The doors remain closed at a Lunenburg women’s centre following the mass resignation of staff due to what supporters say is “a complete erosion of trust” between staff and its volunteer board of directors.
For 40 years, Second Story Women’s Centre has provided support, counselling, referrals, advocacy, and other services and programming for women, girls, and other gender oppressed people.
“What we have come to understand as supporters, and heard over and over again directly from all eight staff, is that there is a complete erosion of trust between the board and staff,” Stacey Godsoe said in an interview Tuesday evening.
“I feel it really is truly a failure by the board to resolve this and the staff just felt they could no longer do their jobs with confidence.”
A former board member and volunteer who in the past worked at Second Story on contract, Godsoe was asked to represent the interests of staff and the larger membership group that’s rallying behind them and the centre.
‘Very existence of the centre is in question’
“It’s a dramatic moment in the history of Second Story, which happened to turn 40 on International Women’s Day. Actually, ironically, it was founded 40 years ago on March 8,” Godsoe said.
“We were deprived of that celebration, and certainly the very existence of the centre is in question.”
Closed to the public since March 7, there’s no indication the centre will reopen anytime soon. Godsoe said staff members all submitted resignation letters on Feb. 2, offering staggered end dates. The last of Second Story’s eight staff members left their post on Monday.
At issue, Godsoe said, is an impasse between the board of directors and its staff.
“The supporters and the staff have asked repeatedly for the board to step down, asked them directly, and then we voted them out and they still haven’t left,” she said.
“And with the consequence of staff leaving and the centre closing and termination of essential services in our community and they’re still digging deep and staying is quite shocking.”
Want the board to resign
Godsoe said in recent months the centre’s membership intervened in what they felt was a “measured and thoughtful way,” hopeful of a resolution. She said they tried to engage with the board multiple times. Mediation was also attempted but failed.
A group of members felt compelled to resort to what Godsoe called an “extraordinary measure” by holding a general meeting to dissolve the board of directors and elect a new board. She said this was within their rightful powers according to the bylaws.
“We were assured both by the bylaws and by Registry of Joint Stocks that what we were doing was by the book and OK. The board then decided that our members’ meeting was invalid and they did declare a resignation date of March 23, but they then decided to not resign. They’ve not given a new date for their departure,” Godsoe said.
“We weren’t happy that they decided our meeting was invalid and communicated that to the entire membership…But we were supportive of the idea of holding another membership meeting that they would call to resign and to vote in a new board. That has yet to happen and we’ve seen no sign of that.”
‘Working conditions becoming untenable’
Godsoe pointed to three key areas of “failure of leadership” outlined by staff. Although designated to serve as a stewardship board, Godsoe said there was “overreach” into operational matters. She said these included things like requesting services of staff after business hours and trying to change hours without staff input.
The second issue was unprofessional treatment of staff, including “multiple threats of legal action” whenever a staff member questioned a request that appeared to be unusual or not within the centre’s guidelines.
“We know from staff that they (the board) continually overstepped that role into operational matters,” Godsoe said. “There’s many, many examples of them (staff) feeling very disrespected to the point of their working conditions becoming untenable and actually expressing that they were feeling very traumatized.”
A third area identified by staff was noncompliance with approved policies. Examples cited included the board not adhering to the approved model of stewardship (acting more like a managerial board), not adhering to the approved model of consensus (a multitude of in-camera meetings), and not paying staff since March 3.
They also point to a delay in response to a provincial request that resulted in the centre not receiving “significant” provincial funding. The staff also said the board failed to meet with them when conflict was identified.
A key place for people to get help
“I can say with confidence it’s never been made clear to the staff what exactly the board’s issues are with the way the centre was being run. Or they’ve never directly identified that,” Godsoe said.
“The staff willingly went along with a financial audit, supported the idea of doing that. They’ve done everything the board has requested so it is really a bit of a mystery. We don’t know what they want.”
Staff members also said the chair of the board of directors didn’t step down from board responsibilities when assuming the role of interim executive director.
“We were all very alarmed and concerned for staff, but also for the loss of services in our community. We’re already a very underserved region like a lot of rural areas, and this was a key place for people to get help,” Godsoe said.
“Often they’re leaving or they’re entrenched in situations of intimate partner violence or they’ve experienced a sexual assault or other things like dealing with poverty and other mental health issues or homelessness and lots of really complex issues.”
Second Story provides a safe community place that’s welcoming and accessible to the community, and Godsoe said its closure is a huge blow. She said staff shared that about 1,000 people received free counselling through the centre this fiscal period alone.
“The consequences of not having a safe place to turn and feeling like they can get help nowhere else could be extremely serious,” Godsoe said.
“We do have other community-based resources in our region, including Harbour House, which is the local shelter, but they’re also overstretched. So it’s really key that we get Second Story up and running again and it’s unfortunate that it’s taken this turn.”
Other women’s centres temporarily helping out
Although they don’t know how many people are being impacted, Godsoe said people in the community who require services offered by Second Story are being redirected to other community-based or mental health services.
Cora Cole is the coordinator of Women’s Centres Connect, a provincial association of women’s centres. The organization articulates the common activities, concerns, and needs of women’s centres across Nova Scotia. It also provides coordination of association activities and information-sharing.
Each centre operates autonomously, so Cole couldn’t speak directly to what was unfolding at Second Story Women’s Centre. But in an email, she said her organization recognizes the Lunenburg centre is going through “significant changes” to their volunteer board of directors.
Cole said other women’s centres in the province are temporarily stepping in to help fill the gap left by its closure.
“The situation brings us great sadness and hope that through collaboration their services will be reinstated as soon as reasonably possible. The work of the individual Women’s Centres brings important intersectional and feminist approaches to the care offered to our clients,” Cole said.
“Client care remains at the top of our minds. As such other Women’s Centres in the province will temporarily answer calls to virtually help navigate resources and provide information until Second Story is able to return to their regular programming and service delivery.”
Decision to resign not made lightly
Godsoe said they’re hearing from people missing all that Second Story offers. She described the community as “devastated, heartbroken, and at a loss” about what to do.
There’s also a lot of confusion in the community about what’s happening. For staff members, she said the decision to resign was truly a last resort.
“They didn’t make the decision to resign lightly, of course. They love their jobs, they are good at their jobs. These are their careers. For many, they saw themselves retiring at Second Story,” Godsoe said.
“So they’re absolutely heartbroken to be leaving unexpectedly, and to be leaving under these conditions.”
In October, Second Story’s support worker Sally Hutchinson was named ‘Outstanding Healthcare Provider of the Year” by the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia. She’d been with the organization for almost 20 years.
“She served well over 500 clients. That’s an underestimation. They’re all just very precious in our communities, and trusted,” she said. “They love their work, they love their team, they love their communities and their clients and cared so deeply about them. It’s just absolutely heartbreaking.”
Stand up for Second Story rally and vigil
To try and clear up some of the confusion, show support for the centre, and thank staff, a candlelight vigil/rally is being held at 6pm Friday outside the Lunenburg fire hall.
The Stand Up for Second Story event is described as an opportunity for people to show their support and learn more about how to turn things around.
“A good showing will send a very powerful message of support for the centre, its value in our communities, to the staff and clientele who are suffering right now,” Godsoe said.
“The call to action really at this point is just to to listen, to consider what they could do going forward, whether it’s write letters, reach out to their elected officials. But to hold the board accountable for the impact that their decision making has had on not just the staff, not just the centre, but the wider community.”
Godsoe said ensuring Second Story reopens as soon as possible is critical, particularly in light of the Mass Casualty Commission’s final report and the importance of addressing gender-based violence and misogyny.
“It’s a loss of an outwardly, transparently trans-inclusive feminist space to talk about things like social, gender, racial justice in our communities, which is increasingly more important,” Godsoe said.
“We see this rise in the far right, fundamentalist white supremacist ideologies that are causing real harm in our communities. We’re still coming out of the healing from the worst mass shooting in Canada and Nova Scotia.”
Board members saddened by recent disharmony
The Halifax Examiner reached out to several board members and was directed to email the board’s chairperson. On Thursday evening, Charlene Flint replied with an emailed statement:
As the Board of Directors of Second Story Women’s Centre (SSWC) our commitment and goal is always the success, well-being, and long-term viability of the Centre and the vital services it provides to the community.
We are saddened by the recent disharmony between the Board and Community. It is unfortunate the due diligence process of looking into potential areas of risk and irregularities has led to the loss of staff and the temporary closure of the Centre, and we wish to provide assurance that we plan to work collaboratively with the community to see SSWC resume operations as soon as possible.
We have been working with the Department of Community Services and the Advisory Council on the Status of Women (our primary funders) and, as a result, we have recently hired a Governance Consultant to help guide the organization forward in a fair and diligent manner. This includes assisting in organizing a special members’ meeting in accordance with the Society’s bylaws on April 14th at 6 pm.
The Department of Community services is also assisting us in finding an interim Executive Director, who will lead the day-to-day operations of the centre while recruitment efforts are underway to fill all vacant positions, including a permanent Executive Director.
We have also hired an independent accounting/investigation firm to gather facts with respect to workplace culture, as well as to provide clarity with respect to historical transactions including payroll, vacation pay, sick time pay, etc., and potentially other administrative concerns.
We are looking forward to the re-opening of the Second Story Women’s Centre and remain committed to its mission and vision. We acknowledge and thank all former staff for the dedication and care they have provided to the many in need in our Community and are confident that through the above process of remedy and reconciliation, these services will resume in the near future, and will continue on for many years to come.
The interest and support for the centre is heartening to see and we thank you for your inquiry.
Closure ‘very concerning’
In an interview Thursday afternoon, Lunenburg PC MLA Susan Corkum-Greek described the centre’s closure as “very concerning.”
“Certainly in government, we know that the people who work in this particular sector are really dedicated people. We can never fully appreciate all that they give of themselves. They are highly motivated to do the work they do and they’re highly trained,” Corkum-Greek said.
“I’ve said from the beginning for matters to get to this point, where there would be this mass resignation or mass walkout, really speaks to people feeling that there was an untenable situation. And that is just super unfortunate.”
According to the Second Story website, the centre receives about 80% of its core funding from the Nova Scotia Advisory Council on the Status of Women. The other 20% comes from community support.
Corkum-Greek, who also serves as Minister of Economic Development, said the provincial government identifies services like those offered by Second Story as “absolutely critical.”
“For so many of these services, so much of it is meeting people where they’re at, and when there is a physical place that is seen as a safe space, a place that you can access, for that to not be operational at this point is very concerning,” she said.
“There has been trust built up between individuals to be able to address the issues that they have going on in their lives, the crises that they are dealing with. That’s no small thing to suddenly not have that same individual with whom you don’t have to go back to square one.”
Provincial funding not at risk
Resolving the impasse that led to the centre’s closure is the first hurdle.
But Corkum-Greek said it’s also important to address the underlying issues in order to “ensure that it is well supported and structured for the future.”
“For those who may say the future of the centre is in jeopardy, the province is a major funder. From our perspective, we are standing by. There’s no risk of revocation of funding,” Corkum-Greek said.
“I as an individual am very hopeful that the passion and dedication that exists for the centre and its services will get channelled into creating the resolution that we need here. But I share the same concern as the community that this is an urgent concern that we have to resolve.”
Certain they had good intentions
Corkum-Greek said she first heard about the seriousness of the situation unfolding at the centre several weeks ago.
“Myself as MLA and my constituency office staff, one of our first concerns was, OK, so should we get one of those calls, how can we direct people? And Status of Women and Department of Community Services were able to offer us some resources,” Corkum-Greek said.
“But it certainly underscores the need to have to find a resolution that can see the centre back and operational and delivering the very critical services that it has offered for so long and done so well.”
Corkum-Greek said whether it’s the people employed in this line of work or those who volunteer on boards, no one takes such an important responsibility lightly.
“I feel certain, without knowing all the details, that whatever decision making has taken place that’s led to this, that they had good intentions. But nonetheless, we somehow have got to this point, a situation that is serious enough…that has caused people to have to make such a bold move,” she said.
“It just speaks to the degree of concern that they have, because I know these folks, the workers, the counsellors and support workers. They deeply value their clients and the trust that those clients put in them and the importance of the services they provide.”
Hoping for a timely resolution
Corkum-Greek said with the office of the Nova Scotia Advisory Council on the Status of Women involved, the board hiring a governance consultant, and an interim executive director expected to be in place “in the very near future,” she’s optimistic things are looking up.
But she said she’s especially hopeful because the large community of people supporting the centre remain focused and determined to find a resolution to ensure its reopening.
Although she expects to be in budget estimates at Province House and will likely be unable to return home in time to attend Friday’s vigil, Corkum-Greek said she’d “wish to be there.”
“I always loved it (Second Story’s name). It was on the second floor, but it really is about a new day and a new page for women,” she said. “And that is a critical part of the work that they have always done and the work that I really trust they’ll be able to to resume. Hopefully as quickly as possible.”