The Value of Small Changes: A Canadian perspective

(Allison Sparling is a social democratic political activist from Halifax, Nova Scotia. This post was originally posted on her blog Always, Always Something.)

Something that’s struck me a lot, especially since living in Toronto, is how frequently we mistake progressivism for some sort of brand to be consumed instead of a movement dedicated to tackling hard changes to save the planet and make humans more equal. When Conservatives decry the latte sipping elite, it’s a facile stereotype but they’re not wrong: social justice is not about what kind of coffee you can afford to drink, even if it treats its workers better.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t drink coffee that treats its workers well! This is good. This is important. But this is the one of the smallest parts of a social contract that needs to change. Businesses that exist in this type of economy need a competitive edge to justify their cost and continue their existence so they amplify their social good as a form of marketing to make you feel like this small choice is what you needed to to do end inequality, save the planet, justify your spending $3 when there’s cheaper coffee elsewhere. And if you spend that $2-3 at a locally owned business that treats its workers well, that’s even better.

But that’s still not social justice.

I use coffee as a relatable example but it’s not the only product to feel skeptical about. If you own a really nice bicycle and bike to work, it’s awesome that you’re not in a car! You’re saving gas, you’re saving the planet! I mean, kind of, but not really until enough people are also able to bike. With housing costs increasing so dramatically and people getting pushed further and further from cores of neighbourhoods the bicycle is not practical for people living in poverty the way it is in many other countries. But biking is still great!

I don’t bring this up because I want us all to feel crappy and hopeless, but I want to illustrate that we need to undo the idea that it just takes one small stand to change the world. This is not to tell you not to take small stands. This is to say right now we are at a crux where we need to take much bigger stands: social justice takes work. And I’m not saying you’re not doing that work in addition to these small choices, but I do worry about how satisfied businesses are making us feel by making only small choices.

Over and over I see workout plans and juice with vegetables being described as some kind of movement. I see capsule wardrobes and apps that let you boss people around for much less money and “the sharing economy” that involves little sharing as some kind of beacon of progressivism because we made they small choices! We’re life hacking society!

But for who?

Movements mean moving people out of poverty, not into it with the expectation of precarious labor so we can have cheaper rides around. Movements are not a groundswell of cute tiny condos that are ‘efficient’ but still priced too high for a family living in poverty, or hell, even families. Movements are not the coffee you drink. Movements mean moving.

This doesn’t mean I’m saying what you’re doing, what I do, is bad. We have this obsession with good and bad, that there’s a box we should be able to put each decision in to feel good about ourselves. But that’s the problem, it’s not about feeling good about ourselves, it’s about making major structural changes to acknowledge that we live in a world where the illusion that we’re nice to a huge group of people we call minorities is taking precedent over structural inequality that has existed for decades and decades and we’re calling our society less racist, as if the water on reserves improves or carding decreases with white people smiles. Where buying organic food is that little thing you do instead of asking why it’s so hard to get any groceries at all in some neighbourhoods. Where some stupid spin class (I love spin classes) is some kind of movement.

It’s okay to do things because you like them but don’t kid yourself that these small choices make enough of a structural change to ignore that social justice takes a lot of work, and some of it is easier, and some of it is harder, but if it’s done it will benefit all of us.

Voting tomorrow is the easiest thing you can do. (Unless you live in a place that it has strategically been made harder, i.e.: you live on a reserve, you are homeless, etc.) All of these campaigns have been made to make you feel like voting is a big important task, and yet there is literally nothing easier. You are asked to take a lead writing device and MAKE A MARK ON A PAPER for who you LIKE MOST after showing people some ID. Unless you’re in a marginalized community, that is really, really easy and I’m not going to patronize you and tell you you’re making the difference by doing it.

What’s hard is making the decision, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make it. Copping out is easy. You’re not communicating some grander narrative by rejecting everyone. Not voting because you’re too fashionably disengaged is the dumbest ‘movement’ I’ve ever seen. Because you can’t tell me social programs don’t make a difference in people’s lives when they’ve changed mine. You can’t tell me funding for healthcare isn’t important when it’s saved people I love. You can’t tell me even seemingly small differences won’t make a change, because that’s the thing: the biggest differences frequently start with the smallest change, but the biggest choices.

I voted for Megan Leslie because I believe in Megan Leslie’s choices. I know what pharmacare will do for people I love. I know what universal childcare will do for people I don’t know. I know what protecting the environment will do for people I’ll never know. I did not vote for the Conservatives because I don’t believe people are struggling because they’re not working hard enough. I did not vote Liberal because they are campaigning against social programs in the guise of progressiveness. I did not vote Green because without proportional representation (promised by the NDP) little change can be made. These are my opinions and these are why. This is the decision I think about a lot, and this is the big choice small change big different I see in my community every time I see Megan yes biking but also championing affordable housing initiatives, every time I see Megan shopping local but also working on poverty reduction strategies. But this is not about Megan.

This is about asking you to demand a movement greater than consumption. I don’t care if you take a selfie at the voting booth, there’s nothing wrong with that, but these decisions make the core of our country, not some addition to a personal brand. People tell you to vote because it’s important, but the X on the paper isn’t important, the thought you put into that decision is.

It’s such a farce that so many corporations have co-opted the language of activism to make you think that small, consumption based changes make a big difference but big changes like voting are just lost in the system, as if democracy is actually achieved by picking the next flavor for whatever. We let the word community apply to what we do with our time instead of our neighbors. We all think we’re smarter than marketing, but we keep building unaffordable condos instead of parks and feeling good about them because the design is nice and they’re eco friendly!

Parks are also very good for the environment.

Tomorrow you can make a small action and a big choice, but in the scheme of your life it won’t define you. Make the choice that will make it possible for other people to make big choices.

And then enjoy some coffee that treats its workers well.