Committing…for Better and for Worse: An Interview with Mandy Hiscocks
BY THE PEAK
Mandy has lived in Guelph since 1994 when she started her undergrad at the university, where she started to get involved in political activism and organizing. After graduating, she spent many years working on campus and is currently the Volunteer Coordinator at OPIRG-Guelph, a social and environmental activist centre at the university. She has been part of many different actions and campaigns, many of which have landed her in court, some of which have landed her in the hospital and one of which landed her in jail. They have also been her main source of purpose, accomplishment and friendships over the last 15 years. Mandy turns 40 years old in a few months. Since the ’90s, she has watched most people she worked with grow up, burn out or fade away, which gives her all the more respect for those who have stuck around.
How have your politics and your approaches to organizing changed as you’ve gotten older?
I used to be really dogmatic. At first I was dead set on non-violent civil disobedience and I wouldn’t hear from anyone who argued otherwise. And then during the anti-globalization movement, when I had my first real run-ins with scary riot cops, I realized that that wouldn’t work, that we’d be slaughtered. So I became really dogmatic about militancy and economic damage and direct action. Now I believe in a diversity of tactics, and that we need to be flexible. I’m a lot more willing to work with a wider range of people and organizations, I’m a lot more interested in what they have to say. Part of that is that I’m less idealistic than I was. I used to think that with enough information people would care, and once they cared they would obviously fight. Now I know there will always be fewer of us than we need, that most people won’t step up, and so we have to be more strategic in using the little we’ve got and we can’t be discounting the people whose politics aren’t exactly the same as ours.
What are some obstacles you encounter when you work with people of a younger generation? How do they treat you? What are some of the tensions?
I sometimes distrust younger people in the sense that I don’t know if they’ll be around five years from now. You know that old ’60s hippie saying, “Don’t trust anyone over thirty”? Well, sometimes I think it’s more like, “Don’t trust anyone under thirty.” So many people see activism as a phase, or a hobby, and then go on to get fancy jobs, a house and a car, and have families and all that. It’s disappointing, every time. It’s hard for me to commit to people if I don’t know that they’re committed as well. I do acknowledge that that’s harsh, that people’s early twenties are a time when they’re figuring things out and experimenting and so on. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just that after ten years of it, it takes its toll.
This is definitely not to diss anyone in my community, regardless of their age. People are amazing organizers, and have stood in solidarity with me through a lot lately. It’s just that in the back of my head there’s always this nagging feeling that they could be gone any day.
There’s also this nagging feeling that people are setting themselves up more than I ever did, when I assumed none of us really did that. I didn’t think people were saving money, or thinking of a career, or considering buying houses, or any of that. But more and more I see people are doing those things and it terrifies me, because I feel like I didn’t get the memo, you know, that even though we’re radicals, and some of us are anarchists, we should still be looking out for number one. One concrete thing that I miss is working with other cities, which was a much more common model during the anti-globalization movement. It has fallen out of favour, and it’s kind of looked down on by the younger crowd. Things are more insular now, we tend to organize inwards more than outwards and I don’t think it’s as effective. It’s just one of the ways that things change as we get older—the things we worked so hard at and put so much energy into are cast aside. That can be hard at times.
I should say that I’m very grateful and honoured to still be accepted by a group of people ten to fifteen years younger than me. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be able to do the kind of organizing that interests me in this town, and then I’d be the one having to make the choice of, “Do I stay and do less than I could, or do I leave for a place that has older radicals in it?” I know people my age in many cities, I could go to any of them and be accepted there, but I don’t want to leave Guelph. I made a commitment to Guelph a long time ago. So I’m glad I can still work with people here.
Why do you think it’s so hard for so many of us to organize outside of our peer group?
I should start by saying that everything I talk about from here on in will be based in my experience of organizing in communities of mostly white, student and/or middle-ish class people, usually between the ages of twenty and thirty. That is what I know, and that’s what I’m talking about. I can’t speak about other communities, and nothing I say in this interview is meant to include them.
Part of the problem is that people aren’t rooted in a geographical community. People move around, people really value freedom of movement. It’s a good thing in a lot of ways but it means that we didn’t grow up around our neighbours, we don’t have family ties in the community, we have little history with or commitment to the people around us, and there’s no long-term attachment to the land base. So we tend to gravitate towards people who are like us, who enjoy the same things and have the same politics, who use similar tactics. It’s easier. It’s also more fun—I mean, if you’re going to organize in your spare time you’re giving up opportunities to hang out with friends. So if you organize with your friends, you’re feeding two birds with one hand so to speak. The downside of combining organizing with friends with the ability to move easily is that people’s personal shit, their arguments with and disappointments in each other, can often mean that they just walk away. They stay in town but leave the movement or stay in the movement and leave town. There’s no real impetus to do the hard work of staying where we are, sorting out our differences and carrying on.
Even when there’s no conflict, people often get bored or don’t feel challenged and so they move to find a better organizing scene, one that’s more exciting or appears to have more potential. I can’t count the number of people who’ve picked up and moved to Toronto or Montréal because it’s cooler, there are more people to work with, people are more radical or more experienced or whatever. My life in Guelph has been marked by saying goodbye to a succession of amazing organizers. It takes its toll on a community.
I’m certainly not saying that moving is always a bad thing. Sometimes a move is what allows someone to start organizing, because it’s a move to a community of people they can identify with. A lot of my frustration with it stems from my privilege of not having to move in order to find a group of people I’m comfortable with. Moving from straight white rural Ontario to Toronto, for example, probably opens up a whole world of political organizing to a lot of queer people, or people of colour. But still, that’s a community based on common identity, which is a different beast than a community rooted in a place. Sometimes I let myself imagine if all the amazing organizers from Guelph who are now doing great work in cities around the world had stayed here. We needed those people to have stayed here. We reinvent the wheel all the time in this town because there are so few people who remember the organizing of the ’90s, let alone anything that happened before then.
Why do you think people leave the movement?
There are all kinds of reasons people move away from organizing. Burnout and too many defeats are a couple of reasons. But I wonder about those sometimes. Most movements are far more repressed than ours, and the consequences of resisting are so much harsher for other people than for us. As for defeats, it’s always been that way. Change has always come at a huge cost, people have had to pick themselves up time and time again before winning anything. I think we really do need to suck it up a bit. It’s not a popular opinion in this day and age of self-care, and I get a lot of flak for it, but there you go.
Careers and jobs are a huge reason people leave. Lots of people are in school right now to be lawyers, nurses, social workers; a few years ago it was teacher’s college. Organizers who pursue these careers often continue to be part of the movement. There are lawyers who take on political cases pro bono—the Movement Defence Committee is a group of movement lawyers who do workshops and legal support for activists. But a lawyer, obviously, has far less time to contribute to actual organizing. And they are constrained to a certain extent by professional codes of conduct. I have friends who are lawyers, and can see how torn some of them are between their career and the organizing work they used to be part of. It’s not easy. I have so much respect for the few of them who don’t get pulled all the way out of the movement and into regular lawyerland. I think that often people go into a certain profession thinking it’s the best way to make change while actually supporting themselves, and then learn the limitations when it’s too late. This is a common complaint of my teacher friends—that there they are, with a bunch of youth who are at the age where their political opinions are forming, but the curriculum is so packed and the classes so big that there’s no time to really talk about things. I think a lot of people get a career with really good intentions of using it to support the movement, but end up realizing that it’s not what they thought it would be.
Sometimes people don’t leave so much as drift away without meaning to or even necessarily realizing it. I worry sometimes that this is happening to me. I was lucky to land myself a job that I could live with politically speaking, as well as live off of, financially speaking. It’s hard to juggle having a good, mostly ethical job with continuing to organize outside of it, especially when your job is similar to the work you’d be doing for free (meetings, events, posters, campaigns, and so on). There was a time that I was (or at least tried to be) part of every single project and every campaign going. I barely slept. And then a few years ago I realized that I actually did very little organizing outside of work and that I’d hardly even noticed the shift. Suddenly all of the energy I used to put into unpaid work was going to my job.
Kids are another big reason people drop out, or are forced out of the movement. I’m not a fan of radicals having kids—for one thing, they can be used against us. A threat to someone’s child is a pretty common way to get them to snitch, for example. I also don’t buy the “breeding the revolution” theory that’s quite popular these days—the one that says that we have to have more children so there will be more good people/more fighters/more people who will resist. The fact is there is absolutely no way to know how a kid will turn out, especially because we place so much value on independence and people fulfilling their dreams and being whoever they want to be, and we constantly stress that we’ll love our kids no matter their choices in life. Finally, in North American society, it’s almost certain that any person does more harm than good to the planet and to people in the global south, no matter how amazing their politics are or how well they put them into action. It’s just the way we live, the way we’re forced to live. I can’t remember who said it, but I once heard the expression, “At the end of your life, make sure you’ve done more good than harm.” If we really take everything into account, very few of us are doing that, and very few of our kids will either.
Don’t get me wrong, I love kids. I have nieces and nephews, and lots of friends’ kids in my life. It feels like such a sacrifice to never have had any of my own to care for. But we make a lot of sacrifices for the movement, and this is just one of them. People need to decide, I think. We can’t breed a revolution and raise kids who feel that their parents will support anything they do. We can’t really resist, we can’t put our shit on the line, and still live up to the standard of parenthood that has been set for us.
Still, people will continue to have kids, and so it’s up to all of us to figure out ways to make sure they’re still included if they want to be. As a movement, we’re not good at that. Our meetings are at bad times, they’re not fun for kids, we don’t include the kids in our decision-making and we don’t usually talk about issues that are important to them or their parents. This is also true for youth, and elderly people, and people affected by (dis)abilism. Our organizing is centred on and structured around the interests, availability and capacity of a very small slice of the population.
Why do we even want these things that tear us away from the struggle? The career, the house, the kids?
The sad fact is that we are far more mainstream then we like to believe. We like to think we’re counter-culture or have a better system or whatever, but when it comes down to it we often end up doing what everyone else does: we couple up, we want kids, having those kids tends to lead us to a single family home with a lot of stuff, even without kids many of us choose to buy cars and homes, and we want a good job that will allow us to be comfortable. These are the same things that most people want, be they liberal or conservative or apolitical. The personal property and nuclear family-based system really does suck us in, much as we like to say we’re different. It’s a powerful beast, and we’ve been indoctrinated into it from childhood. There are a few people I know who resist this. They’re in their 40s. They have jobs but they keep organizing. They have kids but they still take risks. They live in collective houses with those kids. They are a great example of how we could live—but I know from conversations I’ve had with them that it’s really hard. Society has been designed to push people into a very specific way of life and to punish those of us who want to do something else.
How do you think we should be going about developing an intergenerational struggle?
The tension between continuing to be part of the movement or dropping out often has to do with personal security. A lot of us have more to lose by being involved than by not being involved. One thing I think about a lot lately is the fact that I have no money saved for if I live beyond the time in my life when I’m able to work. I don’t own a house. I don’t want to participate in capitalism, I don’t want to invest money and make it grow (read: steal from others or wreck the planet). But who’s going to take care of me? I chose the movement, I chose to live by my principles, I chose to organize and stand in solidarity with the Earth and the people my peers and my lifestyle are screwing over. I wouldn’t change that for anything. But it’s come at a pretty significant personal loss—and I’m one of the lucky ones! I have good health and a decent job that keeps me fed, clothed and housed. The fact is that I’m fighting to topple capitalism, but until it falls it has a huge hold on my ability to survive, and while I benefit from the movement in a lot of ways, personal security and a rosy future are definitely not among them.
The way that a lot of people drop out of the movement when they start to have more to lose speaks to our privilege. In a lot of communities, it’s very different—the struggle is a matter of survival, because so much has been lost already. Recently I was at a talk by a couple of people from the Mi’kmaq Warrior Society. They spoke of inspiration, of carrying on, of never giving up…whereas we speak so often of burnout and self-care and ways to keep the movement sustainable. One of the speakers talked about his kids. “I’m doing this for them. I don’t want them to have to go through what I went through.” He had been to jail, he had faced live ammunition from the RCMP. And now he’s away from home on a months-long speaking tour. Similarly on an recent episode of Democracy Now!, a woman from Bahrain was being interviewed. She had faced harsh consequences for protesting the government there, and her young daughter would wake up at night worried that she would be taken to jail. She said the same thing: “I’m doing this for her.” A lot of people in the very white, very privileged community I organize in might say this is irresponsible, that once you have kids you can’t go around doing that stuff any more. But in my opinion, it’s precisely those of us that have the privilege to choose to walk away from the struggle that have the responsibility not to.
At the same time, it’s hard to ask people to give up their health, their security, the well-being of their loved ones, for a struggle that is full of so much failure and disappointment. It’s also hard to ask them to not put their families first. I’m reading a book right now of interviews with the children of republican and loyalist fighters in Northern Ireland. Those people who died or spent a lot of time in jail probably thought they were doing it all for their kids too…but so far in the book very few of those kids recognize or appreciate that. Overwhelmingly, they are angry and bitter that their parent cared more for the struggle than for them. They talk about the poverty and the pain their mothers and family were thrown into, and how hard it was growing up the child of someone who wasn’t around. And they certainly have very little sympathy for the struggle—in fact, in most cases there’s outright hostility towards it.
If we had a more collective way of raising kids, the impact of a parent who’s often out at meetings or who ends up serving some time would be less severe and maybe kids wouldn’t reject the movement because of how it hurt them. If we had a system in place to take care of people who can’t find work because they refuse to sell out their principles, people wouldn’t constantly be moving to Toronto to find paid work they can justify doing. We should have a way to ensure that our sick or elderly will be taken care of when they can’t care for themselves—that we won’t forget them, in the same way we don’t forget our folks in jail. If we had this kind of mutual aid in place, then maybe people would feel less afraid of giving all of their time, resources and energy to something beyond their own personal lives. And we could have a real movement, one that people could have kids and grow old in, one in which people don’t have to default to the mainstream life of savings and mortgages and career paths…because what we would have instead would be so much better than all that.