How Breast Cancer Activists and the Pink Ribbon can learn from the Red Square

How Breast Cancer Activists and the Pink Ribbon can learn from the Red Square

written by Deborah Ostrovsky

I’m sitting in a café and I am surrounded by red squares.

The waitress is wearing a red felt square attached to her collar with a safety pin. The barista’s red square is made of wool, knitted in a garter stitch and attached to the buttonhole of his shirt. The elderly woman sitting next to me is wearing one, too. She is fawning over my baby daughter who is sleeping soundly against my chest despite the red cotton square on the woman’s beret dangling over her tiny, newborn face.

If you are from Quebec, you are familiar with the red square. It’s a symbol of solidarity with our college and university students who are currently protesting government tuition hikes.

To my friends from the U.S., where the cost of university tuition can bankrupt a middle class family, the proposed increase of $325 each year over the next five years seems piddly and trifling.

In Quebec, we subsidize education in order to make it accessible to everyone. The students have decided to take this promise of subsidized education very seriously. In fact, some students interviewed by the media are putting their own academic future on hold to ensure that the next generation will not have to pay more to go to school.

You may not be in favour of the student strike. Some of my friends find the student strike intolerable, particularly after the recent bouts of violence during protests (this violence must be condemned; although it comes from a tiny fraction of students and most has not been caused by the students at all).

But if you are an environmental or breast cancer activist, you cannot hide from some of the unpleasant truths the students are trying to reveal about the connections between education, health, the environment and social justice. And like all sensitive, dedicated activists, they are aware—despite being so, so young—that even small incremental changes can hurt a population as much as a swift and sudden blow.  

Any public health worker will tell you that there is a direct correlation between access to education and the health of a population. It’s a simple algorithm. Along with education comes knowledge, the cultivation of critical thinking and therefore the power to make smarter life choices.

Access to education goes along with economic stability and the capacity to solidify democratic ideals that enhance our quality of life. It’s no wonder that some of the healthiest populations in the world, particularly in the Scandinavian countries, where there is also a strong track record of environmental stewardship, have free or heavily subsidized postsecondary education.

Above and beyond my capacity as a BCAM board member, I support the students. I do so not only for ideological reasons, but because I’m still paying back student loans for a degree that I finished while working full-time as a waitress almost 20 years ago.

When you are in debt like I am, you can’t always be concerned about the environment. You can’t afford to make healthy consumer choices for your family. You can’t afford pesticide-free organic meats, organic cooking oils, and natural shampoos for your children to reduce their risks of exposure to toxic chemicals linked to breast cancer. Nor can you afford a hybrid car. And if you can’t afford these things, you certainly don’t have the time or energy to fight for a healthier environment to ensure that everyone in this country—including the poor, single parent families, babies, and those with compromised health—are safe from environmental pollutants and have access to all of the above. 

Yes: it seems that subsidized education is good for your health.

Accessibility to education also gives people invaluable capital and an incentive to give back to their communities with their skills and training. These are the types of contributions can’t always be quantified on a government spread sheet.

BCAM knows this first hand. We rely on volunteers to work in the community. Although we are not associated with any postsecondary institution, we have a rich history of working with students and university researchers. In fact, BCAM’s entire existence might be in jeopardy if we didn’t have this relationship.

Each summer, we welcome interns and student volunteers who are unpaid for the work they do. If their tuition were higher, they might have a hard time showing up. So as activists, we depend on accessible postsecondary education in order to help fight the scourge of this terrible disease.

You might agree with me on that point. But you may also be thinking that the student strike is an exercise in activism beyond BCAM’s purview. We’re in the business of educating the public about breast cancer, right?

BCAM’s projects and campaigns aim at eliminating toxic substances from our environment. We promote the precautionary principle, which promulgates the idea that everyone in our society should be protected from the uncertain risks of toxic substances that may harm us, even if that harm is suspected and not yet entirely in evidence.

This means fighting against the small and incremental changes in our regulatory system that allow for hazardous chemicals—even in small amounts—to be in the products, water, and food that you consume.

Stay with me—because there is a connection.

For years, skeptics have been telling us that trace amounts of chemicals in the environment are harmless, and that toxics only pose a health risk in large doses. Critics have watched incredulously as BCAM activists march in the streets against things like formaldehyde in baby shampoo and trace amounts of lead and endocrine disrupting preservatives in beauty products. They argue that ours is a frivolous cause, as we host our own peaceful protests like bed-ins at hotels, in the spirit of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, to draw attention to the hazards of household cleaners.

So the students are kicking up a fuss about a mere $325 over the next five years. But they believe that by doing so they will protect future generations from enduring greater tuition increases that may ultimately affect the well-being of our society. Meanwhile, we are kicking up a fuss about lipstick, household cleaners and deodorant. We know that be doing so we are protecting future generations from chemicals that are connected to cancer and can take years—even decades—to show their insidious effects. 

If my daughter’s generation is in debt up to their eyeballs, they will not have the time to fight the battle we are trying to fight now.  In fact, they may not even have the will to come to terms with the environmental issues that need to be addressed. At that point, it might even be too late.

So even if you don’t agree with them, it is possible that the students are actually helping our cause.

And here is another uncomfortable truth: the red square has succeeded in representing a grass roots movement for exactly the same reasons the pink ribbon has failed breast cancer patients.

Whether you like the red square or not, wearing it means taking a firm and concrete position about a cause. This is unlike the pink ribbon that now stands for some diluted version of “awareness” but doesn’t translate into action.

The square belongs to anyone and everyone who supports the cause. In fact, the best way to procure a red square is to go home and cut one out of an old cloth, find a safety pin and attach it to your shirt. They cannot be bought or sold, and therein lies their power. They don’t rely on product placement and corporate endorsements. You won’t find them on tissue boxes or blenders or smattered with rhinestones. You will not find them printed on products at the makeup counter of your local drugstore, or brought to you by car and phone companies, fashion models and fast food chains.

I wish I could say the same for the pink ribbon, a loop of pink satin now tainted by commercial interests and cynical disease-cause marketing campaigns which have pumped questionably small amounts of cash into research on prevention.

So maybe you don’t agree with the students. Maybe you are tired of their tactics and their complaints. But as breast cancer activists, you can’t deny that we could learn a thing or two from their red square.

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