One woman at a time
Looking at it from the outside, it’s just an ordinary home and the only feature that sets it apart from the rest of the block is an electric blue Volkswagen Beetle parked in the driveway. But inside is the office of Shari Graydon, where the work carried out on behalf of her non-profit organization Informed Opinions is nothing short of extraordinary.
Throughout the past 35 years, Graydon has been labeled a journalist, catalyst, producer, press secretary, author and Governor General’s Award recipient. But these days she has a different label for herself. “I consider myself more of an activist,” said Graydon as she sits cross legged on her living room couch with the fire place roaring in the background.
Although she is passionate about many issues, Graydon focusses most of her energy on advocating the importance of fair and equal representation of women in the media. “The continued failure of all societies to treat women equitably, to benefit fully from their insights, talents and contributions is profoundly unjust and a colossal waste of potential,” said Graydon. “The future of our planet depends on changing that.” And that is exactly what she is doing. Graydon uses her non-profit organization, Informed Opinions, as a platform to encourage women to get involved in media by means of providing expert opinions or writing commentaries. She achieves this by hosting workshops, giving presentations and providing ongoing support and advice. Since its formation in 2010, hundreds of op-eds have been published in major publications by the organization’s workshop grads.
Sarah Neville is an educator, a speaker, writer and the founder and principal of the Toronto based company, Open Line, which specializes in the development of communication skills. Neville has known Graydon for ten years and not only attended one of the Informed Opinions’ workshops but also went on to publish op-eds and collaborate with Graydon on her own Leadership Presence for Women workshop.
“We are like minded and I love bouncing ideas around with her. She’s smart, funny and insightful, and loves ideas,” said Neville. “Getting women to speak up, especially in the media, is absolutely essential. Shari is a powerful example.”
Naila Keleta-Mae, a drama professor at the University of Waterloo is another prime example of one of Informed Opinions many success stories. Keleta-Mae received a fair amount of attention in July of 2015 when she published an op-ed in the Huffington Post titled “Why I’m Teaching a University Course on Beyoncé” after attending one of the organizations’ workshops. “I received more interview requests from prominent media outlets after my op-ed was published,” said Keleta-Mae. “Shari Graydon offered to review the op-eds of any of the participants if we ever wanted that support in the future. She also said that when women with expertise write opinion pieces it is both an act of civic engagement and a fulfillment of a responsibility to share our expertise with wider communities.”
It’s reasonable to say that this line of work is Graydon’s true calling. But oddly enough, this wasn’t her original plan. Growing up, she had artistic aspirations and intended on pursuing a career in visual arts until a brush with sexism derailed her plans. “Until the age of 16, I was intent on being a visual artist,” said Graydon. “But my grade 10 art teacher assigned a different project to the girls and boys and when I handed in the much more creatively challenging boys’ assignment instead and she wouldn’t even look at it, I switched to theatre.”
She went on to study theatre at the University of British Columbia with the intention of pursuing a career in acting. “As a child, I liked to tell jokes and stories at the dinner table and what I loved about studying theatre in university was the energy exchange that you get from a live audience,” explained Graydon.
She graduated from UBC with her degree in theatre but found herself feeling lost upon the realization that the majority of interesting theatre roles were written for men. “I knew I didn’t have the necessary drive to pursue acting as a career, to be auditioning for work all the time, judged as much on the basis of your physical appearance as your talent,” said Graydon.
She went on to spend a year post-grad working at Budget Rent-A-Car before backpacking through Europe for six months. She then worked as shiatsu therapist for three years before going to work at an international public relations agency. Then in 1991, Graydon decided to pursue a master’s degree at Simon Fraser University. “It wasn’t until I returned to school to do graduate work in communications and was first exposed to a feminist analysis of media that I really landed in a place that felt like my true path,” she said. “Since then, I have worked deliberately to raise people’s awareness and understanding of the social impacts of media, advertising, pop culture, news, particularly as they shape and and influence how women are seen and treated.”
Graydon went on to work in public relations, as a newspaper columnist, press secretary for the premier of British Columbia, TV producer, and CBC commentator amongst other things before leaving British Columbia in 2002.
She relocated to Ottawa with David Mitchell, her partner of 25 years, when he was offered the position of vice president of the University of Ottawa. Graydon credits Mitchell with being one of her biggest influencers. “I’ve been inspired by many women, from my strong, independently minded mother to feminist activist Gloria Steinem,” said Graydon. “But on a day-to-day basis, my life partner has exerted the most significant influence. He has repeatedly encouraged me to expand my horizons and step out of my comfort zone, supporting me in every way imaginable.”
Graydon would then go on to publish three books while continuing her advocacy work in Ottawa. Her first book, Made You Look, was published in 2003 and was followed by In Your Face: The Culture and Beauty of You in 2004. She subsequently edited and released a compilation of essays entitled I Feel Great About My Hands: And Other Unexpected Joys of Aging in 2011.
In 2007, Graydon was awarded the Governor Generals Award in Commemoration of the Person’s Case for her advocacy work. She then founded Informed Opinions three years later. The organization stems from Media Watch (formerly Media Action), a non profit organization that Graydon was the president of from 1991-2000. The current president of Media Watch, Amanda Parriag, first connected with Graydon in 2004. She was deeply impacted by their meeting and still considers Graydon to be one of her biggest inspirations. “I felt struck by what she said,” said Parriag. “Shari is a change maker. She is one of the few people who can dream something incredible and actually make it happen.”
According to Graydon, her passion for feminist issues along with a series of personal experiences with sexism are the driving forces behind the organization. “The impetus for Informed Opinions wasn’t one single event, but rather 20 years of accumulated experience and observation related to researching, writing and speaking about the under representation and stereotypical portrayal of women in the media and the profound injustice of that,” she said.
Her most current initiative is expanding upon Informed Opinions with a database called ExpertWomen.ca. The new site will host profiles of Canadian female experts who are willing to provide their expert opinions to journalists. Graydon is also releasing her fourth book, an adaptation of her keynote presentation for the Informed Opinions’ workshops titled OMG…What If I Really AM The Best Person?
Despite her busy schedule, Graydon always finds time to support and keep contact with the women who have become involved with Informed Opinions over the past five years.
Former project manager for Informed Opinions, Claire Bellefeuille, left the organization in 2014 but still maintains a close relationship with Graydon. According to Bellefeuille, the two regularly meet for lunch, coffee, or a night out at an Escape Room and discuss Informed Opinions’ recent successes. Even though she no longer works with Informed Opinions, Bellefeuille still remains passionate about Graydon’s work with the organization. “She uses this energy to do work that Canada truly needs by encouraging women to participate in the public discourse,” said Bellefeuille. “I can say from working on the project, that the number of women who have written op-eds or said yes to media interviews who wouldn’t have done so prior to taking Shari’s workshop speaks to the value of her work.” And indeed it does.
Arguably, Informed Opinions is at the top of Graydon’s long list of achievements. However, Graydon herself cannot say what the most impactful moment of her career has been.
“I hope it hasn’t happened yet,” she said with a smile.