Shaped and nurtured by her experiences, struggles and perseverance, the new CEO of YWCA Canada, Aline Nizigama gets candid during her informal interview about work, life and her vision for the Movement.
Q: What is your goal as the new CEO of YWCA Canada?
A: As the new CEO of YWCA Canada, my goal is to co-create a strong national office, a space where people want to work. I hope to help streamline our voice and unify our affiliates, maintain a leadership role in gender equality and issues that affect women and gender diverse people, and serve our member associations in a way that helps them advance towards excellence. I also aim to bring a lived experience perspective to my work and prioritize issues such as anti-racism, reconciliation, liberation, and bridging the Francophone-Anglophone worlds.
Q: How do you plan to bridge the gap between the internal and external world of YWCA Canada?
A: As the CEO, I plan to be the bridge and connecting piece that strengthens the existing ties and amplifies the work happening, along with issues that may also have been put on the back burner due to capacity or other challenges. I also plan to bring resources and support to the informed advocacy work, particularly in Francophone communities, by understanding the unique position that Quebec is in, francophone minorities in other parts of the country, and the general history of Canadian federalism regarding official languages. I also hope to get to work on some international cooperation and solidarity initiatives, truly espousing the fact that we are part of a global Movement.
Q: You were part of the national office team from 2013 to 2016. How do you feel about returning to YWCA Canada? What will be your first steps as the new CEO?
A: Returning to YWCA Canada is a beautiful homecoming for me, and I feel excited to bring my accumulated experience, passion for the cause, and expertise to this role. My first steps as CEO will be about strengthening the national team, which will involve building relationships with staff, board members, and member associations, listening to their needs and concerns, and co-creating a new strategic plan for the future of YWCA Canada. I also endeavour to prioritize capacity building and putting resources around reconciliation, justice and equity to support member associations in their local work and foster ongoing consultation and engagement throughout the process.
Q: In your opinion, what are some of the changes that have occurred in regard to services and housing for women over the past few years?
A: One of the most significant changes that we have seen in the past year is the deepening levels of poverty and inequality. The core housing needs have worsened, with the mass layoffs happening, which signals that affordable housing, economic development and supports are needed. Additionally, the pandemic has intensified the need for mental health services and supportive housing. Gender-based violence has also deepened, and we have seen statistics go up in this area as people were enclosed and confined, potentially with abusers.
The intensification of needs has stalled progressive movement towards meaningful Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. While there was huge momentum towards these ideals a couple years ago, we have also seen that whenever you have strong social justice movements, there is always backlash. These changes highlight the need for vigilance and continued advocacy to secure sustainable wins that will stay for generations to come.
Q: As a CEO, how do you compartmentalize work and personal life, especially when dealing with systemic issues?
A: It can be daunting to navigate systemic issues as a leader, especially as a Black woman. It helps to remember that these are systemic issues that require systemic solutions. This means forming partnerships and coalitions to address the root causes, rather than simply talking to a group of people or only treating symptoms. It involves being open to holding hands with allies to continue the work.
It’s important to be strong enough to talk about issues that may be triggering, but it’s also important to give oneself grace and take a moment to exit the room and recollect one’s thoughts if necessary. Having a circle of care, such as a group of people to bounce ideas off of or receive mentorship and support from, can be incredibly helpful.
I also credit my mother for preparing me well for the role and being a comforting presence in my life. As the new CEO of YWCA Canada, I want to contribute to making the world a better place for the next generations by using my lived experiences to bring about trauma-informed change.
Q: You’ve mentioned your mother being your role model. Can you tell us more about her journey and how it has impacted you?
A: Of course! My mother started her business in the early 80s in Burundi, which was a time when no woman could easily start a business, especially selling beverages. She faced numerous barriers and despite not having too great an education, she was successful and became a model for other women who followed in her footsteps. She also helped her community during the 12-year civil war in Burundi by providing food and shelter to those in need. At some point, we even had a refugee camp in our own home and backyard for a period of time. She inspires me every day and has supported us, especially in gaining higher education. Her biggest advocacy point is to encourage and help others to receive an education. Giving back to the community was another lesson I got from her, so it is something that has characterized my trajectory.
Q: Can you share something interesting about yourself that people may not know?
A: Creativity has always been a part of my life, and expressing myself through art is something that brings me great joy. I have always been fascinated by graphic novels, and French graphic novels in particular have always caught my attention. I have been drawing for as long as I can remember, and it is something that comes naturally to me. I have a few paintings at home that I’ve done over the course of my life. One of my long-term goals is to write a children’s book that tells my mother’s stories and illustrate it myself.
Dancing is another way to express my creativity and connect with my culture. There is something so liberating about moving your body to music and feeling the rhythm of the beat. I’m a pretty good dancer, and it’s also something that helps me navigate stressful times.
Overall, creativity is an essential part of who I am, and I try to incorporate it into everything I do, including my work. I believe that it’s important to make space for joy and playfulness in our lives, and I hope to inspire others to do the same.