Politics is a dirty business and I would avoid it if I could.  For most of my life I’ve pretty much done just that, except to cast my vote at election time.  And when I look at how the party system is manipulated by monied interests behind the scenes I’m not even sure that counts for much.

Lately it’s been harder for me to reconcile my values and beliefs with the injustice I see in the world and maintain a non-political stance.  I’ve been avoiding looking at this too closely because it makes me uncomfortable.  And you know I am committed to follow my bliss.

But last night I attended a lecture at the University of Waterloo by Selma James, an 83 year old activist who has committed her life to gaining recognition for the value of women’s work and improving the conditions of women and low wage workers around the world. She challenged me with the following statement.

“Politics, if fueled by a great will to change the world, rather than by personal ambition, offers a chance to know the world, and to be more self conscious of the actual life you are living rather than being taken over by what you are told you should feel and a chance to live, in other words, an authentic life.  Such politics are a unique enrichment, not a sacrifice.”

Politics, in other words, is about looking at the world with our own eyes, and challenging the definitions that are sold to us, in order to govern us.  It’s about being clear and precise in describing our real lives and the world we live in.  And just as clear in articulating the kind of lives and world we want to live in.  It is about making common cause with those around us who share the same reality and the same aspirations. Then being courageous and persistent in holding those in power to account for how well they deliver from that perspective.

Nicola Marcus, from Red Thread in Guyana spoke alongside Selma. Red Thread’s mission is “to organize with women, beginning with grassroots women, to cross divides and transform our conditions. We provide services to women and children exploited in unequal power relations and simultaneously work to change those relations.”  Nicola was eloquent is sharing the story of how a small group of women decided to get political about their own condition, in just the ways described above.

Both Selma and Nicola are united in their support for the Global Women’s Strike campaign around the rallying cry: “Invest in a caring society. A living wage for mothers and other carers.”   Click the link to sing their petition to bring pressure to bear on governments to act on the dynamics that keep women and poverty so closely linked.

I spoke with Selma after the lecture, and the joyful passion she has for the work of world changing is palpable.  Here’s what she said to me.

“You have to start where you are.  And ask yourself what you really want.  Then look for others who want the same thing and start organizing. It’s about autonomy and collectivity. You need both.”

“Organizing is what I want to do with my life.  It’s the thing worth doing as far as I can see.  For a long time nothing happens, but when a movement finally rises, then everything happens at once.”

Three morals in this political reflection:

1. Politics is a natural expression of an authentic life.

2. It’s about refusing to passively accept the definitions of reality that powerful interests have written for us.

3. It’s about seeing the world clearly through our own eyes, and banding together with others of like mind, to change the conditions that undermine us.

with respect and appreciation to Selma, Nicola and all the others who are so steadfast in the cause of justice,


p.s. Thanks to WPIRG at University of Waterloo for sponsoring this event and to my son Richard Russell who is a fan of Selma James’ work, shared it with me and invited me to this event. It is a wonderful thing to have your mind expanded through the influence of your children.

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