Once a month, the heads of the Downtown Eastside’s larger nonprofits meet to share information and coordinate services. Usually eight or nine people show up, Janice Abbott told the Straight. And she’s almost always the only woman.
“It’s still a bit of a boys’ club, to be perfectly honest,” the CEO of Atira Women’s Resource Society said in a telephone interview.
“I mean that in a factual way,” she added. “The other CEOs are doing good work, and I’m not suggesting they are not. But it just is a boys’ club.” (Kettle Friendship Society executive director Nancy Keough also sometimes attends, Abbott noted.)
As a woman, it’s not easy running one of the largest nonprofits in Vancouver.
“I take a lot of shit,” Abbott said. “There are men in the Downtown Eastside who harass me by email, and send me vile, vile emails. It’s typically wishing I was raped and those sorts of things.”
In the Downtown Eastside, Abbott said, violence against women remains “absolutely rampant”, so female leadership is a necessity.
“We made a decision in the mid-’90s that we wanted to reflect the women we were housing,” she said. Today, Atira’s staff of 230 is 100 percent female and roughly 50 percent First Nations, Métis, and Inuit.
Although the Downtown Eastside’s larger nonprofits could use more women in their upper echelons, many female leaders have made headlines with smaller organizations.
Mabel Nipshank, housing outreach worker for the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre and cochair of the Women’s Memorial March committee, deserves a spot at the top of that list, as does her colleague, Faye Blaney. The Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) is headed by Marion Allaart; before her, that position was held by Ann Livingston, Melissa Eror, and Dianne Tobin. Lorna Bird also merits a mention for her work with VANDU in pushing the government to adopt harm-reduction programs. Laura Shaver is president of the B.C. Association of People on Methadone. As president of the Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society, Tracey Morrison has fought city hall for improved low-income housing. At the Drug Users Resource Centre, Kailin See can be found miraculously bringing order to a whirlwind of activity. And though they are not aligned with specific organizations, First Nations elder Stella August and activist Audrey Siegl often take lead roles in organizing street protests.
Outside the Downtown Eastside, two of Vancouver’s most prominent legal nonprofits have filled their top ranks with women.
At the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA), women hold six of eight staff positions, including policy director Micheal Vonn. In a telephone interview, Grace Pastine, the organization’s litigation director, said this has had an inevitable impact on the sorts of cases the BCCLA has taken up.
She highlighted successes concerning allowing imprisoned women to keep their babies, access to abortion, and increased legal protections for women engaged in sex work.
“I’ve always been a feminist,” Pastine said. “Women’s rights have always been a deep and abiding concern of mine.”
Pivot Legal Society’s senior staff is split 50-50 between men and women. Its executive director, Katrina Pacey, said being a woman has helped with her toughest cases, allowing her to listen to and understand new ideas in ways that men might not.
“I’ve never done anything in my career that has been as challenging as the work I’ve done around sex workers’ safety and rights,” she told the Straight.
Pacey explained that this effort began with an internal struggle.
“I had a whole lot of unlearning to do back in 2002,” she recalled. “It was many, many years of deep listening and working with sex workers and building an evidentiary foundation, going to Ottawa and filing lawsuits and being in the media as much as possible and public speaking, even when it didn’t feel that safe to do so.”
Pacey credited her interest in feminist issues to Anita Roberts, a Vancouver woman who founded Safeteen. Today that antiviolence organization operates on five continents. In Vancouver courtrooms, Pacey said, there’s still a need for the sort of empowerment that Safeteen embodies.
“The profession itself still has a lot of work to do around being inclusive and supportive of women’s needs,” she said. “It’s a very inflexible work environment for women.”
Striking a more positive tone, the Wilderness Committee’s lead policy director, Gwen Barlee, told the Straight that the environmental sector is actually very friendly to women.
She noted that West Coast Environmental Law is led by Jessica Clogg, and the Georgia Strait Alliance has Christianne Wilhelmson at its helm.
Barlee said the extent to which women appear in the top ranks of B.C.’s environmental nonprofits is likely no coincidence.
“A lot of what the environmental movement does is about breaking down barriers and challenging the status quo,” she explained. “I think when you are used to challenging the status quo and really engaging in critical thinking, that doesn’t just stay within the environmental sector.”
The Georgia Straight is celebrating International Women’s Day (March 8) with a series of articles highlighting influential local women.