How do you change the world?

Lynn Zimmer did it with a note on message board, a lot of hard work, and a sense of hope in humans and their capabilities

by Glen Herbert

“I’m very practical,” says Lynn Zimmer. “I’d reached the point where I just felt very tired of having to be angry about everything all the time. I was looking for relief from that, so I wanted to do something practical that would make a difference. Not just being the person who was always complaining.”

What she did instead of complaining was to play a leading role in changing how the nation understands and responds to violence against women. Through her work she has called us, as a community, to live up to our principles, to see them enacted in law, and to demonstrate them in person. The impact she has had on individuals, local populations, and the nation in advancing the rights of women has been profound.

Yet, it all began, in a sense, in 1972, with a note she pinned up on a message board at Women’s Place, Toronto, where she was working as a volunteer answering the phones. The note read: “Want to do something for women in distress? If you’re interested in starting a women’s shelter please come to this meeting.”

Ten women showed up and the result was Interval House, Canada’s first shelter for abused women, and also the first shelter of its kind in North America. It opened on April 1, 1972. It quickly became a model of what could be done, as well as how to go about it, from concept, to funding, to staffing. Just fifteen years later, in 1987, there were 264 shelters in centres across the country for women fleeing domestic violence. At the last detailed national count by Statistics Canada, in 2014, there were 627. In that year alone—just one year, 2013/14—those shelters admitted 60,341 women who were at risk.

“… the thing I love about the YWCA …”

Zimmer once commented that, in the earliest days “we didn’t know that violence was such a big deal, we thought of it more simply. We thought, ‘they’re married to jerks and they need to get away. We can help.’” Speaking to her—especially when she says things like that—she’s a kindred spirit, someone who knows the things that we all struggle with and can share in the frustrations that we all share. It’s that quality, perhaps, that has allowed her to be the kind of mentor that she’s been to so many along the way, and ultimately to have the impact that she’s had.

It’s what brought her to a leadership role in the Peterborough YWCA in 1984, one she will retire from later this year. “The thing I love about the YWCA,” she says, “is that it’s an organization that does a huge amount of advocacy, but it’s grounded in the programs and services that we deliver in local organizations. What always informs our advocacy is the experiences of women and what they tell us about their lives.”

She notes that while the YWCA may be relatively small, it has amassed more than a century of institutional memory doing exactly the kind of work that it’s still doing today: helping women to achieve equality in an unequal world. And that’s the work that she’s brought forward in her tenure there. At the last annual general meeting, YWCA board president Neera Jeyabalan said that “during her years as the thoughtful and courageous leader of our YWCA, thousands of women and children fleeing violence and abuse have been given a safe space to find their way towards a better future.”

“… to feel that there is even one other person in the world that wants her to succeed.”

Zimmer readily admits that it’s not easy work. “I do really think that humour and proportion are sometimes what saves us,” she says when asked if it ever feels overwhelming. “The other thing I always say is you can’t do this work without having hope. …  At some level you have to be hopeful about human beings and their capabilities. Because all of the systems—the legal frameworks and the governments— they’re all created by people,” including those that serve only to aggravate or augment the barriers to equity and equality. “And yet it’s the power of people together, having some kind of a shared vision, or shared values, or a shared will, that actually makes change happen.”

For her, it often begins with a conversation. “It’s hard to really understand where the barrier lies” she feels, without really listening to each person’s story, beginning with the assumption that, while there may be similar themes, no two are the same. “So many people assume that the barrier lies within the person. You know, ‘if she were just doing this the right way, she’d get the results she needed.’ When in fact there are layers and layers of barriers that are systemic and that are longstanding and so entrenched that they’re invisible to everyone around her. And sometimes if you’re not the person that’s in that situation, or in her life, then you can see it more clearly because you are not also completely embedded in it. And that helps her see that, ‘oh yes, I am strong, I am doing the right things. It’s just that this situation is impossible.’”

Zimmer suggests an example of a woman, say, in a violent marriage. The violence may be the most immediate and apparent layer, but it’s only one of many that litter the past and that lie in the future. And they all relate. “She met the guy in high school, and her schooling was derailed.  So, she hasn’t got an education. Even if she works she’s going to be paid a minimum wage. She won’t be able to afford child care. So she’s constrained on all fronts. Which leads her to believing that the only thing she can do is remain with her abuser or on social assistance. Because it would take so much for her to accumulate money, and resolve, and the confidence in herself. And to feel that there is even one other person in the world that wants her to succeed.”

There are lots of institutional-type conversations to have, and, to be sure, Zimmer has had all of them over the years. “You can advocate with other organizations in how we do our work together … and with government about their policies, about legal changes that ought to be made, about the way they fund or don’t fund services that women need. It goes up to that big macro level, looking for social change. But it starts there, person to person.”

“… we talk a lot about women having choices …”

While finding a safe place in moments of crisis has rightly been the initial thrust of much of the work over the last four decades, Zimmer has turned her attention to the next: building programs that will help women find their paths to the future. In her words, to be able to offer “a period of security to do the hard work on making those transformations” toward independence and stability.

            “Most of the violence against women work is focused on surviving and coping,” says Zimmer. “And living in poverty is a reality.” That’s the nut of Homeward Bound Peterborough, a recent initiative in partnership with Peterborough Housing Corporation. It’s about moving out of shelter—out of the Interval Houses and Crossroads of the world—into independent housing; gaining a facility with goal setting, financial literacy, college preparation and academic readiness; being supported through career counselling and affordable childcare. “Hopefully, at the end of four years,” says Zimmer, which is the term of participation in Homeward Bound, “they’re launched into housing, a job that’s going to support their family, and they’re on their way to economic security.”

So far, that’s exactly what it’s doing. The first group of four women, housed at YWCA Centennial Crescent, have completed their first year of academics, and are now into their second year. “They’re all doing really well,” says Zimmer. Another eight women were admitted into the program and, this past September, started their first year of college programs.  They will be housed in new dedicated units developed by Peterborough Housing Corporation.  Women are able to follow their interests, “though we’re encouraging them to look at Skilled Trades and Technology. We see that as the field that will really guarantee them a good wage.”

“We talk a lot about each woman having choices,” says Zimmer, “but sometimes there really are no reasonable choices she can make. The range of choices is very, very constrained.” Homeward Bound was designed to eliminate barriers, provide wrap-around supports, and open up a greater array of choices. Designed initially by WoodGreen in Toronto, like Interval House, the model is becoming a touchstone for the kind of work that can be done, and an inspiration to others to take it up.

‘What’s Next?’ Fund – A Tribute to Lynn Zimmer

To help grow and sustain innovative programs at the YWCA that specifically address the tough journey of rebuilding a life after escaping abuse, the ‘What’s Next?’ Fund – A Tribute to Lynn Zimmer, has been created. The fund will be managed through partnership with the Community Foundation of Greater Peterborough. The impetus for the fund was to honour Zimmer’s leadership while helping realize some of her current goals.

To learn more or to make a contribution, please visit:

While Zimmer is retiring, she’s also moving into this next phase of the work that she’s done all her life. To listen, to mentor, to demonstrate. To change the world.

In celebration of Lynn

A celebration of Lynn’s career will be held on Thursday, November 21st. For more information, please contact Yvonne Porter at 705-743-3526 x116 or