Executive director retires, wins literacy award

As she retires this September during Literacy Month, Decoda Literacy Solutions’ executive director crowns her 20-plus-year career in literacy with the Council of the Federation Literacy Award for British Columbia. On September 8, 2022, Margaret received the award, which celebrates outstanding achievement, innovative practice and excellence in literacy. The awards are presented annually, by Canada’s Premiers in each province and territory.

“As the Executive Director for Decoda, Margaret has exemplified the characteristics for which the award is given – and of our organization,” says Dr. Valerie Overgaard, chair of Decoda’s board of directors. “Thousands of people have been supported in their literacy journeys and have reaped the benefits. What a wonderful way to celebrate her retirement!”

Desneiges Profili, executive director of Columbia Basin Alliance for Literacy (CBAL), who has worked with Margaret for more than 15 years and was one of Margaret’s nominators for the award says, “Margaret is deeply passionate about literacy and her work at the local, regional, provincial and national levels attests to her long-time commitment to the literacy field.”

“Margaret is a changer; she has an undeniable ability to build relationships and foster partnerships. She views relationships as the cornerstone to learning and uses those relationships to help people embrace their strengths and use those strengths to build stronger literacy skills. As a second chance learner herself, Margaret sees the value of not only lifelong learning, but also of all of the skills that adults gain through informal learning.”

Margaret’s story

Margaret was expelled from high school in Grade 11, a result of “very poor judgement” she says. As a young mother with three children, she worked as a cleaner, looked after children and older people and worked in retail. As her children grew, she began taking courses.

“I know what it’s like to have limited opportunities. And I know education is the great emancipator,” she says. “The basic skills we develop underpin learning and have a profound impact on our life choices and opportunities for success.”

Her initial venture into the literacy field was when she applied for a job as a family literacy coordinator while studying at Selkirk College. She didn’t get the job (in fact, her friend and longtime literacy practitioner Joan Exley was hired!) but she accepted an offer for training to be an adult literacy tutor. She was a volunteer tutor in the Adult Upgrading classroom at Selkirk College for a year, and with some experience to back her enthusiasm, in 2000 was hired as the adult literacy coordinator for Project Literacy West Kootenay in Castlegar.

She was a founding staff member of the Columbia Basin Alliance for Literacy when it was formed in 2001. Over the next decade, she was a program facilitator, literacy outreach coordinator, and regional program manager with CBAL. She was also Selkirk College’s regional literacy coordinator for a couple of years.

In 2012, she was hired as a program manager at Decoda, eventually becoming director of programs and services. She balanced this provincial role with a contract as CBAL’s communications manager from 2014 to 2017.

In 2018, she was chosen as Decoda’s executive director. These past four years she has provided the Decoda team with mentorship, support, ethics, humour, inspiration and strong leadership based on firsthand experience.

“I have known Margaret for a long time – and I’ve always enjoyed her energy, elegance and sense of humour,” says Decoda board director Diana Twiss, who also serves at Capilano University as Chair, School of Access and Academic Preparation, and Program Coordinator, Community Development and Outreach.

“Margaret has a strong moral compass; she taught me the importance of clarifying our values so we can ensure that we are listening to the literacy grassroots and articulating community needs to our government partners. She has a strong passion for supporting literacy development in the community and is highly respected provincially and nationally for the work she has done. It has been an absolute pleasure to work with Margaret and I have learned so much from her.”

Build a literacy community

Throughout her career, Margaret has helped guide the evolving literacy landscape.

She sat on the provincial advisory to develop BC’s Adult Literacy Benchmarks; helped develop the provincial adult literacy database and digital badges; and supported curriculum development, including Building Resilient Workers: Health and Safety at Work, a digital technology workshop series, and Adult Literacy Program: Virtual Tutor Training; she also helped create a cohesive brand for CBAL, and in 2021 helped refresh Decoda’s brand and website.

A career highlight was sitting on The Advisory Committee on Literacy and Essential Skills, which submitted a report, Towards a Fully Literate Canada, to the Minister of State, the Honourable Claudette Bradshaw, in 2005. The report was never used as there was a change in government, but Margaret says “I learned so much from that experience and from the other members of the committee. It really helped me set the work we were doing in community within the national context.”

Another career highlight was her work on The Westcoast Reader newspaper for learners from 2016-2021. “One of the best things I got to do was to be co-editor of The Westcoast Reader. I loved using the paper with learners and I loved working on it.”

One area she hopes to have influenced is how literacy is perceived.

“The first step is to build a literacy community,” she says. “When I started working in the literacy field, everything was confidential. There was shame connected to not having literacy skills. It’s important to bring people together – whether it is tutors and learners, literacy practitioners, funders or partners – to share and celebrate in literacy success. It’s about people and building the literacy community.”

Commitment to lifelong learning

She practices a commitment to lifelong learning through her work and through her own professional development. After earning a B.A. in English and History in 2003, she achieved a Provincial Instructor Diploma in Adult Education in 2005, and in 2013, a certificate in Workplace Literacy and Essential Skills.

Margaret will stay connected to lifelong learning in her retirement as chair of the board of governors of Selkirk College.

Gratitude and support

“I’m proud of the work I’ve done, both at CBAL and at Decoda – working with learners, developing curriculum and training and helping to develop capacity for practitioners,” says Margaret. “Receiving this award means a lot to me. I would never have seen this in my future when I signed up to be a literacy volunteer in 1999. It has been such a pleasure, and an honour, to work with literacy learners, tutors and practitioners across the province and with our government and community partners and donors. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to contribute to the wonderful literacy work that is happening across BC.”

Margaret says she is ready for retirement but, “What I’ll miss most are the people. Really great people are attracted to this work.”

Margaret – and Decoda – is known for helping to create a workplace culture that prioritizes a work-life balance.

Her advice to literacy practitioners is: “Look after yourself! This profession requires a lot of giving and reaching out to others, and often working in isolation in small organizations. It’s so important to develop a personal network of practitioners and mentors. I’ve been lucky to have had great mentors, like Leona Gadsby, Jacquie Taylor and Ali Wassing. They were all really encouraging and provided a safe space for me to learn and practice.”

Margaret is also grateful for the support of her husband, Steve. “He’s listened to me talk about literacy for two decades. He has carted books and tables, attended potluck dinners, read resumes and fixed things at the office. He even vacuumed the office the day our new executive director, Sandra Lee, arrived. He is a literacy hero!”

Retirement for Margaret will mean spending more time with family, including her two grandchildren; and catching up at home after spending a lot of time at the office in Vancouver. “I’m looking forward to not following a schedule. And maybe we’ll fulfill a dream and get a dog.”

Margaret will receive a Council of the Federation Literacy Award medallion, a certificate from the Premier and an honorarium.

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