Linking University and Community Needs


At Memorial Phyllis continued to develop courses in writing, literacy, and Women's Studies. From 1993-5 she went to the University of Texas at Austin to work on a PhD in English with a specialization in Rhetoric and Writing (a field that never really took off in English Departments in Canada). She was involved in the NL Provincial Council for schoolteachers of English; developed Graduate courses in Rhetoric in MUN's English Department; helped organize local and national conferences for teachers of English in schools and at the university level, and a national conference for Women's Studies. She started the interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Teaching at Memorial. And she became increasingly involved in feminist activism in the community beyond the university, for example in the St. John's Status of Women Committee and the Women's Centre.

Handbook for feminist activists

Increasingly she worked to foster links between the Women's Studies (WS) program at Memorial and the community beyond. She invited community feminists to speak to classes and give presentations to the Women Studies Speaker's Series. She sought opportunities for undergraduate and graduate WS students to work in paid and unpaid jobs in the community. She spearheaded a change in the WS Masters program to allow students to choose a community-based internship or project instead of a thesis. The first WS internship was completed by Michelle Smith, who worked with the charismatic Joyce Hancock, then President of PACSW, to produce a handbook for feminist activists. Feminism: Our Basis of Unity was widely used in this province and beyond by feminist community groups, universities, government agencies and others. Michelle helped establish and is now Director of the province's Violence Prevention Initiative.

Provincial Advisory Council on the Status of Women

In 2000 Phyllis was appointed to the board of the Provincial Advisory Council on the Status of Women (PACSW) an arm's-length council appointed by the provincial government. She remained on that board for three terms, till 2009. Through her work on the PACSW she felt closely connected to the women's movement in NL. For her first six years, she participated in monthly conference calls with coordinators of Women's Centres and other feminist groups across the province. She took part in PACSW barbecues, lunches and gatherings of many kinds at their old downtown offices and occasionally elsewhere in the province.

A highlight for Phyllis was the "totally amazing" Women's Conference in Gander in 2000, organized by Kathy Dunderdale (Premier of the province in 2011). Over 200 women from Labrador and the island participated. They sang, danced, marched, debated, shared stories and concerns, ate great food and heard inspiring speeches by Sister Marie Ryan, Innu leader Elizabeth Penashue, feminist media guru Judy Rebick, young union activist Lana Payne (now President of NL Federation of Labour), Yvonne Jones (now leader of the Liberal Party of the province) and more. Memorial's WS students attended in force. Phyllis arranged for a film crew from Memorial to do a video recording of the entire conference, which was then edited to use in her WS distance education course. (The edited version of that film was widely circulated and is still use for the same WS course). Opportunities for networking, friendship, growth and feminist activism seemed limitless for women across the province.

During Phyllis's last three years on PACSW (2006-2009), the new president Leslie MacLeod worked closely with government and with organizations representing the province's minority women with special needs, including Aboriginal women, refugee and immigrant women, and women with disabilities. The PACSW offices moved from an old, inaccessible, downtown house to a modern, accessible building near a shopping mall on the outskirts of town. "As a feminist," said Phyllis, "I welcomed increased resources for groups of women who had been sadly excluded in the past, but these seem to have come at a cost. The feisty, outspoken, independent-minded voices of the feminist movement seemed to go silent, or to be sidelined, in this province and across the country, during these years and since."

St. John's Status of Women Committee

Phyllis sees a similar shift in the SJSWC/Women's Centre. She was active even longer on its board and committees than on the PACSW, and took on more demanding responsibilities. She served two terms as president, was chair of the nominations committee for "too many years," on its committees for hiring, personnel, editorial/ Spokeswoman, policy development, public meetings and social events; she worked on renovations and gardening, as well as drop-in sessions for women in the community. She donated food, clothes, time and money, and even taught a few yoga classes.

The most ambitious project of the SJSWC /Women's Centre over the past five years has been Marguerite's Place (MP). This will be a new, fully accessible facility to house the SJSWC, Women's Centre, its Resource Centre, clothing boutique, and affordable housing units for single women over 30. It is expected to open in 2011.

"It's a wonderful project and much needed in this city. It's gratifying to see our years of visioning, fundraising, networking and sheer hard work by board, staff and a host of volunteers coming to fruition." But Phyllis sees another side of their success. "It seems that the closer we came to reaching our visible goals the more cautious we had to be to avoid ruffling feathers, that is, jeopardizing our funding. As with the PACSW I'm afraid we've lost our independent, critical, activist voices." Does this matter, she asks, as long as we accomplish what we set out to do?

If the MP building and frontline services are what we want to do, then we're succeeding. But when I remember our vision when we started, of creating a space where all would share equitably in the decisions, work, reward and resources, a space where we'd speak out courageously to question and challenge EVERYTHING, I miss the old days.

For a strong, up-to-date analysis of how the feminist movement in Newfoundland and Labrador has been 'mainstreamed' in recent years, moving from an earlier form of feminist activism, Phyllis recommends the work of Dr. Glynis George. Phyllis realizes that her regrets for the passing of the Good Old Days are typical of activists (and others) as they grow older. "Of course I miss the energy that arose from shared values, vision, passion and working for change."

But life moves on, and Phyllis looks forward to challenges ahead; perhaps to stepping up to the plate when needed. That's what happened in the federal election (October 2008), when she ran for the NDP in Labrador. She had supported the NDP all her adult life, was at the time a member of the NDP Provincial Executive and chair of the NDP Women's Caucus. She also had strong connections with women in Labrador. Phyllis did not win that seat, but doubled the NDP vote in Labrador compared with the last federal election. "It was wonderful experience," she said.

Going to Labrador, listening to the concerns of the people, talking about NDP values, policies and plans, travelling to Lab West for my first time, enjoying the amazing hospitality of Elizabeth Penashue, Fran Williams and many, many more. But I don't think I'd have enjoyed it if I had to compete for the nomination with NDP politicians in Labrador and argue that I was the best candidate.