Finding the Courage to Give Back

I have been a social worker for forty-two years. In this profession, we often work with clients who are living on the margins, who face adversity every day. But I believe most of us face adversities in life and we have someone, or something, that helps us overcome. In 2011, the Family Service of Support presented me with the Ambassador Award. Through the award, I was recognized as a community leader who had overcome adversity and challenges and had then given back by helping others. For this special edition of Understorey Magazine, I wanted to write a story that would inspire, one that would be helpful to someone facing adversity. I decided to share the journey of completing my doctorate degree, a journey that covered very rocky terrain indeed.

In January 1990, I became the first African Nova Scotian hired at Dalhousie University in a tenure track position. I recall someone saying to me at the time, “Wow, they must have lowered the standards to let you teach there.” Such negative comments only served to make me work harder, more diligently and more effectively. However, my contract at Dalhousie stipulated I had to complete course work towards a PhD by year six of the job. The director of my department said, “If you don’t get a PhD, you will be marginalized in the university, so it is not an option.” This meant that I had to apply to a different university to complete a PhD. I was rejected by several institutions, but opportunity knocked unexpectedly in 1993 when I was accepted into the PhD program in sociological studies at the University of Sheffield in England. My research was a participatory study of the factors that helped Black men survive in societies where they were expected to fail. My PhD years (1992-1996) became the best of times and the worst of times, all in one package.

It was the best of times because, first, I had incredible family and community support (also known as pressure to perform). I had the most amazing PhD supervisor, Dr. Lena Dominelli, an Italian-Canadian mentor who believed in me even when I did not believe in myself. Second, my PhD research made a positive impact on the lives of Black men, both in Canada and in England, and led to many policy and institutional changes in both countries. Professionally, my studies positioned me for a stellar career, which led to my promotion to full professor in 2006.

These years were also the worst of times because they were bracketed by huge losses in my life and unbelievable trauma.

While there were many positives, my PhD years were also the worst of times because they were bracketed by huge losses in my life and unbelievable trauma that remains difficult to talk about to this day. In year one of my program in England, my maternal grandmother died after a twenty-four-hour stay in hospital. This was a terrible loss; she was my second mother. In year two, my father-in-law died after two weeks in a coma, following a massive stroke. One month later, my eldest brother (who was like a father to us after Dad died) was diagnosed with cancer and nearly died after his first round of chemotherapy. The worry of this devastating family issue was almost immobilizing. It was difficult to be in England when I wanted to be back in Halifax helping my family cope.

If all of this was not enough, when my spouse, George Bernard, and I finally returned home after I had completed my doctoral program, we became victims of a fraud scheme. The fraud was a complex set of lies and impersonations that were used to commit a number of crimes, including identity theft, embezzlement, emotional abuse, threats, extortion and theft. After some extraordinary police work, including a sting operation, the police arrested the perpetrator, who confessed immediately and also requested to see me. It turned out she was a relative, a young woman whom I had mentored and who was a member of our church family. She requested to see me because I was a social worker and she thought I might drop the charges. Her mother also invited me to her house in the hopes that I might drop the charges. The story from both the perpetrator of the crime and her mother was the same: we should not let our Black youth go through the criminal justice system because the system does not, in fact, do them justice. As a social worker, I was expected to understand this and show compassion. The church family did not quite know how to deal with the situation and most people did not feel comfortable talking to me about it. As a victim of the fraud scheme who just happened to be a social worker, I was expected to understand, to forgive, to be lenient, to be more tolerant and more patient. As a leader in the Black community and an advocate for social justice, I was expected by others in the Black community to be compassionate and understanding.

As a leader in the Black community and an advocate for social justice, I was expected to be compassionate and understanding.

We did not drop the charges. Although the perpetrator had originally confessed, she retained a lawyer and entered a plea of not guilty on her first appearance. The case dragged through the criminal justice system for eighteen months, with many court appearances and delays, all meant to wear us down. Finally, we went to trial by judge only. On the first day of the trial, the perpetrator changed her plea once more, this time to guilty, and her lawyer asked for a non-custodial sentence because she expressed remorse. We spoke to the judge through our victim impact statements and told of the emotional and psychological trauma we experienced both during the crime and during the frequent trips to court. In the end, the perpetrator was given six months in the Halifax Correctional Centre. Our family was vindicated by the outcome of the criminal case. However, we were not vindicated by the community, those who thought: “She is a social worker, a Black woman, an advocate; she should not lay charges.”

That was one of the most difficult situations I have ever had to deal with in my life. At the time, I questioned my ability to continue in social work. I questioned my ability to judge character and to assess an unsafe situation. I became a social work educator because I wanted to influence how social work was practised from a critical perspective. When I became a victim of crime, and people expected me to drop the charges, I questioned my ability to teach and inspire others. In fact, I questioned my entire belief system.

However, this was also a time when my family became stronger and even more united. We depended on each other, believed in each other and supported each other. I knew if I gave in to my depression, fears and anxiety, it would be impossible to go on. I did not want to become that angry, bitter person who lived life without hope. In addition, my eldest brother who faced his own challenge with such amazing grace lost his battle and died in the midst of this journey, two months before my graduation. I needed to be a role model for my daughter who was also victimized by the fraud scheme. If I faltered, she might become re-victimized.

Most significant for me was that I found strength in my spirituality and, as I grieved the multiple losses, I found the courage to go on.

Most significant for me was that I found strength in my spirituality and, as I grieved the multiple losses, I found the courage to go on. I completed my PhD and attended graduation in England, surrounded by family and friends. I had some very supportive social work colleagues who helped me through. Today, I thank them for helping me find my passion for social work and social change. I thank them for helping me overcome this adversity with dignity, respect, integrity and tenacity. I now realize that, although I experienced trauma, I also experienced post-traumatic growth.

After over four decades as a social worker, twenty-seven years as an educator, ten years as director of the Dalhousie School of Social Work and now as a Senator, I still have a passion for social work and social change. I have had many mentors and role models who have helped me along the way. I stand on their shoulders and I am guided by a sense of “critical hope.” As a result, I continue to give back, to lift as I climb, as the writer bell hooks says. We were targets of a vicious crime, but we did not become bitter; we became stronger. And as a result, we have received so many more blessings, including the ability to pay it forward. It is my sincere critical hope that wherever I speak, someone will remember something I say and because of it their life, and the lives of those they touch, will be changed a little. My hope is that we all build more capacity to find the courage to give back, despite the adversities we face.

About Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard

Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard, who was appointed to the Senate on November 10, 2016, is a highly regarded social worker, educator, researcher, community activist and advocate of social change. In 2016, she was appointed Special Advisor on Diversity and Inclusiveness at Dalhousie University and is the first African Nova Scotian to hold a tenure track position. Senator Bernard is a founding member of the Association of Black Social Workers who has also served as an expert witness in human rights cases and has received many honours for her work, including the Order of Nova Scotia and the Order of Canada. Senator Bernard is a member of the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology (SOCI), and the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights (RIDR). She is also Vice-Chair of the Canada-Africa Parliamentary Association.

4 thoughts on “Finding the Courage to Give Back

  1. Kwame

    Great story demonstrating the complexities of the interaction between our logical thinking and emotions. Thanks for sharing your story.

  2. Debbie Simmonds

    Thanks, Senator Wanda for not giving up! This serves as an inspiration to us all.

  3. van

    Thanks so much for sharing that part of your JOURNEY.. May GOD continue to BLESS you as u continue your walk. so PROUD to call u my secret Mentor……GOD BLESS YOU AND YOURS ALWAYS…… Van

  4. Kelly Gray

    Amazing testimony of faith in face of adversity! You are an inspiration.


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