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Syrus Marcus Ware on making revolution irresistible

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Syrus Marcus Ware. Used with permission

My interview with Syrus Marcus Ware began with a simple question: "You bring art, youth and activism together. Tell me why and how?" It was a very uninspired question but Syrus' beautiful response transformed me. 

I have been very interested in the role of art in the movement in the revolution, in making change happen as an artist and an activist. I've been an activist and an artist, both for 25 years, organizing here in Tkaronto Toronto, but also out of Vancouver. I'm very aware of how they support each other --art supports activism and activism can make art stronger and more compelling. 

Toni Cade Bambara once said that the role of the artist from the oppressed or marginalised community is to make the revolution irresistible; that our job as artists engaged in organising against marginalisation is to make revolution seem inherently possible, seem plausible, seem exciting.

I've been very interested in intergenerational work, because I believe that that's the kind of communities that we're going to try to live in in the future. Communities where we take direction from young folks as well as from older folks, one where you know children get to have a say and bodily autonomy and self-determination. A future where youth are engaged not as future adults but as beings unto themselves who are exciting and who have ideas and who deserve to be consulted and engaged with.

We had a long interview which touched on the many facets of activism and building a better world.  The following is a small bit of our conversation.

A life in activism 

Ware (and incidentally rabble.ca) both cite the 2001 Quebec City protests against the Free Trade Area of the Americas as seminal events. Ware helped organize a busload of intergenerational Black, Indigenous, peoples of colour and trans-focused folks to serve as street medics at the protests. In the group were young people and elders from Toronto area; people like the late David Louis Melville, an educator, artist, activist and organizer. The energy and dynamics of the group of activists who went to Quebec City, and of the Quebec City protests, inspired Ware to take on building intergenerational organizing. 

Activism has become a way of life, a way of building community and possibility, a way of raising a family. Activism was foundational for the work Ware did for 13 years as the coordinator of the youth program at the Art Gallery of Ontario. During his tenure, he worked with approximately 1000 youth to create activist-based art projects that responded to social issues that they thought were relevant to their generation and to their communities -- projects on climate change, projects on immigration, projects on policing. Older artists worked with young artists using street theatre, graffiti, poetry, installation, and a variety of media to express their vision. 

Currently, Ware is a Vanier scholar and PhD candidate, facilitator/designer of the Cultural Leaders Lab, children's book author and co-founder of Black Lives Matter (BLM) Canada -- among many other things.  

Black Lives Matter Canada

Black Lives Matter Canada is a project that activists have been working on since the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement's presence in Canada, which started with the formation of Black Lives Matter Toronto (BLM-TO).

The goal is to connect movements which aim to highlight and end systemic violence and racism across Canada, and to support Black communities from coast to coast to coast to ensure they have what they need to survive and thrive. Two years ago, BLM-Canada was officially launched.

As more and more chapters of BLM emerged, Ware has been on the ground supporting these chapters through education, funding and connecting organizers and activists doing the work across the country.

The movement is rooted in disability justice, abolition and defunding the police, and moving towards empowering communities to ensure their safety and security.

BLM Canada has launched a Black mutual aid fund which provides micro-grants to Black communities across Canada.

It works to support people in ways that governments are not. Currently, there are so many people who are just struggling to make ends meet; to make sure that there's food on the table. The fact that schools were shuttered due to the COVID-19 pandemic has meant that many children have had no food. BLM Canada has been trying to bridge that gap. There are many different mutual aid programs, coordinated by people of all ages, across the country. 

The experience of working with Black activists across the country fed into the publication of the anthology Until We are Free: Reflections of Black Lives Matters in Canada, edited by Ware as well as Rodney Diverlus and Sandy Hudson. The book brings together a series of community experiences that comprise what brings people to the movement. It is not just a manifesto; there are stories about Blackness in the Yukon, motherhood, and stories about activism in the digital age.

Why activism?

Finally I asked Ware, what he loves and hates about activism. In his own words:

I love activism. I fundamentally love it. I love the energy of it. I love what it is to be together with people in a way which works together towards a common goal. I love the night before the rally where you're getting the banners ready, getting the posters ready, I love the excitement of the planning. I love when we start to see changes actually happen in our communities. When we fought to get police officers out of our schools and then the school resource officer program was finally cancelled, after years of activism…there was that sense of victory in the community. I love the moments when we get to make change and see the change be lasting change.

I've been very interested in the ways that we find family through organizing, the ways that we find friendship through organizing, the ways that we find our partners, the ways that we raise our kids in the movement. We build community through this kind of organizing and that's really interesting to me.

I've also written a lot about the stress that activism can create and how hard it can be on the organizers themselves. Working behind the scenes to bring people together is a tremendous amount of work with very little appreciation, because that's not the purpose of the work. However, as we work on the paths for years, we need to be sustained and supported to continue to fight and I think a lot about that. I have been drawing portraits of activists, writing love letters to activists, doing all of these projects that try to support the actual living beings who are doing this work to make sure that they can continue to organize another day.

We are in a crisis moment right now. We are seeing increased police killings. We are seeing Black people being brought into the prison industrial complex needlessly and in disproportionate numbers. We are seeing Black people living in encampments all across in our cities, because there isn't the same economic justice for black people. So tap in to the movements in your communities.  If you can make a donation, make a donation. If you can volunteer a couple of hours, volunteer a couple of hours. Visit the encampments and bring blankets and  food.

Do your part to make sure that Black organizing in this country survives; that Black people in this country survive.


Maya Bhullar is the Activist Toolkit coordinator at rabble.ca. She has over 15 years of professional experience in diverse areas such as migration, labour, urban planning and community mobilization.

Image: Syrus Marcus Ware. Used with permission

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