Sharing learnings: How to center, amplify and support immigrant women’s voices

By Andrea Solnes (Learning Journeys Lead), Sandrine Espie (Pacific Immigrant Resources Society: Immigrant Services Learning Journeys Lead & Women’s Leadership Coordinator), Annelies Tjebbes (Learning Journeys Workshop Facilitator).

Introduction

Learning Journeys: Pathways for and with Immigrant Women is a 2-year social research and development project funded by IRCC (Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada). Learning Journeys brings together newcomer women, service providers, and community partners to illuminate pathways to improved outcomes for newcomer women, their families and their communities. 

The importance of who needs to be at the table was clear from the outset, but the details on where, when and how to amplify the voices of immigrant women and how to truly share power became a fundamental learning that all other insights were built upon. The Immigrant Women’s Advisory Committee (IWAC) is the heart and soul of Learning Journeys and this blog details how the voices of immigrant women are centered and amplified through this work. 

Setting the Stage – Getting to know the Immigrant Women

Thirteen women from diverse backgrounds came together for a Learning Journey. They were engaged based on their strengths and abilities rather than their needs and barriers. Individually they are nurses, mothers, teachers, daughters, dentists, wives, film makers, widows, volunteers, business owners and students; collectively they are courageous, skilled, passionate, caring and hopeful. While each is striving towards goals related to meaningful economic, social and community participation in Canada, they are working together towards the common goal of improving the opportunities and roles that immigrant women have access to in our society. Here are a few of their stories: 

Thea was accepted to Canada as a skilled immigrant on the basis of 12 years experience as a nurse, and is now adding her voice to BC’s $10aDay Childcare campaign. She shares her story about access to quality, affordable childcare being the #1 factor determining if she is to join the front lines as a nurse in Canada.

Lidiane is an HR specialist from Brazil, and recently inspired changemakers at a Social R&D conference where she shared how she faced her fears about her loss of identity as a result of immigration. Lidiane discovered a way to overcome her fear as she vowed to get back to her human resources career and help other immigrant women have better experiences than hers.

Souad shares the story of finding herself entirely alone after her husband died suddenly, soon after she arrived in Canada. She talks about the mismatch between what settlement services offered and what she needed to move her life forward. She found, ultimately, that friendship and peer mentorship helped her to balance work and health, and deal with her deep grief. Only then could she start to see a path to re-establishing herself in the field of dentistry in Canada.

These women and many others have been re-establishing their sense of identity, finding dignity and strength in supporting one another, bringing their skills to the table, and strengthening their leadership throughout the Learning Journeys experience. It is women like these that inspire us to do the important work of helping amplify their voices in our communities and workspaces. 

Learning Journeys Themes

Key to Learning Journeys has been the act of centering and learning from immigrant women, recognizing that solutions to address challenges faced by immigrant women be developed BY and WITH immigrant women. Throughout the course of Learning Journeys, several themes emerged that helped us support and amplify the voices of these women, establish shared ownership of the work, and enable their ideas and solutions to shine:

  • Relationship building & trust
  • Openness to different ways of knowing/being
  • Supporting skills & capacity
  • Storytelling
  • Embracing emergence

Relationship Building and Trust

What supported the immigrant women in this journey? Many spoke of relationship building and trust, Lidiane talked of hope, and still others were compelled by the question “What strengths do you bring to the table?” that was framed in the opening group session. 

Something began to shift through that first experience of strengths-based sharing. In reflecting on the individual interviews that followed, many said they felt listened to in a way they hadn’t experienced in Canada. Through the process of storytelling, they began to explore their own journeys; each time they told their story, it got a little easier and the pathways forward became a little clearer. 

As the women connected with one another, sometimes recognizing their own stories through the voice of another, but mostly giving space to continue sharing and exploring together, and encouraging one another to step in, they found ways to build each other up, when stepping up alone felt impossible. And so over time, each one on their own, yet also together, they took steps towards new possibilities.

Sonia is a geotechnical engineer and community member participant who has recently joined the IWAC, as we now broaden its base to act in a fully advisory capacity. She shared that “Working collaboratively means learning how to address conflicts. Conflict is often linked to untold fears (i.e fear of failing, fear of speaking up, fear of being judged, fear of not knowing, etc.) and working effectively as a team requires establishing working relationships where people can share their fears and learn from each other without judgment.” Language is important in fostering trusting relationships: “I understand you”, “I share your fear”, “We have a common vision”, “Now let’s make a plan and work together toward this common goal” ”. We have invested in relationships every step of the way through Learning Journeys. 

Openness to different ways of knowing/being

Central to our approach to The Learning Lab that brought together immigrant women and service providers was holding an openness and an appreciation of different ways of knowing and acting. As white, Canadian-born women, the lead facilitators acknowledged and acted upon an importance to work in the background and to help decolonize our practices, tools and resources. We made time for reflection, dialogue and collaboration in the group led BY the immigrant women and aligned with their own ways of knowing/being. 


We recognized different cultural beliefs, values and ways of being through the program. One participant shared that collective thinking is very important in her Brazilian culture that is characterized by  openness and close connection. Another shared the challenge of embracing a skills-focused mindset in Canada when in Syria degrees rather than skills were recognized. Another shared that “Filipinos are obedient, and don’t speak up (due to a long line of colonialists); we are patient and accepting; here, everybody has a say, has a platform – I can’t believe people are actually listening to me!”

Learning Journeys aimed to integrate different world views and ways of thinking and collaborated to support everyone to participate as effectively and fully as they could. The IWAC grew in its leadership as an entity and is now continuing to raise awareness about complex or new issues that are affecting immigrant and refugee women, and promoting openness and discussions to address them.

Supporting skills & capacity

The Learning Lab, four months into the journey, provided opportunities for immigrant women participants to start working with community members and service providers (including Immigrant Services Society of BC: ISSofBCDIVERSEcity, and Minerva Foundation). This model included 3 workshops designed to explore, design and test new ideas connected to settlement service delivery models. Immigrant women participants were supported in pre- and post-workshop sessions, led territorial acknowledgements, and shared their lived experiences as immigrant women to help ground the group. 

A turn of events when the Learning Lab went online, due to COVID, enabled the immigrant women to blossom in their roles as innovators. Service providers were overwhelmed with their work loads, and many were not able to step into the work required of testing their ideas. When the space opened, the immigrant women fully stepped into it. More meetings and engagement with the Learning Journeys team was required, but it was in these unplanned places that Lama recalls: “I could say what I wanted, and then I got feedback as to what was important/relevant; in this way I learned to organize my thoughts; I then had confidence to speak out, and my self-esteem increased.” 

IWAC members are supporting one another with skill-building in crucial areas. While applying for jobs, we heard that immigrant women are generally less likely to feel comfortable promoting their past professional experience and qualifications. Limited English proficiency, a lack of Canadian work experience, and being unfamiliar with the cultural expectations implicit to the job-seeking process can undermine their ability to negotiate a contract with future employers and they consequently take jobs for which they are overqualified and underpaid. As the IWAC membership grows, they recognize the strength behind supporting one another with coaching to help women find the confidence that they need to promote their talents and expertise. 

Storytelling

Immigration is a transformational journey. Immigrant and refugee women interested in joining the Canadian workforce or in expanding their social networks by connecting with new community members feel the need to “redefine themselves”. Immigration is always followed by a feeling of loss and reconstruction. These feelings are transformational as they can spark a survival desire to create, to engage, to connect, to belong.  

The women brought skills to the table they had forgotten they had, or had not had the confidence to try out in English:“When I was very young, my Papa would ask me to stand on the table and read the newspaper out loud and strong – participating in IWAC reminds me I am in full command of my words; I am a storyteller, fine-tuning my abilities.” Like the models they were testing, their skills and stories strengthened with each iteration.

Storytelling can be transformative for both the storyteller and the listener. Sharing unfiltered stories can be a way to learn to embrace who you truly are. Sharing and really listening to these stories can be a powerful way to assure immigrant women that they already have all the skills and abilities that they need to contribute to society. Stories are meant to inspire and motivate policymakers, allies, and newcomers alike. It leads to self-discovery and self-affirmation. Now moving into the final stages of Learning Journeys, Tina, a facilitator, media professional, storyteller & drama coach from India, has joined the IWAC. She believes that shared stories break barriers, forge connections and build communities. “Finally, by learning storytelling skills, immigrant and refugee women can learn how to let go of stories that don’t serve them anymore and move forward with their new life.” 

Embracing Emergence

Throughout the journey, we made time and space for plans to shift, ideas to evolve, and conversations to extend. In reflection of that process, Sonia shared that the coming together of divergent ideas led to innovation. Aisha shared that “uncertainty is an open doorway”, and we worked hard to embrace new ideas, opportunities, and directions. Our collaborations expanded, and our projects evolved towards innovative and promising models in mentorship, informal peer support networks, and advocacy for immigrant women in childcare.

However appreciative we are of it, uncertainty can be uncomfortable. While we embraced emergence, we also recognized the need to provide enough clarity to individuals to help ground them. When asked about something that helped the teams to move forward with ideas even amidst uncertainty, Aisha talked about tending to trust consistently and thoughtfully; Thea drew motivation from her children and a determination to find a way forward for other immigrant women to hold onto their careers and be exceptional mothers. Others like Lidiane seemed to thrive in the uncertainty: “Uncertainty is everywhere – especially in COVID. I see a lot of people losing their jobs – when I see that uncertainty is everywhere, I know this work is important”. 

Time tells its own stories. As we move into the final stages of Learning Journeys, the women continue to explore ways to tell their stories. In reflecting on early work in the Storytelling group, Lama, a film producer from Syria, recalls: “We couldn’t move forward because there were too many difficulties and so much we didn’t know; now (8 months later) I think we can do that project – make that video.” Digital storytelling and media training will be offered as workshops to support the telling of Learning Journeys stories, and we look forward to sharing a multimedia project next spring.

Conclusion

This is not the beginning nor the end of this journey. Thea beautifully shared that she believes that “what we have planted, others will harvest”. We are committed to the long-term impact of this work and are grateful to have secured funding to keep this project moving forward. We are supporting the ideas developed and tested in the Learning Lab as together with PIRS and partner agencies we begin to pilot 3 models co-designed by the immigrant women: 

  • Peer-led holistic approaches to mentorship; 
  • Informal peer support networks to talk about the most difficult and often taboo issues immigrant women face; 
  • Advocacy opportunities for immigrant women in childcare and other aspects of community life. 

As we move into the final stages of Learning Journeys, the women continute to step courageously into the uncertainty of each of these projects and embrace an iterative approach of evolving and growing these ideas. Lama captures this beautifully: “Without the uncertainties and bumps along the way, we wouldn’t have had success; if we had known from the beginning, how would we have been able to develop what we did? We worked hard for this; we made it beautiful together.”

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