“Danger due to hunger”

One of the most difficult things about coming to Toronto has been witnessing the prevalence of homelessness on my daily commute. I’m aware that sounds ridiculous. Clearly the challenge is experiencing homelessness, not seeing it. But every time I walk by someone asking for money on the street, it’s like a tiny punch to the gut, a reminder of the shortcomings of our society and our vulnerability as people.

In Waterloo, it was a much rarer occurrence to see a homeless person. Travel down King St. to downtown Kitchener and the story is completely different. I volunteered for a brief span as part of a class at a community kitchen there, and it was visibly apparent how many vulnerable people were living in our region, even if you could feign ignorance living in Waterloo’s university and heavily suburban areas.

I usually pass by two or three homeless people on my way to and from work now. One at each subway station and one outside of the nearby Tim Horton’s. Often it’s the same people, sometimes not. But every day I see people walk by without so much as a glance. I’d be lying if I said that was never me, but I try to make sure it’s not. Many people would say that that kind of desensitization is both normal and necessary. You can’t do anything do stop the problem, so why  burden yourself by feeling something about it, by engaging?

Part of the answer for me lies in the signs you often see people holding while begging for change. Things like, “I’m a good person” or a modified construction sign made to read “Danger due to hunger.” It’s so sad to me that someone in that position has to convince people that they’re “good” to warrant asking them for help. Without knowing anything about their personal history, how can you condemn someone for what you presume to be bad life choices? And yet, so many people do.

There are many reasons why people choose not to give money to homeless people. Sometimes it is as simple as an air of moral superiority. Other times it’s a genuine fear of unpredictability, in essence a stigmatization – or perhaps misunderstanding – of mental illness. Maybe you choose to give in other ways that attack the roots of the problem or more widely address the symptoms. Perhaps you just don’t carry change. There are many valid reasons to make that choice.

But it’s not all about the money. I see no validity in intentionally dismissing another person’s connection to you as a human being. When we desensitize to a problem, we normalize it and give ourselves permission not to think about it. We also miss opportunities for potentially meaningful human connection. I’ve never been homeless, but I don’t think I’m wrong in imagining that some people living right in our midst and simultaneously on the fringes of society might appreciate a little more human connection.

Make eye contact. Say hello. Remind yourself and others that we are all people, regardless of circumstance. You might not have any change, but you can smile at someone for free.

 

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Blog absenteeism

Well, it happened. I made a website, started a blog and subsequently ignored it. Oops. But I do have a (semi-valid) reason for doing so.

The job search is over. Hurray! I am now working as a sub-editor at The Canadian Press. I work with Pagemasters, doing copy editing for The Toronto Star. I’m getting paid to do something I love – read the news. Obviously there’s more to it than that, but that’s the gist of it. It’s been a great learning experience so far and I’m enjoying it.

The job itself is a bit of a sad statement about the industry I hope to continue working in. The only reason jobs were opened up at Pagemasters (six of us were hired at once) is because it’s cheaper for The Star to outsource that work rather than do it in-house. In other words, people lost their jobs. It just speaks a lot to the overwhelming job insecurity in journalism right now. People trying to break into the industry are trying to compete with older, experienced journalists who have been laid off. And how could that not exist? None of us are paying to read the news anymore. So I feel fortunate to have a job, and especially one where people seem happy and there isn’t a looming, constant fear of lay-offs.

On top of that, I’ve been doing a bit of freelance work. I contributed a piece to Heliophon about Canada Day (see below) and have plans to write another soon. I wrote one piece for Innovate Development and will be doing more. I get to combine my interests in writing and sustainable development, which is really great. And I also have some pieces lined up with a couple of magazines – but more on that once they’re actually published. Don’t want to get ahead of myself here.

So I have been writing. But not on here. This post is intended to kickstart my blog writing again, hopefully on a weekly basis. Keep an eye out for something I plan to write about the Canadian justice system and my involvement with the Walls to Bridges program, either directly for my blog or through Heliophon.

Canada Day – Heliophon Article

This was written for Heliophon, a youth intercultural e-magazine. Unfortunately the editors were unable to get the article up on time for Canada Day, but here it is nonetheless.


 

Canada Day. It’s like the Independence Day of our southern neighbours, but with a little less pomp and fanfare. It marks the signing of the British North America Act in 1867, which joined our first four provinces (Upper Canada, Lower Canada, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick) into one country. In other words, it’s Canada’s birthday. You can find large, outdoor concerts with quintessentially Canadian bands (like The Tragically Hip or Great Big Sea) across the country, though Parliament Hill in Ottawa is generally seen as the place to be. Wherever you are, there’s always somewhere to show off your red and white and watch fireworks. Poutine will be eaten, Tim Horton’s coffee will be drunk and references to hockey will be made; it’s a once-a-year opportunity to be unapologetically Canadian — whatever that means.

As we approach our Canada Day celebrations on July 1, I’m reminded of my tenth grade Canadian history class, where we were tasked with an essay to answer the question, ‘what is the Canadian identity?’ Several years older and a bachelor’s degree wiser, a definitive answer to this query remains evasive as ever. More knowledge and less idealism have simply made my search more convoluted.

Beyond our surface symbols (the majestic beaver) and stereotypes (an alleged affinity for pronouncing the word about, ‘aboot’), what is the Canadian identity? What, other than our existence, are we collectively celebrating on Canada Day?

Our diversity as a people makes this incredibly challenging to answer. Canada has two national languages, English and French, with the latter spoken by around one-third of our population. The majority of French speakers reside in one of our ten provinces, where threats to secede have dwindled since the 1990s, but not disappeared entirely. We also have a large population of diverse Aboriginal Peopleswith unique cultural customs and heritages. Many of these groups have highly tenuous relationships with national and provincial governments, given the historical oppression they have experienced and the devastating conditions faced by some on reserves today. Our diversity is also reflected in the rich cultural tapestry woven by the substantive immigrant population we host. While this might suggest multiculturalism is a defining national characteristic, it is a value that has been threatened, in my view, amid increasingly stringent immigration regulations.

Given these immense differences within our population, how does one begin to grasp what it means to be truly ‘Canadian’?

I’ve spent the last two Canada Days abroad. It’s given me a lot to reflect on in terms of how other people view my country and what I represent when I am acting as an unofficial ambassador for it. I live in a country with a (more or less) functional democratic system; a universal healthcare system that we love, and love to hate; and a relatively young, though highly valued, Charter of Rights and Freedoms. While forms of discrimination tragically still find their way to fruition here, I believe that more than in many other countries, you can bring your own values to the table and find a place for them. My own province of Ontario, where we recently elected an openly gay, female premier to a majority government, is a testament to this. Maybe that’s part of why we work, in spite of the challenges. You’re free to ascribe to your own version of what Canada means to you, rather than being forced into a narrow, pre-ordained definition. Simplistic, perhaps, but it’s not so different from what I wrote on that grade 10 history paper. That’s what I’ll be celebrating on Canada Day. Of course, there are some who would disagree with that—I welcome the challenge.

 

Election blues

On Thursday, I voted in advance polls for the June 12 Ontario election. I suspect that there will be many Ontarians who won’t do the same come election day. While voter turnout is certainly never high, the sense of disparagement surrounding the election this time  seems elevated. And I think we have our politicians to blame. Before you jump in with a rant about voter responsibility – I’m right there with you – let me explain.

From the time that the election was called, the rhetoric surrounding it has been extremely negative. It’s become a race to the bottom, not about which candidate/party you want to vote for, but which is the most bearable. (As I write this, an anti-Hudak attack ad is on TV.) While no one would have expected the Conservatives to support the Liberal budget, the NDP’s reasoning seemed more based in spite than ideological differences.  It only got worse with the debate. There were no winners, in my opinion, despite what polls showed. None of the leaders came off as remotely visionary or trustworthy. Hell, they weren’t even debating each other – they wouldn’t even make eye contact most of the time. The debate was exactly what you would have expected (and why people choose not to watch these things): snarky, confusing and pointless. And then there was the morning after. The post-debate hangover featured the NDP and the Conservatives buying wrap ads on newspapers disguised as actual content proclaiming the victory of their subsequent leaders. Has it been done before in other elections? Sure. Does that make it justifiable? Absolutely not. I think this just demonstrates how far our political parties are wiling to sink to try and get votes – they’re intentionally looking to mislead people. I can sympathize with the journalistic arguments for and against accepting this kind of advertising, but I think the fact that politicians are taking advantage of the struggling print industry to push election agendas masked as news says far more.

And then there’s the youth vote. This is always a bit of a tricky issue – should politicians be courting the student vote or should students be pushing politicians to talk about their issues? While this might not be a major issue in some communities, in Kitchener-Waterloo if students were to actually come out and vote in full force, it could completely alter the voting landscape in the riding. Personally I couldn’t imagine not voting, even with the dismal prospects we have to choose from. That being said, hardly any election coverage has been dedicated to student/youth issues. Sure, the parties have policies and plans for post-secondary, but it seemed like a complete non-issue. Did not come up in the debate in any meaningful way. As a recent graduate, I want to know how the jobs you’re planning on creating (or getting rid of) are going to impact my generation. I don’t mean that in an entitled way (that word people love to apply to gen y); it’s just that after four years of accumulating debt during an undergraduate degree, I’d like to know that I’m going to be able to find a job to help manage that. And when I almost inevitably return to school, I want it to be affordable and reasonable. Where was this during the campaign period?

I don’t know if I can put my finger on what precisely has been so terrible about this election period, but I’m ready for it to be over. Whatever the outcome of June 12, I hope that whoever is elected does a better job of actually running the province than convincing me that they can.

My first MOOC

If you’ve been following my tweets, you may have seen that I’ve started taking an online course in data journalism. Aside from the subject, what makes this course different from any that I’ve taken before is that it’s a massive open online course (MOOC). Myself and my 20,000 classmates, who come from many different countries, have signed up to take this course completely for free. It’s run through the European Journalism Centre (so far both instructors have had British accents) and Data Driven Journalism. There is no obligation to actually do all the course work, unless you want the certificate at the end; even so, it’s impossible to monitor whether you’re actually watching lectures and reading through the discussion posts. Back when I worked at The Cord, I remember one of us working on a story about MOOCs. I was highly skeptical. What was the point of a course that required no prerequisites? Would people really be motivated to complete something that required no money and where the marks don’t matter? Can the quality of teaching really be that good?

I’m two weeks in, and so far my experience has been okay. It’s all been very introductory so far, so I’m more excited for what’s to come in the next few weeks, which hopefully will be applying tools a bit more. There’s a different instructor for every week, and they’re all professionals in the field – working journalists and professors.  There are five different modules for the course and within each around four different sections. For each section there’s a short video lecture and some readings (sometimes just looking up a web tool, other times reading an article), followed by a quiz of a few questions that you can retake as many times as needed, and an assignment of sorts that you work on in the discussion board. It seems like there are a lot of people who are really engaged and the sheer size of the class keeps the discussion boards busy; I find it can actually be a bit overwhelming and I don’t usually end up going through a lot of it, just because there is so much. But it really is a very different learning environment and not a bad one, in my opinion. If you’re there and participating, it’s because you actually care about the topic and want to become more knowledgeable about it. There is grading, but I don’t find it to have much influence on the course, so I can’t imagine it’s a motivator for most people. For my part, I’m there because I’m looking for an introduction into a subject that’s completely new to me, but I’m not ready to throw myself into school fully again. The flexibility—and the zero cost—is really appealing.

I’m hoping to have something to show for it at the end that I can post on here, maybe something with Google Fusion Tables. And I should have some more thoughts to share in a couple of weeks, after we’ve gone more in-depth. If you’re looking to learn more about MOOCs, Coursera has a good overview.

Welcome to my website

Well, it has finally happened: lindsaypurchase.com is a thing. Creating a website has been a goal of mine for awhile. For a young journalist, or more broadly people working in the media industry, it seems that having a website/blog is somewhat of rite of passage. I wanted a space to showcase my portfolio online and I also wanted to keep up writing over the summer.

Before getting started here, I took some basic coding courses online through codecademy.com. What I had hoped to do was gain enough knowledge to build a website from the bottom-up so that I could customize it to my needs and style. Didn’t exactly happen that way. 1. I probably need some more time to really learn coding in-depth before being able to build a website, and I wanted to get started blogging ASAP. 2. Being able to create that kind of website costs more money than I’m willing to spend at this point. So I spent hours trying and rejecting different WordPress themes, becoming increasingly frustrated with how rigid it is, and finally landed on this one. It’s not perfect, and I’d change things if I had the flexibility to do so, but it gets the job done. I have had some issues with translating the theme to different browsers, so if you’re having trouble seeing certain tabs on the menu, let me know and I’ll to fix it.

I’m not sure exactly what this blog will be yet. I’ve had two in the past for trips to Togo and to Ghana, but those were very specifically about my work and travel experiences. This will likely be a combination of a couple things: thoughts on current events and my experiences as a recent grad searching for employment, at least for the time being. Mainly it’s an opportunity for me to keep writing, but hopefully you get some enjoyment from it as well. I look forward to your comments and feedback! Let’s see how this goes.

Writer.