I was asked to speak about myself at a business luncheon recently. I talked about about growing up with medical issues, about being being an Aboriginal adopted into a non-Aboriginal family, and about work I’ve done with at-risk youth. There was a question and answer period after my initial talk and one of the questions asked was “how can we make Hamilton (Ontario, where I live) a better place?”
I took a few moments to try to formulate an answer and I finally said “that’s a damn good question.” I told those present, many of whom have experienced a good degree of success in their lives, that there is no easy answer. I told them that it’s not enough to simply donate money to causes or build more infrastructure or even get involved in local community events. I said that the real starting point lies in becoming and remaining open-minded to seeing the qualities in those different from us. What did I mean by “different from us”? I meant that it’s far too easy to dismiss someone based on any criteria we choose.
We can dismiss someone on gender, age, race, sexual orientation, religious background, education level, clothing choices, music preferences, really the list is endless. I’m sure we’ve all had times in our lives where someone has based our worth and what we have to offer on something that really has no bearing on our ability to help out or achieve a specific goal. That there are differences between people should go without saying. We should embrace those differences because they mean the chance to expand our outlooks and social education.
As I answered the question of “how do we make Hamilton a better place” I realized that I myself am guilty of putting people into preconceived categories. I am ashamed to admit this but I can’t deny it either. And even though I know it’s not exactly in the spirit of community building, there are times when I’m walking through the downtown core of Hamilton that I can’t help but think I’ve somehow stumbled upon the world’s largest trailer park because of how run down the core has become. Unfortunately that run down feel has attracted more than it’s share of homeless, street youth and those who’ve otherwise seemingly given up on themselves.
I use the word “seemingly” on purpose because it can be too easy to dismiss someone based on a first impression or because they don’t measure up to some arbitrary standard. It can be too easy to look down on someone because they don’t share the same goals and ambitions that you do. We have to keep in mind that the things we want, the goals we set, are based on our specific life experiences. It’s not too far-fetched to believe that if you had a different set of experiences up until now, you would currently have a different set of goals and desires.
I see this as being true from my own life. As I mentioned before, I’m an Aboriginal who’s been adopted by a non-Aboriginal family, into a culture that is not my own. I’ve come to realize that if I hadn’t been adopted, many of the things that I hold dear, such as my circle of friends, my education, the hobbies and recreations I enjoy, would be vastly different. I do realize certain things would have most likely been the same, such as my love of reading and playing sports, but the difference between who I am and who I would have been if I hadn’t been adopted lies solely in the opportunities I’ve had. I can only imagine what opportunities life would have presented me if I hadn’t been adopted but when I do theorize, I come to see that the greatest difference has come from the impact my adopted parents have had.
The difference between my birth family and my adopted family is night and day. The family values are almost completely polar opposites of each other. I follow my adopted family’s value system but that doesn’t mean I look down on my birth family. I’ve realized growing up that things in my birth family’s history such as alcohol and drug addictions and the abuses of the Residential School system have taken their toll. My birth family works from the moral and social education they received from their experiences. If I had grown up with them instead of my adopted family, I would most likely have that same social outlook.
The reason I talked about this is to show the different paths that a single person can take, given the circumstances they find themselves in. More than most, I’ve seen with stark reality the road not taken and the potential for what I could have been like. Given that difference set of circumstances, those in my life who’ve affected me the most, that I’ve loved, that I’ve been mentored and influenced by, would have been replaced with a different set of people who in turn would have influenced me along different paths and choices.
When I think about the question I was asked at that business luncheon, “how can we make Hamilton a better place”, I realize there is no easy answer because in giving a definite “this is what we must do” answer, I force everyone and their experiences to now fit a specific set of rules and guidelines, and all it will cost someone is their individuality, heritage and social education up to that point.
So where do we start from? How can we make somewhere with so much diversity better? How do you build a stronger community as a whole while respecting the individual communities found therein? I believe the only place we can start from is understanding that each community we come across has innate value, just like each person we come across as innate value. If we’re willing to put aside our differences and embrace our similarities, amazing things can happen.
But is it enough? Looking past our differences is a good start, but it requires more than that. It requires love, and love in the purest form requires self-sacrifice, a letting go of our own desires so that a greater good can occur. It can even require us to see the value in those we consider an enemy.
This is where it can get uncomfortable for a lot of people, including myself. People have an innate need for justice when something bad happens to them. We yearn for the good to be restored and the bad to be punished. Unfortunately that need for restoration can give way to a need for vengeance, regardless of the guilt or innocence of those we think are responsible.
It’s too easy to look at some wrongdoing say “Aha! That is why this happened!”, while completely disregarding the underlying circumstances and evidence. I believe part of the need to blame, especially when it comes to events involving those different from us, is so that we can say “I’m not like that”. If the person is different enough, you can justify away that you and those you associate with couldn’t and wouldn’t break whatever social and moral rules have been broken. You can continue to believe that you live in a good and just society, and that when bad things happen, it’s because those responsible are not part of your society.
But society doesn’t work that way. In places of diverse cultural heritage, like Hamilton, society ceases to be comprised of a few specific cultural heritages and becomes a melting pot of many different ways of life. Unfortunately when this happens it can be too easy to claim that we no longer live in a good and just society because our values are no longer are own because they’re now made by everyone else. It’s an attitude I’ve seen expressed in many different forms since 9/11 and with immigration issues coming to the forefront in both the United States and Canada.
Here’s the thing though: the problem isn’t that we don’t live in a good and just society. The problem is that comparatively we do live in a good and just society, which means there is no excuse for those who are most at risk to be slipping through the cracks. It is only our choice not to do something, to say “someone else will handle it”, that allows injustices to continue.
Nelson Mandela once said “A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones”. For those who are most at risk in our communities, whether they are the poor who’ve become the victim of economic forces beyond their control, or minorities who’ve been born here into less than the North American ideal, or immigrants from around the world who’ve come here believing they can find the freedom they can’t find at home, we need to keep in mind that they still have something to contribute, if only given the chance.
Looking at the choices my adopted parents made towards me, to choose to take into their lives a child that they didn’t have to, makes a profound statement to me. That statement is that each of us has the power to completely change the lives of others for the better if we so choose. My adopted parents could have said “someone else will take care of him”, and they wouldn’t have been wrong. Someone else would have come along, whether they be new foster parents or a provincially appointed social worker. But because they made the choice to take on the financial and, more importantly, the moral responsibility of taking me into their home and treating me as an equal, my life was set on a completely new path. To paraphrase Robert Frost, they took the path less traveled by and that has made all the difference.
So here’s the question I leave with you: how can you make where you are a better place? How can you make life better for those around you? It doesn’t have to be something huge and world-changing. It doesn’t have to be planned out. Maybe all that’s needed is simply stepping outside of a comfort zone and making a stranger feel welcome. Rarely do we change someone’s life because we’ve planned to.
Perhaps the best way I can sum every thought I have tried to present here is a quote by philosopher Albert Camus:
“Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.”