’m talking about for the first time not taking place at the downtown OCAP office, but taking place in and around people’s kitchen tables and in a neighbourhood which really means something.

November 2010 marks the 20th Anniversary of OCAP. For more information go to http://www.ocap.ca/

Peter Sawchuk is a co-leader of the APCOL project and Professor of Sociology & Equity Studies, University of Toronto.

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