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Lawlor William (Bill) Lee

Lawlor William (Bill) Lee

Community organizing has been a part of Bill’s life for over thirty-five years. He began, like a lot of social workers, in child welfare. He wanted to “help” the less fortunate. After a while experience, particular in doing street work with youth and being part of organizing a union local, taught him that the problems that the people with whom he was dealing were rooted, not necessarily in their own personalities or particular upbringing but in unequal power differentials, poverty, racism, sexism and other structural issues. Working with groups engaged in changing the world became a lot more important to him than attempting to help people adjust to unjust/inhumane situations and policies. Community practice became his life’s work, life’s journey. While he often opines to his students that community practice by itself can’t be expected to cure these issues, community is an absolutely crucial site for beginning and sustaining action for positive social change. It’s where our private and public lives merge; it is the place where we can come together to talk, to argue, identify problems and solutions and begin to take action.

Along with his experiences and thinking he’s managed to read a good deal and to obtain a variety of academic bells and whistles and the opportunity to teach. More importantly, he has met great numbers of great people in many parts of the world, particularly First People, who have shared their passion for social justice and have provided him with their wisdom and stories of their experiences as they have struggled toward social justice. This in turn has impelled him to write of those struggles and journeys. His writing is an attempt to put in some sort of framework that will make it accessible and exciting to others. He has some favourite quotes he uses to think about and motivate his work. One is, “The exercise of power is never neutral” from the social/economic theorist Jeremy Rifikin and suggests the importance of acting with thought and purpose. One from the Marxist psychoanalyst Eric Fromm, “Freedom ‘from’ is one thing but freedom ‘to’ is quite another.”, reminds us that it is not sufficient to battle the negative forces; we have to figure out where we need to go. The Great African American leader Malcolm X reminded us of the importance and legitimacy of anger in the work of social change. He said: “Usually when people are sad, they don’t do anything. They just cry over their condition. But when they get angry, they bring about a change.”. Mother Jones, the wonderful labour organizer of the late 1800’s also believed in the utility of anger and that we need to do something with it, not leave it to the formal political process. She admonished folks: “You don’t need to vote to raise hell.”. But social justice work is full of complexities and an ancient philosopher Philo of Alexandra reminds us that we need to: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”. If we are going to engage folks we have a grave responsibility to recognize our common humanity. As the poet John Donne wrote, “… therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee”. So we need anger and a sense of our common humanity. And one more thing, Paulo Freire tells us that, “The hope of remaking the world is indispensable in the struggle of oppressed men and women.”. This kind of connects to Fromm’s point about the importance of “freedom to”. It is not enough to flee or heal from a terrible past we need to have hope in a positive future. This is what ultimately keeps us going. If we look at all the great organizers and leaders like Saul Alinsky, Sylvia Pankhurst, Cesar Chavez and Mohandas Gandhi we see anger at injustice, solidarity with the people and hope in working for a better future. Finally, Bill has a strong belief that while the road may be long and the work very hard it is important to keep in mind what his friend the Toronto organizer Jim Ward reminds us: “Remember to laugh.”.

For those who are interested, you can find some samples of the work he has done and the causes he has learned from below.