Efforts to politicize inequity are frequently aided by the phrase — which originated in the women’s movement — “the personal is political.” In Alejandra Bravo’s case, it would also be apt to say that the political is personal.
A candidate for the NDP in the Toronto riding of Davenport, Bravo was born in Chile in 1971. In 1973, when she was two years old, her family was living in Santiago, a few blocks away from the presidential palace. On September 11 of that year, a military coup d’etat took place in Chile.
“When the fighter jets bombed the presidential palace — we lived a few blocks away — our mom was covering our bodies [with hers], machine gun fire was entering our apartment, on the main floor. My dad had already gone to try to defend the constitutionally and democratically elected government, but it was such a surgical military that they couldn’t resist them.”
This also led to Bravo’s first direct involvement in movement politics. “There was a lot of mobilization in Canada to get us out.”
Bravo’s family came to Canada as refugees, arriving in 1974. Her parents were “fiercely political” people, and had been engaged in organizing and direct action for years. However, it is with audible weight that she recalls how, after their arrival in Canada, they did not feel the ability to express concerns. “They didn’t feel that they had the right to say anything.”
Bravo describes this as a — perhaps the — defining experience, leading her to resolve to always support people in raising their voice, even if doing so is difficult. Indeed, it’s precisely the same sentiment that animated her parents’ political commitments, reflected and reinvigorated in her own.
Bravo involved herself in the very kind of organizing that facilitated her family’s arrival, including international solidarity work and anti-racism work. She made a home in Davenport in the year 2000 — and welcomed a daughter into it. This experience, being “rooted in Davenport, in this community,” added further dimensions to her political involvement. She got involved in organizing related to childcare, and, after her daughter started school, against school closures and cuts to education brought on by the austere Progressive Conservative government of Mike Harris. She began organizing with the parents in the community who opposed the cuts, and was eventually chosen as their representative. The group became a fixture at school board meetings and put on demonstrations at Queen’s Park.
“That’s when I got a real taste of bringing people together, helping people find their voice, learning how to regroup, mobilizing.”
Her organizing with parents and the community in Davenport led to Bravo standing as a Toronto city council candidate in 2003. She would go on to run three campaigns in the North Davenport municipal ward — an area where the NDP had few supporters when she began living there.
“I ran, kind of, to make a point, that we could run as progressives. At the time there was this sense of — to be honest — ‘Well, you’re too left, too Latina, and too young. And we wanted to prove a point, because that’s exactly the way that we were going to build.”
All of this has meant that Bravo has spent years getting to know Davenport and its residents. Indeed, she learned Portuguese — which she now speaks fluently, along with French, English, and Spanish – to overcome language barriers. (Census data from 2016 shows that Portuguese is the most widely spoken language in Davenport, behind only English.)
“At the beginning it was just me going door to door for months, talking to people one on one,” she said in an interview.
She spent the next ten years doing just that, organizing with and for her neighbours on a wide range of issues, each fundamentally connected to the baseline inequity so many are subjected to on a daily basis.
Throughout those conversations, she’s encountered two enduring, implicit perceptions that forestall positive political change: first, the argument that voting for the Liberals is necessary to keep the Conservatives from power, and second, the notion that immigrants and refugees owe their votes and loyalty to the Liberals. Together, these notions “massively [distort] the political debate,” she said.
The increase of open political opposition to non-white immigrants, evidenced by support for the People’s Party of Canada, intensifies this distortion.
However, Bravo stresses that critical policies, such as universal healthcare, did not come from beneficent governments, but rather from local and regional organizing, on the ground, to put pressure on legislators to deliver what the people demand.
“I’m consistently telling people…they work for us. We don’t owe them anything.”
She says that part of the work of politics is “helping people to find a sense of entitlement, in a way. To be able to say that we have the right to have a voice, and to shape the decisions that impact us, particularly in the economic realm. I’m — essentially everyday — asking people to consider…’Who built this society? Who produces wealth?’ And that we are the majority.”
Part of why Bravo is running federally in this election is that she believes in the new direction for the NDP set out by party leader Jagmeet Singh — a direction which includes taxing wealth to address the deeply embedded crises of inequality and inequity.
However, she reminds that power is always among the people, and it’s that power she intends to bring to parliament.
“I see being elected as an ability to advance the demands that are being generated in social movements, and to build organizing capacity… When people experience wins together through collective action they develop a sharpened sense of efficacy and a desire for more. That’s what I’ve been doing in my professional work, trying to build that, and in my voluntary work. It’s the logical thing to do it now as a Member of Parliament, at this moment of crisis, and also because in a minority government I know the NDP can help people. So, around this narrative of, ‘who helped us to build a better life?’ I always tell people — everything good that we have, nobody gave it to us. People collectively dreamed, fought for, and won it.”
She notes that both universal healthcare and the national pension plan came from minority governments being compelled by a strong NDP presence in the legislature, and collective pressure from organizers.
Indeed, it was that very situation which helped the NDP increase public programs and expenditure by the minority Liberal government through the pandemic. Rather then offering support to centrism, she believes the crises we face demonstrate the need for NDP MPs and collective organizing.
This is also critical, she says, maintaining the legitimacy of political institutions.
“When promises are made [to the public] and then broken, I think it discredits government, political parties, and the lack of faith and lack of belief that a lot of people have in democratic institutions right now is really dangerous. That’s the hunting ground for white nationalists — you know, the assortment of male chauvinists, white nationalists, all the right-wing organizers who are genuinely distracting people from the fact that we have a billionaire class and corporate interests that are running things.”
Her countless conversations on Davenport doorsteps have shown here that the current federal government makes these problems worse. “I think Trudeau calling this election and trying to politicize vaccinations [as a campaign tactic] is just the most cynical, self-serving, and really destructive thing he could have done. Because, for some people, they’re being mobilized directly by people with right-wing ideology. But for a lot of people, who don’t see those agendas operating, are attracted to those messages because they get layered on to real grievances.” And, as you’d imagine, real grievances abound in a years-long deadly global pandemic nestled between the climate crisis and the crisis of inequality and inequity.
As she says, this is who she has always been. In prior campaigns she refused corporate and union donations to her campaign without being required to, preferring to instead focus on developing union partnerships and building worker power. “Transactional politics don’t build power…I think of the candidate as the head canvasser. It’s a collective.”
This ultimately connects to a fundamental view of life, social interaction and organization, and the necessity of collective well-being. “The individual and the collective are inseparable, in my view. And accountability to the people that you have made commitments to — I think that’s pretty sacred,” she told me, with audible warmth in her voice, the counterbalance to the weight heard earlier.
That warmth remained present as she spoke about the rising generation of activists and organizers. She recalled reviewing the list of canvassing volunteers for a particular day, and learning that the majority of them (to that point) were under the age of 18, with some as young as 13.
“What they’re telling us is, ‘we can’t vote, but we can show up in this way, and we’re trying to motivate our parents and people on the street to vote on our behalf.’…I feel very confident that we’re opening up space for another kind of leadership. And they’re unapologetic. They will not put up with [stalling, equivocating, manipulation] around racism, around police brutality, around climate inaction and denial, around calling out our dark colonial past — which they very much feel is connected to the present — around inequality. It’s a very positive thing.”
Chuka Ejeckam is a political researcher and writer, and works in the labour movement in British Columbia. He focuses on political and economic inequity and inequality, both within Canada and as produced by Canadian policy.
Image credit: Alejandra Bravo/Facebook