I was disturbed by statements made in a recent article about the hiring of the new Nelson Women’s Centre co-executive director. The article presented a biased, negative and misleading side of the story.
As a founding member of the Nelson Women’s Centre with a long history of involvement as both a volunteer and board member, I feel compelled to present the other side of this story.
When the leadership of the centre decided to change its mandate to include all genders, they contravened the West Kootenay Women’s Association’s constitution that for 46 years has guided an organization for women, serving the needs of women in the community.
At the 2018 annual general meeting, a resolution to include all genders in the membership of the society was discussed. The resolution did not receive sufficient votes to pass. Yet the leadership of the centre ignored this result and proceeded as if the resolution had passed.
The decision by the leadership to change this 46-year-old mandate without proper procedures and without respecting the membership resulted in disagreement and confusion. Questioning or challenging the new direction became defined as “bullying.” But the “bullying” referred to was not one-sided, as the article implies.
Women who’ve been long-term volunteers, former board members and supporters of the women’s centre have been “bullied” by being banned from the centre and some threatened with legal action if they come to the centre. So who is bullying whom?
The implication in the article is that the Women’s Centre has not in the past been inclusive. This has never been my experience. We have served all who have come to the centre. The article implies that now the centre will include all with “warmth and respect.” But this is certainly no longer a welcoming place for those women who have been banned or discouraged from coming to the centre. They are not received with “warmth and respect.”
Had the leadership and staff at the centre been open to the democratic process, to dialogue and respectful communication with the membership when they were making these major changes, they could have maintained the “safe working environment” that had always been in place at the centre.
Women’s Centre was always inclusive
Kathryn McCooeye was profiled as the recent co-executive director of the Nelson and District Women’s Centre. Ms. McCooeye is of the opinion that women’s centres are “places that cater only to the settler population.” While Ms. McCooeye’s credentials are impressive with respect to cultural and traditional Indigenous knowledge and experience, I was curious about her experience with women’s centres and how she came to conclude that these are non-inclusive.
I became involved with Nelson and District Women’s Centre shortly after I moved to the area in 1996. Prior to that I was a founding member of the women’s centre on the Sunshine Coast.
I had the opportunity to be associated with the Nelson and District Women’s Centre in a variety of roles, from submitting a regular column in the centre’s newsletter with updates on women’s national equality actions, to implementing a gender based analysis project, to coordinating a three-year project on Women in Sustainable Housing (WISH). Upon completing my employment contracts, I elected to become involved as a volunteer at the Centre.
During my volunteering span of a decade or so, the women-only drop-in granted me the privilege to meet women from various cultural traditions, from Jamaica to Brazil and other parts of South America, from the Ukraine to Siberia and more. First Nations women who frequented the drop-in shared their rich cultural heritage. The diversity of women accessing the centre was truly heartwarming.
The data we kept confirmed that an average of 25-to-35 women and children frequented the centre daily during the drop-in (four hours three times per week). One of the characteristics that stood out for me was the camaraderie of the women, exchanging information and sharing stories, seeking comfort regarding personal health concerns, locating housing, and sharing the highs and lows of their daily lives. Undoubtedly, the critical role of the centre in providing a safe space for women could not be understated.
In the spring of 2018, several women began sharing their anxiety, concerns, fears, and in some instances, distress about the changes that were becoming evident at the centre. Women began to lose trust in the centre as a safe place for women. The precious weekly 12 hours designated as a women-only space were being re-allocated to serve a broader population. A few women who expressed their concerns were belittled and threatened and ultimately expelled from the centre. In my volunteer role, I had the responsibility to be a professional and a resource for women requiring support.
At no time did I witness the “bullying and harassment” referred to in the article. Naturally, I can only speak for the dignified and trustworthy women I met during my tenure at the centre. I can attest that I have never bullied, harassed or otherwise made any inferences that the centre was for the exclusive use of women. Indeed, I fully support that the centre be utilized by many groups and individuals, outside of the designated women-only drop-in hours.