A vibrant purple boa is casually wrapped around a doorknob, and a glitzy tiara with its chipped silver sheen hangs precariously from a section of matted feathers. Beyond this door is a small office, crammed full with books with feminist authors, inspirational quotes, a purple teddy bear whose significance is unknown to me, and watercolours that evoke peacefulness in the semi-chaos.
Her name, Gio Guzzi, is printed on a folded 8.5 x 11 and taped to the door.
Gio and I sit, knees almost touching, surrounded by all the aforementioned “clutter” in this space, but it doesn’t feel intrusive or overwhelming; its ambiance is warm and cozy. It has a lot to do with the woman sitting across from me, her eyes kind and twinkling with an ounce of rebellion.
As I am setting up my microphone, Gio’s eyes turn serious.
“I have to tell you something. The whole program is based on community, it feels weird for this story to be based on me, it’s just an avenue for us to come together.”
That is Gio Guzzi, humble and engaging while gently challenging your way of thinking. The Program Coordinator and Team Leader for the Birth Control and Unplanned Pregnancy (BCUPP) program at Women’s Health Clinic has been here over 30 years, and she is one of the most well-known and loved women at the clinic.
The BCUPP program has been at the core of WHC since day one. Trained volunteers meet with clients to discuss everything from birth control to navigating the decision-making process during an unplanned pregnancy. In the last year alone, the program has handled over 1300 counselling appointments.
When I ask her how she would describe her role in the BCUPP program, she smiles broadly.
“Community animator,” she says and her face lights up, a contrast to the curly dark hair framing her face. “It’s bringing together interested volunteers who want to give back to the community and services they may have received, in whatever capacity. It’s really about coming full circle, being a client and then becoming a provider and a helper. That is really what it is for me, building community and long term friendships, which is pretty amazing considering we are all different backgrounds and ages. We really are just a big group of interesting, weird people.”
Gio runs two training groups a year, consisting of 12 volunteers each. This spring, over 70 people applied to the program, which was one of the largest numbers in the history of the clinic. But in the process, applicants aren’t numbers to Gio, as she educates each applicant in the pro-choice, non-judgmental approach that is the cornerstone of Women’s Health Clinic. The philosophy and feminism that is at the heart of the program is inextricably linked with everything we do at Women’s Health Clinic.
“Depending on how you approach these issues, where you are at both physically and with the time commitment, but also emotionally, often people self-select,” said Gio. “Anyone who has wanted to volunteer with the program, has been able to. They might be on the waiting list for a couple years but it seems to always work out.”
The time commitment for training is intensive: 60 hours over three months followed by mentorship with another counsellor. Volunteers often say that Gio’s training is where they found their feminism, as the training stays away from lecture-based learning and instead focuses on growing and learning together through sometimes challenging discussions, particularly around feminism as the BCUPP program uses a feminist counseling model.
“Feminist counseling,” said Gio, “is a huge phrase with so many different layers and perspectives. How it is translated here is that we work with where the client is at. She is the expert in her own life, and embedded within that is very much a sex positive approach to sexuality. It means we stand with the client when she is figuring out what she needs to do (in unplanned pregnancy) or conversely she’s really clear in her decision and we are just going to get out of her way.”
We continue talking, well, actually I sit there, listening intently as Gio speaks about consent and how it looks in a way that talks about power and dominance and voice, negotiating safer sex use and who is judging your decisions. Often when Gio speaks, her voice lilts upwards at the end of a sentence – signifying a question – making you think about what she just said. Not quite a question and not quite a statement, I am never sure if she is asking me a question or if she questioning herself.
And that just some of the beauty that surrounds Gio Guzzi. She describes feminism as a spiral, going backwards, and forwards, and deeper, and not a beginning or end. She calls feminism “messy work” and anyone who knows Gio, knows she often speaks of sitting in the discomfort that is addressing racism, homophobia, class issues and abilism, to name a few. Social change without conflict, she says, isn’t social change.
“It has to be,” said Gio. “How else do you move if you aren’t uncomfortable with finding out ‘hey I missed that’ or ‘how did I not know that’ or ‘I think I have it figured out’, well good luck because nothing is really figured out,” Gio said with her trademark, infectious laugh.
With that I ask her a final question, “if you could say one thing to all your volunteers over the years, what would you say?”
Gio throws her head back laughing raucously, and says, “Are you kidding? No!”
And with this I realize, of course she would never have just one thing to say to the hundreds of diverse volunteers she has impacted over the years.
But if her volunteers had one common thing to say to Gio, it would overwhelmingly be…
Gio Guzzi is warmly inviting all former BCUPP volunteers to the 35th Anniversary Event – she would love to say hello and reunite with each and every one of you!