Avalon Sexual Assault centre is underfunded, overwhelmed and stalled on best steps forward

Conflict between front-line staff and board members has led to a call for unionizing

Avalon Sexual Assault centre is underfunded, overwhelmed and stalled on best steps forward
Meghan Tansey Whitton

There's not much the board and staff at Avalon Sexual Assault Centre agree on these days.

Tension has built since last fall, and came to a public head this spring, with a union certification vote and closure of the organization's wait list—a list that had survivors of sexualized violence waiting up to two years for the free trauma-counselling services Avalon provides.

That closure springs out of what might be one of the only things the board and staff can agree on: the way Avalon has been working hasn't been working.

Demand for Avalon's services swelled in 2013 when Rehtaeh Parsons died of suicide, and it has never abated, as #metoo continues to draw forth sexual violence survivors ready to talk about their trauma. Statistics Canada reported that Nova Scotia saw a 15 percent increase in reports to police of sexual assault after #metoo went viral. Public funding hasn't kept pace with demand, so chronically overworked staff operate in a funding-scarcity model. Add what staff call a "misalignment of values" with the board, and you arrive here: The closed wait list; workers who have recruited a slate of replacement board members while trying to unionize; a board focused on reforming out-of-date bylaws. All while its interim board chair says it tries to empower staff and the executive director (Jackie Stevens, who declined an interview request).

Non-profit work is difficult and underpaid, so it's vital staff are respected, says Ardath Whynacht. A professor, veteran frontline non-profit worker and board member, she's been recruited to Avalon's replacement board. "Had staff been adequately resourced by the province, and had they been respected and understood by the current board, they wouldn't have had to unionize in the first place," she says.

Indeed, those who work at Avalon say they don't feel respected or empowered at all. Sarah Kasupski, Avalon's fund developer, describes it as "moral injury. Your expectations of morals and ethics are transgressed. It's our feeling the current board has transgressed those morals in a way that makes it hard to go to work every day."

Adrienne Buckland agrees. She’s a trauma counsellor at Avalon which is difficult work, she says, made more difficult by the breakdown in communication and trust between the board and staff. “We all know what it's like to come up against structures like the court system and the medical system,” she says, social service systems that are underfunded just like Avalon, but not trauma-informed the way Avalon is. “It's hard to encounter barriers outside when you're trying to advocate for your clients, and it's really hurtful when your board is replicating those systems within the organization.”

AB Graff, who was the acting chair until August 20, says the board wants nothing more than to leave day-to-day operations to those who know it best—Avalon staff and Stevens. Past boards have been interventionist, with members doing work that should have been done by staff. Graff says the current board—many of whom will likely not re-offer at the AGM (annual general meeting) in September—is shifting to governance, policy and procedures. "It's change," she says, "and I don't think people like a lot of change."

She and her colleagues don't know why staff aren't feeling empowered. "We think we're good communicators," she says. "Some of it is trust. Do you trust someone who's telling you they're giving you all the authority you need to do your work?"

But something is muddled in the space between what Graff says the board wants, and what Avalon's staff experience. Avalon employs a feminist, relational way of working—with clients and each other. "Meeting someone where they're at, with honest, genuine communication, building trust, empowerment, equality in relations. That's what we want in how we work with those who govern this organization," Kasupski says, but both she and Buckland describe a board slow to respond, uncommunicative and unsupportive of staff's needs. Avalon's six counsellors and about as many support staff want the current board members to step aside at the AGM to make way for the support board. Staff believe those candidates will work in Avalon's feminist, relational, trauma-informed way.

Graff says that while board members are feminists who want staff to work in whatever way works for them, the board needs to concentrate on bylaws and its fiduciary duty. "Retrenching to governance is an attempt to be more relational—the mixing isn't relational, it's confused."

Graff says relational working can be slow. She describes an executive director "needing to ensure that every board member at every meeting understands every decision and shares that view and it's not merely consensus, it's unanimity, and all of those things have slowed down decision-making." Graff adds, "Because you either have responsibility and authority operationally or you don't, and if you don't, I've just infantilized you. And why do I need to infantilize you? You're perfectly competent people who actually know your job, why are you asking me to make a decision on that?"

Yet, Kasupski and Buckland say—and Graff confirms—the board is often involved in operations, notably when staff asked for two weeks in November 2018 to restructure.

"The ED did ask the board to comment on a two-week closure," Graff says. "There was no plan for those two weeks, other than a closure." So the board denied the request.

But Kasupski and Buckland say there was a detailed plan built by a staff committee and presented to the board—and it wasn't for a closure at all. "The board consistently referred to the two-week request as a shutdown of the centre when in fact [sexual assault nurses], professional training, public awareness, information and initial support, fund development and communications were all going to be up and running," while different staff groups met to talk about structural issues like how to avoid a looming waitlist closure, Kasupski says.

Disheartened and frustrated, staff began to unionize. They voted in mid-March, but the result is pending. The Nova Scotia Labour Board, Graff says, needs to decide whether to include the vote of a contractor who is no longer with Avalon before the votes can be tallied.

"To spend what must be a tremendous amount of money fighting a union when the wait list is closed to new clients, I think that's outrageous," says Whynacht. “Had staff been adequately resourced by the province, and had they been respected and understood by the current board, they wouldn't have had to unionize in the first place.”

Meanwhile Graff rejects the notion the board is fighting unionization. She says the board is seeking a facilitator who can help with restructuring, but it's complicated to talk about because it might look like the board is trying to union-bust, "and we are very conscious that we are not trying to do that. Most of us come from unionized positions and understand the value of unionized workplaces."

"If Avalon had a 25-year history of being dysfunctional, I would say the board is not the problem," says Whynacht, "but in this case, where the organization has worked well for a long time, I would strongly urge the current directors of the organization to consider what they can contribute at this point."

Graff says the organization is always looking for new board members, and anyone who’s interested should apply through Avalon’s website, and be interviewed by the head of the board’s recruitment committee. 

Whynacht plans to apply.

Setting aside questions of whether the board is working in a feminist, relational way (Graff says they are, Buckland and Kasupski and other staff dispute this), whether unionization is the right move (Buckland and Kasupski say staff had no choice, Graff says unions are often hierarchical and patriarchal), and whether the right people are at the table (Graff won't comment, Buckland and Kasupski say the current board is not serving the organization) everyone involved agrees on two additional things: The work Avalon is doing is vital, and it is woefully underfunded.

Bucckland points to a scarcity mindset that affects many in the social services. “People get used to a mentality of not asking for more.” She notes that Avalon itself is in need of more resources, and the community in general needs increased services for sexualized violence survivors. A dichotomy can develop, she says. “One part maybe knows we're deserving and we need this, and another part is saying we have to be good and not ask for too much.”

To Whynacht, this is rape culture. “When we're not taking the healing of rape victims seriously, we're not taking the violence that's done against them seriously. It's fine for the provincial government to say they're invested in a provincial sexual violence strategy they're investing in preventing sexual violence and in helping folks heal from it. I think that has to be followed up with real dollars and if those dollars are being controlled by largely unqualified volunteers and the folks who are actually experts in doing this work are being devalued—not being compensated fairly, not allowed to organize—to me that seems like it's facilitating rape culture more than its actually transforming our communities.”

And for now, the only sexual assault centre in the city—one of only four in the entire province—is not taking new clients.

The Avalon annual general meeting is September 26 at the Halifax Central Library. Time and details are still to be worked out, says board chair Lee-Ann Conrod, but it will be held in the evening.

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