Case Study

The journey started in Hamilton.

Six cities. Seven workshops.

YMCA's Client Support Services Professional Writing Development Program.

The power of clear and direct writing cannot be overestimated. I have just returned from a “pilgrimage across Ontario” working with more than a hundred case workers and managers on their professional writing skills.

This experience was both eye-opening and inspiring. I was working with refugee case workers whose responsibility it is to help refugees navigate their first year in their new homeland. Their work is stressful and at times even dangerous. They are on the frontlines of support for people often in a state of crisis, traumatized by the circumstances that forced them out of their original homeland. 

So what role does writing play in their work? It’s how they document the issues their refugee families are facing. 

But just as importantly it’s the gateway through the complex emotional terrain they encounter every day on the job. 

What could I – a veteran marketing writer – teach frontline case workers about writing? To trust their voice. To write as they speak, with the same personal stake and the same logic. 

Even though a vast majority of these workers came to English as a second,  third or fourth languages – they demonstrated a great facility for storytelling in their adopted tongue. They knew how to build tension and how to set up a punchline in their writing. They knew how to simply communicate the depth of their concern for their clients’ welfare. This wasn’t only inspiring in terms of the work they perform. Their writing proved how effectively people can write using the tools they learn from their conversations. But they went beyond that, incorporating the craft of storytelling, providing clever winks to the reader that are necessary to make a strong connection. 

The stories themselves were always moving – stories of refugees adapting to abrupt and comprehensive changes – in a society with its own codes of behaviour. Some of the stories were heroic. Some were touching. Some were funny. Some were all of the above – such as the story one Kitchener worker described of taking 20 minutes to walk a family through the process of using a key in a lock (something none of them had done before). He then expressed bewilderment at what a difficult adjustment they faced if they had not even used a key before. And then the funny conclusion: after being shown how to use a key in a door, they proceeded to leave the key in the door, not knowing it should be removed. 

By the end of the seventh workshop, much had changed. The curriculum had been revised each time based on input.

My own attitudes had shifted as well. At the beginning I debated with myself about using several quotes from Thoreau at the beginning of each session, showing his economic use of language, even though its 150 years old. I didn’t want to come across as some elitist semi-intellectual. But these quotes stirred much debate – people debated which quotes they liked the most and why. I’ve learned to never under-estimate the writing capabilities of any audience. 

So, let me share with you a final thought. At the close of the last workshop I asked a case worker to share her client Success Story. She agreed. It says much more about the type of work that was revealed during these workshops.

I am indebted to my clients at the YMCA’s Client Support Services: Nicoleta Monoreanu, Denise Hansen, Roeshawn Davidson and Mandana Rezvani for the opportunity, in addition to the supportive and appreciative Program Directors at each local centre. 

Here is the case worker’s Success Story:

“Success stories are not easy to distinguish in the first year in Canada. The settlement process is a long journey where successes are reaped much later. A Syrian Kurdish family of 10 arrived in the midst of the harsh December winter to Reception House, and as they gathered around in the living room, playing cards, singing, and playing their musical instruments, their tunes were heard by many and soon the family became the talk of the town.

Their talent and skills opened doors wide and welcoming; in the short 2 months they had participated in performances promoting their rich culture and building connections with the community…. a benefit for both.

The refugee journey can carry lots of struggle and hardships but it also carries resilience and strength that inspires many.”

“Joel is very supportive of staff and a good advocate for clients. Great choice for training and of trainer!”

– Program Director, Kitchener 

“It was very nice working with you, your passion and dedication has inspired us all.

Thank you very much for being so flexible and adjusting to each individual group; the feedback has been positive and I am confident they had a lot to take away from your presentations.”

– National Programs Manager