Saturday, May 23, 2009

Cultivating our social capital

In Democracy and America, the great French observer Alexis de Tocqueville marvelled at the vigour of the new American democracy. Writing about the American people and their institutions in two volumes published in the mid-1800s, Tocqueville found that American citizens were not just into occasional elections but were also willing to actively participate in the civic affairs of the nation.

Almost two centuries later, Robert Putnam, a Harvard political scientist, published the instant classic, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of the American Community. The provocative title of the book underscores Putnam’s message that Americans have been retreating from civic engagement, concluding that America is becoming a less vibrant society than it used to be. In updating Tocqueville, Putnam has suggested that Americans were withdrawing from the very idea that nourished their democracy.

Despite a boom in higher education, Putnam observed that political participation in America is actually declining, that Americans have steadily become less and less likely to participate in civic affairs. Putnam found an overall decline in social capital in America over the past fifty years, a trend he considered might have significant ramifications for American society.

Then just two years ago, Putnam struck again, with a bombshell that life in a diverse society has the effect of isolating people from each other. He is now saying that people who live in multicultural communities are alienated not only from “the other” but also from those who they were once comfortable with. As Putnam puts it, Americans basically hunker down, like “turtles” living under their shell, wary of each other and of themselves.

Putnam’s new thesis may be something Filipino-Canadians in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), should take note of, as it relates to multiculturalism and the need for our community to invigorate its investment in social capital.

As part of the larger Canadian vertical mosaic, are Filipino-Canadians cultivating social networks that will allow civic engagement to thrive?

Thomas Ehrlich defines civic engagement in his book, Civic Responsibility and Higher Education, as “working to make a difference in the civic life of our communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make that difference. It means promoting the quality of life in a community, through both political and non-political processes.”

Thus, according to Ehrlich, a morally and civically responsible individual finds affinity to the society at large and considers social problems to be at least partly his or her own. Such an individual sees the moral and civic dimensions of issues, and is therefore willing to take appropriate actions based on informed moral and civic judgments.

Civic engagement can manifest in many forms, from individual voluntarism to organizational involvement to electoral participation. It can include efforts to directly address an issue, work in cooperation with others in the community to solve a problem or interact with the institutions of representative democracy. It can encompass a range of specific activities such as working in a soup kitchen, serving on a neighbourhood association, writing petition letters to an elected official, or voting.

This is the kind of civic engagement that Putnam lamented in Bowling Alone as declining precipitously in American society. But before we could even consider the present state of Filipino engagement in the larger Canadian civic life, the first critical question we must ask ourselves is whether our community organizations and other informal associations are doing enough to engender our participation and make us a more informed and engaged citizenry.

We can’t totally rely on the state to sponsor our community’s involvement with the body politic, that’s why we have community organizations which are local and have a life of their own like so many grassroots organizations. Otherwise, voluntary associations become instruments of the state, common in totalitarian regimes but not of representative democracies.

During the first State of the Filipino Union organized by the Kapisanan Philippine Centre and other youth groups in Toronto early this year, the consensus was that Filipinos in Toronto remain so fragmented with little political and economic clout. With a population of almost 200,000, Filipinos have not been visible in the GTA’s body politic except for the election of a Filipino councillor in Markham, and two school trustees in Markham and Mississauga. Not one Filipino has ever won a seat in Toronto’s city council or its school boards.

Across Canada, Filipinos in Manitoba have shown their political clout by electing three members of the provincial parliament: Conrado Santos, the first Filipino-Canadian elected in the whole of Canada in 1989 and to run for leadership of a major political party in Canada, Cris Aglugub, elected in 1999, and Flor Marcelino, the first Filipino woman elected in all of Canada. Manitoba also sent the first and only Filipino-Canadian (so far) to the federal parliament in Ottawa, Dr. Rey Pagtakhan, who was elected in 1988 and became the first Filipino-Canadian cabinet minister in 2001. Another Filipino, Mike Pagtakhan, was elected as councillor in the city of Winnipeg in 2002.

Alberta Pinoys didn’t lag that far behind their neighbours in Manitoba by electing Carl Benito to the provincial legislature representing the riding of Edmonton-Mill Woods. Arturo Viola was a former mayor and now city councillor of Niagara-on-the Lake, Ontario.

Looking at our own demographics, the 2006 census shows that Filipinos are highly concentrated in the province of Ontario with a population four times greater than Alberta and more than five times larger than Manitoba. In Toronto alone, there are 171,980 Filipinos residing in the GTA, compared to 36,935 and 19,625 in the metropolitan areas of Winnipeg and Edmonton, respectively.

Why then is it hard for a Filipino to get elected in the city of Toronto? Or beyond the entry level position of councillor or school trustee in the whole of GTA? Is it easier to unite Filipinos in Winnipeg and Edmonton because of their smaller numbers?

With 38 per cent of the Filipino population in the city of Toronto, Scarborough seems likely the best place to elect the first Filipino councillor or member of the provincial parliament. Next would be North York which has 27 per cent of the Filipino population in the city.

Consider too that majority of Filipino-Canadians are women who make up about 56 per cent of the population. That’s why Vancouver could be the next hot political setting to test the political mettle of Filipinos in Canada. Vancouver lately has seen a big surge in Filipino women social activists that could lead to community empowerment and full civic participation. Overall, Filipino women in Canada are the ones who are busy in such activities and issues relating to resettlement and integration, overcoming economic marginalization, equality and human rights, and combating systemic racism and social exclusion. And where are the men, in this scenario? Most likely, they are into sports, particularly basketball and golf (for many a sign of upward mobility, a sport associated with the upper class back home).

There are at least two major factors that seem to slow down or even diminish Filipino engagement in Canadian political and social issues: the kind of leaders we choose and the type of events we promote.

Let’s look at three major Filipino community organizations in the GTA: the Filipino Centre Toronto (FCT), the Philippine Independence Day Council (PIDC), and the Kalayaan Cultural Community Centre (KCCC).

The presidents of FCT and KCCC are both women in their senior years. Filipinos are traditionally respectful of their elders, particularly someone matriarchal and ripe in age who represents abundance of experience and wisdom. But, based on reported activities, these women do not appear to have any direct involvement or experience with the larger social issues that Filipino-Canadians grapple in their daily lives such as community empowerment, political representation, human rights and equality, discrimination, or access to justice and jobs. Thus, this lack of affinity to social advocacy causes has seriously limited their vision as community leaders, beyond traditional concerns like basic resettlement services, community fellowship or social partying. One of these leaders had even commented before that the Filipino community should not be expected to do its share in eradicating poverty in the city of Toronto if the Canadian government could not even solve it, which betrays her lack of understanding of this issue.

The same goes to the leader of the PIDC, an umbrella group of various associations in Ontario. Although its president is relatively younger and quite steep in the running of business, his leadership has been limited to the successful staging of annual events such as the Philippine Independence Day and Mabuhay Philippines! Toronto Summer Festival. Yet, he could be credited at least for keeping alive and strong the Filipino diaspora in Toronto, the throng of Filipino-Canadians who maintain strong sentimental and material links with their homeland.

Incidentally, one of the three Filipino community leaders cited finds the term “diaspora” seemingly repulsive without as much as an explanation, which again reveals her lack of appreciation of the historical significance of the social and cultural dynamics of migration of citizens from one country to another, not only of Filipinos but also of other national groups as well. That’s why we call it “diaspora,” a word derived from Greek, meaning a scattering of seeds.

The activities of the FCT and KCCC are focused mainly on festive celebrations along the likes of Pistahan sa Toronto and Kalayaan Picnic, and entertainment such as the Filipino singing idol contest or beauty pageants. The FCT, a non-profit corporation, is run like a private business concern with a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) on top of the organization, presumably because it rents out office space and facilities. While KCCC owns a condominium building, it shares the use of the facility with two other member organizations in Mississauga.

All three major community organizations appear disconnected with the larger Canadian social fabric. For major issues that concern our group as a whole, Filipino-Canadians in the GTA have to rely on the efforts of social advocacy groups such as the Community Alliance for Social Justice (CASJ), Migrante Ontario, Caregivers Support Services, the Kapisanan Philippine Centre and university-based youth associations for continuing the integration and civic engagement of Filipinos in the Canadian political and cultural mainstream. Hopefully, from these groups will emerge future members of city councils or provincial and federal parliaments, and visionary community leaders so unlike their elders.

There are those who yearn for a Filipinotown in Toronto or Mississauga thinking that a Filipino enclave will foster our integration with Canadian society and will help elect Filipino leaders to higher office. But this is a mistaken belief as reported in recent studies that enclaves do not reflect a community’s social cohesion and integration.

As the experience of one family from Portugal who initially settled in an enclave called Little Portugal in Toronto’s west end would indicate, “Enclaves provide settlement; they don’t provide integration.”

This brings us full circle with Putnam’s latest thesis that there is a strong correlation between interracial trust and ethic homogeneity. In other words, the less diverse your community, the more likely they would be to trust the people in it who are different from them. The flip side is also true: the more ethnically diverse the people in the community are, the less people would trust them. But don’t think that just because we don’t trust people of different races that we should be living in enclaves with the same roots.

None of the findings from Putnam’s latest study means that we are doomed by diversity, or, as we prefer to call it in Canada, multiculturalism. It does suggest, however, that simply celebrating and promoting diversity is not going to help us over the long haul.

Putnam suggests that we need to construct new social identities. It is his hypothesis that “a society will more easily reap the benefits of immigration, and overcome the challenges, if immigration policy focuses on the reconstruction of ethnic identities, reducing their social salience without eliminating their personal importance.”

As Putnam stressed, “immigration policy is not just about numbers and borders. It is also about fostering a sense of shared citizenship.”

It is in sharing citizenship with other members of society that we can achieve the unity that has so long escaped us as a community. This is particularly critical for Filipino-Canadians: to find a common voice and use it so that we’d be less disengaged with the larger world. Putnam demonstrated in Bowling Alone that social capital has a crucial impact on societal goals like crime reduction, educational achievement, even life expectancy. And if we neglect building our social capital, Filipinos in Toronto will become even more disconnected from the communities around them and with Canadian society as a whole.

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