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Commentary :: Social Welfare
Community Centers: Learning from O Canada!
17 Dec 2007
The mosaic works in Vancouver, B.C. Community centers provide a buffer and cushion from the brutal and commodifying market. In happier days before Reagan and market fundamentalism, the Carnegie Center was bursting with activities, counseling, classes and circles.

by Marc Batko

Community centers in every neighborhood of Vancouver B.C. make the city livable, friendly and inclusive. The Carnegie Community Center in the poorest part of Vancouver recently celebrated its 100th anniversary. A new patio allows breath-taking views of the mountains. Breakfast and lunch are $1.50 and dinners are $2.10 or $3.50. For a dollar a year, anyone can use the computers three hours a day since the day is divided in three segments. Game rooms, a library filled from the start of the day, a gym, television room, theater make the center vibrant. At another center in the downtown eastside, anyone can bring in their laundry and have it washed the same day. In happier days before Reagan and market fundamentalists, the Carnegie Center was bursting with activities and counseling, classes and circles.

Community centers provide a buffer and cushion from the brutal and commodifying market. When the market is stylized as self-healing, total and absolute, an idol or panacea, all problems are seen as interferences with the market. With the change from the welfare to the workfare state, social exclusion is generalized, spreads to all strata and is no longer a marginal phenomenon. With the capital or anti-social offensive, speculation is directly and indirectly encouraged. Corporations use takeovers and mergers to maintain high profits and repress weak purchasing power and outsourced populations. CEOs are called "job creators" and workers "cost factors."

The mosaic works in Vancouver. People are respected and protected as beings with inviolable dignity, not work machines helping to increase profit. On buses, 20 people aren't enamored with their cell phones and their next three Hawaii vacations. The Sky Train light rail, a computer-operated system without conductors, traverses the whole city and hasn't failed since its inception in 1986. It runs every two minutes in the rush hour.

The principle threat is Americanization. Hire and fire, winner take all and the right of the stronger promote precarious work and generalized insecurity. Vancouver also suffers from problems and myths often originating from the wayward colossus to the south. Social housing funds from Ottawa are delayed year after year. Stephen Harper's recent "throne speech" emphasized the "Violent Crimes Initiative," necessitating expanded police and repression.

Community centers are a way to healing, integration, de-commodification and self-government. Shopping centers are a way to fragmentation and socialized disconnection where the means are confused with the end, the part with the whole, the personal with the public and the imaginary with the real. Community centers remind us that life isn't nonstop shopping and health isn't credit creation.

As critical thinking and culture shock can be new beginnings, system criticism and intercultural learning can be dismissed as exotic or luxuries. As the truth is not only in English, new priorities and perspectives come from outside market fundamentalism. In "1984," George Orwell warned that wars would become a domestic necessity to divert the people from economic contradictions. Dissent and criticism would be expunged from language so critical thinking would be incomprehensible. Noam Chomsky says information in the US is not censored but filtered. Alternatives are marginalized in different ways in a culture of info-tainment and celebrity news.

Community centers could be a way of re-socializing ourselves and re-claiming life from oppressive marketing, commercialization and commodification. We could see ourselves as story-tellers, as interdependent partners and listeners who are equally needy and fragmentary. In a truly developed society, roles could be exchanged so the teacher becomes the learner instead of weavers becoming the web under the work religion.

Dominant corporate media entertains us to death (cf. Neil Postman). Celebrity news and news-you-can-use (e.g. how to tie your shoes to be cutting-edge in the hyper-individualist, hyper-competitive world) lead to dummification and brainwashing. Economic learning and union hours balancing the endless business hours should be priorities after the horrors of Vietnam, NAFTA, Savings and Loan meltdown, New Economy bubble, De Lay-Abramoff shake down redefinition of government, Enron, Iraq and the mortgage debacle.

The earth does not belong to people; people belong to the earth (Chief Seattle). It is time to make peace with the earth (Al Gore). Nature isn't an external, free good or sink but our mother and partner, our guarantor of a future that often strikes back in pain and warning. Nature and children have rights in themselves and can not only be instrumentalized and destroyed. When we finally include the costs of environmental caring, we will close one blind spot that allows capital rule to appear beneficent.

Efficiency as the sole imperative in a profit-worshiping economy leads to blindness and one-dimensional life. In a thought-provoking age, we have lost the ability to think (M. Heidegger). In instrumental rationality (Jurgen Habermas), everything inward, spiritual and divine is dismissed and all language and relations are dominated by materialism, what work do you do and what do you own? Fatalism and resignation spread when the mantra - there is no alternative - is constantly repeated.

The future should be anticipated and protected in the present, not extrapolated from the present (cf. Jurgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope). Community centers could show us that human and sparkling future focused on simplicity and solidarity, on mending our own pockets and telling our own stories.
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