When Pain Becomes Power: Jordan Guildford On Domestic Abuse and the ‘Gems for Gems’ Mission
When Jordan Guildford was fourteen, she began to see her mother differently. Her child’s eye was giving way to a more judicious, adult perspective, and with that came the understanding that her mom was not just a mom, but a woman. “My dad wasn’t really around at all, and I started understanding what his absence meant, as a woman, to my mom.”
Without the support of a partner, Jordan’s mom had gone into life-source mode. “We had nothing” says Jordan, who grew up in Halifax, Nova Scotia, with her mom and two siblings.“We often didn’t have food, heat, or hot water.”
A lack of necessities meant her mother’s priority was her children’s wellbeing and survival. Her own wants seemed irrelevant.
Not wanting her mother’s sense of self to dwindle any longer, Jordan suggested to her younger siblings that, instead of using the $20 their grandmother gifted each of them to Christmas-shop for themselves that year, they pool their money and buy their mom some jewellery. Her siblings were in. “We bought mom this little bracelet that looked like leaves woven together. It had what we thought were diamonds but…definitely plastic!” she laughs.
Upon opening the gift on Christmas morning, Jordan’s mother burst into tears and left the room. “I thought we’d hurt her. My brother—who was eight years younger—thought we’d got the wrong one!” But after a few minutes, Jordan’s mother reentered the living room, hair and make-up done, wearing her best clothes.“She sat us down and told us that this piece of jewellery had reconnected her to being a woman and an individual.”
The link between jewellery and personal empowerment had been made clear to Jordan. Seeing her mother transform in a matter of minutes, all because of a bracelet and the sentiment behind it, showed how true “look good, feel good” could really be.
“It’s as if you feel black and white and then you put on a little piece of jewellery and suddenly you see yourself in colour.”
Jordan carried this sentiment with her over the years, but it wasn’t until December 2015 that she saw the opportunity to really put what she’d learned into practice. At a dinner party in her new hometown of Calgary (where she now lives with her husband and two kids, aged six and seven) Jordan and her friends were chatting about charitable initiatives around the holidays.
“I noticed there was a focus on initiatives benefiting children, which I think is 100% how it should be, but I’ve seen what it’s like for women, too. If the children don’t have much, the mom has even less.”
Fueled by the memory of her mother and the bracelet, Jordan decided to spearhead a jewellery drive to collect accessories she could give to women in shelters on Christmas. She called this campaign “Gems for Gems,” the intended message being that gems in the community would donate gems to the gems (the women) in shelters. “I had only three weeks to collect, and I had a goal of giving 25 packages,” she recalls. “We collected enough to do 436 packages in three weeks.”
Central to the success of the campaign, Jordan says, was not door-to-door soliciting, social media spamming, or other pushy marketing tactics. There was only one drop-off location for the jewellery—the OrangeTheory fitness centre in Calgary—and the staff and members rallied, big-time.“It’s amazing what happens when people come together with a common goal.”
Fast-forward four years and Gems for Gems is a nationally-registered charity whose mission has expanded beyond the realm of crowd-sourcing jewellery and into that of domestic abuse education and prevention. “I wanted to be able to keep the momentum of Gems going year-round,” Jordan says, adding that she didn’t set out on creating a large charity; it just sort of happened.
“It wasn’t me trying to make space [for myself of this charity]. I was filling a required space.”
Gems still operates their annual jewellery drive (which has reached over 14,000 across Canada) but their outreach now includes a scholarship program and a series of workshops designed to empower survivors.
One of the workshops teaches self-defence, and when it first began, Jordan noticed some recurring questions from survivors. Questions like ‘what do I do when I’m being cornered?’ or ‘what do I do when I’m bleeding and I can’t see through blood?’ came up shockingly often, and Jordan understood what this meant: women were planning on returning to their abusers. “I thought, oh my god, I’ve got to be able to do something to make these women feel like leaving and remaining out is an actual option.”
She set to researching and discovered that lack of self confidence and lack of financial independence were (and are) two of the leading factors for why women return to abusive situations. Wanting to address these factors, Jordan added more classes to the empowerment series, which now includes workshops in financial literacy, self defence, resilience training, and psychological coping skills. The series is called THRIVE. “Women come into our workshops not being able to make eye contact with you, and then suddenly their heads are up, they’re leaning forward, taking notes, and asking questions. It’s incredible.”
Jordan’s personal history as a survivor (she was abused by her priest as a child) has given her the perspective she knows is necessary to facilitate survivor recovery.
“I have been grounded in the reality of poverty and abuse, and I want to create change for other people. It’s amazing to live a life focused on that.”
Yet the process of operating Gems for Gems is not a healing experience for Jordan herself—nor does she think it should be. “I personally feel that if you’re needing to do something to heal yourself, you probably shouldn’t be working with other people that need help.”
That’s not to say that Gems hasn’t had, and isn’t having, a huge personal impact on Jordan; it’s more that her trauma is separate and distant from her charitable work. “The stuff that happened to me was a long time ago. It’s part of what made Gems possible because it’s given me perspective, but I don’t have the pain with it anymore.”
Gems’ team members are expected to have a similar, forward-looking approach. “We don’t talk about backstories at all. That makes us very different in our sector. We are 100% here moving forward.”
Also setting Gems apart from other organizations in their field is the language they employ when discussing abuse. Specifically, they don't use domestic violence as a catch-all for varied types of domestic abuse.
“The reason we say domestic abuse instead of domestic violence is because we see violence as a point on the spectrum under the umbrella of abuse.” In other words, abuse comes in many forms: financial, emotional, sexual—all equally legitimate and all worthy reasons for seeking help.
“Calling it domestic violence is problematic to me because, that way, many women who aren’t getting beaten don’t understand that they’re still being abused.”
And women who don’t know they are being abused are more likely to stay in unsafe situations, sometimes to the point where things turn fatal. “Our scholarships are named after women who have been murdered by their intimate partners. And in both cases, the situation didn’t turn physical until the first and last time.”
Gems is on a mission to educate and empower survivors, which involves showing survivors that resilience comes in many forms, and that there is no “right way” to act resiliently. Maybe resilience means leaving your partner and seeking help at a shelter. Maybe it means getting your nails done in the wake of grief. Maybe it means simply breathing, in and out, over and over. To Jordan, resilience refers to how you come back from difficulties you’ve been given.
“I believe we all have the right to wallow and stay angry. But we also have the choice to not. And I feel the responsibility, as a people with breath in us, to take the life we have and make it as beautiful as we can.”
Jordan’s daughter, Lily, seems to have tapped into her mother’s philosophy already, possessing a knack for de-escalating tension and making other children feel safe around her. “My kids, Lily and Gabriel, grew up in the centre of this charity and it’s changed how they are. They behave differently, they think differently—the things that come out of their mouths are different.” Jordan recalls an incident in which Lily was only four years old. Walking up to an older, bigger boy whom she’d witnessed bullying a smaller boy, Lily said, “do you see that? Do you see how sad he is right now?” She looked from the small boy to the big boy as if to say, did you really mean to hurt him?
Taking his cue, the big boy walked away. “It just blew my mind,” says Jordan. “She didn’t get mad or call him a bully. She just went in and instinctively changed his perspective.”
Changing perspective is central to what Gems for Gems does, and will continue to do, as they help survivors transcend their circumstances. They are showing women that pain can translate to power, and that every single breath can be an act of resilience.
Writer: Mica Lemiski