Social worker, activist and author Wanda MacNevin congratulated graduands of the fifth Spring Convocation ceremony on June 20 for their achievement – one, she said, that took her 41 years.
MacNevin was recognized with an honorary doctor of laws degree by York University during the ceremony, and she shared in the excitement of graduating with hundreds of students from the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies.
For over 40 years, MacNevin has been a leader, activist and author in the Jane-Finch community and has built crucial collaborations with York University. Her career in social work was nurtured by York’s Bridging Program for Women, and she was a founding member of the Jane/Finch Community and Family Centre in 1976.
She has been a strong and consistent force of change in the community, which has earned her several distinctions, including the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal.
MacNevin candidly told graduands that she’s not “used to speaking to such a large and highly educated audience,” and offered to share a story – which is what she does in her job, when speaking with residents and community members, business and government officials, she said.
“What’s scary for someone like me, someone with less education, is trying to inspire you, people with many more years of education,” she said. “So I’m just going to start by telling you a story.”
She shared a story about a young single mother of three, who had survived a bad marriage, was living in government housing and receiving social assistance. With little education, her opportunities seemed limited.
However, along came a Children’s Aid Society worker who saw something in the young mother, and encouraged her to get involved in her community. She started by volunteering to plan outings with similar families, then become a child minder for a local group and then joined the founding board of directors of the new Jane/Finch Centre.
The young mother developed enough skills to be hired as the first staff person of the centre and, over the years, became a program coordinator, took on leadership in other organizations and eventually became the centre’s director of Community Programs.
“In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I was that young woman,” said MacNevin. “Over the years, I have come to understand that nobody succeeds in life without other people. My success, like yours, is connected to others. Mine was fuelled by support from family, friends, colleagues and mentors – people who believed in me.”
Everyone, she said, can contribute to society, and most often, we are strengthened in doing so through working with others. Many opportunities will present themselves to today’s graduates – and at a time when there are significant challenges to society.
“All hands are needed on deck to improve the communities where we live or work, to improve our cities, to improve our country,” she said. “In so doing, we can improve our own lives. I believe that people working together can create stronger communities and a better world. I saw that done in the early years in the development of York University and Jane-Finch.”
MacNevin shared some insight into the partnership between York University and the Jane-Finch community, which began in the late 1970s when she started visiting campus to learn about opportunities for children of Jane-Finch to experience York.
Her own three children attended York Youth Connection’s summer camp and were exposed to the idea of a university education. York’s programs such as social work, nursing and geography brought students from the University out to Jane-Finch and exposed them to the community. Some faculty, she said, demonstrated social justice work at its best and many of us learned a great deal from them.
It’s also important to acknowledge that the Jane-Finch community brought much to York, she said, such as research partnerships, knowledge sharing, neighbourhood tours, opportunities for student placements and much more.
“York University is one of our community assets. It made a long-term commitment to community engagement and it’s through engagement where social justice work begins,” said MacNevin. “We consider the York-TD Community Engagement Centre, a satellite of the University located in the heart of Jane-Finch, to be a community treasure.”
MacNevin credited those who helped her along her journey and those contributed to her passion for community involvement, and invited grads to be active in their communities.
“So, I say, graduates, go for it. You have nothing to lose, but everything to gain by being involved in community,” she said.