Muse Worthy Wendy Lees: Creating Something out of Nothing

This is the first instalment in a series on Workshop Muse I am calling "Muse Worthy." Muse Worthy is a chance for me to share with you stories about people I find inspiring. These are people I have met, or maybe just heard about that make me want to be a more compassionate person, dig deeper, and show up with more love in this world. I hope that you will find their stories inspiring and perhaps even feel moved to take a new, or more intentional action in your life!

Wendy Lees, Calgary, AB

Social Worker/Social Business

Developer and 2014 Finalist for the Samara Everyday Political Citizen Award

​I met Wendy Lees 3 years ago shortly after I heard about a program she was leading called create! in the East Village. I was so inspired by it that I immediately took a risk and sent her my resume out of the blue hoping I could help her in some way.

create! was an arts based program for marginalized seniors in an often forgotten part of our city. The Seniors in this community are under served and at constant risk of falling prey to the dark side of gentrification, as their community is being transformed into a new arts and culture hub for the city of Calgary. After decades of being written off as derelict, in recent years the city has invested millions and millions of dollars to see this community become a glitzy attraction. It’s a story we have seen played out many times in many communities across the world. The most vulnerable in a community usually see the least benefit in changes like this. create! was Wendy's attempt at giving these people something of value, their own creative voice and outlet for expression in the midst of a transforming landscape around them.

When I first met Wendy she shared with me how she first came to the idea of create! She had recently left her job in small business and felt compelled to use her skills and energy bringing the arts to those most in need. After a few small contracts and agency work using her skills as a social worker and artist, she felt a strong pull to come to the East Village. Literally- a physical pull that saw her walk to the community and wander around while she mused about what she could offer the residents! There was very little happening for the residents of the East Village beyond a few small recreational programs at risk of closure in the local seniors centre, and a few health programs. I remember Wendy sharing with me how assured and strong the pull to work in the community of the East Village felt. She literally just walked to the community and decided to do something; it was as simple as that there was no turning back. Out of thin air and her own passionate drive, she created something out of nothing.

As time went on and the arts program began to take shape, the challenges and uncertainty were abundant. Space, funding, and politics were some major challenges, just to name a few. But despite what seemed like every obstacle possible, Wendy successfully developed and implemented arts programming for the seniors in the community for 2.5 years. From painting to mosaics, creative writing to collaborative art making create! would routinely see 10-15 participants come to take part in whatever was being offered that day. The participants had a joy and lightness while creating I witnessed many times despite their many obstacles including mental health, physical challenges, and for many the looming threat of displacement.

To say that Wendy has an unyielding vision and dedication is an understatement. She found a drive and calling that I have never encountered anywhere else in my life, she knew that the arts could benefit these seniors and so she did everything she could to bring it to them. Sadly, the story of create! does not follow the happily ever after arc. After many, many, battles for support and calls to action the program closed its doors last spring.

But some of my favourite and most inspiring stories don't fit into a tidy package, they have grit and struggle and show us that life and living is about doing your best in the moment. Wendy made something of deep value out of nothing for many, many, moments for many people. What more worthy venture could we aspire to do with our life and energy? She felt a call to action and she was moved to see it through. For that Wendy is a Muse Worthy soul in my world, a reminder to listen to that pull and stick to your ethics even when the waters are muddy and the struggles are many. But I am not interested in Wendy’s ability to sustain a program, I am interested in her compassion and bold choices, her sacrifices and her ability to listen and be responsive even when it was hardest. For her to put her soul her energy and her worldly possessions on the line for those so in need.

It remains to be seen what the next step will be for her but whatever it is I know that she is better for having taken the many risks she did and offering a creative hand to so many in need.

I had a chance to go for coffee and walk with Wendy and ask her a few questions. I hope you find her responses inspiring with perhaps some perspective for moving towards your own call to action....

What has been the greatest support for you in your work?

My self care practices. These were the things that kept me going when things were hard. Every morning I wake up and write lists of the things that are good, that are working well, and that I am thankful for. This helps me to remember all of the positive things I have in my life and keeps me from slipping into focusing on the dark stuff. I have also done a lot of meditation over the years and have created my own meditation practice each morning (and most evenings) where I just try and sit and not think. Also, the support of my children, family, friends and partner have been so helpful for me. They remind me of what I need to focus on. My children have told me that they are proud of me and that means so much. I met my partner while doing this work and his support has been paramount, sometimes I think my pull to be in East Village had a large part to do with meeting him!

When set backs have you encountered, what helped you through these?

I have done a lot of exploration in the area of personal growth and spirituality. I’ve even developed businesses around this in the past. The teachings of Abraham- Hicks has helped me to learn to focus on the positive things, which in turn helps to manifest a good life. This has been a lifesaver.

What has been the most surprising thing for you in this work?

I have always considered myself a social justice advocate and throughout my career as a social worker I was always the one speaking up when I saw that things weren’t “right”, when I felt we could be dong better to meet the needs of the “clients”. When I began working with create! I was so surprised with the lack of advocacy and with the bureaucracy that plagued social workers and the servicing agencies. Few were speaking up, few were advocating, many seemed to be lost in bureaucracy and politics. I felt that there was a real lack of a grassroots approach to helping. It seemed that decision makers were often far removed from the people they were trying to serve. I worked really hard to keep create! connected to the people it served by being very present in the community. Because I operated independently, I was able to be nimble and adaptable and keep the program really flexible to the participants needs. This felt really important, I didn't want to fall into the trap of being stifled like the others. I wanted to be able to be effective at elevating the well-being of the participants and to really advocate.

Where do you turn to for inspiration when you are in a rut?

Creative expression has been an ongoing support for me and my preferred expression is mixed media. I also like to go for walks and listen to live music.

I try and have fun as much as possible too! My home nurtures me and I love cooking and having friends over.

What is something that people can do right now to begin sharing their energies and ideas with the community?

The best way for people to share their energies with the community is to make sure they do good things for themselves, regularly. Giving back will flow naturally when we first tend to ourselves. Something that I constantly need to remind myself of!

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