A conversation with John Harnett, Inter Pares donor

voices : Personal Story


John Harnett

We spoke to long-time supporter John Harnett about his activism, reflections on privilege, and engagement with Inter Pares.

How did you become involved in activism? Why is it important to you?

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

When I came to Canada, I worked in a family agency as a counsellor.  Looking back I realize that 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. This enabled me to move beyond the idea of supporting others just so that I could feel good about myself. 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.

I also 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.

What are some volunteer experiences that stand out for you?

I have done six builds with Habitat for Humanity: one in Ethiopia, two in Central America, and three in Canada. 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. The father of the family started talking first, and then he started crying. 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.

On my very first 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.

In 2017, Inter Pares had a speaking tour across Ontario with two activists from the Likhaan Center for Women’s Health, and you offered to be our driver. How was that experience for you?

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.

One of the ways that you have been supporting the global community we are part of is through your generous support of Inter Pares. During the COVID pandemic, our counterparts around the world faced 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.

I had a request from Inter Pares to make a donation to support a number of organizations 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. 

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

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