A conversation with John Harnett, Inter Pares donor

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In July 2020, Jack Hui Litster, Community Engagement Manager at Inter Pares from April 2013 to August 2020, spoke to long-time supporter John Harnett about his activism, reflections on privilege and engagement with Inter Pares. The following is an abridged transcript of their conversation.

Jack: How did you become involved in activism? Why is it important for you to be involved in movements and groups contributing to things like social and environmental justice?

John: When I was young, I was very rebellious. I began studying theology at London University and was going to be a priest. Then one day, as part of a series of lectures on the criminal justice system, a probation officer came in as a guest speaker. Listening to her speak, in the space of sixty minutes, I decided I wanted to be a probation officer. Early on, I had an interest in doing something for others.

When I came to Canada, I worked in a family agency as a counsellor.  Looking back now I realize I was doing this to make myself feel good. By attempting to help someone else, it helped me feel better about myself. A few decades later I was introduced to family systems theory, which helped me begin to understand how humans function, and how to improve functioning. One of the main essences of this is to learn about oneself and how one is influenced by one’s family system.  This enabled me to move beyond the idea of supporting others just so that I could feel good about myself. In the training we were working on understanding ourselves. We all have our deficiencies, but we can each improve our function. That has been the essence of my work as a family systems psychotherapist ever since: not solving problems but improving function.

I have been interested in how I can assist others, either in getting through a crisis, or ideally, looking at the bigger picture. I worked at a hospital with families who had a loved one going into a long-term care home. I would try to assist in managing conflicts within the family, and also in supporting them as they came to terms with the fact that this person was moving into the last phase of their life. If I look at my life, there has been a progression of trying to be of use to others. As time has gone on, that has gotten stronger and stronger. I stopped working full-time 12 years ago, but I continue to see a few clients from a small private practice that I had.

In the fall of 2019 I had an accident and injured my chest, and spent many months recovering. During that time I did a great deal of thinking. One of the things that came out of that thinking was how fortunate I am in my situation, even though it was challenging. I was moving slowly, but I was able to look after myself. I started realizing that there are a lot of other folks in my area in their 70s and 80s who deal with mobility issues all the time, and I realized I needed to get involved in supporting these folks. I signed up with an organization in Bancroft called Care North Hastings, which offers many services for seniors. I started volunteering with them, until the COVID pandemic put things on hold. So, after 12 years of bits and pieces of volunteering, I decided it was about time I started doing things out there for other people in my community. I have also done six Builds with Habitat for Humanity. That has been my journey.

Jack: Thank you for sharing those stories, John. In a way, your community involvement and activism are an extension of what you have done throughout your career, helping people in various ways. On the volunteering side of your life story, what are some experiences that really stand out for you?

John: Well, I think back to when I would do the Terry Fox Run every year in Windsor, and there would be about 2,000 people who would run. It was exciting to be part of this, striving towards an important goal. I really respect who Terry Fox was and what his aim was.

Also, the Habitat for Humanity Builds were very interesting. I did one in Ethiopia, two in Central America, and three in Canada. They were all very different. I remember one time particularly, in Central America. We were standing around on the last day of the project, with the family whose new home we had built. There was a ceremony. The father of the family started talking first, and then he started crying and could not talk anymore. The mother then spoke for him. It was very touching because we were demonstrating that some of those folks out there in the world who live in luxury and privilege had come out to support a family, and build them a new home. I began to wonder to what extent that act of kindness might permeate through that community, creating international bonds of caring. That was memorable.

On my very first Habitat for Humanity Build, in Guatemala, every evening after dinner we would talk about our experience. I remember talking about how I had come from a white, racist, privileged family in Cape Town, South Africa. And having grown up in that setting, I had experienced other people serving us, but we never served anyone else. That made it a profound experience for me to serve that family in Guatemala, who had lost their house in a mudslide which had killed the mother and the older daughter. I remember sharing with the group what a transformation this was for me to feel like I am an ordinary person serving other ordinary people on the planet. I see it as a privilege to serve others, especially when we have been caught up in serving our own needs.

Jack: I think that in the work we do, it is transformative as you say, when we are able to make those emotional, personal connections. On that same theme of service, John, you and I have known each other for six or seven years. I remember in our earliest conversations on the phone, you would always say ‘If there is ever a need for anything, I am happy to help. Put me to work.’ And then in 2017, we had a speaking tour across Ontario with two activists from the Likhaan Center for Women’s Health, and you offered to be our driver. You got us to where we needed to go, and made sure we had time to rest. There were some stressful parts of that tour to be sure, but you were there to make it smoother and easier for us. How was that experience for you?

John: It was a profound experience, profoundly different than simply writing a cheque to a charity and getting a piece of paper back. Becoming connected to the work in a small way, to be of use, and to learn at the same time, was most meaningful to me. I was absolutely delighted to provide that service, to look after the transportation and help with the logistics, and to take that work off the staff’s shoulders. I also got to learn a bit more about Inter Pares and one of the organizations that Inter Pares supports, Likhaan. It was a wonderful experience for me.

Jack: Well, it is July now, and we are four months into the changes to our lives brought by the COVID-19 pandemic. As someone who cares deeply about social justice and climate justice, has your personal engagement in these issues had to adapt during this period? Are you still able to be involved but in different ways?

John: You know it’s interesting because in a way COVID has not affected me much at all. I live in the forest on my own, and in ordinary times I could go for 4-5 days without seeing anyone or talking to anyone else. The accident I had last November has been more significant for me than COVID. It led me to spend much more time thinking, rather than running around doing things. After the accident, my back would get so painful that I would have to lie down for long periods of time, and I did some very useful thinking. One of the outcomes was realizing the need to go and be of use in my local community. COVID has got me to connect a lot more with people. Increasingly I have seen the need to find out how people are doing and send some loving care towards them. I am hoping I can retain some of that, and continue to support my friends, especially in difficult times.

Jack: One of the ways that you have been supporting friends, and the global community we are part of, is through your generous support of Inter Pares. Our counterparts around the world are facing a range of issues from increased rates of violence against women, to difficulties accessing food and health care. Many of the organizations we work with have such deep roots in their communities, making them very well placed to respond as community leaders in these challenging times. I know that you had some specific examples of how you are taking action to support Inter Pares’ work at this time.

John: I had a request from Inter Pares to make a donation this year to support a number of organizations that are doing particular work in relation to COVID. For me, that was natural, to be available to respond and send some more funds to Inter Pares for dealing with that immediate need. That was very important to me, to be asked to do that, to play my part and make a contribution. Something else occurred to me about a week ago: I’ve been aware that the federal government has created a seniors benefit of $300 for every senior who is receiving Old Age Security, and an extra $200 for those with lower income and who are struggling. For me, I was realizing that I live a very privileged life, and so I could use what I receive from this Seniors Benefit to support some organizations through Inter Pares that are struggling to address the increased need for their services due to COVID.  It is a pittance in terms of the broader picture, but every penny can be useful. These are a few small ways that I see myself as being dutiful to the planet.

If I look at my life, there has been a progression of trying to be of use to others.

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