Our results from two years of developing women’s leadership skills in northern communities
In March 2011, with a grant from Status of Women Canada, we started work to develop women’s leadership skills in northern communities. We completed our activities in May 2013.
Our goal was to engage underrepresented women (particularly Aboriginal, disabled, immigrant and young women) from four northern communities – Happy Valley-Goose Bay and Labrador West in Labrador, Thompson, Manitoba, and La Loche, Saskatchewan.
To achieve this goal each community-based partner organization developed activities for local women to gain the knowledge, skills, and experience to become community-based leaders. Women already in leadership positions in each community mentored participants and identified additional opportunities for future learning. In addition, we produced a video to document the sharing circle model of leadership development practiced in Norway House Cree Nation in Manitoba.
Hundreds of women participated
Over the course of two years, our community partners engaged over 450 women from five northern communities in discussions and training to develop more local women leaders.
Training covered many areas
Training was a key component of the strategic actions taken to promote northern women in community leadership.
Women trained women in the following areas of leadership and decision-making skills:
- Self-awareness and self-care as well as physical, mental, and spiritual well-being
- Practical economic capacity building activities such as creating budgets and developing job interview skills
- Creative story-telling and presentation skills (making shadow puppets, masks, visual displays, digital story-telling, creating scrapbooks)
- How to reach out and involve a diverse group of women; how to identify barriers to participation and how to overcome them
- How to identify main community issues and create action plans to start working towards solving communal challenges
- How to influence positive change in their community.
Greater community awareness of the issues and barriers to women’s participation as leaders and decision-makers
Partners and participants developed a much deeper understanding of the barriers to community leadership for northern women. Even where supports are provided (childcare, transportation, food, translation, disability accommodation, etc.) it is hard to engage women for many reasons. These include not seeing themselves as a leader or potential leader, feeling invisible, not feeling their needs or opinions are valued, having very busy lives, not having the right to schedule time off work to attend training sessions, among other reasons. Across communities, our discussions identified many barriers as structural – that is, certain conditions are embedded in communities and difficult to overcome simply by providing opportunities to participate.
We all developed a deeper understanding that northern communities need human capacity as well as financial and other resources to be able to take on work local leadership roles. Our northern community partners’ resources are stretched taut already, trying to deal with the needs of their communities. In smaller, northern communities the needs are large yet there are few people to do the work.
Better understanding of how to promote women’s leadership
Through this work, community leaders strengthened understanding and capacity to promote women’s leadership and mentored other women from diverse groups in their community. We increased community discussions about women and leadership in their community and inspired young women by engaging them with women leaders in action.
We learned from each other, regardless of age or background. We came to understand mentoring as a mutually beneficial learning and relationship experience. We reached a group of diverse women who were often excluded. We helped women, who did not initially see themselves as leaders, to start to recognize their leadership skill and potential.
As well, interaction and knowledge sharing between community leaders in the FemNorth Network deepened their leadership abilities and knowledge of how to develop concrete, practical supports to address urgent needs in their northern community. For example, Lab West Status of Women Council shared how they worked with other community leaders to establish a new daycare program and a transition home for women fleeing domestic abuse. The Mokami Status of Women Council Community Lead shared how they organized the community in a 10-year effort to create affordable housing units for women in need.
Ongoing Reflection & Evaluation – A key to success
Face-to-face meetings were invaluable to the success of this work. They provided rich opportunities for peer learning, collaboration to set goals and develop methods, to review and adjust plans over time, sparked by reflection and discussions within the Network. Three face-to-face meetings were supplemented by conference calls in between to keep us connected and sharing, clarifying goals, evaluating what worked and did not, and establishing what adjustments needed to be made and why.
What is needed to develop women’s community leadership in northern communities?
- A leadership development model needs to be suited to the northern community and the women you want to engage.
- Many women who do not have a history of being listened to don’t feel they do not have a story to tell or are afraid to tell it publicly.
- It takes a lot of time to build deep engagement with women around community leadership.
- It is easier to engage women who are already engaged, than to engage women who are not. This continues to leave out women who are not currently involved in community activities.
- Social media like Facebook is a great way to reach some women but those without Internet access are left out.
- Flexibility is needed to deal with unanticipated issues and changing conditions. Timelines and sometimes goals and models need to be flexible and subject to change if they are not working.
- Larger community and deeper structural factors sometimes overshadow goals and strategic decisions. For example conditions in northern communities make it difficult for current women leaders to train and mentor others. They are so busy dealing with needs of their northern community that they cannot take on more leadership or mentoring others. They need to spend more time on self-care so they do not burn out.
- Conditions for women in northern communities make it hard for many to get involved. The absence of public transportation makes it hard for poor women to attend events. Inaccessible physical infrastructure and a shortage of support programs like wheelchair accessible transit, sign language, attendant care makes it difficult for disabled women to get engaged as community leaders. In boom times, workers, especially temporary foreign workers, need to have more control over their work schedule to participate in leadership training or community events.
- There need to be ongoing programs of leadership development so women can develop skills, capacity and confidence over time for marginalized women to take on leadership roles in community organizations. Two-years is not enough time.
- Paying for childcare, a meal, and transportation were important to provide to enable women to participate.
- Community organizations need to be ready to engage with diverse groups of women by offering supports for their participation and changing ways of doing things to accommodate different abilities.