New year, new directions

I have never made a real career plan. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a lawyer, but life intervened, and I didn’t get to law school till I was in my mid-30s. I graduated from law school with lots of debt and only a very general idea of what kind of lawyer I wanted to be.

The day I opened my law practice, a woman ran into my office, clutching a baby. The first words out of her mouth were:

“Please help me. My husband has a gun and he’s in the house with my son.”

That’s when I knew what my life as a lawyer would look like. I built my practice around women whose partners had abused them, who had been sexually assaulted by men they knew and didn’t know, who had been sexually abused as children or who had been sexually harassed at work and at school.

New paths have opened up in front of me many times over the past 30 years, and I have stepped onto most of them. I didn’t always know exactly where they would go, but I have almost never regretted the directions they have taken me.

Always, my work has allowed me to be surrounded by courageous and inspiring women; women who have survived gender-based violence and those who work to support them — who are often, of course, survivors themselves. Always, my work has been interesting and fulfilling. Always, it has felt like it was making a difference.

Following my instincts

When Carol Barkwell, the Executive Director of Luke’s Place, asked me to speak at an event for lawyers in Durham Region in 2006, I had no idea where that invitation would take me. At the time, Luke’s Place was a tiny organization – in addition to Carol, there were three staff —  working out of one room in another community agency’s office.

I thought my speaking engagement was a one-time thing, but almost immediately, I knew my soul had found its home.  Carol and I had dozens of ideas for work we could do together. Before I knew it, I was helping to write a funding proposal. When we got the grant, there was a role for me in the project.

And so it has gone for the past 16 years. At some point, we decided I should be called the Legal Director, although I have never been a staff member or worked full-time with Luke’s Place. Carol and I would cook up project ideas, get funding for them, and I’d have some more work for another year, or two, or three.

More importantly, our direct service work has created new models of how to support women fleeing abuse as they engaged with the family law system; some of which we have seen picked up and used by others, and our systemic work has led to important changes in family law and other systems.

Surviving from one project grant to another is far from ideal for an organization, but somehow Luke’s Place has managed to thrive. Over the years I’ve worked there, it has moved from shared space to its own tiny rented space, where I often worked on a TV table in the corner of Carol’s office, to its present office; a co-location with other community services. Over this time, the number of staff has steadily grown: today, there are 24 employees. It’s a good thing we all learned how to work remotely during the pandemic because, even in these larger quarters, there is not enough space for everyone to come into the office at the same time.

Carol is one of the most creative thinkers I have ever worked with. She is also incredibly determined and won’t take no for an answer – good qualities for an executive director of a small organization. Her vision, inspiration, leadership and collaborative working style have created an environment in which I have been able to do the best and most interesting work of my career.

But, I’m 68 now, and I want to change the way I do my work. As of January 1st, I am no longer the Legal Director at Luke’s Place. That role has been taken on by Emily Murray, who joined the staff in April of last year. She brings passion, compassion and wisdom to the position.

I’m not quite ready to say a full goodbye to Luke’s Place so, for the next year, I will carry the title of Advocacy Director. This will let me focus on my real passion: developing, leading and engaging in advocacy for systemic change to increase access to justice for survivors of gender-based violence. Sadly, there is plenty for me to do; most of the legal systems to which survivors turn for support still do not fully understand the complexities, intersectionalities and nuances of gender-based violence.

New paths

As I step back from my Luke’s Place work, I am stepping onto new paths, with the opportunities and uncertainties they offer. In a couple of weeks, I am going back to the Yukon for six weeks, where I will be providing training for women’s advocates who want to increase their family law advocacy skills. I’ll also be exploring other opportunities that might let me spend more time in this beautiful part of the country.

The CKW inquest continues to absorb both my time and passion. I have taken great inspiration from the interest shown by many communities to play a leadership role in implementing recommendations, regardless of what the provincial government does or doesn’t do, and that’s work I am excited to be part of.

My other new project is a book. I have long wanted to write about what I have learned over the almost 30 years I have been doing this work, and Between the Lines Publishing has offered me that opportunity. My book is a story about gender-based violence, with a focus on intimate partner abuse. It examines the repeated failures of systems and institutions to keep women and children safe — and celebrates the successes when advocates hold those systems to account. Woven throughout the book, which is written through my lens as a lawyer working on the frontlines to try to make those systems and institutions better, are the stories of women and children who have lived and died as a result of intimate partner violence.

Stay tuned for ongoing developments!

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