Enhancing Both Empathy and Equity

Women’s Centre of Calgary recruits more than 500 volunteers with new EDI training program
Nov 14, 2023 11:50 AM ET
Three people holding signs with the words "Community, Connection, and Support" on them.

Over the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Women’s Centre of Calgary lost 69% of its volunteers. Many in this group needed to prioritize caregiving in their household, and the number of available volunteers dropped from 800 to 250.

The not-for-profit based in Calgary, AB relies on volunteers to support more than 7,000 women in need every year. From 9:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. every day, they serve as first point of contact, delivering frontline services in person and over the phone to connect women facing housing challenges and food insecurity with assistance and service providers, including counsellors.

At the same time, the number of women needing help was growing, explains Bo Masterson, WCC’s executive director. And the issues they needed help with were becoming increasingly complex.

“Women were disproportionately affected (during the pandemic),” she says. “They experienced layering of issues—on top of social anxiety or mental health issues, we saw increased instances of domestic violence. We were also seeing increased diversity (among women needing our services).”

As WCC set out to rebuild its volunteer base, the team decided to revamp its volunteer training program.

“We realized our volunteer training just wasn’t sufficient in preparing our volunteers for what women were presenting with,” Masterson says.

“We wanted (our volunteers) to understand what unconscious bias looks like,” she continues, noting approximately 80% of the 7,300 women WCC supported in 2021 belonged to one or more marginalized BIPOC (Black, Indigenous or People of Colour) groups.

“We wanted them to understand how to support people with certain lived experiences or backgrounds in a trauma-informed way,” she adds.

Enbridge provided WCC with a Fueling Futures grant of $10,000 to work with curriculum-development specialists to design the training, which focuses on helping volunteers challenge their unconscious bias, learn about anti-racism, equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) and Truth and Reconciliation, and better serve equity-deserving groups (primarily Indigenous, Black, and racialized women).

Each of the three modules is two hours long and includes experiential learning to help volunteers practice deescalating situations with role-play.

The training quickly achieved what Masterson hoped it would—it helped volunteers deliver more sensitive, trauma-informed care when supporting women of diverse backgrounds.

Within 10 months, WCC volunteer numbers were restored to 750—just shy of the centre’s goal of 800.

Now, Masterson says, volunteers are reporting a more positive experience and say they’re better equipped to support women with kindness, understanding, and empathy.

With the new training program, women are “better supported in our centre,” Masterson says. “We’re building skills our volunteers can take outside the centre, too, to see each other as human, not as their specific experience or their ethnicity or their race.”