I was thinking today about the first time I showed someone, whom I met in the Village, that their life experiences were looked upon as a valuable asset for employment. I remember feeling so profoundly moved by how this person felt that their journey with addiction and homelessness translated into a life of little value and a “dead end.”
When they stopped into the Village one day, and I was listening with a glowing heart to their thoughts of maybe going back to work again in the future, I pulled up two employment notices I had recently come across and turned the screen so that they could see the requirements. “Lived experience with homelessness and/or substance use.” I can see their face in my mind now as I write. “Seriously?” they asked. “Seriously.” I replied. “You have lived this life and gained this knowledge that most people could never understand. Some employers want that knowledge. That is valuable. YOU are valuable. You are meant to teach us about the changes that need to happen.”
I have such gratitude for people who recognize when our towns need to evolve and change. As new businesses arrive and new homes are built, undoubtedly money is invested in surveys and studies from those experts who possess the knowledge to best guide our leaders in making sound and educated decisions with which to move forward. It would seem then, that when looking at change with respect to necessary supports, investing in social equity and the evolution of resources within our communities, the voices and experiences of those whose lives are most impacted by these resources, or lack thereof, must be present in the conversation.
I don’t know that we can fully appreciate the impact of municipal washrooms closing during a pandemic unless we are a woman of childbearing age, whose body menstruates once monthly, while she is experiencing homelessness. I’m not confident that many of us can appreciate how difficult it is to keep an appointment or remember to take medication to keep ourselves healthy and well, when we struggle to navigate hunger, poverty or stressors so heavy that we aren’t sure what day it is, let alone the time.
I don’t know that we can fully appreciate the journey to how “meth” becomes a tool to mask the pain of trauma or appease the voices of mental illness if we have not ever fought those demons within our own bodies or felt the sickness that happens when someone tries, on their own, to stop using. I am not sure how we can best decide on a suitable location for someone to comfortably walk in and access services if we have never felt the shame and systemic oppression of trying to gather up the courage to get help.
And I am not sure how we can decide how much food is enough and just how poor someone needs to be before we decide they qualify for help. To me, it feels like asking a baker to fix my car. Respectfully.
Social reforms need to happen in communities, just as much as roads need repair and policies need to be revisited. Every once in a while, we need to sweep the cobwebs out and see what’s been working and what needs to adapt to reflect what is happening on a broader provincial and federal level. And while we explore the areas where our communities need to adapt, we must view the folks living these experiences as valuable and knowledgeable “agents of change,” rather than simply recipients of services delivered by experts in that field.
One is far more dignified, empowering and validates the knowledge that comes with navigating journeys many of us, I suspect, enviably know little about.
Take good care of each other, friends.
Andrea Charest operates It Takes A Village in Listowel.