From Neighbourliness to Activism: Is There a Connection?

The past two years have been full of calls for social change. From the Occupy Protests that spread across North America in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, to the street based revolutions that became the Arab Spring, direct action has had varying levels of success. In Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, protests forced regime change—but in Bahrain and Syria, there has been effective government resistance. In North America, the impact of the Occupy Protests is unclear. Certainly some of the largest street demonstrations of the past decade against the Iraq War in London, were ineffective in changing government policy.

Climate change is an issue that concerns many of us, but positive policies seem constantly impeded by state and corporate actors with an interest in the unsustainable status quo. Many people feel powerless watching the acceleration of destructive carbon extraction processes, despite local opposition. This may cause apathy, particularly among very young people— a sense that there is nothing that we can do about any of this. Our voices won’t have an impact.

Is there a connection between our everyday sense of community, and our ability to mobilise for change? A 2012 Vancouver Foundation Report indicated that a majority of Vancouverites feel lonely, isolated, and disconnected from the people around them. The decline of community associations and activities has been mapped throughout America as well, in Robert Putnam’s famous book Bowling Alone. Putnam argues that our social connections are the fabric of effective civic engagement; their decline weakens our societies.

Strangely, while we see this reduction in the number of regular activities and associations we pursue with other people, we are more “connected” than ever before through social media. Facebook and Twitter have been credited with a significant role in allowing large numbers of people to coordinate and demonstrate. But can these online interactions replace the deeper sense of knowing and caring about people in our immediate neighborhoods, and does it matter?

I’m looking forward to the opening event of the Spur Festival in Vancouver. It will be a panel discussion “Where Does Change Happen?” with a lot of room for audience discussion. Join me!

Eva Sajoo is a Research Associate at the SFU Centre for the Comparative Study of Muslim Societies and Cultures, and a PhD Candidate at UBC, with a particular interest in how diaspora communities evolve and contribute to civic life in Canada. She holds a Masters degree in International Development and Education from the University of London, and her research won first place in a 2010 competition sponsored by the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies (Geneva).  She is currently writing a chapter on education, religion, and values for the forthcoming book Education and International Development: Practice, Policy, and Research (Continuum Books, 2013).  In addition to her academic work, she is a regular contributor to the news media, with a lively interest in gender and Canadian policy.

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