Essay submitted by S. Lesley Sacouman
Executive Director, Holy Names House of Peace; Board Member (2002-2016), The Winnipeg Foundation
“Our times demand moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.”
Rabbi Abraham Heschel’s words embody the history, character and path of The Winnipeg Foundation.
In January 2002, I was catapulted from the belly of New York City, where I had lived for two months with those experiencing homelessness, into The Winnipeg Foundation board room on the 13th floor of the Richardson Building. What a shock to the system. All my adult life, feisty street youth and courageous newcomer women had formed me and breathed life into me. They had dared me to see the world from their reality, to taste their dreams, to walk with them and risk suffering the consequences. Now, I was sitting alongside another group of community leaders, people committed to upholding the vision of “a Winnipeg where community life flourishes for all.” Immediately I felt at home and was eager to understand the myriad complex issues embedded in our city and to bring to the table the wealth and wisdom of my formators.
One initiative that seized my imagination and generated life in the inner city where I lived and worked was the Centennial Neighborhood Project. From day one, Winnipeg Foundation staff drew near the people, listened deeply and trusted their expertise. After weeks of in-depth conversation, staff and neighborhood constituents sealed a five-year accord that unleashed newfound energy. Dreams resurfaced and hope, feeding on outrageous possibility, mounted with each new plan and partnership. The project culminated with a feast where Foundation Board, staff, donors and residents stood tall together and celebrated their collective capacity for change and renewal. Leading with presence is powerful language. It is the key to wisdom.
The Foundation’s depth of character radiated when the Board approved the largest grant in its history to the building of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. This resolution symbolized for me The Foundation’s fierce commitment to uphold “the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family,” and thus ensure that all people have the freedom to become the person they were meant to be. Leading with compassion pierces the darkness. It liberates. It is transformative.
Finally, in times of anguish and uncertainty, such as 2008 and 2020, when bold and principled leadership was crucial, The Winnipeg Foundation stayed its course and carved a path that evoked conversation and alleviated the suffering of struggling non-profit groups. This initiative sparked oneness and revived resilience throughout the community. It gave organizations the chance to breathe and digest the wisdom of the Nigerian proverb: “The times are urgent; let us slow down.” Leading with imagination unleashes right action and innovation.
Board, staff, donors and partners, we are the sum of all our relations. Together, with “moral grandeur” and “spiritual audacity,” let us envision a “Winnipeg where community life flourishes for all,” and with great gratitude press forward and lead with presence, compassion and imagination.
S. Lesley Sacouman, a Sister of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, co-founded Rossbrook House in 1976 and worked there for 30 years. In 1990 she helped start Anishinaabe Oway-Ishi, an education/employment program for Indigenous youth. In 1997 she initiated Esther House, a safe and supportive home for women in recovery from addiction and in 2004, she co-founded Holy Names House of Peace: a refuge in the heart of the city that empowers newcomer women to begin anew.
S. Lesley served on on the Board of The Winnipeg Foundation from 2002 to 2016. Currently she is the Executive Director at Holy Names House of Peace and serves as a member of Esther House Board of Directors and the Manitoba Law Society’s Access to Justice Steering Committee.