The length of my skirt, the power of my voice.
I live in my head. I analyze and dissect everything I experience. This past year while completing my internship with the Advocacy & Communications Department at YWCA Toronto something shifted. My analytical skills have grown beyond the rigid rules and fixed variables – like time and money – of managing projects and clients to considering the real needs of people. And, I’ve had time to reflect on events in my life that have catapulted me toward this change.
One event that stands out because it triggered a significant shift in my thinking, came in the form of advice I received from the male president of a company where I worked years ago about how I might increase my sales volumes. He told me, “You’re an attractive woman. You should use it.” Those words sent me into a tailspin. I started to question the value of my work and realized that there was something wrong with the world if the best I could do was sell technology products to large corporations while wearing a short skirt. I left that company and started down a path that would eventually lead me to the YWCA.
For a number of years after leaving that company, I worked with corporations to create policies and procedures to manage how things and people should work. Organizing the how, what, when, and why something should be done suited me because it created order. The systems were documented, the rules were clear, and the consequences of not following the rules were spelled out in black and white. This made me happy. But, this happiness was short-lived because I would soon encounter a new system that lacked clarity and made me feel like I had no control and no right to know its rules.
That system was the Canadian Criminal Justice System. I was the victim of a violent crime, and from the moment I filed a police report until the conviction of the perpetrator I was kept in the dark and treated as if I had committed a crime.
I struggled to understand what was happening and why, at every point. I started to doubt my analytical abilities because if someone like me who spent their day picking things apart couldn’t figure out this system, what did that mean? What did it mean in the lives of people who aren’t informed; who don’t know their rights; people who don’t know that they can question authority, or anyone who is afraid to assert herself?
I needed answers so I went back to school. One of my program requirements is completing fieldwork with a non-profit organization where I have the opportunity to gain advocacy experience. I chose the YWCA because I wanted to learn about social policy and systemic advocacy from an organization with a strong belief in equity and justice.
During the first few months – as I read a never-ending stack of disheartening reports and studies on poverty and violence against women, attended seminars, and researched issues – I questioned my choice, not because the work was uninteresting but because the work and the possibilities seemed exhaustingly endless.
But as I come to the end I am grateful. I have gained more than I expected from this internship. I am no longer accepting of the belief that individual effort and hard work are the only things people need to overcome life’s hardships. I know that the problems of individuals are not separate from systemic problems that often increase individual suffering, which is evident in our existing social assistance policies.
I have also had the opportunity to witness true collaboration in action. I’ve seen organizations – usually represented by bright women with years of experience and expertise who I doubt ever worry about the length of their skirts – continually reach out to each other to work as allies to locate solutions to end poverty, violence against women and to establish equality within our society.
Yet, the greatest gain has come from the words of my mentor. She has taught me that “good policy work requires good thinking and careful analysis”. This means that – unlike the order imposed by corporate policies – when working on social policies, one must be mindful that rigid rules and fixed variables may not improve people’s lives.
Tricia Bennett is a former YWCA Advocacy & Communications Intern focusing on systemic advocacy and social policy issues. Tricia is also the founder of Survivors Guide an informational blog for survivors of sexual violence.