By Sarah Boesveld
I have been a bit ambivalent about celebrating International Women’s Day this year, our first ever in a pandemic. I am tired. If I am tired, I cannot imagine how tired chronically underpaid frontline workers must be, or how exhausted the new mothers who could not rely on a village of supports during one of the hardest transitions of their lives must feel. I worry about teenage girls who missed so many critical milestones (graduation, first jobs) on account of COVID. I worry about newcomer women trying to find decent paying jobs to help them feed their children. I worry about the women on subsidized housing waiting lists, fearing the pandemic will just extend their wait as they try to exit a shelter and begin their lives anew. I worry about Black communities who have to deal both with the disproportionate toll of the pandemic and the world’s long-overdue social reckoning with structural, institutional racism. I worry about the families with loved ones they cannot get back.
Since joining YWCA Toronto in November, 2020, I’ve started to become familiar with all the critical work in our program areas. I am not in the trenches every day responding on the frontline. I wondered what colleagues who are working on the issues I advocate for more directly were feeling about a day of celebration in such a difficult time. Were they a little off about it like me?
Director of Shelters, Girls’ and Family programs, Nina Gorka, shared my ambivalence. But, very quickly, she flipped the script: Yes, the pandemic has hit us hard. But it has also fused together our collective power, which is a truly beautiful thing.
“The burden of the pandemic is being carried on women’s shoulders and that level of connection is something, globally, that can’t be taken from us,” she told me. “That shared experience is a rallying cry for connection, a reinvigoration of our fundamental rights as women, for equity.” COVID has torn through Black and Indigenous communities and North Americans have also been duly challenged in this past year to reckon with the impacts of our colonial, exploitative structures. “We can’t turn away the way we used to, nor do we want to. We want to stand in that truth. Feminism is not just a word anymore – it’s an action.”
Nina has been impressed by YWCA Toronto’s resilience throughout the pandemic: No program shut down, no jobs were shed. That Nina even found time to connect while coordinating the rollout of COVID vaccinations at YWCA Toronto shelter sites had me reflecting in awe once I hung up the phone.
When I called Teshia Allen, Manager of Housing at 389 Church Street, YWCA Toronto’s newest permanent housing building, she is busy sorting donated care packages full of skincare products, toiletries and winter coats her team will hand out to residents at their International Women’s Day lunch. The opening of this 120-unit permanent residence for women who have experienced homelessness and incarceration has been an incredible feat and point of pride during a hard year.
“It’s been an emotional journey for so many of our applicants, securing housing at the most pivotal time in their lives,” Teshia said. “After viewing the units, some have danced around in the space in tears,” she said. For many, living at 389 Church (which has built-in supportive services for harm reduction, mental health and cultural connection) offers a chance for some much-needed stability. When we spoke, Teshia was also in the midst of coming up with a plan that might, for one potential new resident, end 20 years of chronic homelessness.
As we talked about the past year, Teshia said she starts from a place of gratitude. The anti-racism movement that defined the summer of 2020 was emotionally challenging on many levels for some YWCA Toronto staff who work with clients who’ve undergone a lot of trauma in their lives and have had to carry some of their own. “The pandemic forced us to not look away and to have these sometimes very painful conversations about racial injustice, gender-based violence, gun violence and complex trauma. The pandemic also shed light, not only on systemic racism, but also the health disparities that left marginalized communities vulnerable during a global pandemic. It also forced many of us to find ways to participate in individual and collective healing.” Because so much of that need to connect and engage in dialogue was playing out virtually, Teshia was able to participate in various online discussions and healing circles, including a Houston, Texas-based healing group attended by Canadians, Americans and people from the United Kingdom. It was something that just would not have happened pre-pandemic.
Growth, evolution and adaptation has defined so many other program areas and individual experiences association-wide, I learned. Our childcare centre had to navigate lower enrolment rates and connect with children while wearing personal protective equipment. The employment program had to nimbly adapt to facilitating virtual job search support and training, purchasing laptops and distributing them to trainees and job seekers who needed them. The girls’ program did similar laptop resourcing for their mentorship program. Last June, when COVID denied teens that crucial high school milestone of prom, the Girls’ Centre encouraged their participants to dress up, show up on Zoom and play games and chat with one another. They even sent them all flowers. If that isn’t community care, I don’t know what is.
I left these conversations reminded that women – that my impressive colleagues and the participants they serve – have weathered so much in the past year. But they did it with an optimism, determination and grace that astounds and inspires me. These women are out there doing the work every day, showing leadership through the most turbulent of times, showing up for those who need it most without hesitation. That is what we celebrate on International Women’s Day – and that’s exactly who I will raise up. No ambivalence necessary.
Sarah Boesveld is the Manager of Advocacy at YWCA Toronto.
Image by Jen Theodore on Unsplash