A Conversation With: Emma Halpern, Executive Director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland NS

“A Conversation With” is a series featuring the partners of the Creating Communities of Care project. A series in four parts, each one consists of a one-on-one conversations with some of the people directly involved with the project. We had the privilege of sitting down with Emma Halpern, the Executive Director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia and an integral figure behind the scenes of this groundbreaking project.

Our Partners

Bridging the Gap

Around five years ago, the seeds of Creating Communities of Care were sown. A meeting between the Elizabeth Fry Society, the Mi’kmaw Legal Support Network, and the Nova Scotia Status of Women birthed an idea that would soon become a transformative force. The initial spark ignited when these organizations discussed how survivors of violence within the African Nova Scotian and Mi’kmaw communities were experiencing a glaring gap in services.

“We talked about the fact that we were all experiencing a gap in services for survivors of violence from the African Nova Scotian and Mi’kmaw communities… And the fact that [these communities] were so much more likely to be criminalized than to be seen as victims, both in incidences of domestic violence or gender-based violence and just generally.

-Emma Halpern

Emma discussed the intersection between the criminalization of women from these communities and their victimization. This acknowledgement was the catalyst for an innovative proposal that sought to provide culturally appropriate programs and services to survivors, a promising approach that acknowledged their unique needs.

“We also discussed the importance of shifting the system and the ways in which the system saw women from those communities, understood their needs and made sure that there were properly funded initiatives that would meet the needs of women from those communities.”

-Emma Halpern

However, Creating Communities of Care was not just about filling a service gap; it aimed to challenge the entire system’s perception and support of Indigenous and African Nova Scotian women. The initiative aimed to change the narrative, to shift the way institutions like the justice system, the Department of Community Services, and healthcare approached and assisted these communities.

Elizabeth Fry and the Path of Empowerment

At the heart of Creating Communities of Care lies the Elizabeth Fry Society, an organization committed to supporting criminalized and incarcerated women, girls, and gender-diverse individuals within the criminal justice system. Emma walked us through a typical day, although such a thing scarcely exists in their line of work. The Elizabeth Fry Society offers a wide range of programming – from personal development to employment and education, all while addressing the traumas that many of these individuals carry.

“We often say that our clients have fallen through the cracks of all our social safety nets that already exist in our society, and that’s how they’ve landed in the criminal justice system.”

-Emma Halpern

Their work revolves around supporting individuals to navigate a complex web of challenges, from mental health and addiction to housing and legal advocacy.

“Most of our clients- the vast, vast majority of our clients- have serious trauma. Very significant, multiple complex traumas from much of their lives, so we offer programming and a counselling service that helps people both work through their trauma internally but also helps them to think about how they live in the world despite the trauma and how they react in various settings and circumstances when their trauma is triggered.”

-Emma Halpern

The Essence of Creating Communities of Care

For Emma, Creating Communities of Care holds a special place in her heart. She eloquently described it as one of the most important projects they’re involved in. She passionately highlighted the systemic failures faced by Indigenous and African Nova Scotian women and transgender women, whose intersecting oppressions demand acknowledgment and change. As she pointed out, Indigenous women are the fastest-growing prison population in Canada, and transgender individuals, particularly those who are racialized or Indigenous, are increasingly represented within correctional facilities.

“In all honesty, it’s probably the most important project we have. The reason for that is because I believe that the folks who have been most failed in our society and in our system are Indigenous and African Nova Scotian women.”

-Emma Halpern

With conviction, Emma rejected the idea of prisons and jails as solutions, emphasizing the need to address the roots of the issues these communities face: victimization, traumatization, and systemic neglect.

“I don’t believe in prison and jail as a solution. It does not address social problems. We have to deal with the roots of the problems, and the roots of the problems for these folks is victimization, traumatization, and being ignored and erased by our systems. That is what Creating Communities of Care steps up against in a really beautiful way by offering alternatives, by showing the systems that there are ways to support women and girls and transgender  folks who have been marginalized and oppressed.”

-Emma Halpern

Creating Communities of Care becomes a powerful counter-narrative, proving that alternatives exist and are successful. The partnership between Elizabeth Fry Society and other organizations within the initiative showcases a different way of providing support—one that sees individuals holistically and integrates their needs into a unified approach.

“We as a society have deeply failed those populations, and as a result, those are the fastest-growing prison populations. Indigenous women in Canada are the fastest-growing prison population right now.”

-Emma Halpern

A Wholistic Approach: What Sets Creating Communities of Care Apart

What truly sets Creating Communities of Care apart is its holistic, wraparound service model. Unlike traditional victim services, which offer narrow support, this initiative recognizes that survivors need multifaceted assistance. Whether it’s housing, employment, child protection, or psychological healing, the project connects individuals with an array of services tailored to their unique circumstances. Emma illuminated how this approach aligns with her vision for society—an integrated, comprehensive understanding of individuals that defies categorization.

“So what is so exciting about Creating Communities of Care is that it does offer a sort of wraparound service support where we not only offer the programs that are available through Creating Communities of Care, but we also connect to all these other organizations and the opportunities there, and access supports through all of these wide arrange of programs and services that are available.”

-Emma Halpern

“At E. Fry, we never break up with you,” Emma said, emphasizing the long-term commitment to supporting individuals on their journeys. This attitude underscores the fluidity between organizations, promoting collaboration and shared missions.

“We can flow very comfortably because our philosophies are the same, our mandates support one another, and so we can flow between organizations. That really didn’t exist before Creating Communities of Care. That’s been a really neat development that came.”

-Emma Halpern

Looking Ahead: Uncertainty Without Funding

As with many non-profit projects, funding is a lifeline for Creating Communities of Care. Emma emphasized the urgency of transitioning the initiative from project-based funding to permanent, core funding. Without it, vulnerable individuals might lose their only source of support, potentially leading to dire consequences. She expressed that the absence of this initiative could mean the loss of critical assistance and, in some cases, even lives.

“There is no question that the mainstream services do not meet the needs of Indigenous and African Nova Scotian women, girls or transgender women and girls from those communities. It would be really damaging. This sounds very dramatic, I understand that, but I truly believe that if the funding for this initiative disappeared, people would die because right now, we are the only supports and services for some very, very vulnerable people. If this wasn’t here anymore, those people would have no one. And that is very, very scary.”

-Emma Halpern

Creating Communities of Care serves as a poignant reminder of the transformative potential that lies within community-driven initiatives. Emma’s dedication to the cause and unwavering belief in holistic support for marginalized communities reveal the power of compassion, collaboration, and commitment.

In fact, we look at it all as one integrated whole, and we offer services that allow people to move through the world in that way with supports that see them as an integrated whole.”

-Emma Halpern

You can read the interview in its entirety here. To learn more about the Creating Communities of Care project, you can check out our website or listen to our podcast here.