We have been welcomed and it is now time to get down to work. I too thank you for having included yourselves in this conversation. Marcel has set the stage and told us what we can expect over the next couple of days and what it is that we are here to do and what we hope to accomplish.
The principal job that Marcel and I have accepted to do is to LISTEN. As I say this, it occurs to me right off the bat that listening is possibly the most important tool with which to begin to build an inclusive society. It is, perhaps, time to listen to the discontent of those whom we have not paid enough attention to because they have been excluded from our conversations. It is perhaps also time to listen to our own inner voices which may speak of our own discomfort and discontent, discomfort occasioned by our own relative sense of privilege and discontent with our apparent inability to confront the root causes of inequality, discrimination and social exclusion. We may have a language and evidence that acknowledges that many among us don’t get a fair chance. But, I am less certain that we have found a language that equips us to talk about what is truly at stake when individuals and groups of individuals are displaced from the larger community that most can take for granted.
Marcel and I shall, tomorrow morning and then again on Friday afternoon, reflect on what we have heard and, perhaps too, on what we have not yet heard. Our job is not so much to report back to you as rapporteurs because there are, in fact, professionals here to help us record the substance of your ideas, your commitments, and your critical cautions. Instead, we shall be listening in order to find out whether or not you believe that these words - social inclusion and social exclusion - are terms that can provide us, here in Canada, with some common ground upon which we might choose to build a new foundation of wealth and opportunity, a common-wealth – as it were - to which all may contribute and from which all may benefit.
As a promo for the series of commissioned papers soon to be published by the Laidlaw Foundation on the themes of social inclusion and exclusion, let me refer to one that is entitled “Ethical Reflections on Social Inclusion.” It is being written by Rabbi Dow Marmur. I want to begin my own reflection by quoting two sentences from his introduction in which he speaks of his personal experience as a 9-year old boy growing up as a displaced person seeking shelter from the Nazis in Uzbekistan during World War II. He and his family were poor, they were Jews, they were on the run, and he was hungry - he was always hungry. Thinking back, he says:
I cannot think of a more tangible manifestation of being an outsider than being hungry when others are not. Perhaps (he continues) there is no more total exclusion than not being allowed to break bread in community.
I think that in these two simple and straight-forward sentences, the Rabbi has managed to tell us something about the hope, the aspiration, that draws us together here today to speak of social inclusion. In the first sentence, he reminds us of the preoccupations that most of us in this room have shared and carried for more years than I want to remember. His recollection of hunger reminds us of our preoccupation with poverty, with child poverty that is a function of family poverty, with discrimination on so many different grounds, with homelessness, with hopelessness. As an aside, let me suggest that these are the preoccupations that we almost lose sight of day-by-day when we set about to address these evils using the language and tools of public policy. For quite understandable reasons, we speak in a language that rationalizes the pain of others and our own outrage when we speak of low-income cut-offs, low-income measures, horizontal and vertical equity, earnings supplements, income support, refundable and non-refundable credits, passive dependence versus active opportunity planning, disability tax benefits, and the really sophisticated terminology of thresholds, turning points and marginal tax rates. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t discount this language and the lessons it produces and even the principles and commitments embedded in it. I simply suggest that we sometimes lose sight of what we set out to accomplish in creating this kind of calculus to measure and monitor our commitments to the welfare of both ourselves and others.
Let me get back to the Rabbi’s second sentence. It is here that Marmur calls attention to something we have overlooked when we have sought to illuminate what that poverty he experienced as a child means and how it shapes the experience of those who are not invited to break bread with us as members of a larger community. This is a community from which, ideally, we might all draw not just physical sustenance but emotional and psychological nourishment, integrity and identity. It is in community that we experience the opportunity to make whatever contribution we can and, by contributing, we can come to earn the respect of others and thereby experience self-respect and self-esteem. We can exercise responsibility and come to know that we are agents (at least modestly so) of our own destinies, that we are adequate, and deserving of and entitled to the respect of others.
Of course, when I say that we earn the respect of others, I run the risk of being misinterpreted. Today, we think of earning almost exclusively in terms of exchange in the marketplace with the danger being that dignity and self-esteem are reduced to the status of commodities. Dignity and self-esteem become a function of the jobs we hold, the money we earn, the labels we wear and our credit ratings. Instead, what I want to acknowledge when I say that we can earn the respect of others and, in the process, see ourselves as worthy is the simple fact that each and every one of us has a gift to give. Our role as citizens is defined, I believe, at least as much - if not more - by the commitments we make to others than by the guarantees of entitlement that others make to us. Another story illustrates the point that each and every one of us has a gift to give. I borrow it from Ted Kuntz who is the President of an organization called PLAN which assists parents of disabled children to think ahead about how their children will manage when they, their parents, are no longer around.
Ted Kuntz’s son, Joshua, was born healthy. But, at five months, he acquired an uncontrolled seizure disorder that left him medically fragile with intellectual disabilities. When Joshua entered grade seven, the school had enough grade seven students to form two classes. The teachers for both classes were men, sports enthusiasts to boot. So, being jocks, they decided to select their students as baseball captains would select players for a pickup game. It was the teacher named Jeff who won the coin toss and had the first pick among all the students. He chose Joshua. The other teacher was dumbfounded. “Why, of all the kids you could have selected, would you pick him?” Jeff replied: “I’ve noticed Joshua over the past year and how the other children speak with him, how they play and interact with him. I’ve noticed that the children are kinder and gentler when in his presence. So, I want Joshua in my classroom because I believe he will help create a kinder and gentler class.”
Joshua had a gift to give. Jeff, his teacher, saw that by his inclusion, by his membership in the small community that was his class, Joshua – different as he was – could provide an opportunity for the other students to see themselves differently and, in the process, become better people.
Now, according to the advance publicity for this event, the next two days may introduce us to “A New Way of Thinking.” But, I am sure that we have all noted that there is a question mark at the end of that phrase, a qualification that suggests that we are not, at least at the beginning of this meeting, absolutely convinced. So, one of the things I will be listening for is this:
Will we, by Friday afternoon, assert that we have found a new way of thinking? And, if so, what, in fact, is so new about these notions of social inclusion and social exclusion? Surely, most of us in this room have been preoccupied by the circumstances and prospects of those who have been marginalized and excluded (by virtue of race, sexual orientation, assigned gender roles, faith, age (be they the too young or the too old), perceived abilities or disabilities relative to some norm, and, last but not least, by class. My guess is that if there is novelty in this new way of thinking and speaking, it lies more likely with the other side of the equation, with the notion of inclusion. It is, I think, here with this word that we are more likely to shape a new VISION.
- As I have come (somewhat reluctantly I must admit) to understand what is implied by the management nostrums of strategic planning and visioning and missioning, the idea of vision invites us to articulate where we want to be at some time in the future while the mission we define for ourselves speaks of the means with which we expect to get there. The idea of vision suggests that we have to define or recall the purposes we would serve, the goals we would pursue, the ends toward which we will choose to commit our time, energy and talents. Yet, this is not always easy in a world dominated by talk of means. In this age of management, we confront the classic utilitarian dilemma of knowing how to do many things efficiently but without knowing why, in any fundamentally human sense, we do what we do.
- We are, I believe, still profoundly preoccupied and even angry about the all-too-apparent evidence of poverty, inequities, unfairness, unevenly distributed opportunities, and the violations of human rights and human dignity. Does this new way of framing our thoughts around notions of exclusion and inclusion prepare us to better articulate and speak and listen to others beyond our own little (and perhaps exclusive) group, to speak about the price paid by those we have failed to honour as members of our community? Does this new way of thinking help us convince others of what we have come to know about the critical stages of child development and the investments we must make? Does this way of thinking reinforce the lessons we’ve learned about how the health of populations is a function of gradients and the distribution of life chances across and among groups, that we must understand the proximity of people and groups one from another and that how far apart or how close together we are in terms of the money we have, the services we can count on and the opportunities we take for granted determines both individual outcomes and the health of our collectivity ? Does this way of thinking respect the distinctiveness of individuals and cultures and invite them to preserve their unique identities within a shared vision of participation and membership? Does this new way of thinking remind of us of why we got into this business in the first place? Does this way of thinking allow us to see again the tragedy of a particular child who grows up not just at risk but without hope? Do we have here a new way of thinking that is more compelling to us and others? Are we now better able to shed a brighter light on the consequences of our inaction? Does this way of thinking help us convince others that it is in everyone’s interest to provide opportunities to be employed, to work, to contribute in whatever way they might, to ensure access to participation not just because of how it defines an individual’s prospects but also because it defines our common chances? Is there a vision of social inclusion that strengthens our commitment to our traditional notions of equity, justice, fairness, human rights? Do these words equip us better to think and act on the basis of our convictions or do they, as some might fear, dissipate our energies?
- What does the notion of inclusion imply if we want to talk about children? If inclusion means nothing more than being acknowledged as a political actor or as a citizen in the terms of liberal individualism, it excludes children (other than by way of a formal acknowledgement of their rights that we might assign to them but over which they can exercise no franchise and must wait for others to act and speak on their behalf). In other words, if we reduce the notion of inclusion to nothing more than a political holder of rights or to one whose identity is a function of a job held in the waged labour market, the missing child in liberal theory will be still missing just as thoroughly as children are absent from Ayn Rand’s philosophy.
- Is there a vision of social inclusion that recognizes that the invitation to membership confers upon us the ground of identity in human agency and the respect and self-respect that mirrors the confidence that others have in us.
- Does this conceptualization – this vision of an inclusive society – does it provide us with a critical lens through which we might see more clearly than we do now how:
- Our laws may indeed protect our entitlements but are, in themselves insufficient to advance our interests and our membership in a community worthy of our commitment;
- How our schools teach our children to regard themselves and others;
- How our income support policies and programs may provide (adequately or inadequately) the base necessities of life but in the process demean those who depend upon them and crush their hopes and spirit;
- How the media excels at creating images against which none of us can measure up;
- How our investments in children are too often granted only begrudgingly as though we must respond only to need as it appears while failing to recognize the covenant that unites us as members of generations;
- How we regard ourselves as men and women in our homes, on the streets and in our places of work.
These are some of the questions with which I begin this journey of personal reflection and shared conversation, a conversation about which I feel privileged to be included as a member. I might hope that it will lead us to a common destination and thereby to a shared starting point from which to act. I am grateful that there are so many among us who have ventured down some of the paths that may lead us toward a new vision of social inclusion. So, at this point, I am ready to follow as best I can. Lead on.
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