Women's advocate offers advice as she retires from 30 year career

After more than 30 years of helping mentor girls and women, Kate Wiggins is stepping aside as the executive director of Anova.

Kate Wiggins is the current executive director of Anova, which helps survivors of gender-based violence

Kate Wiggins, the executive director of Anova, is retiring after decades of advocacy for women and girls. (Kate Dubinski/CBC News)

Organizations that have traditionally focused on violence against women must bring in men and think about the messages our culture is sending to boys, a long-time women's advocate says. 

"It's a two way street. If we're not also in the process of helping men figure out what it means to be male in this culture, how can we help women figure out what it means to be female in culture?" said Kate Wiggins, the executive director of Anova, an organization that works with survivors of gender-based and sexual violence.

Wiggins will retire at the end of December after decades at the helm of organizations that promote education and mentorship for women. 

Before she headed Anova, she was the executive director of Women's Community House, a women's shelter which merged with the Sexual Assault Centre London to become Anova. 

Prior to that, she was the executive director of Big Sisters of London and also ran the operations of Katimavik, a youth mentorship organization, in southwestern Ontario.

"There's a whole lot of suffering that happens to men and that doesn't get dealt with. Men are still, in the 21st Century, still not allowed to cry. There's this expectation that men don't experience any horror themselves — they don't watch their parents fight, they don't see people die, they don't experience sexual assault.

"That's absolutely crazy. If we can raise the bar for men, and expect more of them in terms of their humanity and their connection to us, then I think we're in a much better place."

Former deputy premier Deb Matthews hired Wiggins as the executive director of Big Sisters in 1986. She was an exceptional leader, Matthews said. 

"She listens to people, and she never stopped having passion, she never got tired of doing the work and she never forgot who she was doing it for." 

Mentorship a key to success

Wiggins credits much of her push for success to a neighbour who became a mentor. 

"When I was young, my parents separated, I lived with my father, I was lucky enough to live with a woman who had a little kid and she really helped keep me together through my teenage years," Wiggins said. "She told me things like, 'You have to get a good education because you can only rely on yourself at the end of the day.'" 

Wiggins is a rape survivor and comes from a violent home, so her work with women and girls has been very rewarding, she said. 
Raising boys in the era of MeToo has some parents calling for a rethink in how we define masculinity because they say expectations can harm both boys and girls. 23:45

"I really do believe that we have to create a different world for women and that misogyny is a part of our culture. I think it's important for all of us speak our experience so we help others not feel so isolated... You can't fix what you can't see, and the world lives in complete denial about the experiences of women."

Although she says the world continues to be a violent and misogynist place, Wiggins is optimistic about the future. 

"It's becoming increasingly clear that governments aren't going to dig us out of this trend. The universe as we know it is beginning to erode and we have to stand up and take charge. It's up to individuals to do that, to stand up personally. The bad energy is flowing but the good energy is standing up." 

In recent years, focus has shifted, and must continue to shift, from focusing solely on women and onto men, whose experiences have to be dealt. 

"I know a lot of men who have been harmed. They need to be more human and more in touch with what has harmed them and we need to understand them and help them deal with that," Wiggins said. 

After retirement, Wiggins plans to work with boards of directors as a consultant, mentoring young women and helping boards figure out how to "change the world." 

"Women have to demand more. They have to demand more in terms of what they deserve," Wiggins said. 

"One of the struggles for women is, 'Am I good enough?' And, you are. You have to step into your own power. We have to stop being everything for everybody and ask for what we want. Demand it."