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Spotlight on alumni

Maureen Woodrow

Maureen Woodrow is the kind of an alumna every university wants. She is an active volunteer and one of the original members of the alumni group which eventually started one of Memorial’s most recognizable alumni events – Ottawa Affinity Newfoundland and Labrador Dinner. She is also a well known sociologist and a passionate advocate for smart and inclusive rural development. She recently talked to our contributor Bojan Fürst at her summer home on Change Islands, NL.

BF: Tell me a little bit about yourself.
MW: I grew up in St. John’s. I attended the Mercy Convent and Holy Heart and Memorial. Initially, I started off in physical education and I received the diploma and I taught then at Mercy Convent for a year. I returned to Memorial and finished my degree in sociology.

BF: After Memorial, you went to Europe?
MW: After Memorial, I worked at Expo 67. Following Expo 67, I came back to Memorial and worked with the Extension Department with Don Snowden. That was just after the Fogo Process, so there was a lot going on in community development. I was involved with Decks Awash at that point both, in magazine and the TV production of Decks Awash. It was really fun. Then following that, I went to university in Europe.

BF: Tell me a little bit about Decks Awash.
MW: It was a magazine that started at the Extension department of Memorial and it was also a program that talked about the issues in fishing and rural communities. I think it was a monthly magazine. It was quite popular at the time.

BF: Today, where do you work?
MW: I am at University of Ottawa as the executive director of the Ocean Management Research Network and that’s been really interesting.

BF: What are some of the projects you worked on?
MW: Initially I started on a project that was about an ecosystem based management in Eastern Ontario. I was really interested because it was very, very community based. Working with the community and the environmental projects in environmental stewardship. From there, I moved into working at the same place, the Institute of Environment, to some aboriginal projects in northern Alberta and also some projects in the north of Ontario on sustainability. I was then asked to work on a project at Carleton called Global Environmental Change and Human Security and that was an international project so it involved a lot of travelling all over the place and that was fantastic. After that, I moved back to University of Ottawa in my current position.

BF: You have a strong connection to Change Islands. Did the research bring you to Change Islands?
MW: No, actually. The research did not bring me to Change Islands. We decided we want to buy a house in Newfoundland. We had a place on the Big Rideau in Ottawa and we sold that much to a lot of people’s chagrin: “You are moving to Newfoundland for a summer place? That’s crazy.” We purchased the house in 1998 and then from there as we saw some of the stages and stores being destroyed, particularly the big one just across the tickle, we decided we had to try to do something. We are not exactly the people who sit and read books all day [laughter]. We decided to get involved in the community. We set up Stages and Stores Heritage Foundation to preserve the stages on Change Islands. And then we started an arts and craft business and we started a café and than we repaired an old heritage cottage and restored it to its original state. It’s a lot of work, but it’s also a lot of fun and you learn a lot about the community and how communities operate, the positives and the negatives of rural communities. Particularly, you learn about policies that work and don’t work because all the policies now are urban-centric made by the bureaucrats who don’t know what a fish looks like or what a rural community looks like.

BF: So the policy issues have been at the forefront of your research?
MW: A lot of it. What I initially tried to do… and it’s always with partners, it’s never me alone. Initially it was with Simon Fraser, I worked with Patricia Gallagher and Kelly Vodden as a student and she is now at Memorial University as assistant professor of geography. I’ve been working with them throughout and we’ve always been interested in the relationship between policy and community and how policy affects community. In 2003 we held a workshop called Vulnerability in Coastal Communities and then in 2006 we held a follow up to that workshop which went beyond vulnerability and it looked at what kind of adaptations you can make, what can you do for rural community economic development. After that, we used Change Islands as one of the sites for a national project which was called Uncertain Futures. Basically,
it was looking at how global changes are impacting
rural areas.

BF: You are currently involved in a mapping project?
MW: After all that I became involved in a mapping project with Derek Smith from Carleton University. That was really interesting because through the years that I’ve been on Change Islands, you hear people talking about the bays and the coves and the names of the shoals so what we did is record them. We just went to people’s houses, sitting around kitchen tables and then people would recall one name and then close their eyes and then get the whole bay. It was fantastic. With that information, we were able to move on. What we are at now is looking at the local knowledge and coastal management.

BF: Your involvement with Memorial hasn’t ceased…
MW: [Laughter] No! I’ll get to be a senior citizen and I’ll still be involved. We started a small alumni group… gosh… in the 1980s. We started a core group in Ottawa. We plan events to try to get people involved. Basically your goal is to raise the profile of Memorial, never to really raise money. But with Tom (Bursey) and the Affinity Newfoundland and Labrador Dinner we moved into fundraising and that’s been very interesting because you are taking it to another level. It’s been great fun.

BF: The scholarship Ottawa Dinner raises money for a student from a rural community in Newfoundland who plans to return to his or her community upon graduation. You had great success with it.
MW: Yes we have. I argued for it obviously [laughter] because I can see that it is very difficult for a student from a rural community to get to Memorial. I thought it was important to try to encourage not only the students from rural communities to pursue post-secondary education, but also to help them do it, especially those who want to go back. And who believe that it is important to bring back some skills and capacity to rural areas. I think that’s critical.