Below the Radar Transcript

Episode 3: Giving women a seat at the table — with Ellen Woodsworth

Speakers: Jamie-Leigh Gonzales, Ellen Woodsworth

[theme music]

Jamie-Leigh Gonzales  0:05
You’re listening to Below the Radar, a knowledge mobilization project out of 312 Main. I’m Jamie-Leigh Gonzales and I work for SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement. This podcast is about bringing forward ideas to encourage meaningful exchanges across communities. Each episode we interview guests on topics ranging from environmental and social justice, arts, culture, community building, and urban issues. This podcast is recorded on the unceded territories of the Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. 

Jamie-Leigh Gonzales  0:34
This episode I’m in conversation with former city councillor Ellen Woodsworth, and we’re talking about bringing an intersectional female voice into the governing of our cities.

[theme music fades]

Jamie-Leigh Gonzales  0:49
So welcome to our podcast Below the Radar. I’m here with Ellen Woodsworth, who’s the founder and external chair of Women Transforming Cities International Society, and is a former Vancouver city councillor and member for COPE.

Ellen Woodsworth  1:02
Yes, and before that, 10 year organizer in the Downtown Eastside SROs.

Jamie-Leigh Gonzales  1:08
We’ll start with what you’re doing today, like these days, what are you up to?

Ellen Woodsworth  1:13
Today’s kind of a crazy day. I come here for this interview, and then I rush off to pick up some rupees and malaria pills because I’ve been asked to go to Udaipur in India and be part of a meeting of 28 women from around the world to discuss female leadership in resilient cities. And then I rush to UBC to do an interview with CITR about the lack of diversity on Vancouver City Council - again, more so than ever before. And despite the fact that we have 8 women elected, which is good but not enough. And then, at 6 o’clock I have to be at the Vancouver Public Library where a book called Women in the Health Movement is being launched and I have an article in there about the abortion caravan which we went across Canada talking about women’s right to choose, and a few of us chained ourselves in the House of Commons to get the attention of the Prime Minister and the government of the day that didn’t even want to meet with us. This is thousands of us gathered in Ottawa to meet the Prime Minister and talk to MPs and only one MP came out to talk to us. So, that was back in ‘71. So I’ve been an organizer and an activist in many social movements over many years.

Jamie-Leigh Gonzales  2:40
I was going to wait a little bit to ask you this, but since you kind of brought it up, what do you think of the new city council in Vancouver?

Ellen Woodsworth  0:06
Women Transforming Cities launched a Hot Pink Paper Campaign in the 2014 election saying that women and girls work for cities, but cities don’t work for women and girls. And we had over 30 cafes in local neighbourhoods, at art galleries, at schools, et cetera, to find out what women felt were the key issues. And what we came up with, the most important thing, was to have a gender-intersectional lens on cities, policies, programs, budgets, funding, staffing, and governance. And so, in 2018, we launched the Hot Pink Paper campaign again with a Hot Pink pathway to a women-friendly city, and invited Diana Day, an Indigenous woman running for School Board; Niki Sharma, who was Chair of the Parks Board and then ran for council and lost; Wai Young, who was the head of a political party running for mayor; Shauna Sylvester, running as an independent; Melissa De Genova, a number of different people from different parties, from different diversities. And talked to them about what it is that they were facing as they were running within their parties and then developed the Hot Pink Paper issues and launched them. And we thought we were gonna really see substantial change in the city because of the 11 key issues, there were 33 asks in combination with each of the 11. They’re all up on our website. We got Kennedy Stewart and Shauna Sylvester and a majority of the parties to endorse a majority of the issues and asking for everything from a safety audit of the entire city that would be developed with the Mayor’s office, and women anti-violence organizations, and then a plan to address violence in the city with a special focus on Indigenous women’s issue in the city.

Ellen Woodsworth  4:49
And then lo and behold at the end, Kennedy Stewart won, which was very good because he endorsed 32 of the 33 issues, and we had 8 out of the 10 councillors were women, but only 1 of the 10 councillors had any kind of diversity and that’s not what we fought for. When I launched Women Transforming Cities at city council, I committed the organization to keep at its core the memory of the murdered and missing women of the Downtown Eastside, and never to forget that. And we don’t have that diversity there. We don’t represent the unceded territory of the people of this land. We don’t represent the diversity of this city, which is 39% of Asian descent. We don’t represent LGBTQ2I, you know, it’s very much a WASP council except for Pete Fry. And you know, the three Indigenous people who ran were well-qualified, there were 4 queer candidates who ran - also well qualified. There were quite a number of people from the Chinese, Asian descent who were qualified, interestingly enough, mostly in the more right wing parties, but they didn’t get elected.

Ellen Woodsworth  6:22
So we are pushing forward with the call for a more gender intersectional lens on the city, on policy, programs, budget, funding - that means funding to women’s organizations, staffing - because if you look at the senior levels of government in the city, it’s not diverse at all. And we’ve been working with the city on some of these issues. And governance - we need electoral reform, we need wards in the city so that people can win without having to be part of a party or without having to have money, and for women that means that we can include our unpaid work and our volunteer work on our CVs or resumes because people in the community will recognize that. You won’t have to have the parties, which themselves can be quite biased and can be run by people of power in this city.

Jamie-Leigh Gonzales  7:16
What was your experience like as a councillor?

Ellen Woodsworth  7:20
Well it was kind of funny. I was working down here and I was working on the women’s memorial marches, I was chair of Bridge Housing, and the year I was elected, we opened the doors of Bridge, which is where the women’s shelter is now. And I’ve been an activist fighting for free trade, I’d been an out lesbian fighting for queer issues since 1970, and one of the women I was working with, Georgina, said ‘you have to, you can.’ And I thought, yeah. You know, when you have privilege, it doesn’t mean that you don’t try to move forward if there’s a possibility you can gain some political power and use it for the people, then you do that. You know, you don’t not do something just because it will give you power. It’s how you use power that’s the critical issue to be addressed. And that you keep using your power for the people, and if you’re not using it for the people, then the people have the right to defeat you. So I did run and I was part of the 2002 sweep with Larry Campbell and a whole bunch of other people. 

Ellen Woodsworth  8:30
So I was out, I’d been out for many years and I was a known lefty. COPE has always been a left-wing party. It’s got a proud tradition in Jean Swanson, Ann Robertson, Derrick O’Keefe ran on a really strong, pro-rent freeze and mansion tax and have continued to hold a strong left-wing position. So I felt comfortable in the party. Once I was elected, it was a different thing. Mostly it was white boys, there were only two women elected, and we were both white. There was one Asian, of Chinese descent on council. If I didn’t say the word ‘lesbian’, nobody would’ve said the word lesbian. So, I said, in the end we have to do something about this as women and so we drew together a wide variety of diverse women politically and socially and developed a gender equality strategy in 2005, the first one in Canada. Then we lost the election! COPE split, Larry Campbell and some of them wanted more power, and they split and we all lost. So for three years, nothing happened with the gender equality strategy. So that was, you know, I learned a lot about politics and I learned that the civic level is a great place for women to get started and that women run for office probably because there are issues that they want to fight, where men usually run as a career move. So it was an interesting thing to see these men who I’d run with, and then they changed a lot.

Jamie-Leigh Gonzales  10:17
Right. And how did that lead to forming the Women Transforming Cities? Or did it?

Ellen Woodsworth  10:28
It did, it did. Because when I got re-elected I was able to… you know one of the things in the gender equality strategy we called for an intersectional lens even then in 2005. And we said we have to focus on the needs of Indigenous women and girls and we said we need a women’s advisory committee that reports to council. So when I got elected, the first thing I did was that I said that we need to set up the women’s advisory committee and we have to set up a queer, LGTBQI - I think we were saying in those days - committee, a multicultural committee, and Vision agreed, and so we did set up those committees reported to Council, and I was the liaison to the queer and women’s committees. So that was the beginning, and I thought what we needed to do was to bring together the women’s movement, academics, unions at the city level, urbanists, and I had the idea of ‘what would designing an ideal city for women and girls look like?’ But then Darlene Marzari, who had been an MLA and a minister for women and municipalities said “Your verb is totally wrong Ellen.” And you know, you listen to her when she speaks because she’s really knowledgeable and fun and outrageous. And so we changed it to Women Transforming Cities and launched it in the Council Chambers in 2011 and haven’t looked back.

Jamie-Leigh Gonzales  11:57
Cool. So what do you think that we could do in Vancouver to actually, like what policies could we implement to make it a safer, more inclusive space for women?

Ellen Woodsworth  12:07
Well I think go on the Women Transforming Cities website and we’ve got the 11 key issues that would make Vancouver a women friendly city. The first thing is that gender intersectional lens. Second, anything that you do, whether it’s climate change or violence or transit or housing, you need to put the gender intersectional lens in it, because women use housing differently, where we do 80% of the housework, so we use the kitchens differently, like often shelves are too high for us and the design of where the fridge and oven doors open differently. Do like what they’re doing in Holland where they bring the workers into the space where they’ll be working, well the same thing is true for housing. If you look at climate change, women in their communities know where the older person is, or where the disabled person is, they do the volunteer work, they know the easiest way to get people in and out of situation, they know where the kids are, they probably don’t drive - 50% of women don’t drive and don’t own cars. So we’re using the cities differently and if you look at an obvious situation, say Fukushima or the Bangledeshi floods, 180,000 people were drowned, 90% were women. And in Fukushima after the nuclear disaster and the flood, they found 1200 women dead in their homes because they were doing house work so they were invisible. So we experience climate change differently, and we’re also are the ones making the decisions around what foods we purchase, whether we buy an energy-efficient stove or fridge, whether the kids walk to work or drive to work, you know these kinds of decisions about the greenest city need to have women at the table who understand women’s paid and unpaid work and how climate change can work, because we don’t have time not to have women at the table.

Jamie-Leigh Gonzales  14:24
So for people who aren’t politicians or aren’t necessarily involved in that world, how can organizers and activists engage with their local government or businesses? It’s sad to say that they are so integral in making these decisions. How can we put pressure on them?

Ellen Woodsworth  14:43
Well I think that it’s a new council, new mayor. The mayor seems to be very open to bridging the divide between the left wing and the right wing parties. All the advisory committees will be re-struck, so there’ll be announcements in the papers or you can go online and get on one of those advisory committees. Women Transforming Cities have our AGM, Niki Sharma will talk about the lack of diversity on council and what do we do about it. We need to be engaged, it’s a year away from the federal election. We’ve seen what happened in the States. If we’re not organized the far-right is clearly on the move in Canada as well. And probably, for sure the most critical thing we need to do right now is vote ‘yes’ to proportional representation. That decision alone will guarantee that at the provincial level, we will see one vote, one person elected. And the proportional votes you get is the proportion of people you get. And that means 8% more women will get elected - more diversity. And Kennedy Stewart has said that before the next municipal election in 4 years time, he will bring a ward system or some kind of a mixed-member party in Vancouver and we need to hold him to that, because Larry Campbell also agreed to that and COPE was committed to that, and then we were totally betrayed on that by a number of people who split off to become Vision. And we must really think and engage politically because whether it’s racism or sexism or homophobia or classicism, we can do something about that if we’re organized. If we’re not organized, if we’re not speaking out, that right-wing development that’s being fed by movements in the States. They’ve funded Bernier’s campaign, funded CAQ into victory in Quebec or Doug Ford’s in Ontario. They’re working here too. We need to vote pro-rep and start mobilizing around the federal election and be on those committees at Vancouver City Council to make sure that policy really represents the true diversity of our city.

Jamie-Leigh Gonzales  17:10
Is there anything else that you want to say?

Ellen Woodsworth  17:12
There’s three things we’re working on right now. One is the Hot Pink Paper, which I’ll get into. The second is we launched the Women Friendly Cities challenge, which is an online library of wise practices based on the Sustainable Development Goals, the New Urban Agenda of the UN Habitat, and CEDAW, the Convention for the Elimination and Discrimination Against Women. So we invite people who have women’s organizations or have developed good women’s policy with an intersectional lens to send us your wise practices because I’m off to India to speak to 28 women about female leadership in resilient cities, but there’s amazing wise practices all over the world and we need to share them with each other. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, there’s some great stuff out there. So it’s worth going to our website. 

Ellen Woodsworth  18:07
The third thing that we’re working on is a three year project with CRIAW, the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women on systemic barriers to women’s participation in local government. So there’s lots of reasons to get in touch with us and work with us. But in terms of the Hot Pink Paper which literally is a hot pink paper with 11 issues and I’ll just quickly go over all of them I’ve referenced for you. But the first is obviously a gender intersectional lens on everything and then putting that on the issues around Indigenous women and girls, affordable housing, childcare, electoral reform, violence against women, the environment, transit, women’s work, pay and income, young women’s civic engagement, immigrant, migrant and refugee women and girls. And each one of these areas we work with people who are the experts in the field. We’re not the experts, we work with people who’ve been in the field working on these issues and then we frame them up in an intersectional framework that’s tied to civic issues and then we take them forward and fight for them. So each one of these issues have a background paper that explains why we chose that issue and what it means and what we want from the electeds. And then we created a report card. We sent out the Hot Pink Paper and backgrounders and took them to each of the parties that were running and asked whether they would support the issues. So they could support them, they could not support them, or they could say what their concerns are about them. So all of that is posted on our website, and that will stay up there for the next four years so that we can hold them accountable. 

Ellen Woodsworth  19:56
So if you want to get involved with any of those three campaigns, we’d love to meet with you or you can email us at We’re looking for fundraisers, we’re looking for people who like to be secretaries. We’re a completely volunteer-run organization, we have one desk in an open space office. We run because we believe in it and we believe in social change that reflects diverse women and girls and we know that we have to fight for it because we’ve gained the strength of the #MeToo movement, #ItsTime, and Black Lives Matter and the Murdered and Missing Women campaign. Our women’s movement is clear and stronger but we’re not well organized and we need to stand together in face of what is brewing as you can see in the States is also brewing here and we need each other to survive it and to make sure that it really represents all of us.

Jamie-Leigh Gonzales  20:54
Anything else you want to add?

Ellen Woodsworth  20:56
It’s neat to be here facing a big banner from the SFU strike and I really hope that this space which is in the core of the Downtown Eastside where so many people of the Downtown Eastside were incarcerated, can really hire those people and create spaces for those people to organize and reflect what’s going on in terms of the opioid crisis or lack of affordable housing, homelessness, racism, et cetera, because this is a space we need to be using as an organizational centre.

Jamie-Leigh Gonzales  21:37
Thank you.

Ellen Woodsworth  21:38
Thank you so much.

[theme music]

Jamie-Leigh Gonzales  21:44
Thanks for listening to Below the Radar. I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Ellen as much as I enjoyed having that conversation. She’s pretty cool. I just wanted to say thanks to David Steele who composes the music for this podcast, and thanks to our producers Melissa Roach, Maria Cecilia Saba, Am Johal, and myself, Jamie-Leigh Gonzales. Tune in next week.

[theme music fades]

Transcript auto-generated by and edited by the Below the Radar team.
November 19, 2018

Stay Up to Date

Get the latest on upcoming events by subscribing to our newsletter below.