After immigrating to Canada from Jamaica at age eleven, Paulette Senior felt like an outsider at school. “I felt like a square peg trying to fit into a round hole,” she says. “I felt that way for a long time.” With no sense of welcome or time to get oriented to this totally foreign approach to her education, Senior was adrift. “Back home I was known, loved and special, and I was expected to be smart and successful. In this new school, it was entirely the opposite. Not much was expected, and my academic performance went from being at the top of my class back home to periodic highs and lows on my test scores in Grade 6.”

Looking back, she thinks she may have been traumatized by the whole experience and the lack of nurturing, coupled with very few students in the school, let alone teachers, who looked like her. “It was definitely one of the most trying periods of my childhood with life-long impact.”

Now, Senior is President & CEO of the Canadian Women’s Foundation, where she works toward achieving gender equality. The foundation supports programs that work towards prevention of gender-based violence, women’s economic development, girls’ empowerment, and inclusive leadership. This year, Senior is the winner of the Trailblazer Award at the 37th Annual Harry Jerome Awards, to be distributed at a special gala event on April 27th. The HJAs recognize and honour achievements within the Canadian Black Community, and this year’s theme is Game-Changers.  

We spoke with Senior this week. 

SDTC: You’ve been a long-time advocate for marginalized women and girls. Why is this so important to you?

PS: Well, I have first-hand experience of what it feels like to be excluded, ignored and made to feel invisible. The impact of these experiences most often lands on the margins of society having to cope with a lifetime of struggle, whether that be poverty, racism, sexism or other types of social exclusions, and sends a loud and clear message that one does not belong. There is no greater impact that I can make than to let someone know they belong, and they are valued. This has been my lifelong mission and purpose. It gives healing to women and girls who feel isolated and alone to know they are cared for and that there is a way forward that is entirely possible, even if that path is invisible to them. There are people in this world who care and can hold that vision for them until they can see it for themselves. It has been an honour to have served as a vision holder for women, girls, youth and their families throughout my career.

What are the biggest challenges that young Black women in Canada face today? What would you like to see change so they are better supported?

I am much farther now from being a young Black woman than I’d like to admit, but this is the reality. Truthfully, unless I hear directly from a young Black woman about their living realities, I would not know what it’s like. What I have heard, which saddens me, is not much has changed. Young Black women are talented, gifted, ambitious and impatient for success. They are hungry for opportunities to be launched in their careers or passions, yet they refer to some of the same experiences I had as a child: visibly invisible yet viewed as a threat at the same time; whether it’s how they wear their hair to how they walk into a space, they are seen but not acknowledged.

They deserve to be acknowledged for who they are, the uniqueness they bring and deep longing to succeed they possess. One thing I make sure I do in whatever leadership role I hold is to let them know I see them and that I’m in awe of their awesomeness. I’m impressed with their brilliance and boldness and the undeterred passion and purpose they share with the world. I believe with them at the helm, we are in good hands.

What does it mean for you to receive this BPPA award?

I cherish this award, especially because it is from my community. Being honoured by my own is a truly high honour that will last a lifetime. It will be a reminder to me that my own has seen me and have said, “Job well done.” Is there anything better than that?

Walk us through a typical day in your life, from getting up until going to bed.

In this role, every day is different and definitely not typical, and I absolutely love this about my job. On one day, I will rise to a day filled with back-to-back meetings with my colleagues, perhaps with my executive board members, a donor or two, a couple teleconferences and an evening event to end the day.

Another may begin with driving in the early hours of the morning to Pearson Airport to meet with a variety of folks in Ottawa and/or to testify at a Senate Committee Hearing or attend a government consultation meeting. It really depends on the priorities of the day, being present and visible in key spaces and participating in critical conversations, all to advance the mission of gender equity for women and girls for the benefit of all in Canada.

What are you most excited about working on in 2019?

I’m excited about the next three to five years in the life of the Canadian Women’s Foundation. I’m rather impatient for success, which is not an end goal but a state of abundance, giving us the opportunity to directly impact the lives of all women and girls in Canada to realize and be a witness to the sea change I know is coming.

I know gender equity is entirely possible and we owe it to countless women who have worked decades to create this threshold of disruption to the patriarchal norm we have all been living in. This completely made-up norm is not only being questioned but torn apart to be replaced with a society built on values and principles of equity, justice and peace for people of all races, genders abilities and sexual orientation; a world where inclusion is the norm.

What is your mantra these days?

Being present, loving what I do and appreciating opportunities and learnings that come my way.

If you could go back in time, what would you tell your eleven-year-old self?

Everything is going to be okay.