Silence vs. Impact

Personal Essay


The world is struggling right now. It is angry and off-kilter and feels out of balance. Between terrorism, race and gender-based violence, offensive politicians, and the dystopian landscape of Facebook, I often acutely feel that I have nothing to contribute the noise of the internet.

But this past winter, I had the privilege to attend a workshop and talk by Baltimore’s Design Studio for Social Intervention (ds4si) in my home city of Vancouver, Canada. Ds4si’s mission is to change how social justice is imagined, developed and deployed in the United States. They create change in communities through place-making, civic engagement, interventions, writing, and play.

During the workshop A Case for Social Emergency Procedures, instructor Kenneth Bailey encouraged to think about local problems and brainstorm ideas of what small and unusual actions we could use to design citizen interventions and emergency procedures for social emergencies. While doing this, he played us a slideshow of images. Having identified Vancouver’s housing crisis as a social emergency, he juxtaposed news images of racial violence in Ferguson amid Vancouver’s shiny glass skyscrapers. Kenneth coaxed us to think about Vancouver’s dire housing situation as a “quiet violence” that was creating great harm.

We watched a slideshow of injured black men in handcuffs dispersed among newspaper clippings with headlines of million dollar houses. This is not the same. Our problem is not the same as that problem. That situation is insane and dire and unjust. Our problems are petty. Canada is a different society than the US. I don’t know how to solve that problem ran my inner monologue. I looked around the room – everyone sitting quietly in the circle around me looked equally unsettled.

Kenneth coaxed us to talk about the housing issue in the city. What began as a few gripes about finding affordable housing turned into a larger group conversation about struggle, displacement, poverty, fear, diminishing community, homelessness, lack of trust, racism, and sadness. One group member offered up that we might now be seen as the “meanest city” (rather than the city’s official slogan of greenest city). Kenneth showed us that discussing issues from a range of viewpoints moved us collectively forward towards action. Sitting in uncomfortable silence didn’t get us anywhere.

More importantly, talking about one issue does not diminish the power of another.

In my frustration with recent world events, it’s easy not to say anything in the fear that I’ll mis-step or take away from the potency of what others are trying to say, but that’s a lazy excuse. Deep down, I know that my voice, even though it is a middle-class, privileged Canadian voice, can still lend itself to amplifying a larger choir, even if the song is not about events happening close to home.

Black Lives Matter.

Don’t shoot in my name.

Hate is unacceptable.

If you are feeling quiet, I hope you’ll join into the conversations that need you most.