Change Can Happen. Profiles in community leadership: Mary Clifford

Leadership comes in many forms and often goes unrecognized in our community. That’s why Central City Foundation is celebrating eight examples of extraordinary community leadership. We are highlighting the dedication and determination of those whose support for community-led solutions helped people in our inner city and beyond to improve the conditions of their lives during the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of this celebration, we have asked each of our profiled leaders to share with us their thoughts on leadership, community, and their relationship with Central City Foundation.

Mary Clifford, Director of Indigenous Early Years, Vancouver Aboriginal Health Society at the Phil Bouvier Family Centre

Central City Foundation is celebrating Mary because of her commitment to adapting the services and programs at the Phil Bouvier Family Centre when the pandemic hit to ensure Indigenous families and community members were supported and connected. Her dedication to not only maintaining but growing the Indigenous Early Years program at the Phil Bouvier Family Centre, and beyond, ensured that hundreds of families stayed connected during the crisis. She didn’t hesitate to provide strong leadership to ensure programs rooted in Indigenous culture, knowledge and tradition were available regularly online and in person, including socially distanced outdoor activities in local parks.

Q: What does community leadership mean to you?

“Leadership in the Indigenous Community is seen differently. We carry a big responsibility and must stay healthy while doing so. We want our leaders to recognize and understand their power, not just use it. We see ourselves as part of a circle of equality and that at any time we may have to take on other roles. We nurture and expect people to bring and show their best as we treat them as such. We believe in, thrive in, and expect change. We see it as one of the constants of life and that its part of growth and wellness.”

Q: How would you describe the lived experiences, systemic inequalities/inequities and other challenges faced by people with whom you work?

“Trauma is something that has touched all lives we encounter. Often, it’s from childhood and embedded or systemic too, and so hard to escape. People still experience a high level of racism and non-acceptance from systems and those on other frontlines. For families, we see them often re-traumatized or harmed by those who they must interact with in order to keep or get their children back, which isn’t helpful.”

“As the urban Indigenous community was also hard hit by the overdose pandemic and the extra trauma load after the uncovering of tortured, murdered and missing children, this community was reeling from grief and loss. It has been a difficult year where families are further apart, have lost more and struggle with connections.”

Q: How did COVID-19 impact people’s ability to connect with one another and what impact did this have?

“Connections were almost always virtual and not as effective in some cases as a result. People were separated during times of grief and times of joy, like celebrating or welcoming into the family and community a new baby. This has caused interruptions in grieving processes, mental health challenges and people feeling more and more isolated. Agencies and services that were able to connect virtually and also drop off supplies and other needed supports did well. Our teams went into creative/adaptive mode early in April 2020 so we could continue to serve families well.”

Q: In what ways has your work changed in these past 18 months?

“It’s harder for a few reasons. COVID has added to the heaviness of the work in a new way. It has added another layer of concern to manage and also taken its toll on staff. It has brought more isolation and grief to the work and to anyone on the frontline who has dealt with these things personally too. It has brought more work to be done and we’ve had the extra pressure of adapting to the new way of delivering services. And the hurt in community feels deeper now. Not having access to community ceremonies, traditional healing and gatherings has added to this dynamic.”

Q: How would you describe the importance of your organization’s direct experience working with community members in addressing their emergent needs during COVID-19?

“It helped us get to those in most need, as we were trusted and known for our services. It helped us understand that it wasn’t just about the cleaning supplies and other adjustments, but that the community was now facing an emotional and spiritual crisis that was exacerbated by the overdose/fentanyl poisoning pandemic.”

Q: What are some examples that give you hope for a better future for the people you work with?

“Parents finding out that they have what are needed for their children and with a bit more support they are able to thrive. I see women in particular gaining honour, skills and belief in themselves and others. I see people reconnecting with their ancestors, past and culture in real and life changing/saving ways.”

Q: How would you describe the value of developing relationships and collaboration between your organization and funders like Central City Foundation?

“Funders are of the circle and should never be seen as outside of the work. We know it’s valuable to have a funder like CCF in our corner and thinking about the future with us. The real support and understanding they have of our agency, our history, vision and path forward, this isn’t found very often in any realm and is most valuable to VAHS.”

Q: What has support from Central City Foundation meant for your organization?

“CCF works to support our day to day operations in every way. Their leadership assists with the bigger picture and advocates with others about who we are and what we do. They don’t assume or judge. They take in our information, share their energy and power and help advance our vision and work.”

CCF has been a partner in the truest sense of the word. They have honoured our vision, followed us and promoted our vision with others. They have taken time to ask valuable questions, have taken the time to listen to what we say and have helped take action, or make plans towards actions.”

Mary Clifford, Director of Indigenous Early Years, Vancouver Aboriginal Health Society at the Phil Bouvier Family Centre