On December 12, 2016 housing and anti-poverty advocates gathered to recognize Clark Brownlee, a local activist who has long been engaged in social justice and policy advocacy. It was a much-needed reminder that there is still good in the world.
It has been difficult not to lose faith in humanity in a world where millions of people recently saw fit to elect Donald Trump as their nation’s leader. Many Canadians are watching in horror as a new political era begins to take shape south of the border. And it’s not just America that has seemingly gone mad. Racism in politics is rampant in Europe and Kelly Leitch has shown us that Canada is not immune. In her bid for leadership of the Conservative party, she has been vocal about her support for Trump and has pitched a number of racist policy proposals. She is currently a frontrunner.
So yes, it is hard to be hopeful at a time when hate and fear of “the other” seems to be inspiring a disturbing number of voters.
But there are glimmers of hope. Resistance continues to grow in the U.S. as Americans try to make sense of their new reality. The powerful demonstration of support for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and its resistance against the Dakota Access Pipeline shows that a growing number of people are deeply concerned about the environment and are fighting back against “big oil”.
There is hope at home too. Indigenous people are leading the resistance against pipeline expansion in Canada. Young activists like twelve-year old Autumn Pelletier from Wikwemikong First Nation are joining their parents and grand parents as they fight to protect our water.
Here in Manitoba there are a growing number of young people engaged in social, environmental and economic justice issues. There are also those like Clark Brownlee who have dedicated their lives to justice and they are rarely recognized for their work. Clark is a founding member of Manitoba’s Right to Housing Coalition. He recently retired after volunteering for 15 years as its coordinator.
This wasn’t Clark’s first retirement. He practiced as a social worker in Winnipeg for many years. After retiring in 2003, Clark chose to dedicate much of his time to advocate for housing for low-income people. Clark’s passion for social justice dates back to his early days as a social work student. In their book, One Hundred Years of Social Work : A History of the Profession in English Canada, 1900-2000, Therese Jennissen and Colleen Lundy identified Clark as one of a small minority of social workers taking a public stand to bring about social change in the 1960s. They quoted from a statement that Clark wrote in 1969, as a member of the Manitoba Association of Social Work Social Action Committee:
Social action is an integral, not an optional, part of our professional responsibility. Aside from the agency efforts at social action, our professional association has a role to play in the total decision-making process of our community. By applying a process of problem identification, goal setting, strategy definition, and implementation, based on understanding facts, and an applied sense of timing, we, though few in numbers, can bend and influence the direction of our society to make it a more humane place in which to live. To do less would be negligent (p. 261).
More than 45 years later Clark remains committed to social justice. And the “formula” he described in 1969 remains relevant today. Through his work with the Right to Housing Coalition, he has demonstrated that policy advocacy can have an impact, but it requires solid research, strategic planning, discipline and effective timing.
Thanks to Clark and the Right to Housing Coalition, hundreds of more Manitoba families now have safe and affordable housing. The Coalition has been diligent and disciplined in it advocacy efforts to ensure that more social housing is built and the existing supply is refurbished and maintained. The Coalition successfully lobbied the previous provincial government to focus on some clear social housing targets and timelines. To its credit, the NDP government met those targets. In collaboration with Make Poverty History Manitoba, and proponents of the community driven View From Here: Manitobans Call for a Poverty Reduction Plan, the Right to Housing Coalition lobbied the NDP government to increase income supports for low income earners renting in the private sector. The NDP government responded with the Rent Assist program.
None of these changes would have happened if not for the advocacy efforts of social justice policy advocates including Clark. We still don’t have enough housing for everyone who needs it, and far too many people continue to struggle to pay their rent. But we have made small gains as a result of this work.
It is difficult for progressives to be optimistic and for those of us who enjoy middle class lives, it would be easy to retreat. Clark is an inspiring example of someone who does not retreat—he has remained dedicated to making the world a better place. People like Clark don’t get a lot of public attention, mainly because they don’t seek it out. They are going about the slow and tedious work of policy advocacy quietly and humbly. It’s time consuming tedious work and all too often the only gratification comes from knowing that your tried your best.
But for the many life long social justice advocates like Clark Brownlee, none of this matters. They do it because they believe it is the right thing to do.
During this Christmas season, at a time of political chaos around the globe, stories about people like Clark should be shared. We need them to restore our faith in humanity.
A version of this post appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press on December 20, 2016.