Practising Social Activism


Helping communities help themselves

For 23 years, Joan acted as Coordinator of Community Services at the Halifax Regional Library. When she first started work, she tried in various ways to get to know the residents in the North Branch Library area, which was a low-income community with a large percentage of African Nova Scotians. For example, when a dog bite incident pointed to larger problems with stray dogs, Joan invited a doctor from the local hospital and a senior housing official to speak to community members on related health and housing issues. A regular Wednesday morning Women's Discussion Group grew out of this, which met to identify other problems in the community. Joan supported this process but it was always the women who owned it.

With one successful example of group problem solving, local women wanted to tackle other issues. Joan organized them to help renovate a room in the library for meetings and information resources and encouraged their realization that they had the right to be well informed. Joan's position in the Library gave her the crucial direct access to cut through red tape and get accurate, authoritative information. Any social problem that affected residents provided opportunities for adult education, in her view; for instance, when one woman with literacy problems encountered problems with her car insurance company, this triggered the Women's Discussion Group and with Joan's initiative, a literacy and upgrading program was offered in the library with the support of the continuing education department of the Halifax School Board.

The Women's Group tackled other community issues, too, ranging from poor bus service and the need for more affordable quality housing, to snow clearance, and sponsorship for attending women's conferences. Joan's library office door was always open; and the library itself was becoming open in the eyes of disadvantaged women who were taking a more significant role in decision-making and programs that would enhance their lives.

At the main library, Joan also set up community programs, always insistent that all sides of an issue were covered and not only the officially sanctioned version—a principle that she applied consistently, whether the topic was uranium mining or local housing regulations. Any formal meeting or public discussion needed expert facilitation, which could not be assumed, so Joan learned these skills herself. Also, she employed tactics to maximize the reach of the programs:

If I wanted to create the impression that this was a really important event, I would arrange to have designated people prepared to add chairs. I would only set up a small number of chairs and, as more people came in, we would keep adding chairs, creating momentum that made people think the discussion was very important.

Always alert to issues of access and quality, Joan gave considerable thought to how information could reach as many people as possible. How to ensure a topic would be understood was what prompted her to include several points-of-view to inform citizens to make up their own minds.

When residents of public housing needed to understand changes in legislation that would affect them, Joan made sure the right information was available at the library and brought it to their attention. Fearlessly, she went to the top for information, bringing in senior government officials, including a deputy minister, to talk to citizens. There was a high regard in the community for the Halifax Regional Library that helped pave the way, but Joan understood that the legitimacy and social standing of the library must not ever be abused.

Her respect for the right to accurate information and equitable treatment prevailed across all her constituencies. It was not good enough to re-route someone to search in unfamiliar, complex databases:

Access meant you had to be able to read it; you had to know it was there—that's when it is social justice. It's one thing to say, "Well, that stuff is there, go find it". I'm sorry, that's not good enough if it's not part of your culture and how you regularly get your information.

Initially, Joan had to work hard to convince her administration and colleagues that having her own budget to provide for a wider range of information resources in the library was needed and that hosting programs with expert speakers was on a par with provision of books and periodicals. While she worked on such internal matters, Joan used word-of-mouth to let citizens know that the library services belonged to them, too. To help validate interest in social issues, Joan offered reassurance that people were not alone in their concerns, which the Library thought worthy of discussion.

Access to the Internet

The province had kicked in some money to get this going, so at the public opening we gave them a big front and center profile. That's the way to get support—you don't try to take the glory.

In the early 1990s when the Internet was still in early stages of development and its public potential had not been fully explored, Joan and her colleagues wanted to enhance opportunities for more widespread equitable access to information. Joan had been to conferences on women and technology, and when she read Heather Menzies' book, "Women and the Chip: Case Studies on the Employment Effects of Microtechnology (1981), she invited the author to speak at the Library. She wanted to ensure that the Halifax Regional Library played a key role in issues related to information access.

At the time, Joan was studying the educational and legal implications of information science and considering questions of privacy, access, and management. In 1993, she joined a small group of citizens interested in public access to the Internet, which became the Chebucto Community Net, a registered society with a server provided by the Dalhousie University Computer Department. The library hosted the first public access terminal and for years provided free workshops in accessing the Internet.

The provincial librarian at the time was Marion Pape, who worked with provincial and federal ministers during the 1990s to ensure that public libraries across Canada provided free access to emergent digital information. The library on Spring Garden Road in Halifax became a national leader in promoting free and easy access to "The Web".

Other highlights

In 1994, a new project was hatched in Joan's little office that would grow into a festival to celebrate authors and the printed word. Toronto had held such a festival the previous year, so Joan invited some of their members to Halifax to share their experience. Ultimately, with great support from the Writers' Federation of Nova Scotia, a Word on the Street (WOTS) board was formed, fundraising got underway, and the first outdoor WOTS Festival was launched in September, 1994.

Another highlight of Joan's work was a partnership she forged in 1978 with St Mary's University (SMU) Continuing Education department to hold SMU courses in the library downtown as opposed to the somewhat formidable bank building that had been proposed. Here again, the access principle was invoked to help Joan, and SMU set up a popular, flexible education series:

We worked out a public series that if people wanted to get credits, they would pay St. Mary's. The general public could come for free. The library prepared packages of related materials that would be there for the students. Initially, I didn't have a room to do it in but we improvised and used the reading room. That series still takes place, now at two libraries—the 30th anniversary was in the Spring of 2008.

Joan also worked with the International Education Centre of SMU to provide public programming on global issues, serving later on the Board.

The library's partnership with SMU was used to excellent effect in 1988 when Joan and SMU officials organized a large public event on very short notice to discuss bomb threats against the library for refusing to destroy their copy of Salmon Rushdie's controversial book, The Satanic Verses.

You build up a reputation and you build up relationships with people you could work with. We already had a relationship with St. Mary's University that I could call up and I knew the Vice President because I was on the board with him at the International Education Centre.

In the early 1980s, Joan helped to garner community support for hiring a youth worker from the African Nova Scotian community to work in the North Branch Library. When Terry Symonds was hired, he began to work with children in the neighbourhood and he soon proposed that they learn about their Black heritage. He and Joan programmed Black History Week and hosted a series of speakers on the Black Nova Scotian experience. Since many members of the Wednesday Morning Women's Group were from the African Nova Scotian community, their group began offering programs that addressed the role of Black women. It was a process that grew to involve many organizations, and a Black History Month Committee was formed. The story was told through media, school programs, and in a variety of locations; in time, the month became known as African Heritage Month, a tradition that continues to this day.

In 1979, Joan was invited to the founding meeting of the Canadian Congress for Learning Opportunities for Women (CCLOW) in Banff, Alberta. Dr. Mairi Macdonald, Director of Continuing Education at Mount Saint Vincent University and Chair of the Task Force on the Status of Women for Nova Scotia for International Women's Year, played a leadership role in CCLOW and encouraged Joan to get involved. Little did Joan know that this would be the start of many years of supporting opportunities for women's learning. In 1985, she chaired the national CCLOW Board, and represented the organization at the International Adult Education Congress in Buenos Aires where she was invited to make CCLOW a member. As Chair, she also planned and co-chaired a national meeting of women's groups funded by the federal Office of the Secretary of State. This was an active time of lobbying members of parliament on women's issues and bringing the discussion home to local women, especially to the North Branch Women's Group which kept Joan grounded on a weekly basis.

When working at the Dartmouth YM/YWCA in 1972, Joan got involved in the establishment of the newly formed Metro Council on Continuing Education (MCCE) that formed to encourage cooperation and information-sharing on adult learning opportunities in the Halifax area. In the course of more than 38 years with this organization, she assumed many leadership roles. In 2010, the MCCE voted to close the organization in order to support development of a provincial network. At present, Joan is helping to facilitate meetings to come up with a better process for access to lifelong learning opportunities.

Joan was a formal lifelong learner herself for six years as she worked part-time towards her Master's Degree in Adult Education from Dalhousie, awarded in 1985 with a thesis on the relationship between the public library and adult learners. The program helped her examine the language used to attract adults to further education, for the many adults who may not see themselves as "learners":

We people in the field of adult learning have not found the right language to use, we're still stuck on language that sounds formal—school, and so on—without understanding that learning comes in so many different forms.

These days, the issue of peace is high on Joan's priority list. As a member of the Steering Committee for the Nova Scotia Voice of Women for Peace, she continues to see the need for public discussion on issues such as military expenditures for fighter jets. For Joan, there is always more to do.

I fall into the person type who wants to be the problem solver, so sometimes I don't give enough time for critical thinking. I'm immediate—if I see something that doesn't seem right, I want to find an answer. I'm sure that if we put our heads together, we can come up with something. So that how social justice comes into play: thinking, "We don't have to put up with this. There must be some way in which we can make things better."