Envisioning a better future: A Q&A with Janet Austin

Portrait of Janet AustinThis month, Janet Austin was named the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) Community Leader Chair for her involvement in several philanthropic projects and organizations in the Lower Mainland. Currently, Austin serves as the CEO of YWCA Metro Vancouver. Her full biography can be found at her YWCA profile.

Sheetal Reddy: Why did you choose to pursue a career in this field?

Janet Austin: I didn’t do it intentionally actually. I’ve done many, many different things in my working life. I’m a good example, I think, of how it’s possible to take knowledge that’s acquired in one context and apply it another. So, no, I didn’t deliberately set out pursue a leadership role in the non-profit sector to work on the issues necessarily what I’m working on, although I’ve always been interested in the issues around social equality and gender equality, and advancing better quality of life for all, really.

I think my career had many different directions along the way, but because I was always a very hard worker, I tended to be invited to take on different roles, and was fortunate to have many different opportunities. But, what’s nice about my current work is that many of the skills and the experience that I’ve had along the way; I’m actually able to use them in my current job and I absolutely love it.

SR: What do you like best about it?

JA: My work? I’m very proud of the work our organization does. We serve about 60,000 people annually throughout Metro Vancouver and we operate in about 30 locations. But, we also do work internationally in various different countries, such as Russia, Guatemala, the Honduras and Serbia.

But, what really excites me is the opportunity to work on some real systemic social change. So when we think about the major challenges in society, the challenges of homelessness, the challenges of poverty, child vulnerability and the economic challenges that we’re seeing, these are challenges that can’t be solved just through philanthropic support. Even though we’re very successful at raising money, and addressing particular issues, we also need to look at what needs to change from a public policy point of view and a public investment point of view. I find that work very exciting. Trying to create the conditions where there is change that actually can really help to improve the quality of life for many people.

I’m very conscience of the important role that I have in ensuring the organization is healthy and thriving, and continues to play the kind of role that it plays. I also really value the fact that part of my work requires me to represent the YWCA both in Metro Vancouver in a variety of ways, but also at the national level. So it gives me the chance to work on issues of national as well as local importance. That’s a great position to be in, and it’s very exciting to be able to do that.

SR: What are some of the changes you would like to see?

JA: Well, I would like to see a universal system of high-quality early learning and care for all children in the country. I would like to see some changes to the way our family policy framework in the province and in the country, also, work.

Our family policy framework is really based on a post-war paradigm where there was the idea that a nuclear family, in the context of the family of four, can be supported on one income. That’s no longer the case. Families look very different than they did in the early 1950s. I think there are some significant changes that need to be made to insure that families actually have a easier job of raising children than they do, and that we can create the kind of conditions in terms of early childhood that set children up for success in school and success throughout life. I think if we do those things, we will actually benefit our economy as well.

SR: In your opinion, what is the connection between education and the work you do?

JA: Well I think education is the most important way to change people’s lives. In the most important way to break the cycle of poverty and isolation. When I say that, I mean education of all levels, so starting with very early education, zero to six. If  we’re able to insure that children get the right experiences in those very early years, then they will do well in school and they have a better chance of getting a post-secondary education, and they have a better chance of doing well in post-secondary education. That sets us all up to have a strong, healthy economy, and to be effective in competing in the international global economy.

SR: What is the importance of a community?

JA: We all live in communities, and when our communities are functioning well, and people are able to support each other and we have good systems in place for making decisions. Healthy communities means that we’re going to have healthy lives and good quality of life. The whole idea of community is that we care for each other as opposed to just caring for ourselves. We know that when people care for each other, when there is a sense of collective responsibility, there’s a sense of working together towards common objectives, we also know people are happier and they’re healthier.

SR: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

JA: I think your university is an excellent university, and is an university that has very strong community culture and a community base. So, I’m highly, highly honoured to be recognized.

Sheetal Reddy

Third year journalism student with a penchant for trouble.

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