Where do leaders come from? Some seem to fall into it naturally, while others slowly acquire skills with time and experience. For many, there are defining moments that nudge them into a role they didn’t know they could fill. For Wendy Barber, a 1965 Ontario Athletic Leadership Camp was one of those moments.
“I didn’t look at myself as being a potential leader at the time,” she says, “but obviously my school did as I was selected to go.”
That camp helped the feisty lesbian build the confidence and skills she would carry into a successful 32-year teaching career and beyond. She’s worked diligently behind the scenes for decades to improve the quality of life for women, members of the queer community and others in need.
“I’ve always been one to try to support the underdog or people marginalized by society,” explains Barber. “I didn’t have an easy childhood and I was very lucky that all the things fell into place at the right time and people were good to me. Some people just need that extra helping hand.”
Barber’s desire to help attracted her to her current cause: the Ten Oaks Project, which runs programs for families that are either members of, or allied with, the gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, two-spirit and otherwise queer communities. Youth are the focus, and this August Ten Oaks will run its second annual weeklong, sleep-away summer camp in the Gatineau Hills. When Barber read about last year’s camp in Capital Xtra, she knew she had to get involved.
“I called and asked how can I help,” she says. “The first thing they said was ‘would you be willing to sit on the board?’ And I thought, ‘well, why not?'”
Since last fall, Barber’s been the secretary for Ten Oaks’ board of directors and a liaison to outside agencies like the Ontario Camping Association. For this year’s camp, she’s helping develop a new leadership training program for campers aged 16 and 17. It’s a perfect fit for a retired physical education specialist with years of coaching experience and a special interest in outdoor education.
While all teachers are leaders in their own right, Barber’s of a special breed. She was deeply involved in union activities and human rights issues throughout her career. As chief union negotiator for teachers in the Leeds and Grenville district, she brought queer issues to the fore.
“Even before there were gay rights, I made sure that we had same-sex partners recognized in our contract,” she says.
Barber also spent almost a decade as the Eastern Ontario representative for the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation’s human rights and status of women committees. They reviewed legislation and developed programs and lesson plans for schools. Barber’s one of those unsung heroes who quietly change society one policy or program at a time.
While Barber likes to keep a low profile for the most part, she has, on occasion, taken centre stage. Before retiring she set out to educate the bosses, giving a workshop on homophobia to district administrators.
“It was really exciting to do, standing in front of them and talking about combating homophobia in school, because the principal sets the tone in a school,” says Barber.
The administrative support Barber received allowed her to put the spotlight on topics as diverse as AIDS, violence against women and racism, often in ways that were still taboo at the time. She counts herself fortunate to have taught in an era of social change and increased emphasis on human rights and social issues, but admits that queer issues continue to dog schools today.
“There were certainly changes in terms of the teaching profession, but there was still a definite homophobic atmosphere,” she says. “The two most common words you would hear any day in a school were fuck and fag. You know what it’s like to try and stop that?”
That’s why Barber feels it’s important to support projects like Camp Ten Oaks. “It gives [kids] an environment where they can talk about things because their schools are still very homophobic,” she says.
Barber was also drawn to Ten Oaks in part because of its strong social conscience. For example, the board uses a consensus-based decision making model. Camp fees are scaled according to ability to pay and camp activities are built around a philosophy of social justice. This year’s guiding theme is globalization and counsellors also plan to take on issues like bullying, something queer youth know all too well.
Financial support for Ten Oaks has been growing of late. Barber is especially proud of the $4,000 that Retired Teachers of Ontario just donated under its Service to Others program. Funds have also come from the Community Foundation of Ottawa and Toronto’s Lesbian and Gay Community Appeal Foundation, but individual donors are still key, as are events like last March’s successful bowl-a-thon.
What makes Barber keep volunteering when she could simply kick back and enjoy a well deserved peaceful retirement with her partner on their 47 acres in Dunrobin? While she does enjoy country living and the freedom to pursue her interests, she says that life isn’t quite complete when you’re not engaged in making the world a better place.
“It’s nice to see something turn out that you’ve been involved in, and be successful and know that you were part of it no matter how small a part you played,” she says. “It’s just nice to know that you helped.”