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Weaving advocacy into nonprofit work: Maryam Pandi

ONN was thrilled to welcome SACK’s Maryam Pandi to Nonprofit Driven 2020. This first-person profile is part of an incentive prize at the conference to recognize attendees and their work.

I moved to Canada from Iran five years ago. In the beginning, like many other newcomers, I spent a lot of time figuring out my voice within the community I lived in. I’ve always been passionate about social justice, so I was naturally drawn to doing community-centred work within the nonprofit sector. Working in a city like Toronto, one that was so different from where I grew up in the Middle East, it was shocking to me that the same underlying systems of patriarchy and colonialism are the root causes of inequitable access to resources and rights for many marginalized groups.

Nine months into the pandemic, I joined Sexual Assault Centre Kingston (SACK) as their new Executive Director. The past few months have been incredible in allowing me to be part of a frontline organization that works tirelessly to ensure free access to crucial support for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence.

SACK has been dedicated to serving and supporting survivors of sexual violence throughout the region for more than 40 years. We offer a range of free services such as crisis intervention and support, peer support programming, counselling, and psychotherapy. 

At our centre, we believe in and work towards, a community free of sexual violence. SACK is a community leader in prevention and education; working with partners throughout the education, housing, health, and social services sectors. At the heart of our work is a deep partnership with our community and all its members. 

Image of SAC Kingston Office with their signage and windows covered with hearts.

Together, we work to:

  1. Support individuals and their loved ones to heal from sexual violence
  2. Educate individuals and organizations on the impact of sexual violence
  3. Organize and advocate for systemic and social change required to end sexual violence

“Advocacy is woven into all the work we do at the centre.”

We ground everything we do in a feminist, anti-racist and anti-oppressive framework, including learning from struggles and movements against racism and other forms of oppression. 

There are many challenges for survivors to come forward and access support in our communities. Oftentimes, these challenges are symptoms of much larger systems of oppression within our society. Systems that have been designed to alienate survivors and protect the patriarchy. So as advocates, we see our responsibility in committing to recognizing and challenging the lack of accessible, appropriate services for survivors of sexual violence particularly Black, Indigenous, women of colour and gender-diverse survivors whose struggles are often invisible and or ignored by the broader community as well as our policymakers.

I have to also mention that we are not alone in doing this work! We often work alongside our community partners within the GBV sector, in particular, other sexual assault centres to raise awareness and advocate for systematic and sustainable change. 

Impacts of the pandemic

Covid has changed our advocacy work dramatically in some ways. Before the pandemic, we used to go into the community with booths, connect with people one-on-one and do advocacy work through constant and meaningful physical presence. We would also invite policymakers and stakeholders to come to our centre and see the hard and amazing work our staff do up-close!

Obviously, those are not viable options anymore, but our advocacy has never stopped. We, like a lot of other community organizations, had to pivot and use social media tools and virtual settings as means to continue our advocacy efforts and expand our reach. In some ways, having more of an online presence has helped us in reaching folks that we were not able to reach before; but I am really looking forward to having a much bolder physical presence in the community once it is safe to do so again while continuing with virtual engagement.

Ways to engage

Photo of a painting that shows a tree with a poem beside it
  • Volunteering: We are always looking for volunteers and advocates to join us in raising our voices to further advance gender equality and advocate for the rights of survivors. 
  • Learning about advocacy: Our centre is also an active member of the OCRCC (Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres) network. The network is made of approximately 30 sexual assault centres from across Ontario and it plays a key role in advocating to the provincial and federal levels of government for policy changes that centre on the rights of survivors.
  • Donors/Fundraising: Centres like ours usually operate on a very tight budget. We often find ourselves struggling to have adequate resources to serve survivors and do advocacy work to the fullest capacity. Donations play a significant role in removing barriers for survivors to access support and can be made through the nonprofit platform CanadaHelps. Folks can also support and amplify our work on social media by following @sackingston. 
  • Raising awareness: Challenging myths around sexual and gender-based violence and creating safety in our community takes serious work and is a responsibility for all of us. Follow the work of your local Sexual Assault Centre and community advocates and educate yourself on how to be an ally to survivors every day. 

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