35 Years On

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By Rachel Gray, Executive Director

NOTE: This op-ed originally appeared on The Huffington Post on May 4th.

The housing crisis in Toronto brings into stark relief a fundamental quandary. As house prices skyrocket, we have hit a new low with news that, after years of neglect, 1,000 social housing units will close — this, as more than 180,000 people fill waiting lists for homes they will never see. All of which prompted Councillor Gord Perks to recently suggest that Torontonians, were they asked to contribute more to fix this problem, would do so: “I think if it was put to them that way, I think we would see people step up.”

People stepping up is very much on our mind these days as we mark the 35th year since The Stop Community Food Centre started its work. People stepping up is not only our legacy, but from where we stand, our collective way forward. In an era of hateful, dangerous political discourse and growing inequality, it is more important than ever.

Our work began in the late 1970s, when a small group of people at St. Stephen-in-the-Fields Church came together and created a powerfully optimistic way forward. As a brutal recession took its toll on the country, the congregation saw people in their neighbourhood falling through the cracks. They began offering cups of coffee, and the chance for much needed conversations, and, in so doing, immersed themselves in enormously transformative work building community and social solidarity. Little did they know that their actions, and their belief that Toronto could be a better place, would have such a long-lasting impact.

In the decades since we started, The Stop has been part of countless conversations as marginalized people worked to put their lives back on the page. Since 2012 that work has gone national, as the organization launched by The Stop, Community Food Centres Canada, supports other communities in developing similarly dignified spaces and responses.

Every day we see an unwavering inclination towards hopefulness, change, and solidarity. As one of Canada’s first food banks, we have been supported for decades with donations, and though we know “emergency food” is not an effective or appropriate response to the four million Canadians who are food insecure, we see those donations as a desire for change, of stepping up. Alongside the donations are thousands volunteering — cooking, growing, and serving healthy food. More often than not, our volunteers are also the people using our services – coming to our drop-in to eat lunch one day and serving it the next. In so doing, as one volunteer so aptly told us, they are not simply in the social safety net – they are helping to build it.

These are hopeful, powerful acts, collectively writing a better future. While governments stumble through social policy-making with perennial short-termism, we see signs that people want more of the social solidarity that founded The Stop. It is a universal instinct – though, at times like these, we need to remind ourselves of who we are to one another, and how our fates are wrapped up together. The Indigenous worldview of “all of my relations” speaks to the absolute connection between all creatures and the earth. It is an incredibly powerful notion. Consider how different our world would be if decisions were made with that as a starting point.

As we look back at our history, it is not without a certain ambivalence. Thirty-five years of working on poverty is hardly cause for celebration. But 35 years of working to build community, understanding, and connection, and challenging ourselves and the systems that breed inequity, is more than a legacy. It is a way forward.

We are marking this anniversary, moving forward by looking back. Grateful for the years of support, we believe we are stronger together, responsible for one another, our fates intertwined. Indivisible. We will continue to work with people struggling in poverty, and to insist you add your voice to the chorus for change.

A wise friend described this work as bolting charity to justice. These days, nothing less will do. The divisive political environment we face diminishes us all. The future is calling, and it needs us all to step up. Be hopeful and brave.

At The Stop, we’re going to keep setting a big table, knowing our collective future relies on a fierce belief in justice, an insistence on bridges not walls, and an unreasonable hopefulness that can only come when you understand that we are all connected.

Pictured above: Rachel (far left) marches with community members in Davenport West as part of The Stop’s annual Good Food For All Festival in 2016.