Written by Ryan Veltmeyer (WeavEast Fellow, Nova Scotia)
We all have heroes, role models and people we look to for inspiration in how to do our work and be good human beings. El Jones has always been one of these people for me (and many others), and I will try to briefly explain why I believe all of us looking to do ‘social innovation’ should get to know El’s work and learn from it.
El Jones is a poet, spoken word artist, journalist, educator and community advocate living in Halifax. You may have heard her political poetry at grass-roots events, major conferences, political protests or in a court-room if you’re a judge in Halifax. El’s uses poetry, amongst other things, to communicate ideas, experiences, perspectives and struggles of people experiencing oppression by ‘the state’—especially political entities like government that exert power and control over human systems, such as provincial or federal justice departments, departments of community services, education systems, immigration systems etc. She also uses her capacity as a writer, journalist and educator to identify, explain, teach and take action on various forms of injustice. The way she uses various modes of creative and intellectual expression to influence thought leaders, represent community voices and make change is an important example for all change makers.
Although El works on what may seem like many different issues to an outside observer—successfully fighting Black youth facing deportation due to failings in the Canadian justice, immigration, community services and education systems that would result in their death [read about Abdul Abdi’s case here.] or addressing the racist police checks that show the clear racial bias in our justice systems [ more here], or the exclusion of Black women from the #MeToo movement [more here]—her work is guided by simple concepts. She explains “the problems with police checks in Halifax don’t emerge because of the police… they emerge because of the way Black people are thought about in society”. She credits the work of Robyn Maynard for articulating the pattern the criminalization of Black men in our society.
El thinks big picture about the problems she is tackling—she is clearly a thought leader—but spends as much of her time as possible on direct, community-based action with those she supports. “Activism is 90% listening,” she explains.
I’ve been in many conversations about ‘talk vs action’ and ‘thought leadership vs action leadership’. When this discussion comes up for any social innovator, I urge you to examine El’s example. Thought leadership requires action to be well informed, tested, and for those speaking about change to be held accountable to their ideas. El talks about how despair of our own capacity to make change, a lack of skill in holding each other accountable, and fear of making mistakes lead many potential social innovators and leaders to ‘take action’ through circular arguments on Twitter and Facebook, or in endless meetings, evaluations and academic studies of problems that never get into action.
Where do we start if not in a well-vetted study or fully explored discussion on social media? El suggests that we can move straight to action, knowing we will make mistakes and will be learning, and that we have to start from a deep place of purpose and knowledge that all of us share—our humanity and capacity to love. If you have a family or friends in your life you love, that you would do anything for, then you understand where social change and action needs to start. She explains that after all “being human is the Black quest… if only we could be seen as human”.