After graduating with a master's degree in social work, Mary Valentich soon realized her true passion was advocating for women and LGBTQ+ rights. However, while Valentich has seen a lot of progress in terms of women’s rights, she says there is still work to be done and is helping to do this work with her group, Social Workers for Social Justice.
Before receiving her master’s degree Valentich studied sociology.
“A social work professor from the University of Toronto came to do a recruitment speech in my third year. I went to see her and talked with her and I thought, ‘Maybe this is more up my alley’ because [social work] has to do with the application of knowledge,” she says.
Valentich recalls her first memory of working in social work as a case aid worker in a clinic after receiving her master’s degree.
“The clinic must have offered free services because the clinic was filled with people who were obviously not so well-off in terms of their clothing and just general wear and tear,” she says.“I remember thinking ‘Wow, as a social worker, these are the type of people I will be working with.' I greatly enjoyed the position, but it immediately started to open my eyes up to the disparity in terms of lifestyles.”
Valentich took her experience as a case aide worker with her and said this eye-opening experience was what motivated her to become an advocate.
“Canada is supposed to be a fair and equitable place … It’s like that waiting room experience where you see all these people and you know that they are struggling and you think,
‘Wait a minute. We know we’re not distributing rural resources in any kind of equitable way,'” she says.
Mary Valentich and her colleague, Larysa Faulkner, chat in Faulkner’s office. Faulkner says she has enjoyed working with Valentich for the past few years. Photo by Cassie Hearn
After working as a case aid, Valentich went on to open two sexual violence support centres — the first one in Ottawa and the second centre in Calgary.
Valentich says that these centres drove her to advocate even more for human rights.
“When you learn of unmet needs and you are already the type of person who is always looking for the gaps in our services [you ask], ‘Where are the holes? Where do people fall through the cracks?’ That keeps you going,” she says.
Taylor Emerson, an aspiring social worker, believes victims of sexual violence need “counselling programs, trauma therapy, and coping mechanisms,” she says, adding that the centres created by Valentich are able to supply these resources to victims.
Not only did Valentich open the support centres for sexual violence, but she is also a founding member of Social Workers for Social Justice — an organization that advocates for human rights.
“One of the accomplishments in which I think we’ve been effective is that we’ve demonstrated to ourselves that there are social workers who are really concerned about social justice and then we can count on each to come through when we need to for a protest,” Valentich says.
Mary Valentich reminiscing by flipping through journal articles and newspaper clippings. Photo by Cassie Hearn
Emerson is looking forward to being a part of the Social Workers for Social Justice organization and hopes to join Valentich in advocating for gender equality. Social Workers for Social Justice will have the ability to give Emerson a platform to advocate for social change, she says.
Although things have progressed a long way in terms of women's rights, Valentich thinks there is still work to do, saying society “still [has] a way to go.”
Valentich suggests early education and societal involvement is key to ending violence against women.
“You have to deal with attitudes — family attitudes and communities, the language we use, the images that come across in social media, the way in which we respond in schools to instances of violence,” Valentich says.
Valentich hopes to encourage Emerson, and other aspiring advocates, to stay motivated to fight for human rights.
“Don’t be discouraged, find friends and colleagues, find a group like Social Workers for Social Justice — you need the support,” Valentich says. “I think that’s really important for any person who feels strongly about something. Trust your own feelings about it.”
Valentich’s colleague, Larysa Faulkner, has enjoyed working with Valentich these past few years and believes Valentich has a long list of accomplishments.
“[Valentich] has worked a lot in [women’s rights] areas and I think that area was very important to her and she contributed to that area as much as she could,'' Faulkner says.
After putting in a lot of work to build up Social Worker’s for Social Justice, Valentich feels accomplished in helping women, members of the LGBTQ+ community and activists like herself to find the confidence they need. Valentich says being an activist is an “integral part of who she is.”
- By Cassie Hearn