Thursday, June 29, 2006


Last night was an A+ event. Our young speakers were awesome, amazing and authentic.

We invited three of Canada's young women leaders to share their insights and aspirations with us.

At 26, Jennifer Corriero is the co-founder and executive director of TakingITGlobal, a non-profit organization that fosters and strengthens the involvement of youth in global issues through the use of technology. The website currently has over 100,000 members, in over 200 countries and receives over 1 million hits each day. And when she's not working at this, she's travelling around the world to speak at conferences and events.

Last night, Jennifer proudly announced that she has just completed her Masters degree in Youth Engagement and Capacity Building Across Cultures at York University, which left many of us wondering... how does she fit it all in?

Next we had Tonika Morgan, 23, whose homeless experience as a teenager has empowered her to help others in that situation. Last year she received the Young Woman of Distinction Award and the Flare Magazine Volunteer of the Year Award for her work in this area.

Today she is Project Manager of the Women Moving Forward project, an initiative supporting young single mothers in the Jane-Finch community and a part-time student at Ryerson University.

At 27, Roxanne Joyal, was the oldest in the group and equally as impressive. Named by Maclean's magazine as one of the "Top 100 People to Watch Out for in the Millenium", she is an active volunteer with Leaders Today and Free the Children. She has travelled to and worked in several third world countries and in 1996 lived and worked in Thailand, helping mothers and babies in Bangkok's largest slum area.

And she's been no slouch in the education department either. She graduated from Stanford with an honours degree in International Relations and in 2001 was awarded a Rhodes scholarship, and recently graduated with a law degree from Oxford University. She is currently working as a clerk for the Supreme Court of Canada.

On paper, these young women sound most impressive and in person, they were even more so. Vibrant, caring and articulate, they gave voice to their concerns, shared their thoughts on the future and talked with passion about the involvement of youth in our society.

While none had met each other before, it was neat to see the interaction between them and how the kernel of an idea could be generated by one, and built on by another.

For example, throughout the evening, Roxanne had been strongly advocating mentorship and the power of women helping women. Tonika told the story of some of the women she works with who know they need to change their situation, but who find it overwhelming to take that step outside their comfort zone. Finding the funds and confidence to go back to school just seemed beyond their scope.

She had barely finished describing this situation, when Jennifer threw out a challenge to the group of sixty women in the audience. She pointed out that Tonika had 16 women in her program, and surely out of the 60 women present, 16 could come forward to become mentors. And some of them did.

That was the sort of evening it was. A dialogue and discussion between a group of women of all ages. We'd encouraged the mothers in our group to bring their daughters so they could hear and be inspired by our three panelists, and they did. It was wonderful to have a room full of women from 17-70+, all open to hear what the other had to say, all wanting to learn more about each other, and all celebrating both our unique and shared experiences.

It was suggested that we invite our panelists back in five years, so we can check in on how they are doing, and maybe we will.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Last week three of us treated one of our friends to a PJ party in Toronto. While it was her birthday present, it proved to be a gift for all us.

Momentarily we felt a touch of guilt as we sat on a workday having lunch and wine at an outside patio restaurant, but we were having so much fun, it didn't last long. Plus who should we see in the restaurant but June Callwood, someone we all admired. And our respect went even higher when we observed her getting into her black sports convertible. Aged 80+, we thought "You go girl."

Spending time with girlfriends can really lift your spirits. We shopped, ate, shopped some more and laughed a lot. When we checked into the hotel, the man at registration teased us as we requested four keys... just in case one of us got fed up with the others ... and wanted a break.

No fear of that. Mind you we didn't exactly stay up all night talking, which we'd planned... guess that worked when we were teenagers but now we need our beauty sleep. Instead we lounged around in the morning, catching up with each other and sharing stories of our youth, our families and whatever else we wanted to discuss.

After a quick visit to the Distillery District, we were homeward bound. Back to our everyday lives, to our daily routine and responsibilities. But for 36 hours (not that we're counting) we were free.

In the three years that I have been running Company of Women, only two speakers have ever received a standing ovation from the group, and one was Lesley Andrew who talked to us on June 13.

Lesley shared her story of growing up believing she was stupid because of learning disabilities. But instead of locking herself into victim mode, she took responsibility and found other ways to learn and strategies to help her cope with her learning difficulties.

She spoke eloquently and had many words of wisdom to share with us, but it was when she started to show the amazing and intricate quilts that she'd made, that you realized she was not only wise beyond her years, but extremely creative and talented too.

The icing on the cake was when she ended her talk... she sang for us. As a soprano she has sung all over the world and made three CDS. After her rendition of It's A Wonderful World, there was hardly a dry eye in the room.

So what did we learn?

1. take responsibility, finds ways to move ahead;
2. everyone has a talent or skill no matter what.
3. people who take an interest in you can make all the difference such as two teachers Lesley had who fostered her creativity
4. the power of having someone believe in you, like her mother

Hearing Lesley was a wonderful way to wrap up the season, and she gave us plenty to think about.

Friday, June 09, 2006

One of the things I love about Company of Women is I get the opportunity to meet and hear some incredible women.

Take the Power Within for Women. I received a complimentary ticket to attend this event, and so heard words of wisdom from women like Irshad Manji and Gloria Estefan, who were for me, the highlight of the day. Both showed amazing courage but in different circumstances.

Irshad Manji is the best-selling author of The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in her Faith. Given the arrests made this last weekend, her talk seemed even more timely. She is certainly someone who has become acclimatized to living in danger, with bullet-proof glass in the windows of her house, her car checked before she leaves and she even had a bodyguard at one stage when the death threats were at a peak.

As a young Muslim, she explained how she’d come to write her book which challenges the way the Muslim faith is used in some countries to mistreat women, such as the honour killings in Pakistan, or the stoning of lesbians in Algeria or the way women are treated as property being handed down from husband to brother in Saudi Arabia.

Today her book has been published internationally. There are some countries where it is banned, but following a suggestion from some youth, it has been translated and can be downloaded in pdf format from her website.

She urged the audience to have the courage of your confusion, to ask questions because only then will you find the courage of conviction. And she was a glowing example of how through courage and conviction, change can happen.

Change for Gloria Estefan was not something she sought, yet it seemed to follow her from an early age. Born in Cuba, she spent her early years in Havana but was uprooted and escaped to Miami when Castro came into power. Her father spent several years in a prison in Cuba and her mother did the best she could to raise her two daughters on her own until he was reunited with his family.

Gloria Estefan is an international superstar and in 1989 was at the peak in her career, when a tractor trailer crashed into her tour bus, critically injuring her and breaking her back. Through faith, the love of her family and grit determination, she endured almost a year of grueling physical therapy to make an astonishing full recovery from injuries that should have left her paralyzed. She has since returned to the top of the charts, completed a nine country world tour and given birth to the daughter, they said she never could have.

As I listened to her telling her story, I could not help but think that she was a beautiful person, both physically and spiritually. She was very low key, yet you knew she had achieved much in her life – and not just the successful career – but her ability to fight back and reclaim her life, her long marriage to the same person and her two children. Unlike many celebrities, she seemed grounded and comfortable with who she was and where she was going. Like others who have flirted with death, she knew what was important in her life and worked to those priorities. A lesson we all could learn.