Cookie Dough and Justice

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I first met Randy Pinsky in a kitchen with multiple people busily baking on and around a table covered in bowls, bags of flour, cartons of eggs, bottles of oil--It was a pre-benefit concert bake-athon.  We have since participated in several benefit concerts together and have grown to be good friends. 

Randy (pictured on the left, her sister Marian Pinsky on the right) self-describes as an activist and likes to complement her action with education.  Over her academic career, she has acquired a bachelor's degree in archeology with a minor in Social Studies of  Medicine (from McGill University), a certificate in business law (Concordia University), a certificate in peace operations (Université de Montréal), and a bachelor's in political science with a minor in history (Concordia University). She is currently completing a master's degree in public policy and public administration at Concordia University. 

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In addition to her studies, she is active in social justice initiatives and organizations in Montreal, through committees, fundraisers, conferences, and internships. Over the years, she has worked with the League for Human Rights, World Vision, Rights and Democracy, and the Social Justice Committee of Montreal.

In connection with her studies and internships, she has published articles on topics, such as cooperative water initiatives (Journalists for Human Rights), women as "Protagonists of Peace, Activists for Change", and issues of reconciliation surrounding Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Randy and her sister, Marian's, activism and academic achievements have been recognized through several mutually received awards: most notably, the Lieutenant-Governor Youth Medal, Concordia University Outstanding Contribution Volunteer Award, and the Canadian Millennium Excellence In-Course Award.  

Randy and Marian kindly agreed to be interviewed through a combination of email and in-person conversations. In true student fashion, for our in-person interview, we settled down in an empty classroom and began our discussion.  The introductory information and the following Q & A have been formed from my interviews with Randy and Marian. 

I'll begin by letting Randy explain her recent internship with Médecins Sans Fontières.

I had an amazing opportunity to engage in "research in action" when I was recommended to do an internship with the Québec chapter of Médecins Sans Fontières (MSF--Doctors Without Borders). I took part in MSF's most recent project of perception studies in eleven countries, focusing specifically on the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Research of this sort is becoming ever more critical in light of the unsettling rise in attacks against aid workers. Rather than being perceived as neutral bodies, organizations are being suspected of harboring ulterior motives. This reality has left some places, such as Somalia, virtually devoid of aid organizations. Such initiatives are thus vital for elucidating how groups are being perceived, in order to enhance their security and maximize the effectiveness of aid. It is critical that we attempt to uncover the "faux pas" we are unintentionally making that is provoking such a negative response, and accommodate accordingly.

I delved into the debate of "Doing Good But Looking Bad" as is said in the field, and the challenge of upholding the humanitarian charter of neutrality, impartiality and independence in volatile areas. I then analyzed survey responses collected from a diverse array of aid workers, medical practitioners, organizations, and members of the local and diasporic Congolese communities. What an amazing networking opportunity! From the Canadian International Development Agency and Physicians for Human Rights, to Friends of the Congo, respondents provided thoughtful commentary on the reality encountered in the field.

English: DRC, orthographic projection.

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In addition to my paper ("Are Good Intentions Enough? A Perception Study of Médecins Sans Frontières in the Democratic Republic of the Congo") being incorporated into a final report by MSF Switzerland (not bad for a kid from Concordia!), I was also able to take part in MSF's Perceptions of Humanitarian Action conference where I got to meet veritable 'gurus' in the field.

My internship with MSF was a phenomenal experience and I felt so fulfilled, knowing that the work I did, was not going to be relegated to a dust-gathering pile of reports, but rather was contributing to enhancing the security of humanitarian workers, and the efficiency of aid. More than 'just' an internship then, this was a multidimensional venture into the world of humanitarian action in which the effects of my contribution will be tangible and far-reaching. Getting the chance to put your studies to work in an internship is truly valuable as it is a fulfilling means of finding your niche in your desired field. More than a great opportunity, my internship at MSF was critical for reaffirming my passion for "research in action", and helping launch my career in humanitarian work.

Randy, what motivates you to study topics of social justice at university?

I've always been frustrated by the apathy of people, how people can just subsist in their own little bubble, knowing (or pretending not to know) that others are suffering from poverty, inequality or malnutrition, but feeling not the least compelled to do something about it. I've always been driven by what my sister calls a sense of "righteous indignation". I am driven by inequality and injustice and find such issues provoke me to take part in and be part of the change. Whether this be writing for Journalists for Human Rights, doing an internship with Médecins Sans Frontières, or helping with a conference on the prevention of mass atrocities with the Montreal Institute for Genocide Studies, I feel empowered by taking part in something I care for. It is immensely satisfying to know that even though plights exist, at least I took part in trying to lessen their effects.

I have always felt the need to be engaged and change things, from the local level with performing in hospitals and senior homes, to the international, through internships and fundraisers. A quote I like is by Karl Marx who said, "philosophers have interpreted the world enough; the point however, is to change it". I strongly feel everyone has the capacity to contribute in some way, and that we all, really, have the obligation to be part of the movement for change.

Something that drives my focus of study, is the frustration of the catch phrase "never again" first voiced after the Holocaust. We have had so many chances to change the course of history, yet 'never again' keeps taking place, be it Rwanda, Darfur, to often forgotten places such as Cambodia and Armenia. Promises for change must be effected and put into action, not merely used to garner campaign popularity.

Through taking classes which focus on issues of injustice, I am inspired by the agency of those who have helped procure their own change, to ensure such acts are not done with impunity, but that consequences are made. It is only by informing people of such issues that we can finally learn from the past, change the future, and ensure that the lives lost have not been in vain.

Class topics that most fascinate me concern post-conflict peace building, reconciliation, and human rights. Whether it be through my regular courses or in specialty classes on Peace Operations at the Université de Montréal, I find these are really compelling issues that spark my interest, and I hope will best equip me for my ambition to work in the NGO field.


Randy, what aspects of justice of are of particular interest to you?

Post-conflict peace building, civil society, communities effecting their own change, and transitional justice, among others. It's not enough to study conflict; we must also examine how people have pulled themselves out of the mess they're in and start rebuilding their lives. It is for this reason that NGOs make it very clear that there is a difference between peacemaking, peacekeeping, and peacebuilding. More than mere semantic differences, the first two involve physically stopping the fighting, separating warring communities, and starting the process of negotiations. Peacebuilding is actually one of the most difficult of steps as it entails crafting a sustainable structure by which people can slowly heal from the experience, and normalize their lives again. Local agency is what inspires me; it's not enough for outsiders to come in and tell communities what the solutions are. The people themselves must be part of their own legacy if the changes adopted are hoped to be meaningful and sustained.

Galego: Mostar. Svenska: Stari Most, 2008.

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For instance, I wrote a paper on reconciliation in Bosnia-Herzegovina--it's on our history course website,

if you're interested! The
Mostar Bridge was an important heritage site, which was deliberately bombed in
order to effect the most amount of emotional and cultural damage. Upon
rebuilding it in 2004, many believed that the physical act could be translated
into the symbolic one of reconciling differences and 'building bridges'. While
this seemed ideal, this was only a PC version of the reality. In truth,
critical issues of concern remained unresolved, tensions and mutual suspicions
still abounded, and reconciliation was not effected in spite of the bridge's
rebuilding. In essence, the message is that all efforts cannot be placed just
in grand symbolic acts, but must be accompanied by tangible changes in order
for true change to be brought about.

Another issue on a similar note was in regards to a paper I wrote for a class on post-conflict peacebuilding, on the reintegration of female child soldiers in Sierra Leone. Through my research, I discovered that not only are there exceedingly few resources for these girls, they are not even utilized because they were developed without consulting those most affected! Insensitive issues, like the men who were involved being present at the rehabilitation centers, combined with the societal ostracism the girls experienced, would result in them simply not utilizing the services at all. It wasn't that the issue was resolved--far from it--but they were not helped in spite of the well intentioned programs, because organizers neglected critical issues. Unless the solution is actually taking into account the people affected, the problem is not going to be resolved.

It's for that reason I hope the paper I wrote for MSF will be incorporated into a sort of guide for humanitarian workers going into conflict zones, to realize the imperativeness (is that even a word? :)) of communicating with the local people when going about their work. An example that comes to mind is a series of books called "How to Be a Perfect Stranger", which basically depicts "do's" and "don'ts" when visiting people of a faith other than your own. It's a great way to not intentionally offend (slip-ups are common enough on their own :)) and gain points for sensitivity and awareness.

The main problem encountered by many organizations is that it is often conflict regions in which they go, and so learning the language and cultural customs often becomes a secondary consideration. While this is understandable, I really think a prep guide is direly needed, because without it, people can unintentionally offend community members, and subsequently, lose the trust upon which their entire work depends. Believe me, it's far easier to make mistakes than avoid doing them!

For instance, workers found that in Yemen, unless you first greet the elder males in the village, you could lose credibility in the eyes of the community. Another conflict of morals was experienced by MSF in Nigeria where the patriarchal community stated that it was imperative that men be treated first, even if their condition was less serious than for women. What do you do in a situation like that--treat the man with the paper cut and only get to the woman giving birth later in order to maintain local respect, or do what your medical logic tells you, and potentially lose out on community trust? There's no easy solution, but it's my hope that through engaging in perceptions studies, such as the one I was fortunate to be part of with MSF, such issues will be better explored and resolved.


Marian, what is the first social justice action you remember doing in partnership with Randy?

The first social justice action I did in partnership with Randy has to be the variety shows we organized at our grandfather's residence, although that was more of a family endeavor. Our first official partnership (please note: I tend to be impulsive and leap into things, which involves implicitly 'voluntelling' Randy as well) was launching the Free the Children chapter in high school. This involved setting up a committee, chairing meetings, doing outreach, and coordinating a variety of fundraisers, from bake sales to flower sales, to a raffle, and a huge assembly.


Randy, what was the first social justice action that you can remember participating in?

Every year for my grandfather's birthday, we would put on a variety show that involved everything from singing to (attempted) juggling, and lots of tap dancing, with us running back and forth to the 'wings' to change costumes after blowing kisses to the audience (well. Not really, but makes for a good story :)). These small shows eventually became our troupe of "Performers with a Purpose" called the Starburst Entertainers. As a student-based performance group, Marian, my older sister Donna and I, both coordinate and perform in the shows. Since 2000, we have organized over 200 shows at senior residences, raising funds for causes, such as MSFWorld Vision, and UNICEF. We also pride ourselves for being 'on the scene' for emergencies, such as Katrina, the Tsunami, Burma, Pakistan and most recently, Haiti and Japan. We're really glad you've joined us for the shows, Christine, as you're one of our most dependable performers :).

The real impetus for first getting involved in social action however, was when Donna became involved with a group called Kids Can Free the Children (KCFTC) in CEGEP. Its aim is to end child labour by providing the kids' families with alternative income projects, such as micro-credit, entrepreneurship workshops, and means of earning a livelihood, so they are not left with no other choice but child labour. KCFTC also leads community development projects, educational opportunities, and exposes corporations that use child labour.

Totally inspired, we started a chapter at our high school, which was pure frustration :). I guess one of the main reasons for this was that it was so completely against the norm to do something social justice-oriented, people had a hard time getting their minds around it. This was an enormous undertaking in which we had to build a committee, engage in outreach and fundraising activities, and even had a huge conference in which we presented our amassed funds to the organization's founder, Craig Kielburger. What an amazing (though incredibly frustrating) opportunity to challenge the general passivity and self-entitlement we were often confronted with. We're still involved with Free the Children, but that was a really critical start to our development as the activists we are today.


Marian, what is a funny or memorable anecdote that occurred while working with Randy on a social justice/human rights project?

In high school, each fundraiser for Free the Children was a challenge, as not only were we confronted with apathy from the students, but from the administration as well, unfortunately.

Anyhow, we set up a table at the Parent-Teacher Interviews nights, where we sold baked goods and soft drinks, and distributed information about child labor and the number of children (predominantly girls) who are denied the right to accessible education. Though we got a lot of support from parents, we also received several callous, insensitive and ignorant comments from well-fed, comfortable people, who either bypassed our table in search of the fashion show booth, or hassled us on the realities of child labour, more interested in saving on their precious commodities than acknowledge the reality in which they are made.

By this time, I (who don't tend to have a lot of patience in the best of times) was getting exasperated, bitter, and discouraged with the callousness and selfishness being witnessed. Randy, in a typical display of her good-naturedness and sense of humor laced with "prankness," which makes her such an ideal person to partner with in social justice endeavors, came up with a plot to have parents, teachers, and students crawling back to our table. In the name of eliminating the competition, she surreptitiously yanked the plug from the Coke machine in the cafeteria, and hurriedly scribbled an 'Out of Order - Sorry' sign. That got 'em coming, if only begrudgingly.

日本語: カーネーション 撮影場所:広見町 撮影日:2004年5月23日 中文: 康乃馨

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A memorable event that actually diverges from the frustrations mentioned above pertains to a flower sale we organized at the annual fashion show. I know, trying to promote awareness and heightened consciousness of the conditions under which your clothing was produced at the worst exhibition of consumerist greed, sounds a bit counterintuitive, but what could we do? By then, we had made good friends with the custodial staff through our many fundraisers, be it needing the fridge for flowers, to storing baked goods, staying at all hours... etc.

This is the setting: having gone to different florists and wheedled them down for cheap flowers, dealing with an extremely teeny shoestring budget, we then stayed up until 3 a.m. harnessing the powers of the entire Pinsky team to wrap up the flowers (and this was on a school/work night), unfortunately having to redo the messy wrapping of some of our enthusiastic but artistically challenged committee members.

With little sleep in us, we then proceeded to set up everything for the two shows. Received an order to drop everything and run to bring up 'the nicest carnations' for our principal, who was anything but supportive of any of our endeavors and even insisted on paying at cost-price.  I took the scrawniest flowers I could find and raced to her office, only to be ordered to bring back nicer ones. I was seething throughout the entire show and sold flowers through gritted teeth. Randy, as always, has a great disposition and worked to keep my spirits up, reminding me of the importance of the cause.

As we were wrapping up at the end of the second show, and I was thinking murderous thoughts having to do with the administrative office, one of the custodians we had worked with came up to us, and said he wanted to buy two flowers. Thinking what a sweet gesture this was for his wife, we selected the nicest carnations we had. To our surprise, he handed them back to us, in recognition of all our hard work and the thanklessness of it all that he saw in our frustrating interactions with the administration. I almost cried: I was so touched. I mean, this is someone whose income and status level is miles behind that of the administration, yet he was much more of a mentsh.

Anecdotes from Randy

Funny anecdotes, huh? Well, one thing that comes to mind is a huge fundraiser we organized in CEGEP for Dans la Rue, an organization that works to help youth who live in the streets of Montreal. Rather than only do the regular bake-sales and popcorn stands (although we did that, too), we decided to collect items for the kids. What most people don't realize is that they don't just need food to subsist--they need items of clothing, and even regular things we take for granted like Kleenex, toothpaste, socks, scarves, etc. I think this was a really great eye-opener for the students and everyone really got involved, especially when we made a special call-out for teddy bears. As one of the organization's leaders told us, no matter how many piercings and tattoos they might have, kids still need someone to love, as this is often hugely lacking in their lives.

We soon had an enormous pyramid of food and items that we would regularly neaten up, and admire. Every couple of days, we would say, "we need to take a photo with the team before we send it all to Dans la Rue", but somehow, as is the life of a student, we never got around to it...

One rare day, I actually remembered to bring my camera, emailed our team members, came to school... and the pyramid was gone. How does something of that size just get up and walk away?! We were then informed that the dean (who had always been supportive before), was expecting some important guests, and thought it looked 'messy'. Not only was I frustrated that this was done before we had a chance to document it, but also that she didn't perceive this as an ideal example of student initiative and engagement. At any rate, everything was donated and we felt fulfilled, knowing we made a huge difference--still... :)

Another story is when Marian and I were involved in the Social Justice Committee of Montreal and helped coordinate a public education conference on "Responses to the Global Economic Crisis and its Impacts in the Third World". While working through all the logistics, I, crazy person that I am, decided that it was not enough to talk about social justice and sustainability, but that it would be so much more meaningful to act it as well. Thus developed what we called "sustainability in action". From the reusable dishes, to fair trade hot beverages, food provided by a community kitchen, and socially conscious raffle, the whole thing was sustainable from beginning to end (oh. And the speakers were great, too :)). Despite the exhaustion (especially with washing dishes until midnight), I really think we made a huge impact in actually putting into action the message we were conveying.

The last quick anecdote was experienced when we volunteered with Youth Action Montreal, an incredible conference which was geared to inspiring students to become involved in local or international causes. With phenomenal speakers from Free the Children, the Abhilasha Foundation (for education for kids with disabilities in India), Five Days for the Homeless, and Journalists for Human Rights, it was an incredible experience.

Anyhow, one of our speakers was the amazing Stephen Lewis who specializes in HIV/AIDS awareness, and is a critical advocate for women's rights. A hugely recognizable individual, I was amazed to see him wandering in the hallway, just minutes before he was supposed to present. When I approached him with my snazzy volunteer t-shirt, he gave me this big smile and said, "Hi, I'm Stephen", before proceeding to amiably chat with me. This was incredible as not only was it a chance to meet a renown leader in the field, he took the time to converse with an otherwise 'mere' volunteer. That really said a lot in that he supports activism in all its forms and took the time to do something most people of his stature would not even consider doing.  


Randy, what do you hope to see come from organizing discussions and fundraisers?

I guess the most important thing is for people to realize there is a world outside their own backyard and that everyone has an obligation to try to remedy inequalities, in whatever capacity they can. I really think everyone has the ability to do something, and am guided by the belief that "you may only be one person to the world, but you may also be the world to one person". When we organize events and fundraisers, I hope to shake people up a bit, challenge what they know, and remind them they actually wield the power within them to effect change. If I can inspire someone to care and maybe take up the opportunity to get involved in something, that's a reward for me.

Even when the chapter of Free the Children we started in high school didn't last long after we left, this was not a failure. In fact, we were told by a faculty member that this initiative was a great kick in the pants for the students, and served to create a legacy for social justice engagement which continues to this day. What now exists is a group called The Human Promise, which raises awareness of Darfur; an initiative, we were told, that simply wouldn't have materialized had it not been for the spark of change we started.


Randy, what activist projects are you involved in at the moment?

Currently, I'm a research assistant and intern at the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies (MIGS) at Concordia. We recently held an enormous conference on "The Promise of the Media in Halting Mass Atrocities" to mark the 10th anniversary of the Responsibility to Protect, hosting phenomenal speakers including Jonathan Hutson of the Enough Project (as in enough with "Never Again"), the Honorable Irwin Cotler, Mona Eltahawy (formidable journalist on the Arab spring), and Roméo Dellaire, among others.  It was really inspiring to be part of this conference and was an amazing way to meet other like-minded people who are not content to passively watch in the face of atrocities, but demand that change be brought about.

At this event, they said a quote by Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times that I found particularly inspiring: "Isn't it better to inconsistently save some lives than to consistently save none?"*. In essence, this is what guides my activism; you don't know how much of an impact you will have, but it sure as heck will be more than doing nothing.

We also volunteer at a cat shelter for abandoned and lonesome kitties, except I think we get more out of it than they do :).

Also, now that it's 'that time of the year' again, Marian and I are planning our "Carolling for a Cause" events in which we raise funds for the Montreal Children's Hospital Foundation by caroling door to door. We also bring holiday cheer to patients in the Montreal General and Royal Victoria, and would welcome anyone reading this to join us! Lastly, though we haven't done many Starburst shows recently, we're ever on the ready if there is some sort of emergency that requires a show.


Marian, what specific characteristics have you noticed in Randy, that make her particularly skilled at social activism?

Randy has always been driven by a strong sense of justice. Her righteous indignation propels her to take action rather than bemoan the unjust nature of the world. I think that by virtue of being the youngest, who would always intervene in family squabbles, her inclination to be a pacifist has translated well in her current Masters research on conflict resolution. Randy has a strong work ethic, and her empathy, curiosity, imaginativeness, and creativity are excellent qualities in coordinating events. Her fondness of setting up pranks attests to a refined ability to visualize and has given her organizational skills that have been useful in coordinating events.

My impulsivity, which is rooted in both indignation and an eagerness to challenge perceived wrongs, is tempered by her more realistic appraisal of the situation. She is the stubbornest person I know and is determined, spunky and committed; qualities which are critical for working in a social justice field.

Randy is proactive and indomitable, meaning that even if she witnesses gross infractions and abuses of human rights in her research, she keeps an optimistic and upbeat nature, which allows her to surface above what seems to be insolvable and self-perpetuating problems.

Randy is fun, fun-loving, and a committed individual, who has always had a strong sense of right and wrong. She is loyal to her friends and the various causes to which we ascribe and commit our efforts, and always good-naturedly goes along with projects I propose, whether it is collecting items for Dans La Rue, coordinating fundraisers and benefit concerts for FTC and Starburst Entertainers, respectively, collecting cans of non-perishable foods door-to-door on Halloween, or volunteering on a 30-person bicycle to benefit the Children's hospital. Randy takes initiative where other people need instruction, sees what needs to be done, and does it. This is a great partnership (although it does make me impatient when in projects I have to work with people who need specific direction and who are less intuitive than Randy!).


Randy, for people wanting to begin being more socially active, what would you suggest they do?

Think of something you feel you're good at, and find an organization that could benefit from that skill.  The Montreal Volunteer Bureau has over 700 opportunities for getting involved! It all depends on what you're looking for, from working in food banks, to volunteering in animal shelters, visiting the housebound, joining community kitchens... the list goes on.

And the great thing of being involved, is you do it because you want to--you get a sense of fulfillment knowing that you were part of the solution rather than the problem; it's just a nice fuzzy feeling that I would highly recommend :). Also, you can become involved in whatever capacity tickles your fancy; while some travel abroad to volunteer, I prefer the behind the scenes work for my international causes and the tangible hands-on work for the local issues. I don't think going abroad is any more valuable than being involved at a local level; though it may be underemphasized, I think it's as, if not more, valuable--you don't need to travel to a country in question to show true commitment.


Randy, do you feel that having the support of a community of social-justice minded people is important for persevering in seeking justice, or do you feel that internal motivation is sufficient?

Both are important.  The thing is, you need the support of a group because you can be frustrated with the inequality and unfairness that abounds, and just sort of be talking in an echo chamber. You really need to meet other like-minded people in order to effect tangible and sustainable change. Having a community of committed individuals, no matter how small, can make a world of a difference.

Internal motivation is also key, because it keeps you going when you encounter frustration, be it bureaucratic or otherwise. Also, once you start getting involved, you become overwhelmed by the plight of so many in the world, and disillusioned with the complicit nature of most people. I encountered this as a mall fundraiser for World Vision, but you can't let yourself be consumed by disillusionment toward people's selfishness and ignorance. You just need to surround yourself with those who care, and know that it is the few special people who make a difference, that need to count.

When you do meet other people who are similarly minded, your energy and enthusiasm really bounces off one another and you get such a great outcome that's not only meaningful but is sustained.


Further Reading: (Reconciliation in Bosnia-Herzegovina: The Mostar Bridge)

A project assembled by Andrea Bluteau, Kirima Isler, Tessa Jones, and Randy Pinsky:

* Kristof, Nicholas, D. 2011. "Is It Better to Save No One?" op-ed New York Times, April 2.

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