Community isn’t an abstract concept or one-off slogan for CUPE 2950 member Shehnaz Motani. For her, community is at the core of who she is, and what she does, every day. She sees herself as a member of many intersecting communities, with a responsibility and a calling to give back and work for change wherever possible.
Her sense of social responsibility is rooted in the concept of the “ummah”, an Arabic word commonly used in Muslim societies. “It’s our term for community, and it means a just, inclusive and pluralistic community,” says Motani, who is a member of the Ismaili Muslim community. “It’s also about a sense of social responsibility, especially towards the most marginalized in our society.”
Her community’s concept of ummah is also founded in a deeply-held tradition of volunteer service – something Motani sees in her father, who’s in his late 80s and still a community activist helping other seniors access various services. “He imparted to me that no-one should be left behind, and everyone should be given a helping hand. This is what CUPE is about and why I am a CUPE volunteer and activist ” says Motani, who works as a research awards officer at the University of British Columbia.
“My sense of voluntary service translates into not only my work with CUPE but also within my wider community: my faith community, my housing community, the community of Richmond, the community of British Columbia…it spreads even wider to the rest of the world,” says Motani. “I believe in social justice and equity – that’s what it’s all about.”
She is a former diversity vice-president on CUPE BC’s executive board, and a former contract and grievance committee vice-president on her local’s executive. She is currently on CUPE BC’s Workers of Colour Working Group and is also a member of CUPE BC’s international solidarity committee, where she sees her work as building capacity and empowering other people – not charity.
That concept carries over to her volunteer work with the Aga Khan Foundation Development Fund, which does work around the world, especially in areas where the Ismaili Muslim community resides. The fund “helps in small ways to change the world to be a more equitable world,” says Motani.
For example, it gives women in northern Pakistan economic skills like tending to chicken flocks or tending to orchards. This new knowledge translates into new socio-economic power and helps them have a greater voice in their community councils, in their tribal councils. Women’s voices start to be more valued and sought after.”
Motani is also working for a more equitable world closer to home, where she chairs the board of directors of the BC Human Rights Coalition. For her tackling issues of human rights discrimination means recognizing and denouncing discrimination based on race, gender, disability, sexual orientation or socio-economic power and working towards societal and systemic changes. But it’s also about bringing people together and building bridges.
“I come from a community that is diverse and multicultural. The faith is what binds us together as people who are ethnically different. That gives me the knowledge and understanding to promote the same kind of knowledge and understanding in my other communities,” says Motani.
“I believe in education as a tool towards greater social justice. Once one person is educated, people educate each other, and that breeds understanding and a feeling of community and belonging. We’re all people that live in the same community…. Recognizing and valuing the differences in our community makes for a thriving and inclusive community,” she says.
Motani brings that approach to her workplace, where she’s been a shop steward and a human rights and social justice advocate, and where she continues to work on issues of equity and diversity.
As a member of her local’s diversity committee, she invited Sid Tan, a human rights and environmental activist well known for his work on the Chinese head tax redress and better housing in Vancouver’s downtown Eastside to a recent membership meeting. He urged members to become activists who are engaged in their community, in their union and in society.
Motani has worked at UBC for nearly 30 years. Her workplace activism includes a new role on the UBC Provost’s Advisory Committee on Equity and Diversity. Motani points to the university’s recent move to grant honourary degrees to 61 Japanese-Canadian students who were interned during the Second World War as example of taking action to name racism and discrimination – and work for change. “This is the kind of positive action that helps heal our communities and helps heal the rifts of the past. This is the type of action that unites rather than divides communities.”
Motani’s passion and dedication is deep-seated and far-reaching. And CUPE is at the heart of it.
“In CUPE, we’re not only union members, but also members of our community and our workplaces. So when CUPE advocates for proper funding for post-secondary education, that’s about my workplace,” she says.
“When CUPE advocates for better pension plans, it is advocating for me as a member who will be retiring in about 10 or 12 years, and for my brother who will have to work two more years to access the same retirement benefits because of changes to OAS. When CUPE advocates about Medicare and Pharmacare, it is advocating for my elderly father, who is on a limited retirement income and has to think twice when he has to buy very expensive medications,” says Motani.
“ CUPE as an organization is a voice of people from the community.”
On June 23, CUPE relaunched Communities Day. It’s an annual celebration of public services and the people who deliver them.
This year has a special focus on CUPE members as community builders. We’ll be profiling the vital role members play — on the job and in their spare time—building strong communities. Get involved in Communities Day by visiting cupe.ca/communities.
We’re offering a CUPE sweatshirt to the first ten members who are profiled!