Practicing Social Activism


Thanks to her mother's insistence that the children in the family were treated equally, Yvonne returned to Nova Scotia in 1984 to claim an inheritance of land from her father. But despite the satisfactory outcome within the circle of her family, Yvonne was deeply disappointed when she looked outward to her old community. She did not discern that African Nova Scotians had changed very much in the 24 years she had been away, and this astonished and dismayed her.

A local opportunity came up that started the ball rolling. A small group had been talking for eight years about their need for a basketball court but despite their efforts, nothing concrete had happened.

They wanted a little ball field—I mean, what's the big deal? So you go to the city, talk to the politicians, and talk to some people in the community. Find out where the money is, get the proposal—it can't cost that much. And to me it was very, very simple to do that. I didn't see it as a challenge at all.

Yvonne joined a group of young people and helped them strategize so the original group could see that something positive was about to happen. Then she handed it back to that group, who presided over the opening of the basketball court 18 months later. When asked what she did differently, Yvonne's response was immediate:

I guess it was my attitude, which I've had since birth, and because of my family as well: there really is nothing that you can't do if you put your mind to it.

Yvonne continued helping the community to plan and launch projects that had realistic chances of success. Working with younger people, she helped them design and run a large survey on recreation needs and then plan a new recreational building. Yvonne said she enjoyed working with younger generations, for many reasons, not least of which was their passion and enthusiasm for change. She also is able to help youth develop as leaders-in-training. Solo leadership is anathema to her:

I like working with people, I like teamwork, so in all the work that I've done in the community up until now, I've tried to build collective leadership. I've used that when I worked with young people. I like the energy, the fresh ideas, even their unrealistic views on life, the competitiveness and the illusions about themselves—I like that kind of conflict. It's not bad conflict; it's the search for self that I find in young people that is often challenging.

Despite all this leadership activity with the younger generation, Yvonne encountered fear and dismissive reactions from older generations in the community, a who-did-she-think-she-was kind of attitude towards her. Alert to her status in the community after so long away, she had to tread carefully and seek to understand that the fear she sensed was at least partly created when young people challenged their elders on failing to create social change. Yvonne's gender did not help, either.

So where is the fear? The fear is the fact that their lives might change if too much is happening for them, and this old established group can continue to complain that nothing is going on for them because nobody is paying attention to them and the government doesn't hear them. Some people are more comfortable in that.

Realizing that she had to move away from activity confined to small organizations, Yvonne considered a move into provincial politics. Alexa McDonaugh, the federal leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP) at the time, had approached Yvonne about running for the New Democratic Party of Nova Scotia, and now the chance presented itself. African Nova Scotians were being encouraged to run in elections but of course had to be nominated first, so in 1993 Yvonne ran for nomination in a small riding and won against two male contenders. However, she lost in the election. With growing public support, she was advised by an experienced party strategist to run for the leadership of the NDP in Nova Scotia—not expecting victory, but to raise her public profile and learn the ropes of the political process. This she decided to do, in 1996:

I threw my name in the ring and people were absolutely shocked: "Why are you doing this?", and I said, "Because I can and I don't see any reason why I shouldn't. I live in a democracy. I live in Canada. This party tells me that they're wide open, so why not?" I had a headache for six weeks, I really did. We had no money; we ran our campaign on five hundred dollars. We did the circuit around the province along with the leader. People were not very nice to me, they made racist comments, sexist comments, like "Who do you think you are?" and, "You don't know the issues."

As anticipated, Yvonne lost to a very well-funded male candidate, but she won a significant twenty percent of the vote, and greatly enjoyed talking with supportive voters around the province. It was an experience that taught her a great deal.

Defining community and leadership

Activism is not about me, it's about the real power that rises up.

Over decades of activism, Yvonne has gained an understanding of community as a show of energies directed toward a common goal for a particular period of time, a purposeful collaboration that answers a call for remedial engagement by citizens.

You go to a drop-in centre with 40 or 50 youth. You make that a community for that moment in time. It brings you together—connecting, learning, growing—and hopefully something sticks when they leave.

Yvonne believes that an effective and ethical leader holds the trust of her community, helping members to coalesce into a strong, skilled collective. With good support, she feels that grassroots leadership will emerge to carry the torch in lobbying and other tasks during times of need. The challenge is to engage the community to learn at the same time as members do the work of activists, and to nurture leadership within communities where members talk to each other about things they do not share with even a sympathetic outsider.

This is the approach that Yvonne has used in various projects to help younger community members develop, for instance in conducting local research on an issue and preparing factual, persuasive presentations for government authorities.

My little team and I were just helping these kids find their voice, to give them the knowledge and the education and the information so they can do what is needed.

Yvonne's role has often been as an initiating leader who supports community members to develop a vision that she may or may not have helped create. In one instance, she assisted women in the community who were interested in health-related development with a deliberative learning process that helped them initiate conversations with other community members. This helped build informed public awareness around the issue.

Community people helped, they did the surveys, they got the feedback, and I paid them some money for their time. Some of those women didn't have a huge knowledge about the work we asked them to do; they said, "We learned what we didn't know, for sure".

Restorative justice

In 2005 Yvonne was appointed Executive Director of the Community Justice Society, to manage the specialists who work with troubled youth. The Restorative Justice program in Nova Scotia models the principle that youth must be educated to feel accountable for their behaviour and take responsibility for their actions. Yvonne has seen her own notions of community playing out in the Restorative Justice process that entails young offenders facing their victim with the families present:

I sat there thinking, "Oh my God, this is community—at this moment in time—this is community". You have people who don't know each other, because this caseworker brings everybody together and they're strangers when they enter the room. They have a conversation. The young person first of all has to agree that they have to be responsible and accountable for what they did. It's a voluntary process and it's not punitive. Then, through the facilitation of volunteer community people, we see people coming together and at the end of it you've got a victim who's crying, you've got an offender who's crying, you've got a full community who are hugging each other, who are talking. People are "breaking bread" together.

This is a process of mutual development and community building through respectful and open dialogue:

We do restorative work. We work with the whole to heal some of the harm. Now I'm saying to my staff, "We have to do it inside ourselves as well, we have to have those conversational circles inside. We can start here, where we are."

Such leadership demands that Yvonne help her staff to work their way rationally through a problem, to be accountable and responsible, and then to work together towards solutions.


Nobody trains you to be a politician. So the learning curve there was very deep and wide and I had to do it very quickly – but there was lots of support for that.

Yvonne recalls four main highlights of her activist work while conceding there were many more:

  • Running for the provincial election in 1998;
  • Running for the NDP leadership in 1996 where she met many outstanding people;
  • Helping women to gain the confidence needed to deal successfully with authorities and create social change; and,
  • Serving as the first African Nova Scotia woman in the Legislative Assembly in 1998. Here, she saw how the Legislature operated in terms of playing to the media while purportedly passing the best possible legislation. And she learned through experience that committees and informal interpersonal negotiations were actually the chief sites for negotiating positive results for some of her community's problems.

Yvonne is adamant that her job as an activist has been to help women critically examine the dynamics of their lives without self-blame in order to develop self-reliance and self-esteem, and the skills of advocacy that incorporate tactical approaches to authorities.

I was just providing the opportunity for them to hear their own voice, and to be able to say, "I can do this". We don't ever have to do for anybody else, but provide some control and tons of support – and let it go.

Regarding younger adults, Yvonne counsels that some behavioural problems must be expected while they go through their teens, but she believes that with the right balance of guidance and freedoms, youth will grow into self-responsible adults in their early twenties.

I often get challenged, and that's OK, because that little emotion is where we change. That emotion triggers a little light bulb—"I never thought of that! How can I use that?"—or, "I don't like that, I don't know what the heck she's talking about!" So it's that kind of creative conflict or tension that I can manipulate a little.