Joanne Cave

Joanne Cave (Prairies & St. John’s 2013) is currently completing the Master of Public Policy at Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government, after graduating from the MSc in Comparative Social Policy in 2014. She also holds a B.A. (Honours) in Women & Gender Studies and Sociology from the University of Toronto. Joanne has previously worked for the Caledon Institute of Social Policy, Toronto City Councillor Janet Davis and the Government of Alberta. She was recently selected as the New Democratic Party’s candidate for the Canadian federal elections of 2015 in her hometown riding of Sherwood Park-Fort Saskatchewan in Alberta, Canada.  

Rhodes Project: How would you describe your time at Oxford? What have been significant experiences for you here?

Joanne Cave:  The best word that comes to mind is “surreal”. It has been an experience of cognitive dissonance—I’ve had trouble bridging my Oxford experience with my life at home. The experience here has been so, so different in many ways. I found the very “classist” nature of the institution difficult to adjust to – it’s been a whirlwind of black-tie dinners, obscure traditions and often very privileged classmates. I’ve enjoyed my time here immensely, but was always acutely aware of my family’s class background.

My friendships here have been one of the most defining aspects of my time in Oxford. I’ve also thoroughly enjoyed learning from some of the world’s leading activists and thinkers, such as including Joseph Stiglitz, Patricia Hill-Collins, David Suzuki and Kumi Naidoo. I have also had the opportunity to travel quite extensively – everywhere from Israel and Palestine to Hong Kong. It’s been a very rich and intellectually stimulating two years, and an experience I will never forget. 

Rhodes Project: You have pursued the MSc in Comparative Social Policy and the Master of Public Policy at Oxford. Where does your interest in policy come from? What have been your takeaways from this experience?

Joanne Cave: My interest in policy started when I was a young feminist activist in high school, actually. Most of our advocacy work eventually landed in the laps of policymakers – even issues as small-scale as comprehensive sex education. I realized that all of the social justice issues I cared about – local and national – are, fundamentally, policy questions.

The theoretical and applied nature of these two programs has been very complementary. Both programs have helped me reflect on the complex nature of policy change, and how important individuals can be in the policy change process. Policy change requires boldness, initiative and humanness. We often assume policymaking is very quantitative or mechanical, always driven by numbers and outcomes. It doesn’t have to be this way – it can drive to the heart of the issues that matter in the everyday lives of citizens. This is, in part, what is motivating my future plans for a political life.

Rhodes Project: How do your experiences at Oxford fit with your plans afterwards?

Joanne Cave: I’m really excited by the recent election of the New Democratic Party (NDP) in Alberta – it’s the first time the NDP has had an opportunity to govern our province. As a result, I recently submitted my nomination paperwork to seek the NDP’s nomination to run for the federal parliament in my hometown Alberta riding, Sherwood Park-Fort Saskatchewan. It’s an exciting move, and one that I’ve considered for a long time but haven’t quite had the courage to act upon!

Immediately upon leaving Oxford, I will also be joining the Alberta Public Service through a two-year internship program focused on Aboriginal issues. Regardless of what happens with my nomination bid and our federal election, I’m excited to have an opportunity to work directly on the policy issues I care most about. I initially imagined my next step would be law school, focusing on Aboriginal and feminist law. I decided that now isn’t quite the right time. I enjoy the dynamism in political life too much, and I want to part of the process of policymaking itself – whether that’s running for elected office or working in the public service. Oxford was an opportunity to reflect on whether academia or research might fit into my career plans, and I realized that both are too removed for me.

I find the dynamism of politics and political activism very energizing, and if I weren’t working in public service I would definitely be working in advocacy for a non-profit or social justice organization. It’s in my blood!

Rhodes Project: What policy issues in Canada and Alberta do you want to engage in at the moment?

Joanne Cave: There are so many! One issue that I’ve been reflecting on lately is how we can develop our oil sands and energy industries responsibly. Responsible development doesn’t just mean environmental – resource-driven, boom-and-bust economies also have a profound social impact. Fort McMurray is a community in northern Alberta where much of the oil extraction occurs, and there have been enormous social impacts from the influx of a very male-dominated workforce. Very unintended consequences, too – increasingly unaffordable housing, rampant substance abuse, violence against women and a thriving sex work industry. I am also very interested in First Nations issues in Canada, and how governments can foster mutual respect, understanding and the capacity for self-governance.

On a personal level, I am also interested in ageing populations and Canada’s long-term care system. My mother was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s about four years ago, and currently lives in a dementia ward of a long-term care facility. How do we make sustainable and compassionate policies for families like mine, when individuals are at their most vulnerable? The impact of diagnoses like dementia can be profound – families are often expected to care for their loved ones informally, compromise their own employment prospects and approach the poverty line paying for care. It reflects major gaps in Canada’s social safety net, and unfortunately I think it will only get worse unless we see significant political change.

Rhodes Project: Can you tell me more about your experiences in the non-profit and social finance sectors in Toronto? What interests you about this space?

Joanne Cave: My interest in the non-profit sector and social finance stems directly from my work with women’s organizations. In high school I started my own girls’ leadership organization, and later in my undergraduate years I served on the board of several women’s organisations.

Women’s organizations often do quite political work, and funding can be precarious. I kept hearing the same conversations over and over again: “How do we sustain our organization for the next 5-10 years and become less reliant on government grants? What if we can’t pay for full-time staff next year?”. In Canada, unfortunately, many non-profit advocacy organizations are becoming increasingly nervous about engaging in political activities. The political climate is more polarized and organizational funding is increasingly threatened based on their political activities.

These conversations made me reflect on the role of non-profit organizations in our civic life and democracy. We assume these organizations will always exist, especially the most essential ones – food banks, rape crisis centres and the like. Many organizations – even the ones I describe – are feeling the pressure to generate their own revenue and become self-sustaining, and as a result they often resort to social enterprise or social finance tools. Social enterprise and social finance models aren’t always appropriate, and it reflects a broader trend towards government offloading social service provision to the non-profit sector.

In Toronto, my friend Heather Laird and I co-founded an informal network of young non-profit professionals called Connect The Sector. The network is now Ontario-wide, and is intended to create a space for young leaders in the sector to engage in frank discussion about the changes I described (everything from their job prospects to the sustainability of the organizations they work for). Some of the issues we raised include the barriers to political advocacy, the future of the non-profit sector and a concept called the ‘leadership deficit’, in which baby boomers retire from leadership positions in unprecedented numbers.

Rhodes Project: Women and gender studies have been an area of focus for you in Canada and in Oxford. Can you tell me more about these experiences?

Joanne Cave: I first found feminism when I was 12 years old. It sounds unusual, but I think many young women find feminism in their day-to-day experiences rather than the classroom. I read several books that were very transformative, and it made me reflect on how parts of my school curriculum omitted women’s contributions.

I also felt like young women didn’t have a space to engage in the issues affecting their daily lives – everything from body image and self esteem to more complex social justice issues. There were also few spaces in my community where young women were recognized as leaders, rather than delinquents or troublemakers in need of supervision or support. I wanted to create a positive, hopeful and empowering narrative about what young women could be.

It seemed natural to me to specialize in women’s studies as an undergraduate. Studying feminism from an academic perspective changed my outlook entirely – I realized the issues affecting girls and young women are deeply political and structural. I had some wonderful women’s studies classes at the University of Toronto on everything from feminist political economy to post-colonial literature. I will always be grateful for my education in women’s studies – it was the most enriching four years of my life.

Rhodes Project: Who are your mentors or role models, within the policy space or beyond? How have they shaped your thinking?

Joanne Cave: There were two women, Lily Tsui and Andrea Dalton, who helped me launch my young women’s leadership organization in high school. They were two psychology PhD students at the University of Alberta who supported the work of the organization for five years. They were mentors in every sense of the word: completely committed to our work and deepening my understanding of feminism and activism. They helped me think through my university and career plans, and I will forever be grateful for both of them.

At the University of Toronto there was one professor in the Women and Gender Studies Institute, Dr. Judith Taylor, who profoundly changed my life. She taught an outstanding class in the department called “Utopian Visions, Activist Realities”. The class helped me unpack feminist organizing and the feminist successes we have inherited from previous generations of women. She’s brilliant and we are still in touch frequently.

I was also lucky to work for Councillor Janet Davis at Toronto City Hall. It was during Mayor Rob Ford’s time in City Hall, and she had a very intelligent, sharp and feisty presence. She was very capable of navigating bureaucracy and deeply committed to the smallest of issues, whether it was raccoons in someone’s backyard or delayed garbage collection. Social change for her was so micro-scale, and it really impacted how I think about my own political future at the local level.

Rhodes Project: What book(s) have been most transformative for you?

Joanne Cave: The book that prompted a lot of my feminist activism was Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia: Saving The Selves of Adolescent Girls. She is a psychologist who wrote about the young women she would see in her practice, and the importance of giving girls and young women agency and personal power.

I will never forget Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine And What Matters In The End. It makes such a compelling case for end-of-life care and doctor-assisted suicide. I was so moved when I finished it – it’s a work of art. I also highly recommend Judy Rebick’s Transforming Power: From The Personal to the Political – it’s a brilliant analysis of successful political organizing.

Rhodes Project: What do you think the next 10 years of your life will look like professionally and personally?

Joanne Cave: I hope the next 10 years of my life are dynamic, energizing and unexpected. I would very much like to write more, both non-fiction and fiction. I have a project in mind about Alzheimer’s and the relationship between mothers and daughters that I would like to explore more fully.

I also see myself working in some political capacity and volunteering on the boards of feminist and social justice organizations. I’d love to be back in Alberta – I feel very rooted and close to home. It’s going to be an important period to spend some quality time with my mother, and I have prioritized that above anything else. I may also consider law school or a PhD in the eventual future, as it’s an interest I haven’t quite satisfied.

No matter how demanding my career is, I want to maintain my love of travel and physical activity. CrossFit is my latest obsession – I find Olympic weightlifting such an empowering sport for women and I hope to continue doing it for the rest of my life. 

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