Embracing latest communication technology helped
​CFUW maintain membership during pandemic

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by Carrie Debrone
Kitchener Citizen
April 14, 2021

Early adoption of the newest communication technology has allowed the Canadian Federation of University Women K-W to maintain and grow its membership of nearly 200 as it heads into planning for its 100th anniversary next year.

​​“I was so pleased that our members were able to engage through the technology. Zoom was the answer for us,” said Anita Davis, club president. The local chapter has even gained a few members during the pandemic, women who were able to enjoy the club’s guest speakers and special interest group activities because they were offered online.

​​“I think that in some cases we had even higher attendance online than we’ve had at in-person meetings in the past,” said Ardith Toogood, former local and national club president. “I don’t think we ever considered not meeting. We realized that it’s the social connection that ties this special group
​together and we went out and found a way to carry
​on,” Toogood said.

​​“It’s that convenience that’s also attracted a lot of people,” Davis said, including some younger members who often have less time to become involved with community groups because of career and home obligations.

​​“Shortly after the pandemic we heard about a group called Bits and Bytes who was going into retirement homes to help seniors learn how to use Zoom and other communication technology. We contacted them and they came and spent a few hours with us teaching us how to use Zoom. That gave us the confidence to go online and continue to provide events and speakers for our members,” Davis said.

​​She added that shifting to an online format allowed members to get up-close and personal with the guest speakers and facilitators who are invited to present at the club’s regular meetings.

​​Some recent online speakers include a Wilfrid Laurier University professor who talked about vaccines and viruses and a professor of History from University of Waterloo who spoke about the architecture of Waterloo Region over the last 50 years.

​​Connecting online has also allowed the club to maintain operation of many of its more than 40 special interest groups.

Interest group topics include travel, book clubs, wine, nutrition, games, French conversation, and sketching. One of its several gourmet groups has pivoted from indoor, in-person potluck meals to focus on supporting local restaurants with pickups of specific dinners, followed by online dining and discussion together.

“We’re expecting an exciting year this year and we have a committee working to plan special celebrations for our coming 100th year next year,” Davis said.

​​In its 99 years, the club has attracted some high profile local women including local author Edna Staebler. The current Chair of Waterloo Region, Karen Redman, is also a member.

​​Davis said she is particularly proud of the advocacy work undertaken by the club’s members, concentrating on issues that affect women and girls, housing and homelessness, the environment, and more recently the crisis in long-term care.

​​Members often conduct letter-writing campaigns to raise awareness of these issues.

​​“Women need a strong voice and strong lobbyists at a high level. The vision set 100 years ago is still relevant. We still believe that if you educate women to enable them to step into leadership positions then the world will be a more peaceful place,” Davis said.

​​CFUW K-W, which formed in 1922, is a member of the National CFUW organization. CFUW is a member of Graduate Women International (formerly known as International Federation of University Women). Graduate Women International (GWI) advocates for women’s rights, equality and empowerment through access to quality secondary and tertiary education and training up to the highest levels. It has national affiliates in over 60 countries and individual members in more than 40 other countries.

​​The federation encourages its members to use their expertise to bring about change, with particular reference to women’s issues such as violence against women, early learning and childcare, education, economic prosperity and the empowerment of women as leaders and decision-makers.

​​All members have the opportunity to join the Advocacy Committee. The local club provides a monthly newsletter to members, is active on social media, and has a YouTube channel.

​​ The local Club also fundraises every year to provide over $40,000 through 45 scholarship awards to local students at the secondary and post-secondary education levels.

Founded in 1985, the scholarship fund is a registered charitable organization. More than $25,000 is raised annually through the CFUW K-W’s spring used book sale, as well as donations from members, friends and families of club members. It now stands at over $1.3 million and investment earnings from it provide funds for the scholarships awarded to students in K-W each year.

​​Sarah Gritzfeldt, who joined the CFUW K-W last December, said she was looking to make a connection in the community.

​​ “There are a lot of different facets to the club and a lot of ways to become involved. They really know what they’re doing and have been around for a long time. The membership is diverse and members have a lot of experience and expertise in many areas. I was drawn to the group by the fact that they focus on women’s rights and education,” Gritzfeldt said.

​​“The speakers they get in are really good. They present topics that I never even thought to learn about, but that keeps me learning about things that are current. The meetings are really well organized and run smoothly and if you want to be involved and learn some leadership skills you can volunteer to be on the executive committee. Some clubs are closed to new ideas, but I have found these women to be very open to new ideas,” she said.

​​Toogood, who joined the local club in 1979, said she joined because it gave her a purpose beyond her own job and personal life. “I liked that they specifically promoted education worldwide.” Toogood added that the organization’s original vision of working to ensure that all girls and women have equal opportunities and equal access to quality education within a peaceful and secure environment where their human rights are respected carries on today.

​​“We’ve tackled local issues like human rights, safety issues and the ability to maximize potential,” she said, adding that serving as national president offered her the opportunity to travel to many different parts of Canada and meet many different women. “It was so great to be invited to their meetings and into people’s homes where you both share a common interest and bond,” she said.

​​Membership costs $120 a year. “We just couldn’t run without our many volunteers,’ Davis said, adding that members step up to organize and run its annual book sale at First United Church, its Open Closet campaign that collects used clothing to give away, and its December 6 vigil honouring the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women in Canada.

​​In March, 27 delegates from CFUW clubs across Canada, joined over 25,000 activists from around the world to participate in this year’s virtual United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, which focuses on the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women. Due to the pandemic, the annual New York City-based conference took place in a hybrid format with mostly virtual meetings.

​​On March 24, CFUW organized a conference to mobilize communities toward positive change, which featured Jackie Neapole of the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women (CRIAW), Dr. Stephanie Mullen from the University of Ottawa, Shelagh Day of the Feminist Alliance for International Action (FAFIA),  and Ashwini Selvakumaran, a Youth Ambassador with Plan International Canada.

​​The two-week conference concluded on March 26 after UN Member States reached an agreement on how countries can work together to accelerate gender equality and ensure that women’s rights are respected and protected.

​​CFUW delegates will be sharing the information they gained at the conference with local clubs.

​​“If we have to go through a pandemic then thank goodness there is technology that allows us to communicate easily. If this happened 30 years ago we’d be licking stamps to keep in touch,” Toogood said.

​​To learn more about joining CFUW K-W, visit
EARLY BOOK SALE PUBLICITY - The CFUW keeps track of its history, including this old newspaper photograph from its annual book sale.