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GIVE 6IX: Bystanders No More

Written by Angie Peters, President & CEO of YSM

166 days before I was born, Martin Luther King Jr. stood at the pulpit in Riverside Church in New York City and said these words:

“A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth… and say ‘This is not just.’” – Martin Luther King, Jr. (1)

It’s been over 50 years since Martin Luther King Jr. spoke these words. Today, in the midst of a global pandemic, we find ourselves experiencing another historic moment in human history.

Martin Luther King Jr. Photo by Unseen Histories on Unsplash

The Stats

Future generations; our children, our grandchildren, will ask what we did with this moment. The moment when the world stopped and we recognized, not only what was truly important to us, but also the deep cracks and fissures in our society that led to these sad and unnecessary truths:

  • Globally, wherever there is high economic growth, there is growing income inequality.
  • Approximately 1.2 million Canadian households experienced some moderate or severe food insecurity due to financial constraints. (2)
  • Toronto is the child poverty capital of Canada (3) and Canada ranks 18th globally, of 35 industrialized nations, for child poverty (4)
  • In Toronto, over the last 20 years, income grew by $600,000 for rich and by only $2,100 for marginalized. (5)
  • A Torontonian working full time at minimum wage has $7.83 to spend on everything they need after they pay their rent and transit. That’s $7.83 a day… for everything… what if they have kids? (6)
  • In the Toronto Census Metropolitan Area, those in the bottom 25% of hourly earners (making less than $17.48 per hour) have seen their total work hours reduced by 30% over the course of the pandemic. (7)
  • People earning less than $30,000 annually were 5.3 times more likely to be affected by COVID-19 than those with annual incomes above $150,000. (7)
  • And there is so much more…

Now is the Time

Volunteer helping a community member in the YSM Toronto food bank

These are deep cracks – more than that – they are giant craters and the COVID-19 pandemic has made the situation even worse. Now more than ever, it is impossible for any single actor to dig us out, to remove the barriers we’ve built so the more than 3 million Canadians (8) and 500,000 Torontonians living in poverty (9) can climb out. Not government alone, not social agencies alone, not the church alone. No, we all need to act and we must act now.

When we look at the stats to see who is poor, its women and children, immigrants and longtime Canadian minorities. It’s the widows, orphans and racialized neighbours. It’s your coworker, your child’s best friend or your concierge whom you chat with every day. It’s not only the person experiencing homelessness you pass on the street or street-youth living in shelters. It’s everyday people working hard yet struggling to survive.

The Bystander Effect

As compassionate citizens we can see the statistics and hear these words and have a sincere desire to help, but the truth is, many of us simply don’t know how. I think it’s because we fall prey to the bystander effect, a term from a social psychological experiment in the 1960s proving people will wait for someone else to step in, unsure if they should or if it’s their responsibility to do so.  

Today we have a social safety net, we pay taxes, we think these systems and the charities we donate to should have everything covered. But it is clear something is not working. Why? Because, the “road to Jericho” is broken. The entire system needs restructuring. 

Our Broken System

The social services system was built decades ago and it is no longer working. In fact, that same system is now a barrier to our progress. Instead of helping the person in front of us, we wait for the system to take care of them. 

Looking back 100 years, if someone’s house was on fire the whole community would rush to the site, pick up a bucket, join the bucket brigade and put out the fire. Nobody ever stood by, watching the fire, waiting for the firetrucks to arrive, for insurance to provide shelter for the family and fund the rebuilding of the home. Everybody knew they needed to pick up their bucket and help, and that others would do the same for them. 

Physical health check up for youth in poverty in Toronto

Time to Act

It’s time, my friends. I know so many good people who long to make a difference. And the truth is that each and every one of us has something to give, something we can do to make a huge difference in the life of one person. That’s all it would take for us to dramatically reduce, if not end, needless poverty – for each one of us to give something, anything to help even one person.

The time has come for all of us to stand together and be the change we want to see. Let’s do something now – today! –  that we’ll be proud to  tell our grandchildren about. That we  did something in this moment in human history, when a global pandemic made us all realize that the system needed an overhaul. That the system is not just. That we saw we could help, and we did. 

GIVE 6IX is a movement designed to inspire one person or group of dedicated citizens to help a person overcome common barriers to moving out of poverty. GIVE 6IX provides some suggestions, but only you know what gifts you can offer that will make a difference in the life of a struggling neighbour. Then, once you do it, share it! Inspire others to  follow suit, to do what they can to make a difference.  

If the system is to be transformed we must lead a gentle, invitational, and effective movement of finding the one thing we, personally, can do to help our neighbour trapped in poverty. And then, we must do it. 

Together, we are the Solution

some women voluntering in a kitchen making meals

Can you speak English? Can you read, learn and help someone find their way? Do you have a job? Do you know people?  Do you employ people? Can you teach, coach, or mentor? Do you own rental properties? Have you been blessed financially and are you able to fund specialized services? If you have any of these things you can help someone move out of poverty.  

It’s time to GIVE 6IX. Be inspired! Get creative! And remember that above all, not only is change possible, but you and I, working together are in fact the solution.

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  1. Martin Luther King, Jr., “A Time to Break Silence,” Riverside Church, New York City, April 4, 1967
  2. Statistics Canada, Household Food Insecurity, 2017/18. June 24, 2020.
  3. Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies, Unequal City: The Hidden Divide Among Toronto’s Children and Youth. Nov 30, 2017. 
  4. Unicef, Measuring Child Poverty. May 2012.
  5. Toronto Foundation, Toronto’s Vital Signs. Oct 7, 2019.
  6. Daily Bread, Who’s Hungry report key Findings. Nov 1, 2019
  7. Toronto Foundation, The Toronto Fall Out Report. Nov, 2020.
  8. Statistics Canada, Canadian Income Survey, 2018. Feb 24, 2020.
  9. Toronto Foundation, Toronto’s Vital Signs. Oct 7, 2019.