What I've been reading

Five books recommendations from Dr. Jennifer Wolowic

August 28, 2021

As we enter the fall with a federal election and the Delta variant on our minds, I wanted to pause and share a few books I read during lockdowns that continue to inspire or influence my thinking. While I may have some critiques of their arguments, their main ideas are worth sharing and using in our work to strengthen democratic culture.

1) Overdoing Democracy by Robert Talisse

Talisse is a philosopher who reminds us that politics isn't everything. In his Ted Talk on the subject, he advises not to think about "how to talk politics over Thanksgiving." Instead, we should remember that family and thanksgiving are more important than politics. Overdoing Democracy reminds our team that our governing systems exist so that most people don't have to think about politics all the time.

The point of democracy is to foster valuable human relationships and lives that are devoted, collectively and individually to meaningful projects that lie beyond the struggle of politics.

As vaccine debates continue to polarize us, Talisse reminds us of the importance of what he calls "civic friendships," those respectful associations with those who might disagree with you on an issue or two - the importance of empathy and of joining a softball team or a choir where you will encounter folks who don't think exactly like you.

2) The Opposite of Hate by Sally Kohn

Kohn's book was published three years before the January 6th attack on the U.S. capital, but it resonates with the increasing violence of political protest and the growth of anti-vax/anti-mask protests across North America. Kohn explores what hate is and why we hate by interviewing trolls, terrorists and ex-white supremacists. She positions herself along the way, reflecting on her own identity as a queer journalist, her own moments of hate and forgiveness, and the systems that create othering. The short answer: hating is belonging.

That's what we all need to do- become acutely aware of how our institutions and norms and otherwise-invisible social mechanisms are pitting us systemically against one another; feel deeply indignant about it; and attack those systems instead of each other.

While all Kohn's points are interesting and especially helpful as my Twitter feed fills with hot takes on anti-vax movements, it is the chapter "When Hate Becomes Pandemic" that keeps me up at night. Kohn unpacks the Rwanda Genocide and how violence became a social norm through leaders who pitted social groups against one another and media that spread that message. It was chilling to read statements from Rwandan immigrants to North America, who told Kohn that the "othering" messages in their new home today are a lot like the messages and feelings that circulated in Rwanda a few years before the genocide.

3) Brotherhood to Nationhood: George Manuel and the Making of the Modern Indian Movement by Peter McFarlane with Doreen Manuel

This book came to me through a recommendation from Ginger Gosnell-Myers. In the narratives of Canada's history, we too often overlook the ways Indigenous leaders constantly pushed back against the oppression they faced. For example, in BC, more people should know about the 1877 journey of Tsimshian chefs to Victoria to protest the reserve system, turn of the 20th century court battles trying to overturn racist fishing policies, the formation of the Allied Tribes and the Native Brotherhood, as well as the the court battles, advocacy, and organizing that continues to this day. I appreciated learning the details of Manuel's passions and the personal resolve required to fight systems, build organizations and find the momentum for system change.

As a builder of organizations, his contribution is unequalled… During the constitutional debate of 1980, he led a thousand of his supporters to Ottawa and forced the government to include Aboriginal rights provisions in the Constitution, thus opening the door for future breakthroughs.

The book is honest about the struggle, strength, brilliance, and ideas required to fight back against oppressive systems and oppressors, and proves that there is no single mould of leadership. Furthermore, it is honest about the personal sacrifices of leadership amidst trauma and oppression, and a strong reminder about how our own action or inaction today may implicate us in ongoing or future racist systems.

4) Mending Democracy: Democratic Repair in Disconnected Times by Carolyn Hendriks, Selen Ercan and John Boswell

I've heard the phrase "democratic recession" more times than I can count. It's used to describe both subtle and not so subtle trends around the globe. Mending Democracy focus on the connections within our democracy – the threads that connect to make it the fabric of our social-political structures. The authors identify three places where it's fraying: the disconnect between citizens and elected officials, the disconnect between citizens and the public sphere, and the disconnect between citizens and the policy making process. Then they share stories of how some of these frays are being mended.

Everyday citizens, civil society groups, elected officials, and administrators who are pushing along small-scale, pragmatic interventions across, between and within different parts of the democratic systems, mending and making do with the resources at their disposal

The book is filled with case studies from grannies holding knitting parties to protest gas mining to innovative health policymaking and grassroots efforts to strengthen the connection between residents and their federal representatives through independent candidates. The book identifies how small actions across the fabric of our democracy can have larger impacts.

5) Neighborhood Defenders by Katherine Einstein, David Glick and Maxwell Palmer

The Initiative has always focused on democratic culture, but recently we have shifted our attention specifically to the local experiences of democracy at the intersection of policy, procedure and citizen engagement in decision-making. This summer, we've been exploring issues with local government public hearings, and one of the knowledge holders we spoke to recommended this book. NIMBYism, the authors argue, is too simple a framework to understand a key barrier for approvals to increase housing supply. The phrase "Not In My Back Yard" ignores the fact that it is often not about someone's own backyard, but rather a sense of community and the institutional systems that propel NIMBYism into the barrier that it is.

Conceiving of opponents to new housing as NIBYs paints an entire group of people as selfish and worried about their own, individual welfare at the expense of others. In contrast, many neighborhood defenders see themselves as attending public meetings on behalf of their communities, page to police their community's boundaries and, in some cases share their expertise.

Neighborhood Defenders unpacks the motivations for certain residents to show up to public meetings and the legislative structures that often give more privilege and power to unrepresentative voices.

Share with us, what have you been reading?