Embracing my career as a feminist advocate
Once denied, now embraced: Roz Gunn talks about her passion and committment to working with a feminist organization.
By Roz Gunn (BA ’11) Faculty of Arts
To this day, I remember writing, "for the record, I’m not a feminist" on a second-year Canadian history exam. It was 2007 and I was 20 years old, studying a double major in history (later to be switched to political science) and English at the University of Waterloo.
I don’t remember what the exam question was to which I wrote that now-mortifying note. Perhaps the question specifically asked that I discuss the experiences of women. In any case, while I, an A-student all through university, likely had a decent amount to say on the subject, I still felt I must clarify that I’m one of those "raging feminists" no one likes (cringe).
Sixteen years later, and now a staunch, proud feminist, I work for a feminist organization, YWCA Cambridge. What’s more, I work in communications, advocacy and government relations at this organization, so you know I’m talking feminism regularly.
I don’t think my journey into feminist work is that unique. I do shudder to think what I could have become were it not for the professors I had in undergrad who introduced me to feminist philosophy, but I also think the Internet and life experience of moving through the world as a woman led to this drastic transformation in world view.
I would argue that many organizations with women-centred missions underwent a similar normative shift throughout the early aughts, contending with the question of whether or not to identify explicitly as "feminist." This debate was often rooted in discussions around palatability - will funders discriminate? Will donors feel alienated if we seem "too political"- And also, around authenticity - can we confidently say our feminism is inclusive? Intersectional?
YWCA Cambridge, where I work, is a member association of YWCA Canada. Over its 150 years, YWCA has become Canada’s largest provider of women’s shelters and housing solutions, one of the largest providers of child care as well as women’s employment programming, and a longtime advocate on issues related to gender-based violence, gender equity and women’s leadership. YWCA Canada has undergone significant reviews of our mandates, policies and procedures to be more representative of, and responsive to, the needs of individuals (with all of their myriad, intersectional identities) accessing our programs and services.
In fact, we at YWCA Cambridge have leaned so hard into our feminist identity that, in 2019, we collaborated with our colleagues at YW Kitchener-Waterloo to launch The Feminist Shift , a coalition-building initiative funded by Women and Gender Equality Canada with the mission to end gender-based violence in Waterloo Region. We’ve launched a podcast that features interviews with feminist changemakers speaking to issues such as decriminalizing sex work to building feminist cities. We run a workshop designed to empower community members to identify and intervene in instances of violence. And we’re leading a community-based research project focused on women and gender diverse individuals’ lived experiences of homelessness and gender-based violence.
It’s a gift to look back from this side of my journey and to have found myself doing work I find important and meaningful. 20-year-old me wasn’t ready for it then, but I am now exceedingly thankful for those professors who exposed me to feminist thought. After all, they laid the foundation that my dream career as a feminist advocate is built upon.
Editor’s note: On September 22, 2023, alum Sarah Inam (MA ’07) was killed as a result of intimate partner violence. To remember Sarah, please consider supporting theá Sarah Inam Memorial Fund.