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Mental Illness and Social Justice in Sudbury

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
Shana calixte is the executive director of the Northern Initiative for Social Action and the 2013 recipient of the Jack Layton Leadership Award, which she received as part of the second annual Sudbury Social Justice Awards.
Shana calixte is the executive director of the Northern Initiative for Social Action and the 2013 recipient of the Jack Layton Leadership Award, which she received as part of the second annual Sudbury Social Justice Awards.

Shana Calixte is the executive director of the Northern Initiative for Social Action (NISA), an organization run by and for people with experience of the mental health system. In recognition of her important work in the community, she recently received the 2013 Jack Layton Leadership Award at the second annual Sudbury Social Justice Awards. The following is the text of her acceptance speech.

Good evening everyone.

I am so honoured to have been chosen to receive the second annual Sudbury Social Justice award for leadership, named in memory of Jack Layton. It is with sincere thanks that I accept this award, knowing the two amazing people who have also been nominated along with me and the legacy of Mr. Layton. I am humbled by this experience, and again, wish to thank all those who thought of me and the work I am involved in as a movement towards making our communities more equitable and accountable.

This award is so crucial right now when actions for social justice are being both subtly and violently repressed in our country and globally. But scarier still is the complacency we see in some parts of our communities that are demobilized – people saying “it’s not my problem”, or “I don’t know what they are complaining about”. This award recognizes those who know differently. Whatever “it” is, it is all our problem, and as a society we have a responsibility to learn what it is that disadvantages and challenges the most vulnerable among us and make change.

Social justice and equity are two facets of the work I engage in everyday, specifically as it relates so closely to my own lived experience. Along with a very talented and passionate group of people, I work every day to think about how we can actualize social justice.

Let me introduce you to Northern Initiative for Social Action, or, as we as members call it, NISA. NISA is a growing grassroots organization located here in Sudbury, run by and for people with lived experience of mental illness. Our organization has a four-tiered focus on mental health, which includes building occupational and vocational skills, providing spaces for creative engagements, one-to-one peer support and general resources for mental health recovery.

Starting back in 1998, as the idea of a number of mental health services consumers, and one determined occupational therapist, NISA grew to become a space where those of us who might otherwise have little hope, could come together and produce something for ourselves. In 15 years, we have grown from a staff of 5 to 32, and from a membership of 50 to over 400. Every day, NISA opens its doors to welcome those who need a place to go, a place to belong, who are looking for something to do, and want to give back in some way. Whether that is participating in a discussion group, cooking a good meal, making a quilt or writing our stories, NISA was born out of a desire to challenge the discrimination faced by so many people with lived experience of mental illness and to seek out avenues for active social recovery rather than passive dependence on community services. Our members are members, not clients; they are creators, organizers and doers, not patients.

La justice sociale du modèle NISA signifie assister à des obstacles très réels auxquels font face 1 à 5 personnes dans notre ville. Au NISA, beaucoup de nos membres ne sont pas peur de parler de la façon dont nous sommes marginalisés dans nos communautés chaque jour. Que ce soit par les effets très réels de la pauvreté, la stigmatisation et la discrimination associées à la maladie mentale ou l'isolement souvent rencontrés par les personnes vivant avec une maladie mentale.

Social justice in the NISA model means attending to the very real barriers faced by 1 in 5 people in our city. At NISA, many of our members are not afraid to speak about the ways we are marginalized in our communities every day. Whether that be through the very real effects of poverty, the stigma and discrimination associated with mental illness or the isolation often faced by those living with mental illness.

I believe that the experience of recognizing our own mental health diversity – to OUT the discussion about how we feel on a day to day basis, to name our feelings of sadness, fear and loneliness, and to share those feelings with others, engenders a sense of wellness within us all. Our communities could learn to be a bit more open and honest about how we really feel every day, in a way that is so often shared at NISA. I frequently find myself in the hallway, asking how someone is doing, and not being afraid when the person says, “Well, not so good.” What is healthy about this honest and open sharing of feelings means we can work to normalize how we all move and engage with the world, identify the ups and downs and really illuminate when we need help. In my mind, that is what it means to be healthy. Our communities would be healthier if we all just spent a bit more time talking about how we are really doing. Another way to make our communities healthier is to address the systemic barriers within the everyday institutions we engage with. On the ground, social justice and equity are nice words that may mean we are committed to making the world “a better place.” In my own experience, it has been a way to shed light on the continued marginalization of many in our community, and to say – we can do better.

La justice sociale, pour moi, signifie regarder de très près à la façon dont nous pouvons rendre nos collectivités plus ouvert, plus inclusif et plus conscients des expériences que certains ont fait de leur situation sociale. Je parle souvent de la nécessité d'identifier et de faire connaître les réalités de l'oppression expérience - comme le racisme, l'homophobie, la marginalisation de classe, la transphobie, la capacité physique, le sexisme - et de reconnaître que cela ne se produise dans une bouteille. Certaines personnes se trouvent à l'intersection de plusieurs de ces expériences vécues, et nous ne pouvons pas déséquilibrer ou contester un ensemble de processus / systèmes / institutions discriminatoires sans remettre en cause tous.

Social justice, for me, means looking very closely at how we can make our communities more open, more inclusive and more aware of the experiences some have as a result of their social location. I am one who talks frequently about the need to identify and voice the realities of experiencing oppression – like racism, homophobia, class-based marginalization, transphobia, ableism, sexism – and to recognize that this doesn’t happen in a bottle or a vacuum. Some people find themselves at the intersection of many of these lived experiences, and we can’t unhinge or challenge one set of discriminatory processes/systems/institutions without challenging them all.

I’ll end with discussing the motto of NISA -- “Being, Belonging, Becoming” -- which I believe fits so well with the actions and philosophies around “doing” social justice.

Being is a basic acceptance of oneself; not having to apologize for one's existence. People need to know that it is OK to be who they are, that they have a right to be here, otherwise their very existence becomes a problem. Social justice is about relaying that message of self-worth and self-love, and really redefining yourself as a person that isn’t beholden to structures of domination.

Belonging is the process of having other people to relate to; being part of a group; having a 'family'. Everybody needs other people to feel connected to, and to share with. Social justice is about building alliances and coalitions, to strategize around ways to really move the barriers and how to do so through the force of a collective.

And Becoming; developing new skills and statuses. Everybody needs opportunities to grow, to engage ina process of self-determination, and to make their lives meaningful. Social Justice is about recognizing the impacts we can all make on society, not to fall into the capitalist “productive citizen” trope, but to realize the very real contributions we make to the lives of others, to the wellbeing of our communities, to the structures and institutions we encounter. Becoming is about moving that collective forward and making real change.

Thank you again for this opportunity to share a bit about the work I do, and the people I work with every day. I hope that social justice is something we all continue to speak to and about, and that we can continue on in the spirit of Mr. Layton, and in all the people who have been nominated and honoured this evening.

Thank you, Merci, Migwetch.

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The Sudbury working-group of The Media Co-op was formed to create independent media in the North, to speak to our issues and outlooks on our communities as well as the world around us. Independent media provides an avenue for people who are wishing to gain critical perspective on the issues that matter most to us, and to give a voice to those people and stories that you won't find in the mainstream media.

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