“When I Started to Look Deeper” is a series of personal stories by Saskatchewan people. Each author shares a moment that inspired them to look beyond the symptoms of global issues – such as hunger, health, education, and conflict – in order to find the root causes and work for more sustainable solutions. This series is a companion to SCIC’s LookDeeper online resource and campaign.
I Saw how Valuing our Own Experiences can Create a Climate of Change
by Armella Sonntag
As a young girl growing up on a farm in northern Saskatchewan, I felt like an outsider; like ‘the other’. I noticed that decision-making, knowledge-creation, and trend-setting happened in cities and centres far from my every-day life. Whenever I considered how my life might be seen by those in the centre, in the “mainstream”, my existence felt irrelevant.
As a young woman, after completing a university degree and gaining some work experience, I wanted to explore different cultures and get involved in international solidarity. I landed in Central and later South America and found myself in an unexpected turn of events – suddenly, there were people who looked to me as the expert. Suddenly, I was seen as the ‘insider’ with knowledge and access to decision-making power. This was an odd feeling, because I knew that while I had a tiny bit to offer, I still had so much to learn.
At that time, a ground-breaking book by Paulo Freire – a Brazilian educator and philosopher – was having a major influence around the world. Freire argued that it was important for people living in poverty to have the power and means to look critically at their own reality in order to find their own voice. He stressed the importance of knowledge from the most marginalized peoples – knowledge that was gained through their own experiences. He argued that these are the people who are best able to express their own wisdom, perspective, and needs, and therefore are the most powerful and central figures in social change.
"This was a powerful and exciting message to me. It sunk into my whole being, transporting me back to my childhood experiences feeling like an unimportant outsider on a small farm in northern Canada."
In his book, Freire emphasized that you don't need an advanced level of education in order for your perspective and experience to have value. Rather than looking to the ‘other’ – to the international elites, the so-called ‘experts’ – oppressed peoples can reach into their own experiences; grounding themselves in the wisdom of their own truths and perspectives. By applying these lessons, knowledge can be gained and society can evolve and change for the better.
This was a powerful and exciting message to me. It sunk into my whole being, transporting me back to my childhood experiences feeling like an unimportant outsider on a small farm in northern Canada. It made me realize the value in my own experiences. Just as important, it also gave me a way to process that discomfort I felt when people looked to me as the ‘educated expert’ from the North. I finally felt more prepared to work in in international solidarity through meaningful partnership alongside many local voices of knowledge. Time and again, I would remind myself (and sometimes others) that it is essential to consider all of our perspectives and knowledge; that the starting point for personal and social change is to trust the truths of what we experience in our own lives.
Decades later and back in Canada, this lesson – of working from the local, from the voices of those most impacted – resurfaced at a somewhat surprizing level, as I began working on a much larger scale for climate justice with Development and Peace. Launched in the lead up to the UN Paris climate conference, the Create a Climate of Change campaign recognized that it takes everyone to create a climate of change, to be able to collectively imagine a truly flourishing earth community. Central to this vision of course, is education. In the face of global challenges like climate change, education is vital; education about what is already happening to the most vulnerable communities, and education about what people are currently doing to mitigate and adapt.
"In the face of global challenges like climate change, education is vital; education about what is already happening to the most vulnerable communities, and education about what people are currently doing to mitigate and adapt."
I believe this last part is crucial in order to instill hope in our communities and to reach that “critical consciousness” that Paulo Freire wrote about. When people become aware of climate initiatives around the planet – and indeed within their own neighbourhoods – it can turn attitudes away from fear and denial and unleash creative energy and commitments for change. That’s when a climate of change emerges: when conversations about climate change occur between friends, at parties, at workplaces, in faith gatherings, over bridge games, over the neighbours’ fence, or over coffee.
The Climate of Change campaign encouraged people to take action on various levels, beginning with personal commitments to reduce our own carbon footprint – something we can reflect on in our daily lives and from our own personal realities. One example is transportation. What type of transportation do I need in my daily life? What is available to me? What type of public system is needed if I live in rural Canada or in an urban setting? Do I need public transit or tax incentives to buy a fuel-efficient vehicle? Once we ask these personal questions, it becomes easier to distinguish between actions we can do on our own, and the systemic changes that require government policy, budget and action.
Here’s an example: For my work I need to travel around the province quite often. For the Climate of Change campaign, I made a pledge to keep my highway driving between 95 km/hr and 100 km/hr (as best as I can!) because I learned that reducing your speed can decrease greenhouse gas emissions by about 25%. This is an aspect of my carbon footprint I can control. However, it’s too financially challenging for me to buy a more fuel-efficient vehicle, which could make an even greater personal impact. Therefore, my family and the environment would benefit from tax incentives to make that purchase possible. As well, I realized I could try to lobby the government to reduce highway speed limits in our province – which has a small population and a huge land mass – in order to reduce our province-wide GHG emissions.
"When people become aware of climate initiatives around the planet – and indeed within their own neighbourhoods – it can turn attitudes away from fear and denial and unleash creative energy and commitments for change."
Our campaign was greatly enhanced by a ground-breaking letter by Pope Francis, On Care for our Common Home, which was addressed to “every living person on this planet.” In his address, two particular quotes struck me, as they powerfully demonstrated the importance of working at the personal and societal levels, and outlined how we can work to connect them.
Firstly, he said that: “Inner peace is closely related to care for ecology and for the common good because…it is reflected in a balanced lifestyle… which takes us to a deeper understanding of life.” Drawing on my transportation example, I know that there is much I can do to reduce my carbon footprint as I travel down our Saskatchewan roads – for the sake of the common good, for future generations and for my own inner peace.
"Looking for the truth about climate change in our lives is so critical. I think we do that by taking a look at the worries that lie in the back of our minds, no matter how large or small."
The second quote from Pope Francis’ letter takes us beyond the personal and into the public. He states that “…social love moves us to devise larger strategies to halt environmental degradation and to encourage a ‘culture of care’ which permeates all of society.” Development and Peace took on this challenge to devise larger strategies rooted in social love by asking our government to adopt a fair, ambitious and legally-binding international agreement on climate change; to provide necessary resources for vulnerable communities in the world; and to transition Canada’s economy to one based on energy efficiency and renewable energy. Individuals joined on by collecting signatures, meeting with their Members of Parliament, joining with the world community in the streets for a Global Day of Action, and organizing prayer vigils to strengthen the personal and collective resolve. And, for those of us living in Saskatchewan, what do you think about talking to our MLAs about lowering the speed limit? It might seem counter-cultural, but that’s what creating a climate of change is all about.
Looking for the truth about climate change in our lives is so critical. I think we do that by taking a look at the worries that lie in the back of our minds, no matter how large or small. How is climate change affecting my livelihood? How can I financially afford to reduce my carbon footprint? What will life be like for our children and grandchildren? When we stop to consider how we experience climate change in our own lives, those questions will rise to the surface of our minds. And as we share these questions with others, we’ll realize that we have the power to change ourselves, and we’ll be able to see where we need help at a larger scale.
Climate change is an issue that requires all of us to find our own centre of truth so that we can act upon it, on all the levels required; personal, local, regional, national and global. When we individually and collectively achieve this critical awareness, we will know that we are creating a climate of change.
Armella Sonntag was born and raised on a mixed farm in Goodsoil, Saskatchewan. From the mid-80s to early 90s, she worked in Panama and Peru. Returning to Canada, Armella became an active member of Development and Peace for 16 years before joining the staff in 2009 as the Animator for Saskatchewan and Keewatin-Le Pas. Armella also participates in solidarity tours, both internationally and hosting visitors in Saskatchewan. She was recognized with SCIC's Global Citizen Award in 2016.
Guest blogs are personal stories from people in our community. The views and opinions expressed in guest blogs are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of SCIC or its members.
 Encyclical Letter by Pope Francis “On Care for Our Common Home”, May 24, 2015. IV. Joy and Peace, 225.
 Encyclical Letter by Pope Francis “On Care for Our Common Home”, May 24, 2015. V. Civic and Political Love, 231.
"System Change not Climate Change - UN Climate March COP15 Denmark" Photo by kriskrug.com