Dec 20, 2018

Final farewell to the CCPA


Dear friends,

After 22 years as founding Director of the CCPA’s BC Office, this month marks the end of my employment with the CCPA. Given that, I wanted to share some farewell thoughts and thanks (in addition to those I wrote when I announced my departure plans last spring).

Leaving the CCPA is quite emotional. I care deeply about this organization. I have spent pretty much my entire adult life at the CCPA. Like a few others, I’ve basically grown up in this organization. My whole self-identity is fairly intertwined with this place, which is in part why, as I approached age 50 I felt the need to leave.

Many of you have been asking what I’ll be doing next and I haven’t quite figured it out. One thing I have clarity on is that I want to spend a lot more of my time and energy focused on the climate emergency. I hope to write a book related to that topic. I will remain a research associate with the CCPA-BC and will have an association with SFU’s Urban Studies program. One way or another, I will remain engaged in this struggle for a better and more sustainable BC.

I’m not going to individually thank each of my 14 BC office mates here, and name their special attributes, not to mention all the wonderful people who work for the CCPA across Canada. But I do want to recognize, in particular, another person who is also leaving the CCPA-BC after many years—Dianne Novlan is retiring.  In addition to helping to keep our office running smoothly and chasing down financial contributions, Dianne has been for many people their main point of contact with the CCPA-BC. And we have been so well served by that! Dianne is always so friendly and helpful and deals with everyone with grace. Her departure is our loss.

Like a few others, I’ve basically grown up in this organization.

And I also want to share a final word about Shannon Daub. I take great comfort in the CCPA-BC Board’s wise decision to appoint Shannon as our new Director. Here’s the thing: when you are the “boss” of a great organization, unfairly, you get a lot of the glory—that’s certainly been true for me. But it really is the case that we have an amazing team. And the fact is, for many years, Shannon has been a key leader of our shop. She is a deep strategic thinker. She has driven much of our innovation. And she has brought rigorous oversight to the research we publish. So, rest assured the CCPA-BC is in good hands.

Of course, I feel tremendous gratitude to all of you who have been financial supporters of the CCPA; who believe in our project. And here’s what I think you most value:

  • You value that we take on those issues that, if we didn’t tackle them, no one would. In particular, you appreciate that we have always stayed focused on issues of poverty and the lives of BC’s most vulnerable.
  • You value how we draw the connections between inequality and the climate emergency.
  • You value the role we play building coalitions—helping progressives find common cause across differences. And there have been many—the Poverty Reduction Coalition, the Living Wage for Families campaign, the Climate Justice Project, the Corporate Mapping Project, the Seniors’ Project, the BC Good Economy Project, and more. And we in turn, recognize that we can’t win alone. Much as we at the CCPA would love to believe that the correct facts alone win the day, we know that only coalitions and strategic alliance-building win real change. Each time we have had a policy win, it was always been won in cooperation with others.
  • You value that we have supported and mentored others in a broader struggle: whether that was collaborating with and co-publishing with smaller groups, the legacy of Next Up alumni, the student interns we’ve mentored who now serve our movements or the counsel and research support we give to our partners and allies.
  • You value that we equip you with the facts, figures and analysis that you need to show that your desire for a better world can be realized.
  • And, you value that we stay true to our principles, even when controversial or unpopular.

To all of you who have been financial supporters of CCPA, let me offer you this assurance: these core elements of what we do that you value—they will continue. They are hard-baked into our DNA. Living those values and operationalizing them are not sources of contention or disagreement within our shop or with our board—they come naturally to those who work at CCPA.

And that is why I am confident you will want to continue supporting the CCPA-BC, as will I. While I may be leaving the employ of the CCPA, I give you my unequivocal commitment that I will remain a faithful donor! And I hope you will join me in that. Indeed, what better time than right now to make a year-end donation to the vital work of the CCPA-BC, which you can do here.

Some final thoughts about why this work matters:

We at the CCPA call ourselves Canada’s foremost social justice think tank. But what do we mean by social justice? The great African-American intellectual Cornel West defines social justice as, “what love looks like in public”. I like that. Social justice is love and caring for one another, expressed through progressive public policy. That’s our goal. It is why we feel such affection for those with whom we do this work.

Here’s a little secret: when I am giving talks around the province the question I most dread is “What keeps you so hopeful?”. I dread the question because one’s impulse is to lie. The person asking the question is seeking hope and the urge is to oblige. But the truth is any of us as progressive activists, with the courage to see the world as it is and the conviction to seek to re-make the world as it should be, walk a razor’s edge between hope and despair. We feel and know both. And maybe we should be more open about that.

And yet, I do see hope. I see it in the slow but sure progress of our movements. I see it in our research, which tells us that the world we want is possible given the political will. I see it in the activism and good will of people I’ve gotten to meet around the province in this job. I see it in the values of our fellow British Columbians and Canadians. From time to time, we at CCPA do polling on values (not much, it’s expensive). And when we do I’m always struck that, as a society, whenever we are given a choice between a private gain like a tax cut and a public good like spending on enhanced public services or tacking homelessness and poverty, for most people, the public good wins every time.

The core elements of what we do that you value will continue.

And so, here’s what I believe after 22 years in this job: the values of British Columbians are—in the main—good and progressive and caring. We just need a politics that allows people to give those positive values proper expression.

The values of British Columbians and Canadians are at the heart of what our work at the CCPA is all about. Many of you have heard me say that when I have to describe in a sentence what our organization does, I say, “We produce and promote research that shows our best values are possible.”   

News of today’s loss of the electoral reform referendum is very disappointing—in the face of fear, misinformation and uncertainty, the status quo always has an advantage. And so, the struggle to help people find a way to give their best values true expression continues.

 And so, while we do indeed live in a time of uncertainty and sometimes high anxiety, there is always hope.

A couple of years ago, my friend (and long-time CCPA-BC gala MC) comedian Charlie Demers created a remarkable one-man play called Leftovers. A truly amazing play—hilarious, of course, but also deeply moving and hugely politically insightful. Charlie’s play, which maps the history of his family over our shared political history, captures the pendulum swings of our politics: his mother was born at the cusp of a time when we were weaving and strengthening our social safety net and public services; Charlie was born in 1980, when neoliberalism was launching the Thatcher and Reagan revolutions and Milton and Rose Friedman’s free-market bible Freedom to Choose held a commanding place on the bestseller list; and yet, unlikely as it was, when Charlie’s daughter Josephine was born in early 2014, Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the 21st Century held that top spot.

Now no one would accuse Charlie of being Pollyanna. He is honest. His play shares with us how, as a progressive activist and thinker, he wrestles with despair. But near the end of his play, he offers this little and obscure glimmer of hope. He tells of a late ultrasound he and his wife Cara were given when their daughter was overdue. The doctor warned them that when an ultrasound is done just before birth, the baby is so large you can’t make out a bloody thing. Yet you are about to be blessed.

Charlie’s point, as I took it, was that as anxious as we may feel, sometimes the dawning of something amazing is just before us, but it’s so damn close, we can’t make it out. The new and beautiful world we crave may be closer than we think. I believe it, because history is full of surprises.

I’ll close with my favourite quote from the late great American historian Howard Zinn. Here’s something he wrote on that subject just a few months before his death in 2007 at age 87:

In this world of war and injustice, how does a person manage to stay socially engaged, committed to the struggle, and remain healthy without burning out or becoming resigned or cynical?

I am totally confident not that the world will get better, but that we should not give up the game before all the cards have been played. The metaphor is deliberate; life is a gamble. Not to play is to foreclose any chance of winning. To play, to act, is to create at least a possibility of changing the world.

There is a tendency to think that what we see in the present moment will continue. We forget how often we have been astonished by the sudden crumbling of institutions, by extraordinary changes in people’s thoughts, by unexpected eruptions of rebellion against tyrannies, by the quick collapse of systems of power that seemed invincible.

What leaps out from the history of the past hundred years is its utter unpredictability…

I have tried hard to match my friends in their pessimism about the world (is it just my friends?), but I keep encountering people who, in spite of all the evidence of terrible things happening everywhere, give me hope. Wherever I go, I find such people.

Even when we don’t “win,” there is fun and fulfillment in the fact that we have been involved, with other good people, in something worthwhile.

To be hopeful in bad times is not being foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of competition and cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.

What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, it energizes us to act, and raises at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.