‘Who are your role models?’

(Photo by Nick Lachance)

Brenda Halloran didn’t become Waterloo’s mayor in the most conventional way, nor was it easy.

Speaking to a group of students on Nov. 24 at Wilfrid Laurier University, Halloran, who became mayor in 2006, took the time to share her experiences and challenges on how she got to the point where she is at today. The event, which was put on by Access U and Women In Leadership Laurier (WILL), aimed to inspire professional development among young female students.

But regardless of the goal of the talk, both male and female students came out to listen to Halloran speak.

Beginning with a talk about her upbringing, Halloran outlined the times in her life that had influenced her both positive or negatively. But with the help of mentors and peers, Halloran explained, she was able to overcome these challenges.

“My father taught me how to be an independent young woman,” Halloran said about her first real mentor in her life.  “So my father in the 1960s was telling me, ‘don’t ever change your name. It’s your name; you don’t belong to anyone.’”

“Who are your role models? Who are your mentors? And who are these people that are passionate about pushing and guiding you to these great opportunities?” Halloran asked the audience, adding that students have to take an active role in finding who these people are.

While she mentioned some of the struggles that women faced in achieving leadership roles in the 1970s and 80s, Halloran asserted that the situation for female students is completely different today.

“In those days, and this is in the mid-1970s, for women there were very few job opportunities, it’s not like it is today,” she explained. “I envy you, because I wish I could be you right now with the opportunities ahead of you.”

When Halloran graduated from Waterloo Collegiate Institute in the late 1970s, she was somewhat unsure of what she wanted to do, especially since her options were so limited at the time. As a result, she became a nurse.

But after about seven years as a nurse, Halloran decided to quit — an impulsive decision that shocked her parents. She then worked a variety of oddball jobs as a single mother, such as at the Canadian National Exhibition, at the Toronto international airport, a manager at a steel exporter and then finally at the Canada Revenue Tax agency.

She added that workplace sexual harassment in previous decades wasn’t monitored well, and she shared some of those experiences to the audience. In addition, she shared her experiences of losing her life savings as well as her long drawn-out legal battles with a municipal government in the Region of Waterloo.

This is where Halloran got her motivation to run for mayor in 2006. “When the time comes, I need to get into the system and change it. Government should be working for the people, not against it,” she said she told herself back when she was thinking about running.

Halloran told the audience to never let other people bring your motivational levels down. If someone said something negative to another person, their response should be, according to Halloran, “Thanks for the feedback.”

“Never say, ‘oh poor me.’ What I say is, ‘What’s next?” Halloran stressed.

“Her stories are really cohesive with our organizational goals and the message we’re trying to convey,” Heather McKinnon, co-president of WILL, told The Cord after the talk. “We thought that by working together [with Access U] we can portray this message in a different way and get it out there.”

Halloran encouraged students to get out and volunteer in the community and to experience different paths of life because, as she put it, “Tomorrow the world can change in a second. You just don’t know.”

“You have to look at how people really live. You don’t realize how privileged we are,” Halloran added.

“You need to help those who need it.”

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