This Man Drank from the Garbage

Northern Secondary School

An essay in response to Dr. Jenna Sunkenberg’s (University of Toronto) introductory course, The Cornerstones of Social Justice, presented on Spur Young Scholars Day Toronto 2014.

A stooped old man in dirty rags stopped in front of a garbage can last February in China and fished out a McDonald’s carton—he then lifted it up to his lips and tilted the contents into his mouth.  The image of his horrifying helplessness and the unfairness of poverty imprinted itself into my mind.  Lately, I’ve been thinking about what this says about the global state of social justice.

Ten classmates and I attended the Spur Young Scholars conference on Friday, April 4th, 2014, a fledging arts and ideas celebration, as representatives of Northern Secondary School.  At one of the seminars down at the University of Toronto’s St. George Campus, Dr Jenna Sunkenberg took the long view as she formulated a response to the idea of bringing welfare and equality to the marginalized, not only in China, but places like our own country as well.

“The problem lies in the colonization of the mind.  We need discourse and education, which is already being implemented,” she said.  The idea of the colonization of the mind has its roots in ‘normalization’, where the oppressed subject comes to believe that the oppressor’s reality is the only ‘normal’ reality that should be adhered to, and thus believe oppression is something that is a sad setback that must be coped with.

Her view expresses that with discourse between the oppressed and the oppressor, both parties become aware of their situation, aware of the historical imbalance of power, and aware of the injustice that comes with such inequality.  And to achieve this discourse, there must be education for both parties to come to an understanding that such inequalities in gender, socio-economic status, birth, religion are not reasonable and should not be normalized in any society.

The optimism expressed by Sunkenberg, a tenured professor of the Cornerstone Program in Social Justice at U of T, is well founded.

Since President Obama declared in his State of the Union address that fighting inequality was the defining project of the future, both parties of Democrats and Republicans have seized upon the opportunity to use the theme of justice and equality in their campaigns.  But more substantial than the publicity that fighting inequality has garnered lately are the tangible advocates of social justice who live locally in our own communities in getting basic survival items such as clean water to Aboriginals and governmentally in welfare and education.  Everywhere—online, in newspapers, at work, and school—we see advocates for feminism and against racism, classicism, sexism, amongst others.

But even so, inequality and other tenets of social injustice still remain.

“We need to have ‘power with’ rather than ‘power over’,” Sunkenberg said.  Later, she pointed out that “this state still hasn’t been achieved.”

However it’s worded, the message is clear: if we want to strike at the roots of inequality and social injustice, we’ve got to start with an understanding that there needs to be ‘power with’ others, since ‘power over’ benefits those who oppress and subsequently results in the marginalization of those who lack power in this dominant structure.  ‘Power with’ solves many of these problems of marginalization as historical privilege becomes obsolete, such that society tilts towards equal chance of security and success for all.

But the truth remains, that those with power are either not aware of their role in social injustices, or would rather not give up the privileges that come with their position.  Most of the injustices in society work to the advantage of a white, straight, non-disabled, post-grad educated man (let’s call him Bill).  Bill can go where he wants, live where he wants, love who he wants, and be without fear for his health, safety, employment, and restriction of rights.  Even if he was educated about the challenging aspects of social equity, why would he be motivated to support diversity and social justice when the injustices are to his advantage?  Why would he want to change that?

It stands that he likely will not have a desire to.  Changes and challenges to the status quo will transform the position of power that he has and may lead to potential detriments such as less ability to influence and obtain certain jobs that still tend to favour men, like in the case of the disproportionate number of men to women studying engineering for their undergraduate studies.  In the U.S. about 18 to 20 percent of engineering students are women.

Of course, there are those who realize their positions of privilege, like the Kielburger brothers who established Me to We, and understand that they need to be advocates of social justice to help create a society where people are not judged simply by their race or gender, amongst other factors.  Their personal understanding of inequity manifests in their role of advocacy for institutional change.  However, it stands that many still hold on to their privilege.

On the flip side, the problem among the marginalized is the issue of normalization.  Sunkenberg poses that educating the underprivileged about the inequality of their situation will lead to a way out of oppression—but is this true?  Will mere education give people the tools they need to break out of the status quo? Will there be a change in the normative once all women, all disabled, all LGBTQ people are educated about how their situation is not supposed to be justified?

It seems that there is no immediate solution for the issue of social justice. And it seems that there is a means through education and discourse, and an ultimate goal of widespread equality, but no feasibility to obtain the ends.  Between the start point of discourse and the end point of equality, there needs to be a method that promotes more people to understand and change on a personal level in order to bring about a transformation on a broader scale; there must be more advocacy and active discourse.  Education and discussion may bring about local understanding and action—which is good—but, until there is a widespread shift in everybody’s perspectives such that the ‘power with’ perspective is achieved, there can be no actual equality and equity amongst citizens.  Social justice remains something that must be actively striven for.

Issues like poverty and sexism occur everywhere, even as my friends and I ate lunch at Spur happily in camaraderie.  But as we become aware of these problems, our day to day actions become affected, and thus social change happens—though maybe not as quickly and widely as to benefit everyone.  We need a means for better education and advocacy to reach more people from diverse groups of privilege and marginalization in order to finally realize global equity.

But until that happens, the man rooting through the garbage can remains another victim of social injustice, another person living below the poverty line—homeless, neglected, and without a way out.  He highlights one of the many problems of social inequality and embodies why there needs to be a change through a stronger means that influences understanding in more people so that there can finally be ‘power with’ rather than ‘power over’.  Maybe buying the man a burger helped that one day, but his problem remains continuous and ongoing, such that one simple action of donating food will not transform his future for the better.

Hopefully one day, through action and discourse, both parties of the privileged and marginalized can come to an understanding of how to put aside their differences, power, and historical inequity, and find a balance that promotes a better standard of living that comes with security and opportunity.

Once this missing piece is put in place, we can hope that people and institutions will change for the better.  Is it too idealistic and potentially tyrannical to hope for such a state?  Is it too hopeful to hold out for a time of equality?  Are there better ways to do this?

It is a revolutionary global drama, but until that day comes, the man who drank from the garbage can will likely continue living his life out of the trash and I cannot help but think that something should be done about our current state of social justice and that we should channel our inner Spur to implement innovative ways towards a solution.


Cherry Ng is a high school student from Northern Secondary School.

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