Forming Her Activism


"Am I an activist?" Phyllis repeats Liz's question. She tells Liz that her parents would not have called themselves activists, but she considers their influence fundamental in shaping her commitment to social justice as she grew up in rural Nova Scotia. "They talked to us about the Golden Rule rather than social justice, and they expected us to treat others as we wanted to be treated ourselves. Most important, they set an example of sharing whatever we had with friends, neighbours and the needy near and far. We (six) children were expected to pull our weight at home and in the community. We helped neighbours with chores. We went door-to-door collecting for church, school, community, the Red Cross, overseas missions and other worthy causes." It was important to treat everyone with respect. "You were polite and offered hospitality to anyone who came to the door, whether you knew them or not, including itinerants who needed a bed or food or a drive to the doctor or the county home for the homeless."

Defining social activism

For Phyllis, social activism is whatever she does to help make the world a fairer place. "Generally I use the term to refer to activities that go beyond individual, isolated acts of kindness or courage, to acts that are part of a larger movement, ones that involve people working together for change," she says. However, "Some individual acts lead to social changes that may not have been imagined at the outset. Think of Rosa Parks taking a bus seat intended for Whites Only. I believe it was a political act for her, but I don't think she would have anticipated its social and political impact on the Civil Liberties movement of her time."

"When I look back on my teaching," says Phyllis, "much of it was a form of social activism. And vice versa. For me, good teaching means trying to make the world a better place. And to my way of thinking, activism usually involves some form of teaching, directly or indirectly, through what I do as well as what I say. Not everyone would consider that an appropriate role for teacher or professor, but I saw it as my central role."