How to Organize in Pandemic Times

By Liz Glor-Bell and Leanne Saldanha, Alumni Association Executive

The Institute for Change Leaders Alumni Association, in partnership with the Open Democracy Project, held our first (virtual) event in 2021: Organizing in Pandemic Times. It was a joyful gathering of activists and community organizers, primarily from the ICL’s Alumni network, as we celebrated the outstanding leadership of several well-known GTA-based organizers who have achieved some extraordinary grassroots successes since March 2020.

Seher Shafiq of the North York Community House moderated the panel, which featured Tania Liu, a labour organizer with UFCW, Rajean Hoilett with the Toronto Prisoners Rights Project; and Tim Ellis, a political organizer working for LeadNow. We asked the panellists to devise questions for each other, a decision that gave way to mutual conversations and insights that surfaced several commonalities in the organizers’ approaches to the challenges of the pandemic.

At face value, the pandemic has heightened the visibility of social disparities and the prevalence of injustices across our country despite all of us being, for the most part, physically separated. Whether these injustices take place in the workplace, across borders, or in the hidden environments of prisons, they needed to be addressed urgently during the global pandemic.

In every organizing space, prioritizing safety was an impetus to challenging power structures and addressing inequities. 

Tania shared the story of the courageous union formation of Indigo customer service workers at Square One, who were assigned to clean the store's toilets during the pandemic—clearly a breach of their job description and outside of their customer service skill set. 

Rajean reflected on the rapid expansion of prison abolition organizing in the digital space. What started as a campaign countering Bell's prison phone contracts, turned into a multifaceted digital rising of abolition organizing to keep prisoners safe from the spread of COVID-19 in inhumane prison conditions without adequate health support. 

Similarly, Tim's political organizing is deeply rooted in the principles of his rave DJ-ing background: keeping partying youngsters safe and joyful in his care. With Leadnow, Tim's safety-centred organizing practices have a home in democratizing the nation and striving for safe inclusive equitable spaces for all. 

Each of the organizers advocated for vulnerable working bodies during the pandemic. Prisoners are some of our most vulnerable working members of society, who we conveniently set out of sight, out of mind in the disappeared spaces of prisons. This sentiment was echoed by Tania and Tim as well: we don't see the inequity until it is flagged for us by endangered community members. Thus, we are called to create safer spaces by centring siloed communities to create brighter collective futures. 

The panellists discussed how, in the past year, organizing has been able to reach people in different ways. As activism has moved into a space that “meets” online - facilitated through technology from home - people who have historically experienced barriers (such as non-accessible spaces or spaces which over-stimulate) are recognized as thought leaders in how to approach inclusive activism. 

At the same time, the lack of access experienced by society’s most vulnerable was highlighted. Those who do not have access to computers or high-speed internet are still unable to access the new spaces of organizing that many have adopted under the pandemic. For example, Rajean spoke of prisons as spaces which disappear people from the outside world behind walls and without access to communication tools many would consider basic. 

All the panellists agreed that being deliberate in breaking down barriers and clearing the way for those who want to help is the path forward. It requires recognizing the unique identities people carry and accommodating them, whether it’s the need for childcare, food on site, or an ASL translator. Building those types of considerations into the planning phase of any organizing effort will help make it accessible and ultimately community-oriented.

Building community and togetherness during the darkness of 2020 is the resounding outcome of Rajean, Tania and Tim's organizing work. We, your writers, were deeply inspired by their sizable wins and how these wins contributed to the bigger picture: countering supremacy and supremacist decision-making. In particular, we witnessed the compassion and mindfulness needed to take care of vulnerable community members across the starkest boundaries in each of their stories. 

However, what we hope every reader will take away is how important it is to keep asking for more than you imagine is societally possible. Rajean, Tania and Tim brought forward big, bold goals for radical change, moving beyond incremental reforms to sweeping rehabilitations, demonstrating that we can all courageously mobilize our radical desires into impactful winning strategies in Canada.

The Institute for Change Leaders is brought to you by the Faculty of Community Services at Ryerson University
and the generous support of USW, UNIFOR, CUPE and Birchhill Equity.

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