This is a more personal article than my previous one. In it I'd like to share my experience with the Greenpeace local Montreal group after a couple of months working there. I do so because I believe that this experience is poignant and demonstrative of the immense power citizens can have. A power which if directed towards a constructive cause, could do wonders and move mountains.
My experience, while brief, has sown a great sense of empowerment and purpose that I had not felt in a long time.
The very first thing I realized after a round of introductions was how diverse we were, which I always find heartening. People of diverse nationalities were present, such as Germans, Hungarians, Tunisians, French and I myself being raised in Syria. This diversity naturally extended to our intellectual interests, ranging from the sciences to the humanities, and to my delight the fine arts. Our skills and abilities thus were also very diverse. And yet not once did I feel unwelcome or out of place, quite the contrary. The group's esprit de corps almost instantly grew on me and a sense of belonging quickly ensued. In our last meeting, we had the immense pleasure of welcoming a compatriot from Nova Scotia in a group that is almost exclusively Quebecer and francophone. One of us very graciously acted as a live French to English translator throughout a 2 hour long meeting, earning a nice plasticine figure as a reward (no I'm not jealous...). Our coordinator Philippe summarized this event in such a pertinent and concise way that I can't help but quote him. "We experienced diversity's challenges and its beauty."
So what is it that can turn diversity from an obstacle to a bolstering force of unity? Naturally, a common cause plays a vital role. We all have an interest in and a concern over environmental issues. But I believe there is a more fundamental force at play. I personally felt a great sense of citizenship, and I am not talking about a piece of paper which is ultimately meaningless. I am rather referring to this drive to act in order to change and improve our shared polity and the world at large, motivated not by anger or indignation but rather primarily by a sense of duty and responsibility; separating reactive efforts from something more pro-active and durable. In an environment that fosters such a drive with political and cultural freedoms, this primordial sense of belonging grows to realize that freedom and rights need, more than anything, duty and responsibility. One cannot truly exist without the other. It is this shared sense of responsibility and passion that can bind a people together. Indeed, it can become a source of identity. Armed with knowledge, resourcefulness, organization, a cool head and compassion, this citizenry can become an unstoppable fulcrum of change.
During the preparations for our demonstration against the extraction of shale gas in Quebec and in solidarity with our compatriots in British Columbia who also organized a demonstration, on Monday 22nd of October, I couldn't help but notice a joie de vivre, a profound joy in our work that is highly contagious, as we worked on our banners and instruments. This inspiring sentiment was ten fold during the demonstration itself, with our diverse participants, young and old, chanting and dancing while being graced by the presence of a bipedal dancing polar bear as you can see on the photo. The only thing more consistent than the pain I felt in my arms for holding a big banner for 2 hours, was the smile that was drawn on my face. I felt empowered as an individual. I felt empowered as a member of a whole, a citizen. Effective change needs joy, during your work and outside of it - the joy of living and doing your part are not contradictory as they are sometimes portrayed to be, quite the contrary. Our nation-wide rally was met with success and media attention, and the exploration of shale gas in Quebec has been suspended. A cool head, organization, clarity and yes joy were able to accomplish what frustrated flailing can never match.
A successful liberal democracy is not only measured by its institutions and leadership, important though they may be, but also by its citizenry and its civic life. I strongly believe that above all, change needs an active citizenry that is organized, dynamic, rational and passionate. It requires citizens, standing as equals, to act as pioneers not only in bringing awareness to issues, which is very crucial, but also in creating solutions and proposing innovations. We are long since past the point where we can afford to believe that we are cattle in need of shepherds. The quickest way people lose their power is to think they don't have any. I believe without a doubt that citizens united in their passion, drive and higher values can accomplish what we are always led to believe is impossible and naive.
So do your part and do it with joy!