How do you change the world?

Lynn Zimmer did it with a note on message board, a lot of hard work, and a sense of hope in human beings and their capabilities

“I’m very practical,” says Lynn Zimmer. “I’d reached the point where I just felt very tired of having to be angry about everything all the time. I was looking for relief from that, so I wanted to do something practical that would make a difference. Not just being the person who was always complaining.”

What she did instead of complaining was to play a leading role in changing how the nation understands and responds to violence against women. Through her work she has called us, as a community, to live up to our principles, to see them enacted in law, and to demonstrate them in person. The impact she has had on individuals, local populations, and the nation in advancing the rights of women has been profound.

Yet, it all began, in a sense, in 1972, with a note she pinned up on a message board at Women’s Place, Toronto, where she was working as a volunteer answering the phones. The note read: “Want to do something for women in distress? If you’re interested in starting a women’s shelter please come to this meeting.”

Ten women showed up and the result was Interval House, Canada’s first shelter for abused women, and also the first shelter of its kind in North America. It opened on April 1, 1972. It quickly became a model of what could be done, as well as how to go about it, from concept, to funding, to staffing. Just fifteen years later, in 1987, there were 264 shelters in centres across the country for women fleeing domestic violence. At the last detailed national count by Statistics Canada, in 2014, there were 627. In that year alone—just one year, 2013/14—those shelters admitted 60,341 women who were at risk.


Lynn Zimmer (centre) with the board of directors of YWCA Peterborough Haliburton. (Photo courtesy of YWCA Peterborough Haliburton)


“… the thing I love about the YWCA …”

Zimmer once commented that, in the earliest days “we didn’t know that violence was such a big deal, we thought of it more simply. We thought, ‘they’re married to jerks and they need to get away. We can help.’” Speaking to her—especially when she says things like that—she’s a kindred spirit, someone who knows the things that we all struggle with and can share in the frustrations that we all share. It’s that quality, perhaps, that has allowed her to be the kind of mentor that she’s been to so many along the way, and ultimately to have the impact that she’s had.

It’s what brought her to a leadership role in the Peterborough YWCA in 1984, one she will retire from later this year. “The thing I love about the YWCA,” she says, “is that it’s an organization that does a huge amount of advocacy, but it’s grounded in the programs and services that we deliver in local organizations. What always informs our advocacy is the experiences of women and what they tell us about their lives.”

She notes that while the YWCA may be relatively small, it has amassed more than a century of institutional memory doing exactly the kind of work that it’s still doing today: helping women to achieve equality in an unequal world. And that’s the work that she’s brought forward in her tenure there. At the last annual general meeting, YWCA board president Neera Jeyabalan said that “during her years as the thoughtful and courageous leader of our YWCA, thousands of women and children fleeing violence and abuse have been given a safe space to find their way towards a better future.”

“… to feel that there is even one other person in the world that wants her to succeed.”

Zimmer readily admits that it’s not easy work. “I do really think that humour and proportion are sometimes what saves us,” she says when asked if it ever feels overwhelming. “The other thing I always say is you can’t do this work without having hope. …  At some level you have to be hopeful about human beings and their capabilities. Because all of the systems—the legal frameworks and the governments— they’re all created by people,” including those that serve only to aggravate or augment the barriers to equity and equality. “And yet it’s the power of people together, having some kind of a shared vision, or shared values, or a shared will, that actually makes change happen.”

For her, it often begins with a conversation. “It’s hard to really understand where the barrier lies” she feels, without really listening to each person’s story, beginning with the assumption that, while there may be similar themes, no two are the same. “So many people assume that the barrier lies within the person. You know, ‘if she were just doing this the right way, she’d get the results she needed.’ When in fact there are layers and layers of barriers that are systemic and that are longstanding and so entrenched that they’re invisible to everyone around her. And sometimes if you’re not the person that’s in that situation, or in her life, then you can see it more clearly because you are not also completely embedded in it. And that helps her see that, ‘oh yes, I am strong, I am doing the right things. It’s just that this situation is impossible.’”

Zimmer suggests an example of a woman, say, in a violent marriage. The violence may be the most immediate and apparent layer, but it’s only one of many that litter the past and that lie in the future. And they all relate. “She met the guy in high school, and her schooling was derailed.  So, she hasn’t got an education. Even if she works she’s going to be paid a minimum wage. She won’t be able to afford child care. So she’s constrained on all fronts. Which leads her to believing that the only thing she can do is remain with her abuser or on social assistance. Because it would take so much for her to accumulate money, and resolve, and the confidence in herself. And to feel that there is even one other person in the world that wants her to succeed.”

There are lots of institutional-type conversations to have, and, to be sure, Zimmer has had all of them over the years. “You can advocate with other organizations in how we do our work together … and with government about their policies, about legal changes that ought to be made, about the way they fund or don’t fund services that women need. It goes up to that big macro level, looking for social change. But it starts there, person to person.”

“we talk a lot about women having choices ”

While finding a safe place in moments of crisis has rightly been the initial thrust of much of the work over the last four decades, Zimmer has turned her attention to the next: building programs that will help women find their paths to the future. In her words, to be able to offer “a period of security to do the hard work on making those transformations” toward independence and stability.

That’s the nut of Homeward Bound, a recent initiative. It’s about moving out of shelter—out of the Interval Houses and Crossroads of the world—into independent housing; gaining a facility with goal setting, financial literacy, college preparation and academic readiness; being supported through career counselling and affordable childcare. “Hopefully, at the end of four years,” says Zimmer, which is the term of participation in Homeward Bound, “they’re launched into housing, a job that’s going to support their family, and they’re on their way to economic security.”

So far, that’s exactly what it’s doing. The first group of four women have completed their first year of academics, and are now into their second year. “They’re all doing really well,” says Zimmer. Another eight women were admitted into the program and, this past September, started their first year of college programs. They are able to follow their interests, though “we’re encouraging women to look at skilled trades and technology. We see that as the field that will really guarantee them a good wage.”

“We talk a lot about women having choices,” she says, “but sometimes there really are no reasonable choices she can make. The range of choices is very, very constrained.” Zimmer has crafted Homeward Bound as a means of creating those kinds of real options, and of opening up a greater array of choices. Like Interval House, it will also become a touchstone for the kind of work that can be done, and and inspiration to others to take it up. To help grow and sustain Homeward Bound and like initiatives, a fund has been created which will be managed through partnership with the YWCA Community Foundation.

The impetus for that fund was to honour Zimmer’s leadership while helping realize some of her current goals. While Zimmer is retiring, she’s also moving into this next phase of the work that she’s done all her life. To listen, to mentor, to demonstrate. To change the world.

Through Zimmer’s leadership, the YWCA has been developing community development programs to help women living on low incomes to access support with dignity and community belonging.  They include:

START (Support Team for Abuse Response Today)
A one-day-per-week violence against women service hub. A woman who has experienced abuse can drop in, without knowing what help she needs or who does it, complete an intake interview, and then be connected in person to several different service providers.

YWCA Women’s Centre,  Minden
Outreach and transition support, longer term counselling and a unique rural shelter model.

Family Court Support
Free, confidential court support to women who are making their way through Family Court and are living in, are leaving, or have left an abusive situation:

Transition Support
Free, confidential support to women who are fleeing abuse or are concerned about the health of their relationship.

Crossroads Shelter
24-hour emergency shelter, meals and support for women and children fleeing abuse of any kind—physical, emotional, sexual or financial—365 days a year.

Nourish – Belonging Through Food
Dignified access to food, gardening and cooking skills along with programming designed to empower individuals to advocate for themselves and others and grow a just food system for all.

HERS – Haliburton Emergency Rural SafeSpace
Independent living units for women and children fleeing abuse

Centennial Crescent Housing
Second-stage housing for women-led families impacted by abuse

Homeward Bound Peterborough
An innovative wrap-around service helping inadequately-housed or homeless mother-led families earn college diplomas, start careers and achieve economic self-sufficiency.


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