SFU’s COVID-19 and the Future of Democracy highlights activism arising from the pandemic

Illustration courtesy of SFU Public Square.

By Emma Jean, Staff Writer

If anything good has emerged from this pandemic, it’s that the cracks in our systems have become more apparent than ever. It might feel easy to make like a turtle and hide until it all goes away, but if there’s something you can take away from the event COVID-19 and the Future of Democracy, it’s that now is precisely the time to take action instead. 

In a conversation put on by SFU Public Square and the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue that discussed gentrification, the throne speech, and the elitism of the art world, the four activists (Clare Beckton, Sandeep Johal, Walied Khogali Ali, and Liliah Williamson) led discussion around what it means to work towards a better world, and what that looks like in a time where traditional methods of physical gatherings can be deadly. 

The panel began with an effort to bring the audience into the presentation; it was about democracy after all. In the Zoom chat, participants were invited to share what democracy means to them and why they were there, as well as encourage conversation. As a range of responses rolled in, the event’s moderator Sabreena Delhon reminded everyone that “the people you encounter are the experts in their own experiences.” 

She introduced herself and shared a land acknowledgement, pausing to inform the audience that the event was presented with live closed captioning for those who needed it. This was the first appearance of a continuing theme about accessibility, and how true intersectionality means working outside traditional means of delivery. She then opened the floor for each of the four panelists to introduce themselves and the work they’ve done during the past six months of the pandemic. 

Clare Beckton, a former senior executive and current advocate for women in leadership, found concerns that COVID-19 may cause a regression on all of the societal gains made for women’s roles in society at large. With her own organization, The Prosperity Project, Beckton hopes to ensure that the increase in women leaving the workforce in the face of COVID-19 “doesn’t create a setback for us given all the progress that has been made in the past 40 years [ . . . ] going backwards.” The Prosperity Project provides training for women who otherwise may not get the opportunity. 

As she noted in an interview with The Peak, women are more likely to simultaneously work in industries as low-wage workers, who have been disportionately affected by the physical and economic effects of COVID-19, as well as be taking on the brunt of childcare and work in the home. 

“Some of [these women] have had to step back, lots of them who have had jobs have had to step back in a lot of cases because they just couldn’t do it all, and some are contemplating just stepping out of the workplace all together which is not healthy for the Canadian nation.” 

She spoke with urgency but never panic, noting that the shift to online outreach has removed physical barriers, allowing more people access to the organization than before. It’s not all negative, she insisted. A recurring theme from the event emerged: when normalcy is out the window, jump in to shape the new normal. 

Walied Khogali Ali is an organizer in Toronto who worked within the parameters of COVID-19 to create change in his own community. During Ramadan this year, he delivered meals to those who needed them across Toronto through his project, #RamadanMealsTO. Through grassroots fundraising, they were able to deliver 10,000 meals and employ at-risk youth to help deliver them, helping those who have been disportionately impacted by COVID-19. 

He noted how many of the people hit hardest by the pandemic, essential and low-wage workers, are disproportionately represented by racialized people, and Canada’s inability to get housing and food to many citizens have become more obvious than ever during the pandemic. The way he sees it, shifting times are the best opportunities to get in and steer that change for good. 

As he put it, “never let a good crisis go to waste”. 

Lilah Williamson is a high school climate activist with Sustainabiliteens, a group of teenage Vancouver activists who have rallied for their governments to enact meaningful efforts against the climate crisis like last year’s enormous Vancouver Climate Strike. 

At the event, she discussed how the pandemic turned their most famous and successful initiatives, public strikes, into a COVID non-starter. Rather than viewing it as a barrier, she says it acted instead like a “reset button.” The online initiatives have also found them working towards a wider range of goals through what Williamson called “distance action.” most recently with their “No Going Back” campaign. It fought for a better future for young Canadians, by creating and promoting a list of demands for Prime Minister Trudeau’s throne speech dealing with climate action, dismantling systemic racism, and decolonization. 

Sandeep Johal is a Vancouver-based artist whose work acts as commentary for social issues by “telling the stories of women who can no longer speak for themselves.” She discussed how during the pandemic, this manifested in the “Make Art While Apart” project, which transformed boarded up doors of businesses into pieces of art across Vancouver. 

Johal described how much the project had turned the “depressing doom space into an open-air gallery.” Her participation with the project is far from her only work creating art for all. Much of her work is an embodiment of democratizing art. 

She discussed a recent display she put on within the Vancouver Art Gallery, done in conjunction with Moving Still: Performative Photography from India. It was a blending of the “highbrow” celebrated there, and the “lowbrow” art looked down upon, and how a fellow person of colour told her that they could never see themselves in the gallery until she was featured there. 

“It really comes down to having access to these spaces,” she continued, “and being seen and being heard.”

After the panel discussion concluded, participants, panelists, and staff were sent into breakout groups to settle with our thoughts and everything that had been said. In our conversation, composed of only three members, we spoke about what the discussion stirred in us, what stood out, and how to spin it into change. It became clear that the themes of hope, loss, and action seemed to rise out of all of the panelists’ remarks. 

The 15 minutes flew by, and it seemed to be a deep meditation on the loss we’ve experienced as a society, and the hope of a goal on the horizon yet to be reached. As the session concluded, it felt almost like coming out of church, praying for a future you don’t know if you’ll see; sitting with like-minded individuals and our convictions, listening to others deliver testament to what action towards a common goal can accomplish. 

As I listened to these activists, all of whom had reasons to become apathetic towards a system that had turned their back on them but still continued to rally and organize for a better future, I found myself sharing a quote from Jon Lovett to my breakout group that kept ringing through my mind: “Hope is annoying because it makes demands of you.” 

Hope is the most potent motivator to fight for a better future, because as Johal put it, if they didn’t have hope that things would change, they would have no reason to do what they do. If you want to take action, try to find it in yourself because that’s the most personal place to start. Then, get busy.