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Peggy Birnberg: A wise and knowing heart

February 10, 2013

Minutes after the news that Peggy Birnberg had died last Friday morning, the emailed tributes began to circulate. Friends and colleagues called her strong, thoughtful, compassionate and fair – “a force,” “a gentle but insistent advocate,” a teacher, mentor and leader.

There are many people who knew Peggy better than I did. In fact, the most frequently used phrase among the emailed tributes was, “she was a good friend.” This blog is for the people who didn’t know Peggy, and especially young people hoping to make their mark in the world and perhaps seeking a different leadership model than the ones we are often presented with.

For 19 years, Peggy was the Executive Director of Houselink Community Homes, Ontario’s second largest supportive housing provider, and the home to 400 people.

Houselink was launched in 1977 by a band of trail-blazing activists. They looked at the stalled lives of people living in mental institutions, and the money poured into keeping them there, and asked, “What if we used that same money in a way that actually made lives better?”

They started buying houses that would offer a secure, permanent home, and a place for people to support each other. By the time Peggy was hired in 1991, Houselink owned homes for 200 people, and the concept of supportive housing had spread across North America.

It’s not easy to blaze trails without incurring a few scars, and it was at a particularly scarred moment in Houselink’s development that Peggy applied for the Executive Director’s job. (The story goes that the moment Peggy left her job interview, Hiring Committee member Jo Ferris-Davies cried out, “Yes! There is a God.”)

Breathing life into principles

Peggy was a healing balm for Houselink. She was such a genuine, transparent person herself that she inspired trust among members and staff.

Peggy’s sterling integrity was obvious to anyone who met her. Of course in our sector there are lots of people who believe in equality and empowerment. Peggy’s special gift was her ability to bring these principles to life.

Peggy herself told me of a moment when some Houselink members were calling for a separate member-only committee to voice their concerns at tenants. Her first reaction was, “What for?”

I think most people would have had the same reaction. Why do you need a tenant committee in an organizations where all tenants are voting members, form half the Board and most of the committees?  But Peggy wisely withheld judgment. Rather than defending the structure she heard the need. And so Houselink formed its Member Advisory Forum.

Kind and direct

Peggy was both kind and direct – a rare combination. I learned this early in our acquaintance. One of my first gigs as a new consultant was writing a booklet about Houselink’s approach to housing. Peggy had circulated my draft and received blistering written comments from one of her managers.

A merely kind person might have held those comments back to save me feelings, and a merely direct person would have simply forwarded them. The Peggy Birnberg Way was to phone me.  “I am very pleased with what you’ve written,” she said, “but one of my managers has some tough criticisms. I don’t agree with the way he’s expressed them, but see if you can learn anything from them.” That call took me off the defensive and allowed me to take the criticisms at face value.

A life of achievement

It was from this foundation of integrity, transparency and kindness that Peggy began to blaze trails of her own. Under her leadership Houselink revamped its mission, consolidated its operations and tripled its funding base. It embraced the recovery movement, expanded employment opportunities for members, established a food program, developed new properties, and introduced Families Moving Forward, education bursaries and a rainy day fund for members. In 2001, Houselink won the ONPHA Award for Excellence.

Upon her retirement from Houselink, Peggy said, “I want to be remembered for changing the organization so that we are a model organization and that people turn to us for advice and support.” That wish has been fulfilled. Houselink played a lead role in the Mental Health and Justice Initiative and the formation of The Dream Team. Peggy herself played a leading role in many housing and mental health organizations and coalitions, and influenced thinking across the sector.

A breakthrough idea — shared

The achievement I know best was the founding of the HomeComing Coalition.

HomeComing came out of Peggy’s flash of insight as she walked home from one of those dreadful public meetings that routinely greet new housing development. She and Houselink President Phillip Dufresne had just presented plans for a new supportive housing building, and the educated and ordinarily civilized Riverdale community responded by calling their future neighbours criminals, murderers, pedophiles – even terrorists.

It was during that walk home that she had the “AHAA” moment: “This isn’t consultation. This isn’t free speech. This is discrimination.”

This fight-back idea was a breakthrough at a time when public consultations were seen as sacrosanct.  Sharing the idea was the beginning of change.

I think the impulse of many leaders with a bold idea is to try to get others to “buy in.” Peggy’s way was to invite people to share in developing and advancing the idea.

Her first call was to her friend and colleague Brigitte Witkowski, the E.D. of Mainstay Housing. Together they gathered a fledgling group of human rights, planning and mental health experts and advocates. That turned the idea into a coalition. And that coalition helped re-interpret human rights law, and transformed the discourse around planning and public consultations in Ontario.

This is the gift Peggy Birnberg brought. She saw to the heart of issues. And she saw into the hearts of people.

She was a wise and knowing heart. We will miss her.

Peggy’s obituary was published on February 9th in the Toronto Star.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. Angie Hains permalink
    February 10, 2013 9:47 am

    Wonderful!

  2. February 10, 2013 11:12 am

    you got it, Peggy also new how to reach out and across organizations. When the MOH chose four organizations including houselink to lead the mental health and justice project, Peggy convened a two day strategic planning workshop with Ruth Armstrong, keeping us at the table unitl we all understood how we were to work together. the approach still endures to this day. and Peggy would be proud to know that most previously homeless tenants in the project ( 550) have been successfully housed for four years. She will be missed.
    Steve Lurie

  3. Brian Davis permalink
    February 10, 2013 1:53 pm

    What a beautiful entry Joy.

    Peggy was such a compassionate leader who always recognized and valued everyone’s potential and put everyone at ease.

    In 2010 I was humbled by the privilege and honour of taking the reigns from someone whose leadership I held in such high regard. What I admired greatly about Peggy was her understanding that for someone’s dignity to be restored, the debilitating effects of poverty had to be addressed.

    It is with this recognition that Houselink has always strived to be a leader in nurturing social purpose enterprises, supporting inclusive employment programs, and doing all it can to create jobs for Members. Working along side our Members to have a voice, be it at the Board table or in shaping public policy, is as much a part of our work as our community building.

    Besides seeing the big picture, Peggy was also very pragmatic. I recall asking her to describe what a supportive housing worker does, she simply replied “whatever it takes to keep someone housed”.

    I know I speak for the Board, the Members and the staff, that the values that Peggy lived by, the values that are now imbedded in our culture at Houselink, are a legacy that will continue far into Houselink’s future.

    Brian Davis

  4. February 10, 2013 6:09 pm

    That is most definitely the Peggy I knew, respected, and admired, and learned so much from. Thank you Joy.
    –Ken Donner

  5. Catherine Boucher permalink
    February 11, 2013 7:37 am

    I met and worked with Peggy on the ONPHA Board in the early and mid-nineties. Although we were all peers, I found myself looking to Peggy as “the wise one”. We would all be kvetching about some MMAH decision or making grand pronouncements about how to fight back and Peggy would sit quietly, paying attention and honing her radar. She would then speak (softly, always) and find a way to remind us all of why we were there. It was like being in church, but way nicer.

  6. April 13, 2013 10:12 pm

    I had the opportunity to meet Peggy in my work as a facilitator. She had the ability to provide insight and reason in difficult yet informative conversations. The article got it right, she engaged people by listening, caring and being present. She will be missed yet remembered!

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