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Calgary Women’s Centre turns 20

Calgary Women's Centre staff at fundraising event. Image: Penney Kome

"Every woman needs help at some time in her life, and every woman has skills she can share to help others." That philosophy of reciprocity drives The Women's Centre of Calgary, at 20 years old, one of Calgary's largest and most active non-profit aid organizations.  

Last week, not for the first time, I stepped out of the snow on busy Edmonton Trail, and walked through the Women's Centre's storefront -- and I was surrounded by activity. To the left was the Centre's refreshment counter, offering free coffee, tea, and snacks. Women sat on a long bench by the window, chatting over steaming mugs, while nearby, children played under a tree painted on the wall.

Straight ahead as I entered were two rows of desks, with volunteers waiting to help anyone who comes through the door. Arrivals often request aid with basic needs such as food, toiletries, bus tickets, access to a computer, legal advice, or help filing their income tax. The Centre can provide photo IDs for women who don't have a driver's license or job ID -- a majority of the women the Centre serves.

Trained to work on a peer-to-peer basis, volunteers take each woman at her word, and help her meet her needs without a lot of explanations or paperwork.  For newcomers who arrive here with weighty personal concerns, being welcomed as a guest bearing potential gifts can ease the embarrassment of asking for help.

Regular visitors soon pick up the shoulder-to-shoulder spirit. "Drawing people in is as simple as suggesting that anyone can make coffee," said Susan Gillies, the Centre's founding Executive Director. "The food area is everyone's space. A woman may start participating just by wiping down the counter."

To the right of the front door, 16 staff members sit at their desks, available to give advice, but mostly busy organizing -- everything from legal clinics, to volunteer teams to pick up groceries from the Food Bank. Whereas in most organizations, volunteers support what staff does, in this Centre, volunteers handle most of the visitor contacts, and ask staff for suggestions if they run into problems.

In 2016, those 16 staff supported 750 volunteers who helped more than 8000 women. Those volunteers also presented 350 workshops last year, on everything from computers to cooking, car maintenance to yoga. Language practice and cooking classes are especially popular, especially across cultures.

Behind the staff stands a strong, determined Board of Directors with 15 feminists. "When we formed as a new center in 1997," said Susan Gillies -- that is, when the Centre became independent of the YWCA, which had previously sponsored it -- "our founding principles were, one, we're feminist; two, we really do believe in women's capabilities; and three, structural barriers to community need to change."

The Centre builds community in new ways, draws from the book Reviving Democracy, Citizens at the Heart of Governance, by Barry Knight (2002) et al. The Centre offers ways for visitor to meet basic needs, find opportunities to care and share (connection), and work towards meaningful outcomes -- all the three components the book identifies as essential for a good society.

Meaningful outcomes enhance a person's belief that they can have an impact on outside influences (eg, government) that shape their lives. The Centre works to empower women, individually and in groups. Gillies is particularly proud of the Artist in Residence program, now showcasing its fourth artist.  

In the summer, the Centre runs a week-long Girl Power daycamp, for girls whose family circumstances probably wouldn't provide the opportunity otherwise.  "Thirty percent of our contacts are Indigenous women," said Gillies, "and 25 to 30 per cent are immigrants."  

At holiday time, the Centre invites the public to donate toys and then invites women to choose gifts for their families. There's even a "kids' day" when the children get to choose gifts for people they love.

Susan Gillies insists that she's a small part of the organization that drives the Women's Centre, but her staff point out what any observer can see -- Gillies always seems to be there, usually on her feet, forestalling trouble and leading from behind.

"Susan does everything," said volunteer co-ordinator Filsan Abdi. "We had an incontinent woman in here, and Susan cleaned up after her, without a word."

"Susan sweeps the floor and washes the dishes," said Linda Akoakem, Basic Needs Co-ordinator for the legal clinic and other referrals. "She knows her staff's strengths and weaknesses. When I hear other people talk about their time at work, I feel we're unique."

At least one academic also thinks the Women's Centre is unique. "All of the Women Are Weavers," a 2010 research paper prepared by educational researcher Debb Hurlock, dubbed the Centre's operating principles, "A Community Capacity Building Peer Model."

Noting that 90 per cent of the Centre's visitors identify themselves as living in poverty, Hurlock studied how the peer model affects social inclusion -- integrating the incredible diversity of the women who come to the Centre, whether once or regularly.

She concluded that, for the non-hierarchal model to succeed, both the Board and the ED (Gillies) have to champion it consistently. Also, the women who meet the public must be competent. The Centre trains all staff and volunteers, especially the Direct Service Peer Support Volunteers who sit behind the desks right in front of the main doors.

"Both volunteers and staff are required to engage in critical and reflecting thinking as well as reflective practice," Hurlock found. "This means being open to continuous learning, which often means unpacking their own beliefs, values and assumptions in a particular situation that may arise in the context of the work."

In other words, the Centre teaches women to be perceptive, empathetic, articulate, and to think on their feet. "We're always inviting women to stretch," said Gillies. "If an immigrant woman comes in often for food, sometimes we'll invite her to teach others how to make a low-cost meal from her home country."     

Challenges often appear, of course. The open door policy means a visitor is well advised to keep her coat and purse close to her. Sometimes an intoxicated visitor needs to be ejected. One big challenge, says Linda Akoakem, is finding the resources to meet women's needs.

A Google search turns up maybe two dozen Women's Centres in Canada that are not part of shelters for homeless or abused women. Nova Scotia has eight Women's Centres. Back in the 1970s, the Secretary of State Directory of Women's Services listed 75 Women's Centres from coast to coast -- places where women could meet their needs and learn how to empower themselves.

Even so, this is the first I've heard of Calgary's kind of peer-to-peer capacity building. Hurlock indicates the model actually comes out of health care (think of Our Bodies, Ourselves) and is widely applied in the mental health field. Adapted to community-building, the model has helped the Women's Centre grow from a room with three chairs in 1997, to a 5000 feet Centre with a million-dollar budget.   
 
In Calgary, the Women's Centre celebrates 20 years of changing women's lives by offering empathy and a free cup of coffee. Often, these are women that other social services haven't been able to find, much less reach. The difference is, said Linda Akoakem, "We meet women where they are."
 
Image: The Women's Centre of Calgary.

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