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Whanganui Midweek - 2021-06-09

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Adversity fortified character

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WITH CARLA DONSON

This week marks a pretty special coming of age for me as I celebrate 18 years at the hub of the Women’s Network wheel. As I cast my mind back to 2003 as an early- thirties-something, I could never have imagined the journey that would unfold. People often ask me how I got into this work. Well, it was purely serendipitous and completely unplanned. I had no aspirations to be in the community sector running a women’s organisation. My background was in education and youth development. I had recently returned home after several years in Wellington, where I had started a masters in education at Victoria University following an undergraduate arts degree in social policy and bicultural education. The lure back to Whanganui came in the form of an education management job, something I had been dreaming about after realising how vital leadership was to change management in the sector. First day on the job and it all began to unravel. Staff began confiding in me, and what they were telling me wasn’t good. I set about putting some of my skills into action but this was met firmly by the unwelcome mat. After a series of unfortunate events, I found myself facing the first of what would be two rounds of workplace harassment. It was a challenging row to hoe, and it was the making of me in so many ways. Times of adversity really do call for strength of character. Sometimes this looks like stark vulnerability, and it can feel incredibly raw. I did “raw” and “roar” in equal measure. I wondered why on earth I had returned home, and I had to dig deep, as you do when you’re really cultivating. At times it felt like I was digging myself into a deeper hole, and other times it felt like I was barely scratching the dirty surface of my reality. Following the series of unfortunate events came the moments of serendipity and I found myself applying for a job I knew little about. Days after submitting my CV an interview date was set with the collective of the then Women’s Centre. It was a round-table discussion at an oblong table with straight-backed chairs and a lot of straight talking. I was offered the position with an immediate start. I said yes, drew a very deep breath, and the rest, as “they say”, is history (or in this case, herstory). Being centred in a place that has its roots in the feminist activism of Aotearoa is a remarkable thing. The Ladies’ Rest Building has been the home of the Women’s Network for 35 years and it is an extraordinary place in which to work. The history of this iconic Whanganui heritage building is in itself fascinating. The first of its kind in the country, the Ladies’ Rest has sat proudly next to the Royal Whanganui Opera House for just over 90 years. It has been a space and place in which women have gathered as they came into town to work, shop, parent and play. Designed to house the resident custodian – the last of whom was in residence until around 1985 – the Ladies’ Rest is at its heart a home. The women of the day fought hard for it, just as they had during the suffrage movement. This legacy is significant to everything that we continue to champion as the road towards addressing gender inequity remains far from smooth. To all the women who have paved the paths before me, thank you. To all the brave men who have waved the flag alongside them, worn a white camellia in their lapels, and who continue to say, “we must do better”, thank you. To every single woman and visitor to the Ladies’ Rest, whether it be over the past 18 years or the past 90, thank you. Your conversations, your questions, your challenges, and your lived experiences have enriched my understanding immensely. To my colleagues across the community sector, special thanks to all of you for everything that you do to enhance the lives of the people and whanau who call this place home. The past two decades of my life have been a profoundly transformative time, and there is still so much to learn, and to do, together. For now, the next project I’m working on is our sixth annual Winter Wonderfest set to run from July 19-31. Some wonderful women have put their hands up to share their skills, and to entertain you. More on that soon! Look out for the launch of our feminist club coming up too. I reckon that’s a pretty fine way to celebrate 18 years doing the best job of my life.

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