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Fighting for gender, cultural diversity in local government

by Sean Meyer, Municipal World
in Leadership
November, 2023

Velma Morgan: Women of Influence Honourable Mention

Velma Morgan is a teacher and advocate for gender and cultural diversity in politics. She is the chair of Operation Black Vote Canada (OBVC). She is also the one of two honourable mention recipients for the 2023 Women of Influence in Local Government Award.

Morgan joins Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek as 2023 honourable mentions, alongside this year’s award recipient, Brampton Coun. Rowena Santos.

In accepting the recognition, Morgan said she felt “honoured” and “grateful,” but she also sees it as a validation of the work and dedication she and her OBVC colleagues have put into supporting greater representation in government. Operation Black Vote Canada was established in 2004 as a non-profit, multi-partisan organization that supports the election of Black Canadians to public office.

“I think being recognized affirms the importance of the work, and it motivates me to continue to use my voice and ensure that diversity is at the local level,” Morgan said. “I just feel humble to be acknowledged among the remarkable women who have made significant contributions to municipal government, not only this year, but in the years past.”

Ensure a Seat at the Table

Morgan has experience in creating and implementing public policies in the Ontario government. For more than a decade, she advised cabinet ministers in five provincial ministries.

But her passion for local government reaches back much further than 10 years. In fact, Morgan has been part of the political world since she was 15 years old. Since then, she has worked in many campaigns across all orders of government. Because of that experience, she also understands the importance of having representation.

This is why Morgan says she is honoured to work with OBVC and the objective of having more diverse people are needed at decision-making tables.

“Even when things aren’t going right, you can see the tides shift,” Morgan said.  “You see the ebb and flow in government. Being in the room and helping to make decisions is something that I cherish.

“Being a political staffer or a director of policy or any of those things, no one told us about those jobs. So, we try to bring that to our communities – in particular our young women. These are ways that you can make change and have your voice heard.”

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Morgan’s career has focused on ensuring other people’s voices are heard. But at the same time, she never paid a lot of attention to her own.

The Women of Influence recognition, Morgan said, means her own voice is being heard. She also sees it as recognition that the work of OBVC is resonating with people. That work, Morgan said, is bringing about positive change at the local government level. But it comes with a responsibility to advocate for gender equity and true representation in local government.

Morgan said this responsibility brings with it an opportunity to continue to break down barriers, challenge stereotypes, and help promote a more diverse and inclusive society.

Promoting these things is something Morgan takes a great deal of pride in. But she never thought about being recognized for her work. As with most people being recognized for public service, Morgan said being singled out has never been a priority for her. But she said it is important to celebrate and recognize the important contributions women are making at the local government level as well as any other level of government.

“We’re so often not recognized for our skillsets, for the things that we bring to the table, for the changes that we make in society,” Morgan said. “Usually, the men take responsibility for that. And I think we do a lot – elected, not elected.

“There needs to be more awards for women or more recognition for the work that women do at any level of government.”

Being a Woman of Influence

Representation matters, she said, and she believe it is a floor, not the ceiling. It is just a start.

Women, particularly Black women, face unique challenges in male-dominant environments. Through her work with OBVC, she is committed to supporting and connecting the next generation of aspiring leaders. This goes for whether they want to work in the municipal level or if they want to run for government themselves.

Morgan said women should have the option of doing whatever they want to do to give back to their community. To support this effort, Morgan has focused on creating opportunities for women to showcase their skills, to foster inclusivity and supportive environment, and to ensure they have a seat at the table where their voices are being heard.

A lot of young women, Morgan said, do not want to get into politics because “they think it’s grimy or too dirty.” But nonetheless, more women are needed. The United Nations says communities need 30 per cent of the people at any decision-making table to be women in order to shift the needle.

Mentorship plays “an extremely important part” of Morgan’s efforts in supporting more women in the local government sphere. She said women who are at those decision-making tables need to mentor people. She also said the women who used to be at those tables also need to mentor, as do the men who are at those tables.

“There’s a saying, you can’t be what you don’t see,” Morgan said. “And we don’t see enough of women at those decision-making tables. I think the women that are there – one thing that they need to be doing, and some of them are doing, is mentoring the next generation. We need to see more young people, more women, more young women at those decision-making tables. So mentorship is extremely important.”

Obstacles in Local Government

The experience Morgan has gained in the government space has come at a price. She has had to navigate the world of politics as not only a woman, but as a Black woman. And for a long time, people thought she was younger than she was, meaning she had to face ageism, too.

That said, Morgan understands the challenges and obstacles women who want to run face. Taking on that challenge requires resiliency, determination, and the ability to overcome stereotypes and biases. But being a woman in local government, she adds, provides an opportunity to reflect meaningfully on change.

Her journey has taught her the importance of perseverance, self-belief, and the power of women’s solidarity. Morgan said she is proud to be a part of a growing movement that strives for gender equality and equal representation in local government.

This is all the more important, Morgan said, because she sees local government as the order of public service that has seen the least amount of change. Although Canadians are electing women mayors, city councils remain predominantly filled with white men. Toronto City Council, for example, only saw its first Black, woman city councillor elected during the 2022 election. So, while great strives have been made, Morgan said she believes there remains so much more to be done.

“At the local level, I think we need to do more. And awards like this that recognize and acknowledge the work that women are doing at the municipal level go a long way in highlighting the work of women,” she said. “By highlighting them, people are seeing women in local government doing good, and perhaps they too will put their name forward.”  MW

✯ Municipal World Executive and Essentials Plus Members: You might also be interested in Sean’s other article: Municipal World honours 2022 Women of Influence.

Sean Meyer is Digital Content Editor for Municipal World.

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