30 years of serving women

Last Thursday, when I spoke at the AGM of The Redwood — a women’s shelter celebrating 30 years of operation — was a hot and steamy day.

The event was held in a community hub with no air conditioning and, while the floor and ceiling fans did their best to keep up with the heat, as more and more people crowded into the space, the temperature steadily climbed.

Fortunately for all of us, we were handed paper fans with The Redwood logo on them as we arrived, there were lots of icy cold drinks and, when all was said and done, each of us left with a cupcake (or two) in our hands.

The celebration was wonderful. Among the guests were at least one of the founding members of The Redwood, the shelter’s first Executive Director (who flew in from Nova Scotia) and several past Board presidents, as well as donors, volunteers, present Board members, folks from the community and, of course, staff.

Words of celebration

Here is some of what I said:

The Redwood means something different to everyone here. To me, an outsider, you are an organization that has always had the courage and vision to embrace thinking outside the box in your work to support women and children at what is a very vulnerable time in their lives.

You’re also an organization that has been built from the community up. As you mark your 30th anniversary – an event we all wish we didn’t have to mark – you are embracing the idea that, if we are to make the need for women’s shelters obsolete, we need transformative change, and you are inviting your community to be part of that work.

The pandemic pulled away the curtain that has obscured the depth and breadth of intimate partner violence for so long. . . .  Those three + years saw many terrible things, but they also saw incredible resilience and strength in those being subjected to IPV as well as in those – like many of you here tonight—supporting those survivors.

We kept going, didn’t we, even when we thought we couldn’t? We found innovative ways to provide what was needed. We “pivoted.” We adapted. We came love and hate Zoom.

We lived what Frida Kahlo wrote:

“At the end of the day, we can endure much more than we think we can.”

Tired by those three years as we are, we are still here.

It’s time to work for transformative change. No more bandaids. No more looking at one part of the problem in isolation from all the others. No more assigning responsibilities in a silo fashion.

It’s time for a whole of society approach. It’s time to – figuratively speaking, of course – blow it all up and start over. . . .

Making transformative change

It’s everyone’s responsibility to end violence against women and gender-based violence, by ending misogyny, sexism and racism using an intersectional lens that reflects the experiences of diverse individuals and communities and fully recognizes and works to eradicate the ongoing harm caused by the genocide of Indigenous peoples across Turtle Island.

Policy and decision makers must fully acknowledge the gendered reality of gender-based violence. This doesn’t mean that men cannot be victimized and that women cannot be causers of harm. It doesn’t exclude those whose gender-identity is trans or non-binary. But, we have to stop pretending that this is something that “just happens” without naming its roots in misogyny and racism.

The best kinds of change come through collaborative partnerships that include survivors, frontline workers, professionals, community partners, system decision makers, those who cause the harm, media and politicians.

We cannot lose sight of prevention in favour of serving and supporting those already harmed. We have to do both pieces of work simultaneously because they are inextricably interwoven. That means how our work is funded has to change.

The consideration of possible negative consequences must be a priority in all our work for change. We’ve seen the consequences of failing to do so too many times. Just think of mandatory charging.

We need to have the courage and wisdom to think outside the box.

Holding onto hope

Like many of you, I’ve been doing this work for a long time and, I have to say, at times it feels like we’re not exactly making much headway. It’s easy to feel discouraged, cynical and hopeless.

But, right now, what I feel is hope. That hope does not lie with Doug Ford, Justin Trudeau or any other politician. It lies with us. We have made change happen in the past, and we can do it again.

My hope comes from the willingness of communities – even communities in pain – to step up and engage in the work of ending violence against women. . . . I saw this in so many ways during and since the CKW inquest in Renfrew County last year. . . .

When, at the end of the inquest, the jury read out their 86 recommendations for change, that hope blossomed into determination – determination that the hard work of these people not be in vain.

Last fall, I had the honour of travelling to many parts of Ontario, mostly small and rural communities, to talk with VAW organizations and community coordinating committees about the inquest. 

Everywhere I went, people said:

“We’re not waiting for the powers that be to do the right thing. We’re going to implement these recommendations in our communities ourselves. IT’S. PAST. TIME.”

Lanark County Council passed a resolution in December 2022 to implement the first recommendation by declaring IPV to be an epidemic. It didn’t take long for word to spread: now 48 municipalities have done so, from small rural communities to big cities like Windsor, Hamilton, Ottawa and Toronto.

We’re in this for the long haul, because we believe that change is both necessary and possible. Politicians and governments come and go. We need to hold them accountable, but there’s lots we can do whether or not we have their support.

This is the moment and opportunity for us to make meaningful change for women in this province and beyond.

We do it with hope because, as Rebecca Solnit has said:

 “Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope.”

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