20 Questions with Jocelyn Greene

Daniel MacEachern dmaceachern@thetelegram.com
Published on December 29, 2013
Jocelyn Greene, executive director of Stella’s Circle.
Keith Gosse/The Telegram

Jocelyn Greene, the executive director of Stella’s Circle, knows poverty and social injustice can’t be beaten with a single solution but a host of ways to fight them.
Named after Stella Burry, a social worker pioneer in the province, the organization encompasses shelter and support services, employment programs, counselling, advocacy and housing.

“It’s not just one thing. It really is what you and I need. That’s what drew me here, that’s what kept me here, that’s what’s given me the passion to do the work for all these years,” says Greene, who says she knew early on that she wanted to build a career to help people, partly because she knows most people are just a paycheque or a crisis away from needing help themselves.

Greene was the winner of Memorial’s Alumni Award for Outstanding Community Service in 2007, for her development of community support programs and services.

With her husband Jeff, Greene has two grown sons, Joel and Aaron, who she’s thrilled have made their homes in Newfoundland and Labrador instead of leaving the province for work.

“I’ve been really blessed that they’re both living and working here. As a Newfoundlander, I’m really lucky to have my family here, and both the boys here, one to be married next year. That’s a real gift.

“So many people have their families away. I’m lucky that way.”


What is your full name?

Jocelyn Denise Wells Greene.

When and where were you born?

I was born in Corner Brook, 60 years ago. This is my big year. 1953.

Where is home today?

Here. St. John’s.

What is one act of rebellion you committed as a youth?

I used to roll up my skirt in high school above the length they permitted to make a short miniskirt!

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

The best advice I ever received came from several sources — a high school teacher in Grade 10, and my mother. We were going through a fair amount of moves, and things weren’t very stable at the time, and I think it was that you can be anything you want to be if you believe in your own abilities. I think that’s guided my work as a social worker. In fact everything I’ve done here, in terms of the growth of Stella Burry from when I started here as a social worker. But it really was those underpinnings, which was you need to give people that message, that intrinsically they’re OK, and to believe in your own capacity to succeed and to grow and develop.

How did you get involved in social work, and Stella Burry?

I came into Memorial — I was only 16. In those days, you only went to Grade 11. I always wanted to be a social worker. I was pretty well focused then that that was the kind of work I wanted to do here. It was 1970. I worked here, did my social work degree, and then I went out west for five years. A really important year in my life was 1980, when I came back to get married, and I went looking for a job in social work. I was never somebody who could see themselves working in the system — I wanted to be somewhere else. There was a maternity leave available at Emmanuel House, and in those days that’s all there was. There was no Stella’s Circle; there was one program called Emmanuel House, which Stella Burry had started. … One of my social work profs was still at Memorial, but he was part of the United Church, was the United Church minister. He said, “Go down to Emmanuel House. That’s where you need to be.” It was a residential treatment program. The program that was there then, and started by my mentor, I went there and did a maternity leave for four months. And I just thought, this is where I want to work.

What is it that drew you to social work?

I guess it was a couple of things. One was, there for the grace of God go. I always felt that. … For many of us, you’re one cheque away from homelessness, or one crisis away. There’s a death, or people deal with pain through substance abuse, and the next thing you know, wow. It could be any of us. I always had this feeling that I wanted to work with people. My skills, I guess, in many ways, were math, and I was advised to go into actuarial work, which would be with numbers, and I thought, that ain’t me.

I got drawn to social work for that reason, and I think why social work became a fit for me, and I suppose one of the reasons why I’ve been concerned one of the leaders in this field in this province and nationally as well, is that a lot of helping professions are focused on the individual. You come to my door, and I’m trying to say, “What’s wrong with you?” There’s no question there’s a place for that; people go through psychological trauma, and they have mental illnesses and they need individual help. But boy, what became really clear to me was that many people who came through the doors of Emmanuel House were there because of societal structures. In other words, there wasn’t decent affordable housing. There wasn’t supportive employment. And instead of (just) paying some counsellor a hundred dollars an hour to counsel you, we at least needed to be at the same time helping people to find the supports they needed to uncover what I call their hidden gifts. Everybody has them. Sometimes they’re pretty well hidden; we all hear and we read about people with some pretty serious issues. But for me, I guess I always believed that we had to do more than just put on Band-Aids. If we weren’t changing the things that caused people to come in our doors — in other words, getting them a decent wage, making sure they have a safety net, helping them find a decent place to live — helping you to deal with your depression, well, why wouldn’t you be depressed, if you don’t have a house? If you don’t have money?

What about the other side? What’s the most stressful part of the work for you?

The stressful part of the work was never the people that I work with. The systems that can be very challenging or ineffective. The fighting for funding. There’s cycles you go through. There was a period of time back in the late ‘90s when things were so desperate here when all the cuts came, and you think, oh my god, how do you work your way through this? We went through a bit of a renaissance here. We’ve actually had some extremely good social policy, that brought about the poverty reduction strategy and support for a lot of the work that we’ve done.

The last couple of years have been a bit more challenging; hoping that we’re turning that corner again. The stressful part has always been the changes in governments that lead to changes in social policy. One cut, back in the ‘90s, the cuts to health-care funding, just to give you an example of what happened and the impact of it — when (former prime minister, then finance minister) Paul Martin came in and made those major cuts and cut the deficit. That was wonderful. The impact here in St. John’s was they closed 97 of 127 long-term beds at the Waterford Hospital. None of the money came to the community. So you take 97 people who have been living … in a hospital setting, were now thrown into the community, and there were very few supports. … A change in social policy can take us back so fast from all the things we’ve gained. So that’s been the stress, so that’s also been the focus as the executive director. And we’ve had some really good results working collaboratively with people.

Where do you find inspiration?

I’ve been blessed — I have a wonderful family and friends who’ve been with me and believing in me, and I’ve been blessed to have that. But I have to tell you where my real inspiration for the work comes, is from the people who walk in the door. I went to the Basilica — our Inclusion Choir sang there on Sunday night with the regular Basilica choir. The faces of people who, you know, maybe five years ago, 10 years ago were really down and out, they’re just up there performing. So it’s the courage and accomplishments of people when I see them just transforming their lives. It’s like a drug. It really is inspirational.

What is your most treasured possession?

I would say family, but I don’t think you ever possess your family. So I think the treasured possessions would be the photos, the images. Just recently friends and family of mine made me a quilt, something from all their jeans, because I was going through a little bit of a health crisis. Pretty well everybody who means something to me contributed to that. So that’s a pretty treasured possession.

What are you reading right now?

I am an avid reader; I like to read books about people and their lives. I’m reading “The Cellist of Sarajevo,” and I just finished “The Escape Artist” by Diane Chamberlain.

Do you have a favourite movie?

People will laugh at my favourite movie. My children will laugh. It’s “Pocketful of Miracles.” Most people don’t know it. You could rent it at the old video shop here. It’s a Bette Davis movie about Apple Annie. It’s got a Christmas theme — she’s a bag lady, and her daughter is Ann-Margret. And she sends her money from selling her apples, but giving her this whole story that she’s married and rich and all that, so finally she wants to come back, and they have to get all the beggars and street-people and dress them all up to put on this performance to meet the daughter who’s bringing her fiancé. It’s a feel-good movie that I watch every Christmas, and I’ll be watching it again.

What is your greatest indulgence?

(Laughs) Oh, good food and good wine and good company. Getting together with friends over a wonderful meal with a nice glass of red wine, and having a wonderful yarn.

What bugs you?

Falseness. One of the things that’s been critical in my career is being real with people, and there was a woman who’s since died, a client who started one of our core programs, and I used to call her my — you probably can’t put this — um, BS Geiger counter. … I don’t care what the message is, and I don’t care if you disagree with me. I used to say it to staff: “You can tell me I’m full of it. Just tell me. Don’t smile and say, ‘Oh, yeah.’” So people being false, not being real.

What are your best and worst qualities?

This is the same one — you know how your best can be your worst? Anybody who knows me would say I have trouble making decisions, and they say, “How can you run this big organization?” On a small scale, the decisions would be, am I having the lamb or the chicken? But when someone on staff comes to me and says, “I thought we made that decision!” I will change a decision if someone will come to me and give me some more information or tell me why it was the wrong one. The fact that I change my mind can make people feel like I’m indecisive, but I also think it’s one of my best qualities, in that I’m always open to new information, and if you can tell me that my decision’s not the right one because of A, B, or C, then we’ll change it.

Do you have any hidden talents?

(Laughs) Not singing! I’m a great dancer.

Do you have a personal motto?

I think my personal motto would have to be, “Yes, you can.” If there’s a barrier or obstacle, then we’ve just got to find a way to go around it, but yes you can. You can do anything we really put our mind to. So, yes, we can.

Who is one person, living or deceased, you’d like to have lunch with?

It’d have to be Stella Burry. I never met her. The day of her funeral (in 1991), everything was going up at Emmanuel House, everyone in crisis. There’s a famous video, at the School of Social Work, it’s actually on the MUN website, and when someone researched who she was, I thought, “I thought we were doing all this progressive stuff. She was doing this 50 years ago!” I would love to hear what she’d say about everything, because it was just Emmanuel House when she was there. She went on and did senior citizen things — I’d like to think she’d be pretty happy with it. Now, she’d be drinking tea and I’d be drinking wine if we were having lunch, but other than that I think we’d have an interesting lunch.

If you were premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, what is one thing you’d try to do?

Well, obviously it would be in the area of social justice, and trying to look at establishing affordable housing policies that would make housing more accessible, to increase that. Things like full-day kindergarten and child care. Things that even the level playing field, but are not just good social policy, but good economic policy. If we’re going to attract young engineers and people to come here, we have to have good-quality day care. We have to have housing for the people that work in the service industry. This is not just Pollyanna stuff. Let’s do the social policy things that get everybody a place to be included. That’s what I’d be going at.

What’s the biggest need, social policy-wise, in the province right now? Is it housing?

Housing is certainly way up there, but I think our mental-health services — I’ve been on the minister’s mental-health advisory committee, I’ve been co-chair of the city housing committee, so I’ve worked on both those levels. So I think affordable housing, and we need to work on some of the employment fronts. We’ve made some gains, but we need to continue to make people better off by going to work than not going to work. … But we have to improve our mental-health services, because an incredible amount of people aren’t able to work and support themselves, because of that inability to get the services they need.

dmaceachern@thetelegram.com/Twitter: @TelegramDaniel