Turning Passion into Purpose - United Way Alberta Capital Region

Turning Passion into Purpose

April 11, 2022

Girls Friendship Togetherness Community Concept

Women United Co-chairs share how a collective passion for social justice and community can be a powerful force for good.

Danisha Bhaloo-Shivji and Regina Davis believe in the power of women to create substantial societal change. To turn their passion into action, both community-minded women were inspired to lead, design, and co-chair United Way of the Alberta Capital Region’s Women United initiative, which launched in March 2022.

Delivered by United Ways in six countries and 165 communities around the globe, Women United has 70,000 members worldwide. Together, they have raised over $2 billion since 2002 to support initiatives benefitting their communities. And now, Bhaloo-Shivji and Davis want to leverage the power of that movement locally.

We sat down for a conversation with the co-chairs to find out what motivated them to get involved and how the initiative aims to help female-identifying people experiencing poverty here in the Capital Region.

Have you been affected by poverty? How did it shape where you are in your life today?
Regina Davis: I grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana. Neither of my parents graduated university or post-secondary type of education, so they worked fast food jobs and construction, but not anything that really put us above the poverty line. Every summer, my mom would make sure that my siblings and I were in some type of program. One of them focused on careers in science and math, and it was for women and minorities. And it was all these women who were doctors and engineers and scientists and things that I had no clue about. I did not know what an engineer was, but that’s what I ended up pursuing as a career.

When I think about how many people invested in me, how many people were willing to mentor me, just give their time, their treasure, their talent, that is the biggest case for action for me to give back.

Regina DavisCo-Chair, Women United

Danisha Bhaloo-Shivji: Like Regina, I grew up in poverty. I was born in Calgary and moved to Edmonton when I was nine years old because my parents separated. Then a few years later my dad passed away unexpectedly, and that really pulled my mom into poverty because she didn’t have that financial support from him at that time, and she worked three jobs to put a roof over our heads.

I was failing school, I wasn’t doing very well at all, given everything that was happening in my life. But my mom enrolled [my sister and I] with Big Brothers Big Sisters. We needed more mentors and role models in our lives and to show us a different path. I just recently realized when I started working at [Big Brothers Big Sisters] that United Way has been a funder for the past 30 years, which means when I was going through the programs, it was the donors from United Way who supported me financially to get through the program. And not only that, but corporate partners at the time also allowed me a full scholarship to go to university.

As a woman, what barriers have you experienced to achieving your personal or professional goals?
Danisha Bhaloo-Shivji: There are definitely obstacles and challenges that are unique to women that, initially, set us up on a different level to men.

We really need to address the foundational pieces, not only how we empower and support women, but how we level the playing field right at the beginning to make sure that women have what they need to succeed.

Danisha Bhaloo-Shivji, Co-Chair, Women United

Regina Davis: I work in oil and gas, an industry that is predominantly male. Early in my career, I was just happy to be an engineer and happy to be part of the team. And then I started noticing that ‘Hey, I’m not getting invited to go out with the guys after work’ and ‘Hey, they’re going with our boss – who, by the way, is the one that’s also deciding who gets what opportunities.’ Thank God I had someone in my career that leaned in and said ‘You need mentors. Seek out mentors.’ I think that’s where it’s so important for women and allies to support women, to help close those gaps and level the playing field.

What sets Women United apart from other women-led philanthropic organizations?
Danisha Bhaloo-Shivji: There are a lot of organizations that support women, but I found that a lot of them have their own niches – there’s women in politics, there’s women in STEM – all very important and very much needed. But when you look at women who are living in poverty, generally, women who are dealing with everyday challenges, there isn’t one umbrella group that’s there to support them or that’s holistic to the needs that they have. And I feel that’s the gap that Women United fills. Not only to be able to provide mentoring supports or mental health supports specifically to women in their needs, but also to recognize and appreciate women who are just putting in the hard work every single day. And I think that’s different.

Regina Davis: The connections and the reach that United Way has I think makes Women United special. United Way can really look at where [in the community] we should prioritize support. Also United Way’s ability to interface with workplaces, leverage United Way resources, and subject matter experts, is what I think is really powerful.

What do you want to accomplish through Women United in the community and for women and female-identifying individuals living in poverty?
Danisha Bhaloo-Shivji: We want to give them a voice and a safe space to share. What challenges are they going through? How can we work together to best support them?

We want to raise the next generation of young women, and I know that’s a lofty goal. But when we think about young girls in high school and even post-secondary, what are the options and what are the possibilities for them that they might not know of right now because they’re still stuck in their own bubble? Mentoring is going to be key for us.

And coming out of a pandemic crisis, everyone’s mental health has been affected in some way or another, and I think we need to destigmatize that. For example, women who might not have benefits through their workplaces to go and see a therapist – how can we best support them? I know there are organizations that United Way is affiliated with that provide free drop-in counseling and things like that, so I’m hoping that Women United can raise awareness of what’s out there already.

What excites you about Women United?
Regina Davis: When women thrive, the community thrives. And you know, even as both Danisha and I were sharing our own stories, what resonated for me is that when you impact women, you impact families. To me that is so powerful. And all of us joining together through Women United, it’s going to be a force to be reckoned with.


*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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