Some mornings I wake up and I feel like I can change the world. I see the inequities that exist and I know that with some hard work, supportive people, and a plan, I can make a difference. Other days I read the headlines, spend 10 minutes on Twitter, watch the news and I think it's impossible. There is nothing I can do to change anything. Why would I even bother trying? How can one person fix so much that is wrong?
When I saw that the Ontario Bar Association's Women Lawyers Forum was putting on a breakfast program called "Leaders & Changemakers" at the OBA Institute this year, I knew I had to attend. I couldn't miss the powerhouse panel of speakers. I needed to learn how these women became leaders and changemakers without getting discouraged.
The February 5, 2020 program was moderated by Pia Hundel (Miller Thomson LLP) and Gabriela Ramo (EY Law LLP), with speakers, Michele Landsberg (Journalist & Activist), Barbara Jackman (Jackman & Associates), Leola Pon (General Counsel, Toronto District School Board) and Anne Posno (Lenczner Slaght).
The program started with each speaker talking about her own journey and what made her a “changemaker”. At an early stage in most of their lives the speakers saw inequality and wanted to change the world to be a better place.
For Michele Landsberg it was growing up Jewish in a very Anti-Semitic Toronto, and being one of a few female journalists in her day, that set her on the path of becoming a changemaker. Being told to think and act a certain way did not sit right with her. While it was often painful being the one singled out, it “gave her a backbone” and a critical stance on society. It was obvious to her that women were second class, and she wrote an essay at an early age arguing against the use of “he” as the universal pronoun. Ms. Landsberg also spoke about recognizing her own reluctance to new ideas. For example, in the 1970s when people started speaking about sexual harassment, she was skeptical. Then she began to think about the sexual harassment she had experienced. As a journalist, she would take her readers through her own reluctance to new ideas and that enabled them to move along with her.
Barbara Jackman grew up thinking she had a say. Ms. Jackman had several siblings and they would vote on everything at family meetings, including bedtimes and chores. She spent her whole childhood trying to get her parents to see her point of view. She also wanted to be able to help people who had problems. This led to Ms. Jackman becoming a lawyer, and as a lawyer, she realized the most vulnerable were the people who did not have status in Canada. She began practicing in immigration and refugee law. Ms. Jackman told us that keeping her clients as her focus was what led to change. She argued significant cases on behalf of her clients that changed the landscape of immigration and refugee law in Canada. But it was important, she said, to recognize all of the cases she lost along the way to make it to the ones that she won.
Leola Pon comes from a working class Chinese Canadian family with parents who owned a restaurant and worked long hours. She saw how some customers treated her parents unfairly or took advantage of people who did not speak English very well. Ms. Pon never set a path to make change in life, it evolved over the years with her childhood and early adult years as her foundation: “Being a changemaker assumes you have choices and options. Sometimes you don’t”. Ms. Pon did not start her General Counsel role at the TDSB looking to change the legal department, but there were structural issues. For example, the compensation structure was not adequate. It took three years, but she was able to change the compensation structure for the better.
Anne Posno grew up in a family that helped foster her belief that she could accomplish anything. She didn’t think there were any barriers, but she came to realize that there are always new barriers to recognize. Ms. Posno noted that change comes in small steps. She spoke of the “phenomenal” women at her firm and the #ReferToHer campaign which provides a list of "experienced female lawyers to whom you can confidently refer work."
Some takeaways from the program:
It was a great way to start the day surrounded by these leaders and changemakers. They reminded me that I don't have to change the world in one day (of course I would feel discouraged if that was my goal!) Instead, I will keep making small changes that are in my power, whether it's as simple as bringing my own travel mug to the coffee shop and not using plastic wrap or paper towels, or writing blog posts and articles calling out bad behaviour, or donating money to good causes, or supporting striking teachers, or voting in all of the elections (including the Bencher election), or being a good ally...These are all things in my control. I can make change, one step at a time.
I keep coming back to a quote from Linda Silver Dranoff's book "Fairly Equal: Lawyering the Feminist Revolution" and I think it is a fitting conclusion for this blog post:
Be aware of the areas that still require attention, and do what you can to be agents of further change. Speak, as I tried to do, for women who otherwise have no voice . . . I encourage those who follow us to do the same, to never ask “What can one person do?” but rather to say, “This is what needs doing, and this is what I will do about it.”
How are you a changemaker? What change will you make?
Erin C. Cowling is a freelance litigator, researcher & writer at Cowling Legal Freelance and President and Founder of FLEX LEGAL, a network of freelance lawyers.