Limitations of Identity: Reflections of a novice community worker

Part 3 in our series on 'What 2015 Taught Me'

By: Shirin Haghgou, Community Worker & Independent Scholar

If they are “specific” issues, we have to realize that it is because they are “specific” to a general, larger set of social, structural, and institutional relations…one has to think and ask on grounds beyond the immediate situation; one has to go above and behind it.”

            - H. Bannerji

A few months into 2015, I began to work full time at a small newcomer/community center based out of North Toronto. (I could dedicate a few lines and a couple of choice words on my experience of what has to be one of the most counter-to-human-intuition systems – the 9-5 – but I won’t.) Instead, I’d like to share some of my observations, and thoughts which I have been grappling with while working at this center for the past nine months. In the process of thinking through what to write for this post, the overarching question I feel I need to ask myself everyday at this job is: How can the way in which we approach the political problematic dictate the strength and variation of the solidarity practiced?

 The organization I have joined, mainly serves individuals from a specific background (shared nationality, language), although its doors are open to everyone. I have gotten to know and work with a small team of extraordinary, immigrant women whose resilience in the process of migration is humbling. On a daily basis, coming face to face with the real, material challenges that newcomers, in particular women, face in a new city like Toronto, has forced me to (re)examine my own position as a woman, as an immigrant, in relation to my current country of residence and the history of this land. As well, I have developed a much deeper respect for those community organizers who have been navigating and negotiating the bureaucracy of the city, to ensure that certain communities are not pushed to the margins of ‘disregard’ in Toronto’s overwhelming web of ‘catchments’ and municipality grids.

The specific project I am coordinating (financed by a province based foundation) is on the topic of sexual orientation and gender identity, within the particular community of people that the organization serves. I should add, that this community, has not been known for being particularly open or accepting of non-hetero-normative variations of genders and sexualities.

This project entails organizing a solidarity project around identity - cultivating a ‘safe’ environment where people can have the space for particular aspects of their identity to be expressed. Inevitably, within this process the question and notion of allyship also has to be addressed. Where, certain members of the community work toward building a relationship of support with others, who may share similarities such as language and nationality, but may differ in other aspects, mainly sexual orientation and gender identity. 

Leaving the world of academia, for a job which (thankfully) demanded of me to practice much of what I had learnt and written about theoretically in school, was more difficult than I had imagined. There is a whole host of reasons why this transition has been difficult. However, the challenges have also demanded that I reflect on how solidarity can be practiced, and the ways in which organizing around a particular cause can take shape, and how communities of resistance can be cultivated.

On some days, the frustrations and the challenges of the routine of my job have been eased with all the applause and congratulations of “how great that your organization is doing this in the community.” And yes – it is great, and a positive step forward. But in this process, it also becomes easy to get lost and lose sight of what the overall purpose of any solidarity work (the way I see it and would like to practice it) is – emancipation. As activists and organizers we are faced with the implications of the daily challenge of how to make the topic, the cause, the action, more ‘palatable’, more ‘digestable’, more ‘relatable’ to the mainstream. The line between ‘relatability’ and what is ultimately depoliticization, is a thin one. With it, we run into the problem of diluting things down to a point where we are solely relying on people’s empathy and individualized/personal connections to the cause.  In this process, I have thought about how can we introduce the topic of LGBTQI+ rights to people without talking about, and understanding some of the larger issues?

Can we really talk about gender identity and sexual orientation – about building communities of solidarity and resistance for LGBTQI+ rights, without addressing patriarchy, gender equity, the gendered division of labour, race, class… all within the operating system of capitalism?

What I have been struck by is how commonplace the belief is that issues related to genders and sexualities are specific to particular communities only. That once “we” resolve it amongst “ourselves,” specially since “we” now live in Canada (read: freedom, equality, democracy…) then the problem will somehow vanish. That somehow, discrimination based on race, gender, class, able-bodiedness, and, and…. does not exist within the broader Canadian society. If we organize our work based on this understanding – that the overarching causes are cultural ones (and not systematic) – it follows that both practically and theoretically, once those cultural habits/beliefs/practices are changed or ‘adapted’ to fit in within the confines of Canada’s liberal democracy - the problem will resolve itself. In this case, the problem, then, lies within us – only - without links to the very material social relations that exist to create these inequalities and oppressions. Within that same line of reasoning, I have heard from different organizations and service providers – in no shortage of variations – that certain topics are not approached or discussed in particular communities because of specific cultural characteristics with which that particular community has come to be identified. The problem then is not only how projects which rely only on identity (a non-historicized and depoliticized understanding of identity), within the framework of cultural identifiers limit what can be achieved, but also relegate certain groups to the margins. After all the boundaries of only identifying within the markers of identity can only be stretched so far.

I understand that local funding has to, and should be specific to ‘local’ issues (what kinds of projects receive funding is a whole other topic of discussion). How we use these resources, as activists, as community organizers, as educators – that’s where we have the room and opportunity to draw the connections, and engage the community outside of cultural identifiers.

To say that 2015 has been a tough one – for anyone with even a modicum of compassion and care for the world we live in – is an understatement. The intensity and the breadth of devastation our world is reeling from today, have reached our shores here in more ways than one, and elicited what seems to be a more widespread (re)action of care and concern from people, than world events usually garner. This may be a good ‘moment’ to build on these ‘sentiments’ toward deeper and politicized ways in which we can express and practice our solidarities both locally and trans-locally – as immigrants, as persons of colour, as a community of scholars, activists, citizens, humans.

Oppressions are not cultural, and not always visible, and the ways in which we experience them are nuanced and varied. So, yes – I am very thankful and happy for the availability of opportunities and funding(s) that target specific communities for particular causes. But if not implemented with a view of society in its ‘totality’, it runs the risk of not only (re)producing fragmented understandings of our world, but also alienates us and takes away from our ability to connect with others – compassionately and with understanding. An understanding, that our histories are connected in more ways that we think, and that we can and should have a share in how we shape them moving forward.

-       Bannerji, H. (2011). “Building from Marx: Reflections on “Race,” Gender, and Class” in Educating from Marx: Race, Gender, and Learning. Edited by: S. Carpenter and S. Mojab. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 

Shirin works in the non-for-profit sector in the field of community development and youth outreach. Her research and interests are in the intersections of the arts, culture, and solidarity.