Between now and the end of the year, St. John’s-based writer and consultant Leslie Vryenhoek is set to travel to Uruguay, Peru, Uganda and Kenya — all as part of her work with Women in Informal Employment Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO).
“We work with women in informal employment, primarily women, but also men, but we look at informal economy issues,” she said in a recent interview at her home.
The informal economy, she explained, includes waste pickers, street vendors and home-based workers, “so people who make everything from computer chips and soccer balls to the clothes we’re wearing,” and others who live on what they can produce and sell.
“In most of the developing world, most people work in the informal economy. They don’t have a job where they have social protection and some guarantee of time and hours.
“They’re really more flying by their own initiative or doing what they have to do to survive and make a livelihood,” she said.
With WIEGO (wiego.org), Vryenhoek serves as a writer and editor, also performing some front-line research and collecting personal stories directly from workers.
She is currently working on a collection of workers’ stories.
Vryenhoek also often takes on the editor’s role, assisting researchers in readying their work on the informal economy for English-language publication — smoothing out rough translations, for example.
“They write a lot of research papers, they do a lot of work in policy and best practices, where cities have integrated wastepickers into their solid waste management, or where cities have created sort of vendor-friendly markets and that kind of thing,” she said.
WIEGO has a core team of about a few dozen researchers and statisticians globally, many university-based, and the organization has its own base at the Hauser Center at Harvard University.
“I have only been doing this for a few years and so far I’ve been to Ghana very briefly and to India twice.
“I spent some time in India at a wastepickers meeting and then I spent a few days with a headloader, a woman who carries textiles on her head through the textile markets.
“I actually lived in her house and stayed with her a few days in the slums of Ahmedabad in the state of Gujarat,” Vryenhoek said.
Learnings on best policies and practices funnel into WIEGO advocacy pieces, including policy recommendations and how-to guides for members of the informal economy looking to engage government, unionize or create a framework for individuals to work together on business projects.
Amidst world travels, Vryenhoek continues with her more creative pursuits.
The author of the short story collection “Scrabble Lessons” (2009) and winner of literary prizes, including the Dalton Camp Award and the Winston Collins/Descant Prize for best Canadian poem, is working on a novel and looking at collaborating on a short film based on her collection of poetry entitled “Gulf.”
She is also running the annual writers’ retreat and intensive known as Piper’s Frith at Kilmory Resort in Swift Current.
She is preparing to welcome 22 writers from across Canada and the United States to this province at the end of September.
Despite her many commitments, Vryenhoek found time to tackle 20 Questions.
Where and when were you born?
I was born in Pittsburgh, Pa., in 1964.
What is one memory you have from your childhood that stands out to you?
We used to have a motorhome and we used to ... take these long drives and a lot of them we would drive up to Winnipeg to visit family, from Texas. ... I just remember that time in the motorhome, driving around on the highway, with me and my (two) brothers in the back laughing and my parents up front.
What are you reading right now?
I’m reading Will Ferguson’s “Happiness,” which is very engaging, very funny. I’m kind of burnt out on the dark and bleak, the way so many novels are.
Who are some of your favourite authors?
There are some authors I have consistently enjoyed — Carol Shields, Robertson Davies — and some new writers like Trevor Cole who dazzle me. But ... I feel like it’s not supposed to be a popularity contest.
Do you think poets get a fair shake in the literary world?
I think within certain circles they do. I mean, within the literary world, yes. Within the larger world ... probably not, because I don’t think most people read poetry. In fact, I read somewhere more people are writing poetry than reading it.
If you were elected premier tomorrow, what would you do?
I would tighten environmental laws and open up more ways to bring in more immigrants. I would also impose a whole bunch of noise bylaws, but that’s just me.
What is your personal motto?
Hurry up, there’s so much to do.
What chores do you try to avoid?
Cooking — some people think that’s not a chore, I think that’s a chore. And cleaning the bathroom, but I always get saddled with that one anyway.
If you could have dinner with any person, living or dead, who would it be and why?
I’d have dinner with my father as he was before he got sick. I feel the loss of his wisdom so greatly in my life.
What do you always include in your travel kit?
Ibuprofen and Nicorette gum, and earplugs.
What is your favourite word?
Prairie. It’s very evocative.
What is your least favourite word?
Oh, I should think of something deep right? Like “can’t” or something ... Really, I just hate the word “hubby.”
If you could travel right now to anywhere where would it be?
Bolivia, because that’s where my youngest daughter is and I’d love to see her and hear about her adventures.
What is one thing everyone should do before they die?
Be kind to someone else, for no gain.
What music do you like to listen to?
I love folk music. I love music where the lyrics are smart and resonate and work with the melody or the music. And I have a secret love of old ‘70s music, which is not very secret.
What is your favourite place to go in Newfoundland and Labrador?
We have a house in Adam’s Cove, which is just an incredibly restorative place.
What do you recommend to young writers?
Don’t take yourself too seriously. Play around.
What is your favourite year?
I don’t have a favourite year ... 2003 was particularly good to me. And 2005. But 2003 ... I’ll stick with that one.
What question would you hate to be asked?
What do you most regret?
What do you most regret?
Oh, that’s not fair! I regret ... See there’s so many. There’s so many things I regret. ... I regret that I have not always been as generous in spirit or as kind as I want to be and I regret that I can’t be more generous and less intemperate without the help of nicotine.