Colette Murphy is the Chief Executive Officer of the Atkinson Foundation. She sent this letter on December 18, 2020 to Atkinson’s extended community. You can subscribe to receive her occasional updates here.
2020 has been a year like no other in memory. Decent work activists and advocates have taken centre stage with hard-hitting campaigns for paid sick days, child care, employment insurance, and other income supports for essential workers and their families. Migrant workers Luis Gabriel Flores Flores, Blanca Islas Perez and many others have said: “This is enough. We need to speak up. This is the time.”
This is why my end-of-year gratitude list is longer than usual. What I’ve heard and witnessed over these much longer than usual weeks and months has signaled the beginning of the end of “normal”. This message from Dionne Brand, a former Toronto poet laureate, has stayed with me.
“Look, we should never live the way we lived before; our lives need not be framed by the purely extractive, based on nothing but capital. Everything is up in the air, all narratives for the moment have been blown open — the statues are falling — all the metrics are off, if only briefly… The reckoning might be now.”
As this year comes to a close, I’m grateful for the people who are leading this reckoning.
- Essential workers and those who organize with them. They have been nothing short of phenomenal during this pandemic. Advocating for decent work and a fair economy is their “second or third shift”. Many hold two or three minimum wage jobs to make ends meet, and they show up ready for action on evenings and weekends. It shouldn’t have to be this way. We applaud Chatelaine’s decision to name Sonia Aviles, an organizer with the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, as one of their twelve Women of the Year. This prestigious designation lifts up the “grit, talent and tenacity” of women who have “made waves in [their] respective spheres.” We can expect to feel the impact of these waves for many years to come.
- Black and Indigenous communities and those who advocate with them. COVID-19 has laid bare racial inequities and the urgent need for income and personal support. Uprisings against white supremacy, and the systems and structures that perpetuate it, led the Atkinson Board and staff to make their deep commitment to racial justice even more explicit in our philanthropic strategies and organization going forward. During a panel discussion at the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants’ Annual Forum in October, I shared my reflections on this movement moment. We’ve taken our lead from eleven organizations that serve Black and Indigenous communities to get new financial resources out quickly three times over the course of this year. Partners like the Parkdale Activity-Recreation Centre and the Parkdale People’s Economy Project have managed to organize a mutual aid network while continuing to engage residents who have been hardest hit by the crisis in city-wide efforts to create an equitable economic recovery. The Toronto Community Benefits Network and other partners have moved into openings at all levels of government to articulate their pragmatic vision of a just post-pandemic economy.
- Public policy innovators. Since March, Atkinson has convened long-time policy experts and advocates concerned about the economic impact of the pandemic on working-age adults and their families. Together with the Atkinson Fellow on the Future of Workers Armine Yalnizyan, this group has collaborated to produce seven policy memoranda for senior government officials. Armine has been outfront from the start, having coined the phrase “no recovery without a she-covery, no she-covery without child care.” She’s led us in a national chant that has been heard in the corridors of power in Canada’s capital cities and around the world. Thankfully, her media commentary and collaborative advocacy efforts have had a significant impact on how we understand this moment — and what it calls all of us to do. You can get up-to-the-minute insights from Armine now by subscribing to her newsletter.
- Public interest journalists. Through lockdowns and uncertainties, Toronto Star Work and Wealth Beat reporter Sara Mojtehedzadeh has kept a searchlight on workers and their challenges. Sara delivered a brilliant TEDxToronto Talk called The Truth about Essential Work this fall. She has filed almost 100 stories in 2020, and hosted Hustled, a six-episode podcast series about the Justice for Foodora Couriers campaign — the first union vote for gig workers in Canada. Hustled is a riveting story about how Foodsters United, with the backing of Canadian Union of Postal Workers, won a precedent-setting ruling by the Ontario Labour Relations Board that couriers are dependent contractors and have the right to unionize. This organizing effort won CUPW the “Breakthrough Award” — a global prize recognizing unions “who have built strength through innovative organizing campaigns in the face of adversity.”
- Shareholder activists. The investors who created the Canadian Capital Stewardship Network stand out among their peers this year. Organized by the Shareholder Association for Research and Education (SHARE), CCSN is an action-oriented alliance of Canadian trade union representatives and labour-nominated trustees committed to decent work. The Reconciliation and Responsible Investing Initiative, with The Circle on Philanthropy, released a landmark paper on how Indigenous law can inform the governance of Indigenous trusts and investments — a significant contribution to the investment field. Changing how capital markets operate is a long game with many players. An inconceivable goal if not for SHARE. We celebrated their 20th anniversary in 2020.
There is no question that this diverse movement for racial justice, decent work and a fair economy has grown stronger in the midst of this unprecedented public health crisis. Expectations are rising and demands for bolder leadership are coming from every quarter. I’d like to leave you with a commentary by former Edmonton poet laureate and rapper Cadence Weapon aka Rollie Pemberton. Rollie looks into the fine points of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT project running through a historically Black neighbourhood called Little Jamaica in Toronto’s west end. Like Dionne Brand, he asks us to reckon with “normal” before it’s too late.
That’s a good place to start 2021.
Thank you for your interest in and support for the Atkinson Foundation. My final note of gratitude is reserved for the Foundation’s small but mighty Board and staff team. Their unwavering commitment to this work makes so much possible
With best wishes for a safe and restorative holiday season,