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What happens when a group of people deliberately excludes themselves from – and rejects the core values of – mainstream society? As growing income inequality and climate change push people from the global south to cities like Kitchener, host communities seem increasingly worried about economic integration, political incorporation and the social inclusion of newcomers and their children.

In her new book, Luann Good Gingrich argues that meaningful social inclusion requires us to first of all reconsider “how we encounter and relate to difference.” Gingrich is associate professor in the School of Social Work and Scholar in Residence at the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University. She lives in Kitchener, where we talked about her research on a sunny August morning.

Luann Good Gingrich

Luann Good Gingrich

JB: Your new book, from University of Toronto Press, is called Out of Place: Social Exclusion and Mennonite Migrants in Canada. Who are the Mennonite migrants?

LGG: The population is more commonly known as Mexican Mennonites, which is an erroneous term, because they aren’t Mexican people. They’re German – or Dietsche, as they would say. They mostly live in colonies in Bolivia, Mexico and other parts of Central and South America, and migrated from Canada in the 1920s. But [for mostly economic reasons] since the 1950s, there’s been a steady stream of families back to Canada.

JB: You mention at points that this isn’t only a book about the Dietsche, that they’re peculiar but not peculiar.

LGG: They’re part of this stream of economic migration from parts of the world that are poor to more wealthy regions of the world. And like many other groups they of course come with their own way of life. They want to preserve a “right way to live” that requires staying with traditional practices, separating from the world, and submitting to a community.

For example, many Dietsche prefer field work, like picking cucumbers or tomatoes. The family works together as an economic unit, so as much as possible kids are out in the field working. From the dominant perspective, this work is menial labour, it’s not valued in any terms – economic or symbolic – but in their value system, that kind of work is best, it’s what parents want for their kids. The Dietsche ideal is to carry the past into the future, though mainstream Canadian culture sees this as a lack of ambition bordering on immorality.

JB: You write that “how we encounter and relate to difference” is “in many ways… the gist of the entire book,” but why does it matter that the Dietsche are excluded? They want to be distinct and don’t seem to care what dominant culture thinks of their ways of being.

LGG: It doesn’t matter for some, because some have the resources they need to stay completely separate. The problem comes when the Dietsche need to encounter the state or social welfare system in some way, or when we intervene. The state might intervene for child welfare or education reasons or the Dietsche might make requests for social assistance, and it’s in that confrontation between contradictory world views that the breakdown in relationship happens.

JB: If these people have come to us, asking for help, isn’t it fair that they follow our rules, which we’ve created to serve the most people most effectively?

LGG: This “common sense” point of view gets at the heart of the matter. Underneath this seemingly reasonable perspective is the belief that our “rules” actually do work effectively for most people – that our way of doing things is right and good. We may even assume that our way is inevitable, as if things have always been this way and always will be this way. But when we are confronted with people who resist conforming in ways that we expect, this is an opportunity to wonder why.

Why would a whole group of people choose to take up jobs that lead nowhere, and why would a group of white-skinned, blue-eyed German people who could “blend” refuse to conform in their dress, language and lifestyle?  To resist conformity is a challenge to “our” way of doing things, and I think we take offense. Rather than becoming defensive – and then often punitive in our approach to those who have needs – I suggest that we might have the courage and humility to look carefully at our systems, rules and institutions to re-evaluate their effectiveness.

These are opportunities for “us” to critically re-evaluate our own common sense, to examine that which we take for granted. Engaging with people who are different can open space for us to reconsider who and how we want to be in relationship with one another.

And this is hard work, because we don’t recognize what we take for granted… maybe this feels like a trivial example, but we talk a fair bit in casual conversation and social policy about the idea of people being productive and contributing to the community and society. This is really important and we really value it. But that’s code. What counts as productive or as making a meaningful contribution? Almost always, we count that which we can buy and sell.

JB: You mentioned you’re part of a sponsor group, helping a new family from Syria settle in Kitchener. Do you see connections between your sponsorship work and academic work?

LGG: We often take for granted the idea that when people come to Canada they ought to integrate. But what does integration mean? Often inclusion or integration means fitting into a defined or fixed centre or group and we hardly ever look at that something, at that centre. Is it a good thing? We take for granted that “they” should become more like “us.” And I wonder, well, which us? What do “we” look like? What specific attributes do we wish them to take on?

We’re willing to leave some room for difference, but there are other kinds of difference we are not willing to leave room for. And the way we talk about that is that they’re not integrating or settling well. So we need to help them settle, which means find paid work. And I realize that sounds controversial, because of course paid work, how else are they going to make a living? But it’s not the only way to make a living.

JB: You’ve also said that “a conclusion of my research is that we have much to learn about ourselves from encountering ‘difference,’ that such encounters are an opportunity for us to develop a “moral imagination” for just relationships with one another and with the world. I’d like to hear you say more about this, because it seems to me – at least if we can trust the media, which is of course a big if – that many people are encountering difference in much less healthy ways. I’m thinking here of Brexit and Trump and the miserable comments people make about Black Lives Matter or the shooting of Colten Boushie. Maybe what I’m asking is, how do we get people to encounter difference in healthier ways?

LGG: I don’t trust the media [laughs]. So often the way that difference is depicted in the media is misrepresentation, because it’s through the dominant framework – so it’s not real understanding, it’s judgement. This is one of the reasons I wrote the book.

When I think about or write about engaging with difference I mean in interpersonal, human relationships. Just to get to know others, not to help or to change them. Just to try to understand. The hard part is that doing that requires us to be comfortable with who we are.

JB: So that’s a good segue, to your last chapter, where you write that “to challenge social exclusion is not to change the other… but ourselves.” What does social inclusion look like? How do we get there?

LGG: We need to make more room for difference, and learn to honour and value different approaches to making a living, and to honour and value different world views. Our current ways of being in the world and with each other are contrived, and we can choose something different.

I recognize that these are “big ideas,” and the systems and structures I aim to investigate and ultimately change are complex and multi-faceted. My starting point is everyday, ordinary interactions and inter-personal relationships. This is, I think, how change in systems is made possible. I work hard in my teaching to help students recognize and then evaluate their own common sense. To recognize that we have a worldview that is not the only way to view the world requires being confronted with something different.

So, for example, I bring my students to listen to stories from an aboriginal knowledge-keeper and encourage them to connect with the alternative worldviews and value systems that they know.  My hope is that they begin to know – to feel – that we are not alone, that each one brings something of value (and no one brings everything), that we need one another, and that we have both influence and responsibility to strive toward just relationships in the communities and institutions in which we engage.

Gingrich is hosting a book launch at Conrad Grebel University College on Thursday, October 20. This interview has been edited and condensed.