OPIRG Toronto is a volunteer-based group at the University of Toronto, with a mandate for action, education, and research on environmental and social justice issues. We are part of an international network of Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs), including ten others in Ontario.
We seek to empower and educate students and other members of the community, provide a forum for learning and sharing skills, and give people the tools and opportunity to work co-operatively for social change.
While OPIRG Toronto is best known for our environmental work and related research, the majority of our projects actually focus on a wider variety of social justice issues or on the links between various issues.
Most non-profit volunteer based organizations have a “client base” and/or work issues selected by their staff and Board of Directors. OPIRG is doesn’t work like this. The issues we work on are chosen by volunteerswho are more than our “client-base”, volunteers actually make the organization what it is. This means that one of our most important objectives is to provide a space where people at U of T and in the broader community can utilize and further develop the skills, tools and analysis they need/want to do their work around issues of social and environmental justice more effectively.
It’s true that in any given year, several working groups will come and go, volunteers may graduate or move on, staff may change and interests or commitments may wane, but new people and opportunities give birth to new ones just as regularly. This is healthy. It is part of what keeps OPIRG Toronto innovative and refreshed. OPIRG’s activities reflect the interests, commitments and skills of its participants. From our perspective, which issue is worked on is as important as what volunteers learn from their experiences and how they are empowered in this process.
Striving for Diversity and Inclusion
Ideally, OPIRG’s active membership would reflect the full diversity of the campus and the broader community. This means that we actively strive to provide a safe, harassment-free space for people who are surviving racism, colonization, poverty, transphobia, homophobia, ableism, and sexism
This also means that we recognize that creating safe spaces are ongoing processes--this starts from recognizing and respecting that those who are on the margins are often in better positions to understand how systems of oppression, power and privilege work and are maintained
Some Suggestions for Creating Change:
Information on OPIRG policies and commitments to anti-racism, sexual and gender harassment-free spaces etc. should be included in all orientations, events and other environments in which OPIRG Toronto participates
Offer ongoing anti-oppression workshops/activities for volunteers and staff and choose facilitators who have experience working through oppression and privilege
The office environment, events, workshops etc. should reflect OPIRG Toronto’s commitment to creating anti-racist, trans and queer positive, accessible and harassment free spaces
Encourage and foster meaningful relationships with a broad range of campus and community groups and organizations so that we can learn from each other’s strengths and weaknesses
Be open to challenging systemically and socially imposed stereotypes and how these are internalized in ourselves. Anti-oppression is a life-long commitment.
Addressing Hierarchical Power Structures
All of the environmental and social justice issues that exist today stem from an inequality of power-from hierarchy. A few people decide what will be done and how it will be done for everyone else. Generally, those decisions reflect the self interest of the group in power.
In addressing issues of environmental and social justice it makes little sense to use the very organizational structures that permit gross inequalities to exist in the first place. Power differences will never truly be eliminated-not everyone has equal access to information, resources or experience. We can, however, design a volunteer program that strives to address and recognize power, privilege and oppression.
Some Basic Goals
All significant planning and decision making should be done by groups
Group decisions should be made by consensus
Participation in groups should be safe and discrimination-free for everyone
Communication links between groups should be maximized
Information on policy, current issues and how to become involved should be easily available and accessible to all those who are interested
Striving to actively create safe spaces for people interested in community organizing should be a primary goal and concern