Angela Marie MacDougall is a long-time anti-violence worker, the Director of Vancouver’s Battered Women’s Support Services, and a Remarkable Women award winner in 2014.
Jess: How did you get involved in the feminist movement? What inspired this?
Angela: My earliest recollection of taking a girl-centred approach to being picked on by boys was when I was four. I came in from outside to speak to my mother, who was a caregiver for myself and my cousins, because I was being picked on by some boys. She said, “you better go stand up for yourself.” So, I went back out and I remember chasing the boy down the dirt road, off the property. That approach has been with me all through my life, all through the ages, through my teens. There were a lot of times when that’s the approach I took — standing in my power, and taking a stand in a way that was about girls.
I became politicized in a more official way when my daughter was born, which was 30 years ago now. It really galvanized me. Based on what I’d seen in my family and my community, I knew there was a lot of male violence against women and a lot of inequality that was also racialized and rooted in colonial, white supremacist ideas about women. After giving birth to my daughter I really wanted to be sure that she didn’t have the same experiences I had as an African girl in colonial Canada.
Shortly thereafter, my high school friend was raped and murdered by a young man that we knew. So, that was really it for me in terms of rolling up my sleeves and knowing that more needed to be done to address the historic, legal, and institutional oppression that grinds down the lives of women. That’s when I looked for a feminist community, a women’s community, and an anti-violence community.
I’m trained in counselling, so my work initially was to support survivors. I noted a whole bunch of stuff happening within organizations that wasn’t helping — in the big picture — to address the systemic issues. They certainly were about helping individuals, but were not addressing the larger structures at play. So I began to take action in a way that was about the individual, about relationships, about the community, and about larger society.
Jess: Can you give us an understanding of where you’ve worked over the years and what your role has been in the feminist community?
Angela: I think I’ve worked for every single women’s organization available in the lower mainland, with a couple exceptions. That was mostly volunteer stuff that I was doing. I tried to be everywhere to figure out what was going on for women.
My official work was as a contractor for the provincial government, working with groups of young women that were involved in the sex economies, and being exploited in the sex economies; I worked with youth primarily in terms of my work. I would say that Battered Women’s Support Services is the organization I’ve mostly been affiliated with, as well as Surrey Women’s Centre. Those organizations were the two that I would say were organizing around politics, more so than just service delivery.
Jess: Is there one area of activism within that realm that you would consider the focus or your life’s work?
Angela: It became really clear to me in the early ‘90s that if we were going to address violence against women in this country that we now call Canada, that we were going to have to have a strong analysis of colonization, of patriarchy, and of capitalism. So I began bringing — what I understood at that time — a decolonizing perspective to my work, looking at the role of white supremacy, looking at the interconnections between inequalities, and how they grind down in women’s lives.
Women are stratified in a very hierarchical way in terms of the ways we receive or don’t receive protection: from families, from communities, and from the state. That decolonizing, anti-oppression feminist analysis started for me in the ‘90s and was really about confronting the inequalities that were happening within organizations, within communities, and within larger societies.
If we’re going to address these inequalities, I believe very strongly that’s the approach that that is important, both in Canada and globally. Colonization has been an extraordinary force for the past 400–500 years all across the globe. 80 per cent of the land’s mass was colonized by European power, imposing very clear ideas about women, white supremacist ideas about people, and other kinds of ideas that flow from religion and economies.
Any movement we have cannot ignore (and actually needs to be grounded in) that analysis given how pervasive and overwhelming colonization has been. Even now, we see migration and economic policies and practices rooted in these colonial underpinnings. Those webs continue to be linked and grind down women’s lives in very specific ways — that stratification. In terms of the women’s movement and dealing with male violence, that’s the analysis that has been my life’s work.
At the same time, I’ve also wanted to understand the coping mechanisms we put in place to deal with the pressure — things like substance use (licit or illicit), and our mental wellness, or so-called “mental illness.” Our behaviours get characterized through a medicalized and psychiatric model of women’s lives. So, in addition to that decolonizing analysis, we need to have a grounding analysis of mental wellness, substance use, and other coping mechanisms. We need to understand that to live in the body of an oppressed person is stressful, so we need to make adaptations to mitigate our stress and our pain.
Those two interconnected areas have been my life’s work. I’ve been at it for over 20 years.
Jess: What are the greatest barriers to tackling those issues right now or putting forward that analysis?
Angela: Well, we’re in very regressive time. We’re becoming extraordinarily polarized as a people, and regressive ideologies are becoming mainstream. We’re also looking at the decline of empires in a global sense at the moment — the decline of some major players — and communities are responding in very regressive ways.
These extreme ideologies are highly visible, in part, because of media and social media. That’s also a factor. Accessing and having more information gives us a greater sense of urgency and precariousness. There are movements underway right now that are very fundamentalist and very regressive. I’m not going to name one but there’s a bunch of them happening.
Jess: How do you take care of yourself when you’re doing this work? One thing that I’ve found, having been involved with both political and some frontline volunteering since I was in my late teens, that I do experience burn out sometimes from having to look at so much political garbage. It gets pretty disturbing. Are there any strategies you use that have allowed you to continue doing the work for as long as you have?
Angela: I’m thinking about various times over the past 24 years, like in the ‘90s — when I really wanted to take on a decolonizing analysis — feeling very discouraged about things, finding myself in the fetal position often, sobbing. At the same time, I was working on healing my own trauma.
I’ve had to pick different things over time to deal with the grief, loss, pain, and overwhelm. I was always involved the physical, being in my body and using my body in a way that could be considered exercise. But it’s also important for me to be on the land. I mountain biked for a long time and I actually worked for an organization for a while called Women’s-Only Mountain Biking where I taught women skills about mountain biking. I competed in women’s mountain biking for a time
There were many things that got worked out through steep, rooted, treacherous trails, where I was able to literally heal trauma through the physical exertion. Being on the land, being in the trees, being with the earth, was incredible. Then moved into other things where I would have to throw myself into a survival situation in order to stop my brain.
So, yeah, I would take me, my bike and my path and go on a bike trip alone. I would have to set up my camp and make my food and be with the land. That’s something I continue to do — finding ways to get back to the land. That’s the only way for me to survive, and I’m aware that the land is changing as a result of all these forces that we’ve been talking about.
I have the privilege of working in an organization where we can take political positions on things that matter and that is extraordinary, to not have to toe the party line, and to be able to make a statement. We’ve actually been able to see some changes — we’ve seen some things shift. The bigger picture hasn’t shifted, but we’ve been able to see some changes. So, those victories matter for wellness. I see it every day in women’s lives and I get to work with an incredibly dedicated, hardworking group of women. Everybody is up to their eyebrows in it — the frontline work, the legal work, and the systemic work. When I come into this place it’s like an alternate universe.
Jess: Who inspires your work?
Angela: My daughter and my mother are the biggest sources of inspiration for me. The February 14th Women’s Memorial March committee, which I’ve been on since 1994, is one of a kind as far as community organizing. I don’t think there’s anything like it in the world. All the great women that I’ve been able to work with on that committee, standing side by side over the past 21 years, are amazing.
Jess: Are there any ways where you’ve felt like you learned a lesson the hard way within the feminist movement? How can new feminists learn from this?
Angela: The biggest thing in terms of lessons I’ve learned the hard way, has been about the individual versus the collective, and how to be in a collective (I use the term “collective” in terms of a community, not the formal organizing structure). Colonial patriarchy has taught us that it’s all about individuals and about individualism — going about our own.
None of us are islands unto ourselves. We’re in a community. As a loner, as an only child, as one of the only African people that I knew for most of my life growing up, there were lots of things that were isolating for me and I became very comfortable being alone and doing my own thing. The learning has been about being in and working within a community, and within communities because I think that I’m within more than one community in terms of organizing.
That often means you don’t get your own way. That means I had to learn how to listen and hear and act accordingly. It sounds kind of simple, but it definitely was a thing for me.
Jess: I can relate with that as I can be a bit of a lone shark myself.
If you were going to give new feminists a message of encouragement or a word of advice, what would that be?
Angela: Find a community. Take responsibility for that community. Work hard. Take time to rest and never give up. Never. Ever.