“Do you have a community that stands behind what you stand for?

And if you do, you’ll have more power. And if you don’t, you won’t.” – Barack Obama

Disclaimer: This reflection is a little different. I’m not going to name the school because it teaches a greater lesson about divided communities and the power of collective action. In some sense, it is about any and every school in Canada.

When we booked the school, the teacher warned us that the students are pretty loud. They were pretty loud. Although the teachers strategically sat with the students throughout the gym, the echo in the gym and unruly students were difficult to manage.

After the assembly, the leaders in student council apologized on behalf of the school. But, what was interesting was their smugness. Students said that they were “embarrassed” by the other students, reassuring me that “we’re not like them and we were paying attention,” that they were “lazy” and “dumb”. This is a similar pattern I see particularly in mining communities in Canada: a divided community of holier-than-thous versus I-don’t-care-what-you-thinks.

“I’d like to try a risky experiment here. Who would agree that the other students are lazy and dumb? That they don’t care about anything?” As I said this, they nodded along and said in agreement: “That’s exactly what we have to deal with.”

So, I asked: “Does any of your family work in a mine?” Not a single person raised their hand.

This is a trend. Mining communities are divided between miners and ‘the rest’. Miners don’t relatively value education and school, as they know exactly what they’re going to do with their lives: work in the mine, live my life, and retire.

Say I’m 15 or 16, and I have the physical strength to work in the mine. I’m stronger than my dad. But, the only reason I’m financially dependent on my parents, living by their rules, not being treated like an adult, is because the government is making me go to school. In school, I won’t learn things that will help me in life. Which I know exactly what it will be: work in a mine, live my life, and retire. So, why would I value education?

But say I’m 15 or 16, and come from a non-miner family. I don’t know what I’m going to do with my life. I grew up elsewhere, and my parents moved to the mine a few years ago. My parents plan on retiring and moving elsewhere, so I don’t plan on living here. The world is my oyster; I could do anything. So, I’m curious about my options, want a good grade to keep my options open, and my parents reward me for doing well in school. So, why wouldn’t I value education?

But each group looks down on the other group, without talking to each other. Democracy functions when ‘we the people’ move together. It may be slow, but it’s steadfast progress together, one step at a time. Over the years, we’ve been taking the easy road. Like-minded people with power, money, and education move first, leaving many behind. The chasm becomes wider and wider, and eventually, someone will have to pay its price. That may be us or the next generation, but someone will pay.

“If you take your high school community organizing experience seriously, you’ll get much out of it. You bringing together the high school community is as difficult as Trudeau bringing Canada together or anything else. The skills and dynamics don’t change. So, don’t just brush these off; take it seriously and try to understand how to bring the community together.”

This is a common theme I’m encountering on this tour: a divided community cannot solve climate change. If my generation can build an ‘imagined community’ that brings all segments of society together, we’ll not only solve climate change, but work towards changing the very nature of future global and systematic challenges.