When she was nine years old, Claudette Boulanger told a lie that may have saved her life. In July of that year she had arrived from Jamaica to live with an aunt in Toronto. By October that same year she had begun running away to escape from her aunt's sexually abusive husband. One winter evening, while on the run, she phoned a friend and told her that she needed to spend the night at her house because otherwise she might freeze to death on the street. She laughs a deep, mirthful laugh as she explains that because she had never before experienced winter in Canada she had no idea that people could actually freeze to death in the winter.
Maybe it was instinct, foresight or what she's come to describe as listening to her gut that saved her that night. Whatever it was, she has continued to follow it throughout her 20-plus years as a survivor counsellor/advocate at the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre/Multicultural Women against Rape (TRCC/MWAR).
A crush on a long-haired butch woman who she'd serendipitously mistook for a femme brought Boulanger to TRCC/MWAR. This woman was a member of the TRCC/MWAR collective and thought Boulanger a self-identified Jamaican lesbian, former drug addict, alcoholic and incest survivor, had experiences that clients would benefit from.
"Constantly leading from survivorship" is how Boulanger describes her approach to her work, and this approach, in her own unabashed words, has made her "a strong counsellor and advocate." She goes on to explain that she doesn't really have a choice about counselling/advocating from her lived experience because "it's all I have."
She doesn't have a social work degree. In fact she doesn't have any degrees; she dropped out of school in grade nine. She describes her lack of having a professional degree as being both a benefit and a challenge. A benefit to the women that walk in off the street and immediately feel comfortable with someone who speaks to them in plain language and reminds them that they are the experts in their own healing; a challenge in a society that only sees people with professional degrees as the experts.
Still, she sometimes muses about going back to school. She admits to struggling with feelings of shame due to her low literacy skills, and to recognizing that she sometimes uses her lack of educational credentials to sabotage herself. For example although her co-workers describe her presence and activities at TRCC/MWAR in glowing detail, she still has a hard time acknowledging the value of her contributions. And despite clear evidence that her work is valued and her job is secure, she wonders at times if she is just "lucky" to have landed her job.
She says that she would like to make more money (the collective recently took recent a pay cut), and that she would like to look "normal" instead feeling like she's just playing a part. She goes on to say that it would be great to have a moment where survivorship is not at the forefront of her identity. On the other hand, she wonders if a formal education would cause her to become less accessible to the women for whom she has become such a passionate advocate exactly because of who she is, not what she learned in school.
In meetings at TRCC/MWAR she asks many questions -- sometimes claiming to not always understand what is happening (although she admits that her claim to ignorance is sometimes a conscious ploy to force the women to slow down). In the early years a few collective members became experts at reading her very expressive face and would stop the discussion to translate what they thought she might be confused about or be struggling with (they were often correct in their assessment). Although she didn't always express her feelings using the right or appropriate words, she thanks the Centre for creating a space where she was able to express what she felt in her gut. She says "It was beautiful to watch" referring to the process of being listened to and her experiences being valued by the other collective members.
But there were difficulties. As the only Black member of the collective in the early years, she felt isolated. Later when other Black collective members were brought on board, they were often heterosexual women who welcomed her Blackness but were less welcoming of her sexuality. She felt protective towards the white lesbians in the collective and was called an "Uncle Tom" for having those allegiances. Yet, at the same time she agreed with the Black women when they pointed out incidents of racism on the part of some white members of the collective.
Boulanger describes an experience in a staff training that crystallized her understanding of her role at TRCC/MWAR. The staff were instructed to touch a part of their body to the body of someone that they felt most connected to in the Centre. There were 13 staff members at the time and all 13 staff members managed to touch some part of their body to Boulanger's.
"Overwhelmed" was how Boulanger felt about the experience but later she came to understand that she was a bridge in her workplace, someone who is able to "build community across lines of differences."
In conclusion, I ask her if she worries about the future of TRCC/MWAR with the push to professionalize social services. She pauses for a moment as she gathers her thoughts.
"...sometimes staff complain if no women walk through [TRCC/MWAR] on a given day," she says," They worry that [TRCC/MWAR] will lose money if it doesn't work in a certain way. Maybe we have to market ourselves a bit differently...We used to meet and talk about survivors and survivorship, now we're talking about the Bowlathon [fundraiser] and the deficit."
There's no anger in her voice, just reflection. In that same reflective tone she continues, "But you only need one person who will remember the survivors and talk from their survivorship. That's all you need."
Boulanger has been that person for over 20 years and will continue to be that person for as long as there seems to be a need.
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