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Meet YWCA Toronto’s 2016 Women of Distinction

Half of the federal government’s Cabinet is made up of women, but 90 per cent of women do not report sexual abuse. Investment in community infrastructure is on the agenda again, but in Toronto alone, there are 95,000 households on the social housing waiting list.

While it would be wrong to claim there has been little or no improvement on so-called “women’s issues,” it would be equally erroneous to suggest that continued progress is inevitable, especially for women and girls living in poverty, fear, and isolation. The work to secure equality and social justice remains an ongoing challenge. That’s why we need to support associations like YWCA Toronto.

For 140 years, YWCA Toronto has provided shelter and support to those seeking refuge from violence and abuse; offered training and resources to help women into jobs and out of poverty; increased participation and empowerment among girls; and advocated for a fairer and more equitable society.

Over the past year alone, more than 6,000 women received training, job-seeking assistance and links to community resources through YWCA Toronto’s employment and skills development centres. More than 900 women and their families found permanent homes through YWCA Toronto and 1,300 women and their children were able to escape and recover from violence. Working together, YWCA Toronto was able to help 1,000 more women and young girls than the previous year.

YWCA Toronto has also played host to the launch of the provincial government’s Action Plan on Sexual Violence and Harassment; advocated for better child care, poverty reduction and national housing strategies; and called for action on Truth and Reconciliation recommendations, among other things.

YWCA Toronto recognizes that these results can only happen if women work together. For the past 35 years, YWCA Toronto has honoured extraordinary women who have worked tirelessly to make a difference for women and girls across the city, country, and the globe.

More than 200 women have received a Women of Distinction Award since the first awards ceremony in 1981. They are game changers in their respective fields – law, education, health, culture and the arts, politics, environment, international development and corporate leadership. These women have used their talent to improve the lives of other women and young girls, and helped raise awareness about inequities in local, national, and international communities, and create systemic change.

See for yourself. On May 26 YWCA Toronto is hosting the 2016 Women of Distinction Awards ceremony – the organization’s biggest fundraising event of the year. Proceeds support the over 30 programs that serve more than 12,000 women and families in the Greater Toronto area.

There will be eight women receiving the honour of a Woman of Distinction award. These women are truly awe-inspiring:

Roberta L. Jamieson (President’s Award) First Nations leader, highly acclaimed public figure and CEO of Indspire, Roberta has spent five decades in numerous breakthrough positions advocating for change and justice for Indigenous people and Canada.

Tessa Hill and Lia Valente (Young Women of Distinction) Tessa Hill and Lia Valente were 13 when they took on rape culture as a documentary project and turned it into a successful public campaign bringing sexual consent into Ontario’s health education curriculum.

Colleen Johnston (Corporate Leadership) This senior executive from TD Bank Group and women’s leadership guru has successfully championed for stronger representation of women in corporate leadership, which helped to significantly increase the number of women in TD’s executive ranks.

Georgia Quartaro (Education) Georgia created innovative education programs and violence-against-women training that reaches women and marginalized groups who have experienced trauma and responds to their needs and potential.

Reeta Roy (International Development) Reeta Roy saw that opportunities and conditions for girls and women farmers in African countries were disturbingly unequal to men’s. The MasterCard Foundation she heads guarantees that at least 50 percent of program participants are women and girls.

Elizabeth Shilton (Law and Justice) Elizabeth argued before the Supreme Court to uphold the rape shield law; won a pay equity case ending wage inequities; defended the right of sexual assault survivors to keep their names out of the public eye; and prevented the disclosure of counselling records of sexual abuse survivors.

Dr. Cheryl Wagner (Health) When HIV/AIDS first hit women, Dr. Cheryl Wagner was one of the first – and few – Toronto physicians to whom they could turn for expertise, help and health care. She extended her work to include researching and advocating for services to address their distinct needs.

Celebrate these women and what they have accomplished! To get your tickets to the exciting event at The Carlu (444 Yonge St.), visit www.womenofdistinction.ca.

What I want my daughter to know about International Women’s Day

When I found out I was going to have a daughter, I was excited and nervous all at the same time. I was happy because I knew I could build a strong connection and felt, as a single mom, a little girl was a blessing for me. On the other hand, I felt apprehensive because being a girl in this world is no easy task.

Between sexual exploitation, unfair treatment in the working world, and an ever-continuing expectation for girls to be sweet and never get dirty, it is tough to be a strong woman. Due to the unfortunate reality of genetics, my daughter also never had a choice in being a stubborn, strong-willed, and loud female — which makes her lot in life that much more challenging, but a great adventure as well.

I come from a long line of strong women. My mother was a single mom who raised me to be tough as nails, and yet always show compassion. No matter how tired she was from working full-time, she always had time to listen to my problems or bandage a wounded knee. She also taught me that no matter how little you think you have, you are always more empowered when you give to others. I try my hardest to teach my daughter the power of solidarity and giving between women.

My mom once told me that it takes a village to raise a child. I can’t possibly count the number of inspirational and beautiful women who have helped me so far in my daughter’s life. I’m lucky my daughter has so many ladies too look up to.

Women are a force of nature when they come together, whether it be to help raise a child or make a dramatic change in the world. Solidarity is integral for making change and promoting healthy relationships between women. I can only hope that all of the garbage out there about women tearing each other down will be something my daughter advocates against as strongly as I do.

I have also taught my daughter about the importance of surrounding yourself with male figures who empower women. I am proud to say that many men in our lives are deeply supportive and fundamentally giving towards my little family. It seems my daughter is growing up in a world where men are changing as much as women when it comes to feminism. I am compelled to give a major shout-out to many of my millenial male friends out there — your mothers are proud.

My grandmother was yet another inspiration for my daughter and I. She taught me to always pursue what you love no matter what other people say you can or cannot do. She achieved a university degree in fine arts from Mount Allison University in 1958, and was the only woman in her class. She was also a single-working mom in the 1970s and pursued her art with a passion, not letting the judgements of others stand in her way.

I take my grandmother’s teachings and apply them to my daughter when it comes to her dreams. There is no single way to be a girl, or a woman. My daughter has the option to grow up to be an artist, a mathematician, an opera singer, or a mechanic if she wishes. The opportunities she has are seemingly endless.

Similar to my grandmother’s history, International Women’s Day reminds us there was a time when these choices were not so easy for women. Every time women get to vote, or to step through an office door, silently thank the women who made this possible and remember the shame and adversity women had to fight through to get us there.

The first International Women’s Day was celebrated on 1909 after thousands of women marched in New York for better pay and the right to vote. By 1975, the United Nations declared International Women’s Day as an officially recognized celebration and it was celebrated by many countries after this event, and continues today.

In the present, many people believe the fight for women has been won, but this is not so. We must teach our daughters the power of women who work together, to surround ourselves with men who empower women, and in turn invigorate ourselves to pursue our dreams.

And finally, we must teach our daughters to remember the women who came before us, and honour their achievements around the world.

The Code Mobile: teaching girls across Canada to be computer wizards

Technology is the future—and women should be a part of it.

That was the message driven into my brain by Melissa Sariffodeen, 27, the co-executive director of Ladies Learning Code, when we spoke on the phone one Wednesday morning. She had just returned from a 20-hour road trip with the soon-to-be-famous code mobile, a truck whose purpose will eventually be to travel across Canada teaching young kids how to use HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and much more.

Ladies Learning Code is a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to provide women and youth with the resources they need to learn programming and technological skills. Their ultimate goal is to teach 200,000 Canadian women and youth to code by 2020. They do this through a series of workshops tailored to women, young girls, and kids between the ages of eight and 13. The organization itself was founded by in 2011 by four women who wanted to teach themselves to code. Sariffodeen was one of these four women.

“The organization was started largely in self-interest in this problem that we had and this idea that we wanted to learn to code,” she said. “I never thought it would catch on so much, but I think that’s so telling of the need. When we started out, we wanted to do it. We just didn’t realize there were thousands of other people who wanted to as well.”

Now, four years later, the organization operates in 23 cities across Canada. Their latest campaign includes a truck, or a mobile computer lab, that will be driven across the country. We asked Sariffodeen about this newest initiative and why it’s so important to teach young kids, in particular young girls, how to code.

 

Q: Why a truck?

I went on a road trip a couple of years ago and I drove to Montana from Toronto and back. I thought ‘Wow, wouldn’t it be so cool if ladies learning code did this?’ I think I tweeted about that idea and started speaking with partners and sponsors and spent two years trying to make this happen. Finally, the stars aligned.

One of the big barriers to a lot of the things we do for youth is that not everyone has access to technology, there aren’t readily available computer labs or a laptop that’s easy to access. So, how can we make it easier for them? By having a truck—it’s a travelling computer lab. It would be easy for us to bring our technology and our program to communities across the country.

The Code Mobile. Photo provided by Ladies Learning Code.
The Code Mobile. Photo provided by Ladies Learning Code.

How would it work?

We are running this crowd-funding campaign right now and as part of that you can make donations to guarantee that we come visit you, and then the trip will be planned in a couple ways. So, one of them will just be the surrounding areas of the community we are in. We will go to Montreal and we will visit communities within a 200 km radius. We will pick the major cities we are in as base camps and then visit the surrounding areas. Then, we will combine that with requests for visits. So people have been requesting visits already, whether its through our Indiegogo campaign, or if its just through the form in general, we will bring that information together and that’s how we will plan our route.

Have you gotten many requests?

I would say we have 40 to 50 requests so far. It’s going to be challenging to pick where we can do, because we can only do so many stops during the summer. But, that’s the idea. Request the truck to come to your community, and maybe we won’t come specifically to your summer camp but maybe we will pop up in your local parking lot and you can come and visit us that way.

What’s inside the truck?

The idea is that inside the truck there may be room for a couple of people to learn to code, but it will mostly be storage of our pop-up lab. We want to make sure we can teach a lot of kids, or at least a reasonable amount of kids, at a time. The truck actually pops out with a massive tent with tables, chairs, and laptops. We have the capacity to teach about 40 kids at a time out of the truck.

You have 12 days left in the campaign at the time of this interview. Do you think you will reach your funding goal?

I hope so! I think we have a few big pushes left, and I think as we start to get closer the community will rally to support us. They have been so generous so far, and I think we can pick up some momentum even in the last couple of days. Fingers crossed.

Why is it important to get out there and teach young people—young girls in particular—to do stuff like code and use HTML?

Technology isn’t going anywhere, and we think it’s really important that we equip kids with the skills they need to thrive in the future. It’s the same way we teach math or social sciences. It’s not so we have a bunch of mathematicians or social scientists. It’s because we want kids to have a basic understanding of how the world works. And since technology is such a critical part of the world, it just makes sense that they know a little bit about how this stuff works.

And the reason why we want more girls specifically, is that right now the technology we use is largely built by men. If we can start to have more women create it, the idea is that you have this more diverse perspective in technology. A lot of problems that are more unique to women could be solved by women. Technology could speak more to the population using it if it’s built by a population that is representative.

What has been the response from the young girls you have taught so far?

We have lots of stories about people who have gone on to take computer science in high school. We had one girl specifically who scored the highest score in her advanced placement on her computer science exam and is now going to university. We have another story about a young girl who started a company at 11 after being inspired at one of our programs. The response so far has been very positive in the demographic we are teaching—8-13 year old girls—but they are still young and they are just starting to enter high school or graduate high school so, that’s an exciting thing. We will start to see over the next couple of years the impact that our programming is having and that shift that will hopefully happen—I’m optimistic—in technology.

IMG_9712
Photo provided by Ladies Learning Code.

What are some of the things you are teaching these young girls?

We teach so much stuff, from basic HTML and CSS, web languages which are our most popular languages because, I think, they are the most accessible. They are written in pretty standard English. But for youth and adults we also teach other languages like Ruby and Python and Javascript. We have app creating programs for youth coming up. And then we also do technical skills. So, how do you edit photos? How do you create digital art? (The basics of) 3d printing and robotics.

Once the crowd-funding campaign is done, what’s next for Ladies Learning Code?

Figuring out this trip I guess! The code mobile was a really big initiative for next year, but we also want to layer in a set of resources we can leave in these communities. So, taking the programs we’ve run over the last few years and packaging them in a nice and compelling way. That way, when we go to this nice rural community in BC, we can make sure we leave them with enough that they can keep learning this stuff on their own, at their schools, or in their community centres.

To request a visit by the code mobile, click here.

To contribute to their campaign, visit their Indiegogo site.

*This interview has been condensed for publication.