Stephen Lewis, former UN Special Envoy to HIV/AIDS in Africa and bestselling author, encouraged Saultites last night to join together and improve the quality of their lives.
During an impassioned speech at Community Quality Initiative's (CQI) first annual Quality of Life Forum, Lewis said that participation in CQI's initiatives and programs would result in many rewards.
"If you throw yourself into these activities and you join CQI… you'll be identified with a little pin, an arm band, probably a hat of some kind - something to indicate you are a participant," he joked. "When you leave your homes in the morning, your neighbours will pour out on to the streets just to clutch at the hem of your garments."
More seriously, Lewis told a full house at the Best Western on Great Northern Road that participation in community improvement is beneficial to both individual members and the community as a whole.
"Ultimately, when it comes right down to it," said Lewis. "Communities are the absolute strength of a society."
"I'm a democratic socialist and I've spent a lot of my life believing that the role of government is not just vital but indispensable," said Lewis. "I've believed that government is the ultimate arbiter of the way society functions... that's my ideological proclivity. It's genetic."
"But I've learned over the last several years that the strength in communities, that the way communities rally, is absolutely astonishing."
Lewis talked about his experiences in Africa.
"Country after country is reeling from the force of the [HIV/AIDS] pandemic and the pervasiveness of death is a nightmare," said Lewis. "The rural communities have to coalesce in a way which sustains the society."
What's stitching things together there is a pattern of home-based care where people look after each other, even when some of them are stricken with full-blown AIDS and struggling for survival.
"It's an astonishing pattern of community strength the way they instinctively support each other because they can't get to that urban hospital," Lewis said. "They can't afford the bus fare or the transport and sometimes the human predicament is so accentuated as a result of the disease that they [have to get to a hospital]."
Lewis said he has seen people brought to hospitals on the backs of fellow community members or in wheelbarrows across many kilometres.
"It's this incredible community organization, this sense of solidarity that's so impressive."
Lewis pondered on what keeps life going when grandmothers bury their adult children and young children watch their parents die.
"It's community, it's the way they draw on each other in the community for strength and the way the community supports them," he said.
Lewis said every community everywhere seeks to create an environment that's manageable and that offers a sustainable quality of life. The growing tendency to be concerned with quality of life in community comes from two things.
"There is a tendency in the world general for the senior levels of government to treat the grassroots and communities rather badly," he said.
Lewis said multinational corporations and many governments applaud neo-liberalism as the answer to all problems and admire each others' acquisition of more of the world's wealth at the expense of the majority of the world's population.
"This isn't an accident, this is a prevailing ideological momentum," he said. "One of the reasons globalization has fallen from favour is because in many parts of the world communities are aching from neglect and many countries feel the tremendous disparity between wealth and poverty."
One of the motivating factors in community quality of life improvement initiatives, Lewis said, is that communities are striving to compensate for the failings of senior levels of government.
"The other factor is that communities are increasingly enjoying the collaborative spirit," said Lewis. "It matters not where you go in this world, there is sense that if communities can come together around the indicators of the quality of life... people get quite excited about participating in it."
Lewis said indicators of quality of life fall into three areas: economy, ecology and society.
These must be sustainable and fully integrated for people to have a good quality of life.
Quality of life indicators must be measurable and monitored.
"It is important to make real what it is that people identify as requiring correction," Lewis said.
It's also important to be modest of expectations and to try to focus on attainable goals in a realistic strategic plan.
Lewis talked about Jeffrey D. Sachs, director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University, and Sachs' assertion that extreme poverty can be ended, not in the time of our grandchildren, but our time.
Lewis was so impressed with Sachs strategic plan to improve quality of life for ten villages in African countries through the Millennium Village Project, that his Lewis Foundation sponsored one of the identified villages.
He hopes the communities touched by this project will be successful and function as an example for the country as a whole to embrace and emulate.
Lewis also talking about his political career, while unknown to him, one of his former NDP caucus members listened with a knowing grin on his face.
"If I could reveal this to this little room from which no word will emerge," said Lewis, "the Tories of those days, not the Neanderthals that followed, the Tories of those days were actually likeable and I actually liked them better than many of the members of my own caucus."
Bud Wildman, a former Algoma NDP MPP who served with Lewis in Parliament, laughed aloud at that remark.
"I had a bunch of New Democrats who were so feckless, so undisciplined, so irresponsible, so unfocused, so rhetorically extreme, so impossible to manage that it was chaotic from morning till night."
"I spent most of my time explaining to them the difference between a caucus and a cactus," said Lewis. "With a cactus, the pricks are on the outside."
When Lewis was done speaking, he opened the floor to questions.
Wildman waited until it looked like most everyone was done before standing to take his turn.
When Lewis saw him, he burst out, "Bud, oh my god, not you!" he said. "I never meant to compare you to a cactus!"
Wildman laughed with the audience and asked Lewis about the possibility of American militarization of Africa similar to its occupation of Iraq.
Lewis was sobered by the idea and agreed that it is a real and sad possibility.