I recently had the good fortune of hearing Samantha Nutt, Founder and Executive Director of War Child, speak about her role and experiences at the frontline of many of the world’s major crises – from Iraq to Afghanistan, Somalia to the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Sierra Leone to Darfur, Sudan (samanthanutt.com). 

(Sidenote: If you ever have the opportunity to hear Samantha speak- grab it.)

When she finished speaking there were a few wet cheeks. The crowd of 600 (me included) was moved by one story in particular of a girl who, walking to a town near her home in the Congo to purchase medicine, was raped by 3 boys who cut off the soles of her feet when she attempted to run away. Nutt tried to help us understand why later the girl did not tell her mother because it would come at the risk to her chance of being married. Samantha also told us about the next time she met with the young girl and learned she had been raped a second time on that very same stretch of road. 

When we hear stories like this, inhabiting our fortunate existences- perhaps glancing across the room at our own daughters- we are horrified and upset and angry and compelled. And we should be.

It's unsurprising then, that when the room opened up to Q&A a woman got up and asked Ms Nutt about travelling to Africa to build a school.


There have been numerous articles over the past few years taking a critical stance on 'voluntourism' and what can happen when privileged first-worlders don their hero capes to swoop in and save the third world. There's even a group based out of Vancouver trying to end 'humanitarian douchery' once and for all (yup, that's a thing).

Having worked with nonprofits in a number of capacities over the past 20 or so years, it's a relief to see the issue being brought into broad daylight, because there's a problematic and widely held assumption that volunteers are just inherently super-wonderful people doing unquestionably good things. BE THE CHANGE! We can't question (or worse criticize) volunteers and volunteering because it's a sort of blasphemy against humanitarianism and all things Mother Theresa.

But a closer look at the voluntourism phenomenon shows that volunteering overseas isn't always what it's cracked up to be:

We are generally even more loath to admit that voluntourism isn't strictly happening overseas: there are plenty of volunteers who don't stray nearly so far from home to use cause work as a recreational way to travel into another environment: the land of the underprivileged, the realm of the downtrodden, the dominion of the stricken. 

A place where the privileged save the lesser. 

This novel environment just happens to be a heck of a lot closer to home. Not to mention more convenient to exploit. In these environments, some volunteers steal up to millions of dollars, while others- like The Boys Scouts of America- have a subterrainean cohort sexually molesting and abusing countless children in their care and resulting in some of the largest punitive damages ever awarded over sexual molestation

But wait, there's more.

Volunteer Arsen, like this volunteer firefighter who, although not 'on the job', ironically started a fire and burnt down someone's home. Volunteer Theft, by volunteers stealing things like cash to historical items from venerable institutions like the Buffalo History Museum. Volunteer Luring, as was the case with Victor Overfield, a Cadets volunteer, who was arrested and charged with one count of luring a child and one count of invitation to sexual touching. Then there's Christopher Whitte, a former church volunteer, who covered a whole bunch of bases, being charged with Sexual Assault, Sexual Interference, Invitation to Sexual Touching, and finally Sexual Exploitation. And it's hard to count and document the number of volunteer paramedics, basketball coaches, firefighters, and teachers accused of inappropriate contact. Some volunteers have even (while volunteering) committed manslaughter

On a lighter note, some volunteers just like the perks: a larger network, padded resume, recognition and awards or that warm and fuzzy feeling you get by 'helping' others.

Surely that's a minority! Surely the greater good outweighs less noble intentions!

I hear you. 

But if some volunteers and voluntourists are not only NOT doing good, but causing real and sometimes tragic harm why should we be so reluctant to look critically at what's going on beneath the surface?

I was at a cause event a few months ago where the organizer waved vaguely at a stack of brochures (which no one actually picked up), spending time in front of cameras, socializing, gushing about the effort and well... using a serious human rights issue as a blatant PR opportunity. If you've witnessed this before you know it's not pretty and you can't unsee it. What made the event even more cringe-worthy was a distinct 'bibles to Africa' theme: a project that produced plenty of warm fuzzies, but came nowhere close to addressing the issue. And not a slag to bibles, but when someone's basic human needs, rights and freedoms are being violated it feels... inadequate to hand them a bible. 

Or, to use another example, a pair of TOMS. 

'You don't have proper sanitation? Here are some flimsy shoes' *brushes hands*. 

Using a cause for good PR under the pretense that you are trying to help someone- handing them a pair of shoes when what they could have used was an investment in public healthis not a benign act, and it comes at a cost.

I'll be the first to admit that sometimes the 'right thing' needs to be done by any means necessary. Cause work needs to engage people whether their hearts are in the exactly right place or not. Because 
A) Who's going to be the Monitor of Intentions anyway? and 
B) if nonprofits and charities narrow their resources to only those obtained from the most well-intentioned resources would be even more scant, and the vulnerable would pay the price. 

Consider an event or campaign that's fun and frivolous, let's say the Ice Bucket Challenge. People join for the cause, sure, but how many participate solely because it became a fun viral stunt? At the end of the day, if a real issue is being addressed because a bunch of people who didn't entirely care drove millions in donations, are we going to shut it down? Probably not, but that doesn't exempt it from critical analysis either.
... there is a world of difference between ill-considered decisions taken for the purpose of stroking a traveler's ego, and subjective decisions to volunteer after properly considering as much of the moral and practical detail of your engagement as possible. (Richard Stupart, from CNNs  Does 'voluntourism' do more harm than good?)

To the woman wanting to build a school in Africa, Samatha Nutt counselled (and I'm paraphrasing):

Voluntourist projects like that can actually take jobs away from locals. 
The projects are often completed by unskilled labourers and the work later has to be redone properly anyway
The community may have no other infrastructure or resources to support the project after voluntourists leave, so it disintegrates, gets looted and sits empty.

Instead, if you want to support and experience Africa, go there. Purchase things from local merchants, support the economy and listen to the stories people have to share. Better yet, take time to learn how our buying habits directly impact violence, instability and war in other countries and make the change that matters.

Feel good 'busy work' is not about supporting the people and development of Africa, it's about feeling good.


Feel Good Projects are intended to do exactly that: make us feel good; however, some side effects may occur:

  • It is possible to hurt the intended aid recipients. 
  • Ill conceived projects may lead to mediocre results, causing more work.
  • Any short term benefits may disintegrate without long term sustainability plans and engaging aid recipients as equals
  • Resources such as attention, time, energy and money may be drained away from real problems and solutions.
  • Handing someone a bandaid for a bullet hole may lead to contempt in intended save-ees.  

Look critically, beyond doing what feels good
Strive to understand the impact and implication of actions (positive and negative) 
Recognize that development is complex
Try examining how habits may be contributing to the problem
Treat people as equals who are capable of engaging and finding their own solutions

Have an opinion on volunteering or voluntourism? TWEET ME
skinny labelled for reuse

When I was a teenager I was obsessed with being skinny. It was definitely a prominent look (heroin chic is a term I remember from that time) and no matter how low my weight went it was never enough. I exercised and starved myself and took diet pills. School counselors told me I was anorexic. My friends eventually guided me away from that by helping me feel my worth. But there's residual traces of it even now in the way I judge my body.

Time to forget skinny.

My body has changed a lot over the years. I've had 3 children. I lost all my pregnancy weight after my first 2 pretty fast, but then came Eadie. Eadie's our youngest and was born in the middle of a hard winter. Having a winter baby can be tough at the best of times, Eadie was a hard baby, in a harsh season. My body didn't recover so quickly.

Time to forget skinny.

Winter can wreck your body. If you live in a place that's always warm that may be hard to appreciate. Having to spend more time indoors (a lot more if you don't have a winter activity)/less time being active can mean weight gain (#OhCanada). I tend to gain about 5-10lbs over the winter. If we have a short or really busy summer I may not lose all of those pounds, so you can see how that becomes a bit of a problem.

Time to forget skinny.

I come from a family that is largely tall, thin and athletic. I got the genes, but I'm not an athlete. I don't go to the gym. BUT I do love being active, especially outdoors.

I ran Rugged Maniac (obstacle race/mud run) recently and a spark went off. I've marveled at people who workout and train and have never felt anything close to desire to be that kind of person. For a long time it felt like a personal failing- like I was too lazy to become an obsessive gym rat.

When I ran Rugged I felt so completely engaged, driven and capable (FYI it shredded every muscle in my entire body) and I kind of had a realization. I do love having a physical challenge, but it has to be engaging in a different way for me than going to a gym and running through a series of workouts.

I want to be outdoors. I want a finish line. I want to feel strong.

So I'm setting out to get more rugged. I'm going to share as much as I possibly can with you because seeing real people tackle real challenges is something I love and appreciate so maybe you can find something in all of this that's helpful to you too. I'll warn you in advance that I generally dislike glossy images that romanticize how hard this kind of journey can be, so don't expect pretty. Expect something more like this...

If you have any advice, workouts, meal plans, or things that have helped you feel strong please PLEASE share them. I live online and you find me in lots of spaces!


We started a community garden at a school and get asked so often how we got started I thought I would share our journey with you. So here it is, no frills, just easy to follow steps from the start.

How to Start a Community Garden at a School at no cost
(or, at least, how we did)


First, we needed approval. I sit on the school council and first brought the idea to them to see if it was even possible. Sitting on council helped by showing an investment beyond the idea and in our school community.

From there we had to get approval from the school board- a process that took nearly 8 months (start early!). The school board was reluctant to give approval, not because they didn't want to see a garden in the space, but because if anything happened to the garden it would become their responsibility (and cost) to step in and fix it. Eventually, someone with the board came and spoke with us and gave us the OK.

During the wait, I compiled as much information as I could about what the garden would look like, who would be responsible for it year over year and the potential impact it could have on our school community. I built a plan I felt removed any potential resistance, barrier or cost. In short, I tried to construct a plan it would be impossible to say no to.

What I didn't anticipate was what I would learn along the way about the school. I learned that a large number of students come to school without adequate nutrition- many with no food at all. I learned that the amount of vandalism at the school is astronomical. We are a through-way between a junior high and highschool as well as being a very popular community space. Despite all efforts to deter vandalism we had 25 windows broken over the course of about 3 months.

Being an active participant in these conversations and asking questions taught me some very important things about our school, and helped to shape our project is some critical ways.


The Crestview Community Garden is essentially a hybrid project: a community garden combined with a school program. 

For a downloadable version of our garden plan 
may it serve you and your garden well!


It's important to identify what you're trying to do with the garden and have guiding principles that keep the project moving towards beneficial outcomes. Having goals outlined can also be the start of an important conversation around what will work, and what's realistic for your community. Our goals shift as more people get involved and we grow together, but this is what we outlined initially:

The goals of our garden:·         
  • Show kids where food comes from, and develop a stronger relationship with food.
  • Reduce amount of processed and unhealthy foods in school lunches
  • Cultivate an interest in farming/growing things
  • Encourage entrepreneurship from a young age. 
  • Foster ownership of our health.
  • Create greater access to healthy food
  • Encourage stewardship for our environment, and community spaces
  • Reduce carbon footprint of food by growing some of it ourselves!
  • Reduce vandalism
  • Connect with other community garden initiatives
  • Overall connect the garden with broader education, nutrition, and environmental themes
  • Create more fundraising potential    


We spent a lot of time looking at the space. Considering the vandalism (which occurs at the back of the school, out of sight) we decided to put the garden at the front of our school where there's a lot of traffic and neighbours to watch over it.
  • We played with different layouts for the area it would go.
  • We talked with the school about potential water sources

community garden plan

  • 5 square 10’ X 10’ beds with wooden frames
  • evenly spaced with mulch framing all beds
  • 3 student beds: Front garden beds facing street
  • 2 community beds (quartered, for a total of 8 plots)


Sourcing what you need to build the garden is a major part of the process. My personal goal for the garden was for it cost absolutely 0 dollars to our school. I wanted to show that it was possible to start a garden- from scratch- for nothing. That way, any school, no matter their resources, would feel empowered to try. This is what our resources looked like in theory:

  • soil-plants/seeds
  • rototiller
  • tools
  • rainbarrels
  • wood to enclose raised beds
  • mulch
  • chicken wire 
  • (potentially) bamboo and jute for teepee (potentially)
  • Soil and mulch are free from the Region of Waterloo, and will be transported by Jane Barkley & Darrick Hahn. Currently have stock of seeds and further seed will be sought as sponsorship via OSC seeds
  • All other materials are being sought via sponsorship/community partnership

And this is what it looked like in reality:
  • seedlings donated by local grower with surplus (found through Kijiji)
  • 'tomatonaut' tomato seeds from space! Through school program
  • seed potatoes donated by family
  • general tools inherited
  • tilling tools loaned by local growers Two Crow Growery (also donated mulch)
  • wood for raised beds sourced free from Kijiji
  • compost free from the region

In our first year, because all seedlings were donated we didn't have to do much planning about what we were going to plant. We just had to coordinate where we planted and then work with the school to get kids out planting it (but you can read our full garden plan to see how we were going to tackle what to plant).

community garden planting

As another little point of interest, we intentionally constructed the garden right when the kids were getting out of school so they would walk right by and be able to see what we were doing, get intrigued/excited and ask questions.

It's pretty important to be real about the potential cost and consider how those costs will be dealt with ongoing. We knew our plan to keep it free would work in the first year, but anticipated having to source funding if we wanted to grow the project in the future. This is how we tackled funding in our initial plan:

  • All costs of the garden must be covered via sponsorship/partnership, community grants, donations, and revenue.
  • Permission to submit applications for grants from Libro, Foodland and any other relevant fund is being sought from council.
  • Other fund development to be coordinated with the Garden Club

Potential revenue sources:
Garden plots (8 spaces X $20/year = $160.00/year)

Now we're looking into crowdfunding and products we can sell.

From the beginning we wanted to consider who in the community might want to support our garden. Not all of these relationships came to fruition:

Crestview students
The Crestview Garden Club << this means working closely with the school!
Crestview School Council
Stanley Park area residents

The Local Food Fund

Pat Rittinger (green program KCI)
Region of Waterloo
Fresh Endeavours
Foodlink Waterloo Region
Nutrition 4 Learning
KW Urban Harvester (KWUH)

but we've established other completely unanticipated relationships and support.

To truly understand the impact of our garden, we want to track changes we see in the school environment. For instance, a great deal of time has been spent at our school looking at what we, as a school community, are eating. Having an overview of the typical school lunch, we can track any trend towards healthier lunches connected to our nutrition efforts and the growth of the garden.

Looking at our goals as important metrics of success, we're working towards showing the impact a community garden can have in a school.

Green Program at KCI
Oliver’s Garden
Gardens for good
Hope Blooms

I'm a bit of a geek for research, so I come by this pretty naturally. I wanted to see different gardens in schools and if there was data that actually showed what happens when you put a garden in a school community. Here's a bit of what I found:

“North Carolina researchers followed 95 school-aged children who participated in weekly gardening sessions for two years. The pilot study found that kids started eating more fruits and vegetables after they began gardening. A few of the kids who were overweight improved their BMI by the end of the study.” (School gardens plant seeds for healthy eating. Students learn more than horticulture when they get their hands dirty.- By Lee Marshall, CBC News Posted: May 17, 2013)

There is mounting evidence that gardens in schools improve eating habits and overall health, reduce obesity and vandalism, and create a strong focus on the environment.

We strongly believe it can also:
-significantly increase community investment in the space.
-help to grow some of tomorrow’s farmers
-teach entrepreneurship

So there you have it! PHEW. I can't say enough about what gardens do. They educate, they bring people together, they nourish us in absolutely every way.

If you want to talk community gardens TWEET ME @janieeden

Happy Gardening!

meditation lotus position

How to Meditate (for people who hate meditation)

I might have once told you that I'm anti-meditation. I don't generally enjoy being told what to do, or jumping on bandwagons and when people talk about meditation and mindfulness it seems to have the trappings of both. That, and I really don't picture myself in lotus position, eyes closed, gently chanting 'om' (call me closed minded, I just really do not).

But I've discovered that it's not meditation I dislike- it's the glossy narrow version of it that's become popular and mainstream and somewhat cliche.

What no one ever told me about meditation is that it can look radically different and take many (more personal) forms.

For me, gardening is meditation. When I'm working in the garden I am nowhere else but there. I'm not thinking about the client report, getting a present for that birthday party my daughter is going to, or solving any of the numerous problems my mind is generally in full blown obsession mode over. I am calm, and content and deeply connected (AND I get great food at the end!).

Repeat. Years ago I actually tried a meditation (hey, can't knock it if you don't try it) in which you visualize a flame. The point is to try and keep the flame from flickering as your thoughts sway it this way and that. I never quite got the knack of visualizing that flame, or my thoughts as little gusts trying to snuff it out, but I thought there was something interesting to it. 

My variation on the flame meditation is repetition:
Count to 100- #Srsly- all the way to 100. It's amazing how completely this slows down your day and brings you into the exact moment you're in. Persisting up to 100 really makes you realize how easy it can be to still yourself and find joy wherever you are.  Especially if you're in a nice hot bath.
Repeat a helpful mantra. I deal with anxiety. It can be brutal and sickening, and sometimes it's so intense it burns, but I refuse to let it stop me from anything or rob me of living. One of the things that's helped when my anxiety is burning bright is repeating: 'this is the fire that forges nerves of steel'. Over and over. It takes a feeling that seems excruciatingly negative and completely transforms it. It doesn't get rid of the anxiety- it helps me to embrace it and feel powerful with it, all the while silencing the barrage of thoughts (and guilt) that accompany anxiety.

Sing (loudly!). I'm willing to bet I've inadvertently given numerous people a laugh as they pull up and see me passionately belting out tunes in my car. It is one of my all time favourite things- singing. I do it when I'm alone, when I'm in the shower, when I'm driving... It is a powerful way to feel centered and connected. And you don't have to be good at it AT ALL. You just have to put your heart in it. 

For me the point of finding a personal practice of meditation is less about appropriating form than it is about finding a way to still that crazy fast train of thought and get back to what matters.

Do you have your own personal form of meditation?


The Coffee Date

I was in a cafe. My companion, a young woman with the verbal forte of a passionate women's rights advocate. Women's issues were in fact the hot topic of the moment, and there was considerable indignation over the epidemic of catcalling, references to facebook posts, and lament over how so very many people just didn't 'get it'.

Then something interesting happened.

My companion's eyes were drawn towards someone entering the cafe. Though we'd been in mid conversation her attention was obviously no longer with us. I stopped and glanced at the subject of her attention. It was a university-aged woman, and from her devout attention I thought maybe my companion knew her. As the young woman walked past us to the cafe counter my companion- without shifting her gaze (and without regard for being only mere feet away)- remarked:

"UGH, I absolutely HATE those shorts she's wearing. I mean, really..."

Next, some reference to the length of the shorts (apparently, too short), and the weight of an expectation to remark in kind on the clothing of a woman I had no opinion of whatsoever. Instead, I said 'So anyway...' moving the topic in another direction, aware that some part of her attention was still on that young woman at the counter and the length of her shorts.

The False Paradox: Nice people don't do bad things. 

The problem with assigning labels is that none of us are only, or entirely one thing. 'Nice' people do awful things (don't believe me? Read Psychologists Find that Nice People Are More Likely to Hurt You).  

I could have assumed, from a number of cues, that my coffee companion cared so much about the empowerment of women she couldn't possibly be nasty to them (I mean, how can those things reasonably coexist?). But even in the brief space of a few moments her actions offered a contradictory image. I could have assumed from her catty comment that she really was so nasty she couldn't possibly genuinely care about women's issues. The hard truth is actually both.

I've spoken at length about living in an abusive relationship and one of the things, to this day, that resounds with me is how many people who knew my former partner say 'he seemed like such a happy-go-lucky guy'. It's always had the eerie echo of what we say when we find out the quiet neighbour next door's been keeping human remains in the freezer. He seemed like such a nice guy...
People seeking to control others almost always present the image of a nice person in the beginning- Gavin DeBecker
As a Specialist in security issues, DeBecker's seen the dire consequences of assuming that nice behaviour negates any possible wrong doing. It's not cynical to question niceness, because nice is a behaviour, not a trait.  It's something we can sometimes be, but never all we are. When we classify a person by a single behaviour, painting their whole picture with one colour, we self select out of acknowledging their complexity; but, choosing colour blindness does not erase the other hues. 

Still... facing the contradictory behaviours of my coffee companion I wondered: how could someone so seemingly passionate about women's empowerment almost simultaneously be so disrespectful to women? How could I reconcile this?

madonna I'm ambitious...

Why Being Nice is Overrated

My coffee date question is answered daily through my daughters. It's mind bending how often my girls are told to BE nice. Apparently, it's supposed to be one of their top two priorities

#1 Be Pretty and #2 Be Nice 

The thing is... my girls are not nice. Don't get me wrong they can be- but man- they are SO. Much. More. They are smart, but sometimes do stupid things. They are stubborn, and still they compromise. They are articulate, yet sometimes say things that make no sense whatsoever. No one behaviour rules out it's opposite, or articulates fully who they are. Even their most dominant traits evolve with every new interaction, experience and change.

Like my girls, I've been told I'm nice- that that's an important thing for me to be- but I'll tell you from personal (if perhaps not entirely objective) experience, I'm not. While I'm capable of being nice, it's different from believing I am nice. Admittedly, this has likely gotten me called all kinds of other things (which I probably am too, in part); however:
-Nice doesn't build my business.
-Nice doesn't make me a better parent.
-Nice doesn't improve my health.
-Nice doesn't help me form authentic relationships, 
  ...make a meaningful contribution to my community or 
    ...make the world a better place.

Being nice is really, really low on my list of 'Important Things to Be'. We are all made up of so many things, and most of them are more interesting, more exciting, more valuable and more real than nice. 

In short: being nice is overrated. 

How to Avoid Nice People 

  • Be Aware: People are clever. We learn to use behaviours that achieve what we want. It's a mark of intelligence, and neither inherently good or bad. When I hear 'he's a nice guy' I don't automatically file that person under Nice; instead I think, 'this guy's obviously learned being nice achieves something- I'll pay attention to what that might be'. Maybe it's something entirely benevolent, but wouldn't it be better to know-either way- than not?

  • Embrace Accountability: Consider a parent saying "I have never been anything but a GOOD parent". Well, as a mother I can tell you: at times we're not all good. Sometimes we are less than what we can be, we are capable of causing hurt and complexes and inadequacies, and we make mistakes. But when we acknowledge our fallibility, embrace our mistakes and work to be our best selves we stand the best chance of actually being good mothers. It's what happens when we accept accountability.

  • Get Assertive: What if I stopped my coffee companion dead in her tracks and called out her behaviour as inappropriate and mean, or asked her if insulting a woman for what she's wearing is any better than catcalling? It's all too easy to get passively sucked into someone else's behaviour out of love, friendship, pressure or discomfort but our behaviour is our choice, and that's powerful. Choosing behaviour that protects us (which may mean staying away entirely) while asserting our values isn't always easy, but- like anything- gets easier with practice.

Ever met a 'nice' person who turned out to be not so nice?  Tweet: I've met 'nice' people who turned out to be not so nice @janieeden!