Saturday, February 03, 2007

Jannit Rabinovitch's death a call to action
Feb. 2, 2007

My friend Jannit Rabinovitch is dead. The loss is huge, and not just to the throng of people who loved her in all her many roles: mother, mentor, lover, friend.
She was that rarest of breeds - someone who set out to change the world and really did. Our communities will feel her loss for decades to come.
The real shame of it is that Jannit had at least 20 more years of community work in her. She was only 57, and showing no signs of growing weary of the fight. Never mind that by that point she’d already built a women’s shelter, launched five grassroots community groups, gotten her PhD and co-parented two fabulous children. Jannit was nowhere near done.
But then the cancer set in last summer. She died last Friday.
She hated the weakness and vulnerability brought on by the disease and its debilitating treatment, and in a way I was glad t hear that she had been set free. But I really don’t know how we’ll create change without her. It scares me to contemplate a world without Jannit.
Not even a month ago, we were talking about me interviewing her to get her extraordinary life down on paper. We never got the chance. She was sick, I was busy, and one day she was gone. Such a lost opportunity.
Her many projects and good works guarantee her legacy. She built Sandy Merriman shelter with a crew of 12 homeless women, and willed into life no less than five organizations built on her unwavering belief that solving our social ills begins with empowering the people caught up in them. We won’t soon forget Jannit.
But will we be able to take up where she left off? If her 30-plus years of hard work is to have meaning, we will have to.
Jannit was 25 when she first stepped into the gap between those who create social services and those who the services are intended for. She was good at it, mostly because she worked hard enough to earn the respect of both the big wheels and the misunderstood people dangling on the edges of our society.
That first project involved youth with disabilities. Jannit had been hired by the B.C. government to manage a student employment program. The incentive for employers was a wage subsidy: 50 per cent for hiring a youth, and 100 per cent for hiring one with a disability.
Despite the offer of free labour, Jannit found that employers just weren’t interested in hiring a kid with a disability. Undeterred, she found a local non-profit interested in the program, and matched it with a school for youth with physical disabilities who were interested in putting out a provincial newsletter for other disabled youths.
Voila. Mission accomplished, in a way that benefited everyone involved.
That was how things went when Jannit was involved. She was a problem-solver, and a strategic thinker. She could figure things out in a way that turned out well for all concerned.
In 1991, while Jannit was working for the City of Victoria’s social planning department, she helped give birth to the Victoria Street Community Association after being tasked with “doing something” about the rising numbers of homeless men. Made up of people who’d personally experienced homelessness, the VSCA went on to develop and run the Medewiwin housing project.
In 1994, Jannit launched a series of conversations with homeless women to figure out their needs. That led to a construction project that saw Sandy Merriman House built by a hired crew of 20 homeless women.
Some of those women were sex workers. They asked Jannit to help them establish their own organization, built on the principle that the people best able to help sex workers are people who’d been there themselves. The Prostitutes Empowerment Education and Resource Society - PEERS - was incorporated as a non-profit the following year. Jannit remained a passionate PEERS board member right up until the cancer overwhelmed her.
In1998, Jannit helped stage a Victoria summit that brought together world policy makers and 55 sexually exploited youth from throughout the Americas. A few years later, she supported her dear friend Cherry Kingsley in the launch of the International Centre to Combat Exploitation of children. More recently, she helped bring to life the National Coalition of Experiential Women, an organization that I hope will one day rock our world around sex-trade issues in Canada.
But all of those achievements are just notes in history if Jannit’s life work ends here. She lived long enough to see the eventual collapse of some of the projects she’d started, and in her last months despaired that her efforts had been for naught.
Hardly. But it takes a lot of effort to give voice to the voiceless. Those who believe in the importance of that will need to pick up where Jannit left off, because there’s tough work ahead.
Jannit made a difference. We will honour her memory by doing the same.


Stephen K said...

Maybe you could write a biography, if you had permission from her estate or something.

Anonymous said...


Thank you for posting this blog on Jannit. It would take so many words to do justice to the work that she did. All the words, using all the letters in the alphabet won't describe her or make her real to those who didn't know her, but I hope that in sharing about her life, about her life's work and her tenacity, someone decides to work toward community good or recommits themselves to the betterment of society.

I only hope that I can continue to make her proud of me and my work and continue to strive for a better world. I have lost a friend, a mentor and, in a way, a parent.

Megan Lewis