By Clare Cameron
At first glance, it might be tempting to picture the culture of leadership in Niagara as a landscape of old white guys and their chummy protégés. Visit any one of our local municipalities and look at the photographs of former mayors, chairs and councilors for evidence of a particular homogeneity among political leaders, despite the unusually high number of elected offices that exist per capita in this region. Many communities show similar trends in their own histories, and the process of challenging traditional expectations of what it means to lead, and what our leaders should look like, is far from resolved.
Thankfully, meaningful leadership exists in many realms beyond the world of politics, and the breadth of ‘leadership’ as a concept is at the heart of this year’s Niagara Leadership Summit for Women.
Hosted by the YWCA Niagara Region, the Summit is now in its third year as a community event. Elisabeth Zimmermann, Executive Director of the YW, describes the Summit as “a forum to celebrate women’s leadership and discover ways to empower women and girls to reach their full potential.”
Through each of its previous incarnations, the Summit has offered a multifaceted view of what it means to lead by programming female musicians, educators and spoken word artists alongside MBAs, media personalities and entrepreneurs. The resulting portrait of leadership as a variable activity has offered a significant challenge to traditional notions of power and influence in our local communities.
This year’s sessions are focused on the theme of Innovating Leadership, and planning committee member Arushana Sunderaeson believes that this means exploring how to achieve change, improve on existing ideas, and really listen to people in order to meet their needs. As Chair of the Summit’s planning committee, Julie Rorison also views innovation as fundamental to what women leaders instinctively do: “we can see the room for change or growth and we make it happen; we are fundamentally transforming and changing what leadership means and looks like, to make it possible for women to recognize their innate leadership qualities and experiences.”
Sunderaeson is particularly hopeful that young people will attend the Summit and represent the next generation of female leaders in Niagara. Partnerships with Brock University and the student population have been vital for the planning committee since 2014, and this year’s Summit is the first to feature a speaker under the age of 19. The upcoming program also features a keynote address by Brock University Chancellor Shirley Cheechoo, an award winning artist, actor and filmmaker, and the first Indigenous University Chancellor in Canada.
The Niagara Leadership Summit for Women describes itself as an open and inclusive event where “everyone, regardless of gender, should have the courage and confidence to be the leader they are and want to be.” Along these lines the speaking roster includes Greg Miller, who will present on fatherhood and feminism, and also features a session on masculinity in the 21st century.
At the same time, Rorison makes it clear that the “for Women” in the Summit’s title is intentional and specific: “this event…is about women’s leadership and women’s issues. Keeping that in the title is important to create the dedicated time and space to discuss women’s leadership and celebrate women as leaders in our community.” Female participants are encouraged to attend the Summit with every aspect of their lives in mind, and not limit perceptions of their own leadership activities exclusively to the professional realm. “Women are much more than our professional titles or what we ‘do’ from 9 to 5,” says Rorison, “and it is important to recognize our leadership skills in everyday life as a woman at home or at work, with family, friends, and in the community.”
This year’s Summit is taking place at a particularly interesting time for women who are witnessing the first-ever US presidential campaign to include a female nominee, observing the ups and downs of a self-proclaimed feminist Prime Minister in Canada, and following the long-awaited initiation of a national inquiry on missing and murdered indigenous women. Program heads at the CBC are trying to determine if Canadians are ready to see the National anchored by a non-white, non-male, non-father figure, and confrontations of rape culture continue from university campuses to the Federal judicial system. Within this context, Rorison regards the Summit as “a safe space to discuss these types of issues, create opportunities for resolution, foster new ideas and new approaches to respond, educate, and make positive change.”
In Rorison’s view, Niagara is at a critical point where truly transformational change is possible within our communities, and in order to realize this potential “we need to retain our youth, recognize acts of leadership, and celebrate our diversity to continue to build on that positive momentum.” The Summit is therefore an opportunity for participants to think about their own surrounding communities, what challenges they and others face, and how to truly improve the lives of girls and women in all twelve of our local municipalities.
Take a closer look at the culture of leadership in Niagara and you may be surprised by that second glance. Niagara has an impressive history of female leadership to draw upon, and the local arts and culture scene has a major role to play in sharing and interpreting these lesser-known stories. Examples of innovating leadership might include Elizabeth Posthuma Simcoe, Harriet Tubman, Laura Sabia, Lillian Phelps, Estelle Cuffe Hawley and many more women from our not-so-distant past. The St. Catharines Museum’s current exhibit on Pioneering Women of St. Catharines demonstrates how our local cultural institutions can showcase women’s leadership and communicate that it is not a new phenomenon in our communities.
By inspiring participants to feel full of confidence in their own unique abilities to lead, the Summit’s planning committee hopes to move women’s leadership in Niagara even further forward.
The Niagara Leadership Summit for Women takes place at Brock University on Saturday, October 22.