Nneka MacGregor : “Do good, because it’s the good thing to do”

My mother’s dying words to me were ‘’ Do good, because it’s the good thing to do’’. I tell my own children, as well as my nieces and nephews the same thing — all the time! They have the power and the capacity to do good, and those good acts not only benefit others, but they actually […]

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My mother’s dying words to me were ‘’ Do good, because it’s the good thing to do’’. I tell my own children, as well as my nieces and nephews the same thing — all the time! They have the power and the capacity to do good, and those good acts not only benefit others, but they actually have transformative and positive impacts on the do-er. So, do good, not for any awards, or accolades, but simply because it the good and right thing to do.

As part of my series about people who stepped up to make a difference during the COVID19 Pandemic I had the pleasure of interviewing Nneka MacGregor.

Nneka MacGregor is a powerful feminist who is paving the way for change. She is the co-founder and Executive Director of the Women’s Centre for Social Justice, better known as WomenatthecentrE, a unique non-profit organization created by and for women survivors of gender-based violence globally. She is also co-host of the engaging podcast — ‘What’s Your Safe Word?’

Nneka is an advocate who works with governments, organizations and individuals to transform lives and build violence-free communities. In 2006, she was selected by the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario as one of 13 experts tasked to review the range of services provided to women and children in the province, identify gaps and make recommendations. In June, 2016, she was appointed by the Canadian government to the Advisory Council on the Federal Strategy Against Gender-Based Violence. An international speaker and trainer, she has developed and facilitated training to various sectors, and was one of the 12 Canadian women delegates appointed to the UNCSW63.

Nneka sits on a number of Advisory Boards and Committees, including the Family Law Committee of the Board of Legal Aid Ontario. She recently became a member of the Domestic Violence Death Review Committee, at the Ontario Ministry of the Solicitor General. Her research focus is on sexual violence and on the intersection of strangulation, Traumatic Brain Injury and Inter-Personal Violence, and was a recipient of the 2019 PINK Concussions Awards. She is also the recipient of the YWCA Women of Distinction 2020 award for Social Justice.

An entrepreneur with almost three decades of business experience, Nneka continues to support organisations develop their strategy, people, culture and community, with a focus on nurturing women’s leadership in business.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

I am the fourth of five children, with older twin sisters, and older brother and a younger brother. Growing up in London, England in the late 1960’s, ‘70’s and ’80 was not easy, especially when my mother died when I was 12 years old. But I had a wonderful Dad who looking back, was the first feminist in my life. He told my siblings and I repeatedly that we could do anything, and to not let racists and misogynists tell us otherwise. As one of the very few (read: four) Black girls in my grammar school in Wimbledon, South London, it was definitely challenging to rise above the racism from teachers, but because of the advocacy I witnessed my Dad engaged in for us, I guess it was inevitable that I would end up speaking up and speaking out against injustice. I specifically recall the Head of the school telling me that I should not bother applying to university to read law, but should rather look into a career as a legal secretary. My Dad soon set her straight! After obtaining my law degree, I co-founded my first company, and over the next few years, had two wonderful children, emigrated to Canada, co-founded another very successful company, had my youngest, all the while living in an abusive marriage.

I got involved in the violence against women sector as a result of my experiences of navigating that very difficult relationship, and the subsequent trauma added by the various systems: family courts — for the divorce, custody, access, equalisation of assets, the criminal courts — after he was arrested for assaulting me and our eldest, as well as the civil courts, fighting for my share of the company we had built together. And as they say — the rest is history.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I absolutely love the Winnie The Pooh books by A. A. Milne. I used to read them to my first-born, and we would make up melodies to the poems. By the time my youngest was born, I would use the characters as a metaphor for true friendship, and for the importance of loving and celebrating the diversity and difference of people in our communities.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

“My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you. But for every real word spoken, for every attempt I had ever made to speak those truths for which I am still seeking, I had made contact with other women while we examined the words to fit a world in which we all believed, bridging our differences.” — Audre Lorde

I came across Audre Lorde’s work when I was auditing a Gender Studies class at York University, Ontario. I had already started engaging in advocacy and public speaking around eradicating gender-based violence and had been asked to speak at to a group of women survivors about how I got involved in the work. I recall thinking about all the reasons why I had stayed silent all those years and confronted the role fear had played — fear of further angering my ex, fear of not being believed, as well as fear of being blamed. Shame was also delicately interwoven in all that, and it effectively kept me silent, enduring and still with no way out.

Breaking the silence was for me a profoundly life-altering act of courage. The quote resonated so much, because it speaks to how so many survivors suffer in silence. But that silence is not a safe refuge; in fact it is a weapon in the armory of our abusers. I found that every time I spoke, other women survivors would come forward and disclose, some for the first time, that they too were survivors. My speaking then became a weapon in my armory, used to raise awareness and advocate for societal and systems’ change.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. You are currently leading a social impact organization that has stepped up during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to address?

Since the pandemic started, we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of calls to the organisation from women who are reporting a higher level of violence from their partners. COVID-19 is a new global pandemic that has met an old global pandemic of domestic violence and women and children are at greater risk of harm.

My team and I have been working round the clock, with no additional funding, to ensure that we can support women with our peer-based COVID-19 Crisis Response & Safety Planning tips. Being able to speak to other survivors who understand what they are going through has proven in the words of a woman I spoke with on Saturday, ‘a life-saver’. We therefore continue to do what we can, with the limited resources at our disposal, so that women at risk have an escape plan, should things at home escalate.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. We just don’t get up and do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

For me, it was having to self-represent in family court, because I ran out of money for my very expensive lawyers, who still had no clue about the legal bullying and power & control and manipulative tactics abusers deploy to win every advantage. Even though I had a legal background, it was such a traumatic experience for me. I realized that if it was that hard for me, imagine how much worse it would be for other women, especially for those for whom English was not their first language, or who had no family supports. Furthermore, my dad used to say to me — ‘’Have you finished crying? OK, the do something about it.’’ So I did.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

My Dad and my three children, who I call my 3 Wishes. They have been my biggest supporters and tell me all the time how proud they are of me and what I am doing

Are there three things that the community can do to help you in your great work?

  1. Get involved
  2. Donate to us or another organisation working with women and their children fleeing abuse
  3. Educate themselves on the issue and on healthy ways to support survivors they may know, as well as holding abusers accountable, not dismissing those behaviors

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Funding for this important and impactful work is scarce and competition for funding is fierce. We’ve recently been working on a lot of joint partnerships, like for our most recent research project funded by Canada’s federal government, focused on alternative methods of justice for sexual violence.
  2. Not all individuals and organisations who call themselves feminists, are. Some are actually as harmful to survivors as the abusers we left. So developing your own network of like-minded allies and ‘accomplices’ is of utmost importance. In my journey as a survivor-turned-advocate, I’ve had to experience many naysayers who didn’t want to recognize the voice of survivors as the true experts in this area.
  3. Allies can come from the most uncommon areas, so be open and embrace opportunities and folks whose visions align with yours even if they’re from different sectors. We’ve found amazing allies across different demographics, including from men’s groups like White Ribbon Canada.
  4. Saying ‘No’ is not a bad thing, but is actually a form of self-care, so be very selective and thoughtful about the opportunities you accept. I’ve been practicing this more and more recently, and my sanity is proof that it works!

From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious during this tumultuous time? Can you explain?

  1. Check-in regularly with them. We need to be active in our outreach, because oftentimes simply having someone genuinely start a dialogue can lead to a survivor feeling comfortable to disclose her situation.
  2. Be present in your conversation, such that when you ask — ‘How are you doing?’’, you’re actually listening to their answer.
  3. Don’t call them with an agenda and pre-set questions; rather, be open to where the conversation will lead.
  4. Don’t be judgmental, or act as though you have the answers. Everyone’s stories and paths are different, and during this time of coronanvirus we are seeing an huge increase in domestic violence. Having an open mind and heart can only be a positive when speaking to a woman who is potentially suffering in silence.
  5. Make sure to practice your own self-care. Just as the safety announcement on flights (remember those??) would state that you had to place the mask over your face first, you must take care of your own mental health and well-being. Otherwise, you will not be in any state to support anyone else!

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

My mother’s dying words to me were ‘’ Do good, because it’s the good thing to do’’. I tell my own children, as well as my nieces and nephews the same thing — all the time! They have the power and the capacity to do good, and those good acts not only benefit others, but they actually have transformative and positive impacts on the do-er. So, do good, not for any awards, or accolades, but simply because it the good and right thing to do.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

That’s ironic and true, because that is precisely what I did — start a movement which centres the expertise, strength and resourcefulness of women and women-identified survivors of male perpetrated violence. My organisation is reframing the negative narrative around what it means to be a survivor. Members of our organisation are using the lessons learned from the trauma, to educate and provide better solutions around violence prevention, policy reform and public awareness. So the idea that would bring the most amount of good would be for society to value and prize survivors’ experiences and declarations above all else when looking at ways to eradicate violence against women.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand! She is a phenomenal example of true leadership in action. The way she has supported the citizens, even before the COVID-19 outbreak was inspirational. She is my 2020 GirlCrush😊

How can our readers follow you online?

What’s Your Safe Word? Podcast: anchor.fm/wysw

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/nneka-macgregor-b9317012a/

Personal Twitter: twitter.com/nnekamacgregor

Organisation’s Twitter: twitter.com/WomenatthecentrE

Facebook: facebook.com/WomenatthecentrE

Instagram: instagram.com/WomenatthecentrE

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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