Grassroots organization in action

On Saturday, Aug. 29, over a hundred Winnipeggers will gather at Vimy Ridge Memorial Park to Chalk 4 Peace. The premise of the event is simple: bring sidewalk chalk (or borrow some from a fellow chalker) and make some art. Some people draw something peace-related, but plenty don’t. There’s also some local music to entertain participants while they chalk and hang out.

Community events like this are extremely important for creating and maintaining a vocal and powerful civil society. Unlike government or corporations, the social organizations that make up civil society are not interested primarily in money or power. Community groups, unions, clubs, activist groups, and non-governmental organizations act, ideally, in the best interest of their members, and therefore society as a whole. These organizations are essential not only to provide a sense of community to citizens, but to uphold democracy. Without civil society acting as referee, government and corporations would be free to do as they please, with the risk of sacrificing social good for wealth and power.

Despite its importance, the idea of a strong civil society is becoming increasingly undervalued in Western culture. Even less vocal aspects of civil society, such as neighbourhood groups and community activities are less common today than in the past. This may have something to do with more people working longer hours each week , the popularity of impersonal means of communication, or it could just be that we’ve bought into the notion that material goods are more important to our well-being than a sense of community and belonging.

Whatever the reason, Western consumers seem unable to band together to work against government and corporate greed. Convinced that their actions make no difference, many people simply accept the world as it is. Instead of working together towards common goals, we quell our fears with consumerism and apathy. It’s not our responsibility, we think, to stop a fuel additive corporation from putting dangerous chemicals in our gasoline. That’s what we pay the government to do.

But what about when government fails to act in the best interest of its citizens? What about when corporate power is greater than government power? Civil society is vitally important in holding both government and corporations accountable for their actions. Both institutions rely on citizens/consumers to support them, which gives individuals more power than they often realize.

For proof of what an active civil society can do you needn’t look far. It wasn’t government or the market that overthrew monarchies, organized labour unions or ended apartheid in South Africa. It was groups of impassioned people who sought change.

More recently, the Seattle WTO protests in 1999 brought much-needed attention to policies within the World Trade Organization. Over 40,000 people crowded the streets in Seattle on Nov. 30, and succeeded in not only preventing the WTO conference from taking place, but also in shedding light on the destructive consequences of the WTO’s brand of free trade. Moreover, the Seattle protest demonstrated that globalization in its current form is not a natural process, and that it can and will be opposed. Let’s see Stephen Harper do that.

Chalk 4 Peace is a global event with more than 300 participating cities on five continents. Not organized as an anti-war demonstration, the purpose of the event is to encourage creative support for a broadly defined cause, and is intended to bring together communities and to demonstrate that the desire for peace is global. While their definitions of peace may vary, all of the participants believe that the pursuit of peace is worthwhile, and should be made a priority. All donations for the Winnipeg event go to War Child Canada, for the benefit of children who have been affected by war.

Sure, maybe events like Chalk 4 Peace are never going to end wars. Peace is an awfully lofty goal. But that’s not all civil society is about. Chalk 4 Peace is part of a larger community of groups and events and people that want more than government or the market can provide. Government and markets are, after all, only institutions. It’s up to us to ensure that they are working in the best interests of those they claim to serve.

  • Shawna Finnegan is the Online Editor at the Manitoban.