Miia Suokonautio

Executive Director, YWCA Halifax


Until very recently, I've kept every letter I've received. 

The letters began to thin in the mid 2000s, likely as Facebook came on board and we all started emailing. But until then, there were piles and piles. Jokes, drawing, scribbles, poems, artwork, stories. Many of the letters begin with, "Sorry it's taken so long to get back to you." Many of them contained, "I can't tell you how much I loved receiving your letter." And so on.

Storing them all in boxes, some months ago I began the process of sifting through. Which to keep, which to lose?

I'm keeping those that were sent by people who have since passed. Or those that were written by someone telling about their adventures with someone who has since died. Letters like these are ghost stories.

But pretty much all of the others I am throwing into the recycle bin. There are letters in Italian, French, Spanish, Finnish, and English. There are postcards and letters from all over the world. Notes from old teachers. Notes from bosses, colleagues, direct reports, and participants. Notes from family and friends of course. But also letters from people I've really only met in passing but for some reason we made an impression on each other and stayed in touch. In one case, I met a young woman from England at a 5-day conference in Warsaw. We exchanged letters for more than 10 years. I even ended up visiting her twice. In another case, I was picked up in Alaska while hitch-hiking and hit it off with the woman who'd given me a lift. We wrote letters for almost 5 years, where she detailed her affair, her divorce, her new life.

There are, of course, the standard love letters too. Some are just a simple, "I love you" on a napkin. That I kept for 20 years.

When I think of writing my "bio", we tend to think about our professional selves. When we held a title, collected a paycheque. Maybe we include some volunteer experiences. 

For me, the bio is these people and the things we did together. Sometimes as professionals or classmates. Sometimes as family or friends. Sometimes just as people.

In the summer of 2000 I worked on a farm in southern Ontario with migrant Mexican workers. There were 25 men, 1 Mexican woman, and 2 Canadian women, myself included. My job was to do the same farm labour during the days but to teach English in the evenings. In the end, I came away speaking Spanish.

In the pile of letters, I found one in shaky handwriting by Delfina. Her letter, in Spanish, was sent to me some months after I'd moved to France. She talked about wishing me well, missing our friendship, looking forward to going home for the winter. My friendship with Delfina is my bio.

As is my friendship with Juan Carlos, Benoit, Gabe, Inez, Brad, Valentina, Elena, Ixchel, Kwaku, David, Mary, Lillian, Brian, Maureen, Jonatan, Viivi, Jaakko, Almeta, Avis, Dennis, Jim, Helvi, Ahmed, Michael, Joyce, Aimee, Leah, Hilkka... and so, so many more.

As I reread the letters, I jot down the name of the person and then discard the letter. My own book of names, so to speak, is really my own life story. You'll only find the names there but for me, it's my whole life. Bio and all.


What are you most proud of professionally? And who or why?

I'm most proud of the positive changes that we've been able to make together. Advocating with and alongside people who are just keeping their heads above water is a tremendous honour. 

I'm also proud of the way we do this work; collaboratively, intentionally, and with great fun. 

What’s your vision for Atlantic Canada in 10 years? What’s our biggest opportunity now?

Equity and justice for all people, to be honest. Politicians who are representative of their constituents. A fuller inclusion of all people.

Our opportunity right now is to move the needle for the poorest Nova Scotians and those living in the harshest circumstances. Think always of those who live in the deepest poverty, the hardest violence. Think of those who are trapped in a broken penal system. Think of those who live in overcrowded housing. There are many opportunities to do this work through smart, progressive social policy. 

What was your greatest stage of growth? What made it a shift for you?

I can’t think of a time in my life where I haven’t been growing.  Each new chapter has posed new challenges. Often I’ve grown best because the people around me hold me accountable and invite me to be involved in a meaningful way.  For example, I just recently faced a situation in my work where I had to summon all of my professional experience in multiple fields to find a way forward that felt right and strategically sound.  

I think about the quote, “Reading without reflecting is like eating without digesting.” In the same way, “Living without reflecting is like eating without digesting.”  Our greatest growth usually comes from the times we reflect on what’s happening around us.

What’s your favourite or most read book or podcast? Now or at each of your greatest stages of growth?

For me, there is no such thing as a favourite book or podcast.  I have a deep appreciation for books to reveal different world views, perspectives, information.  Good podcasts also often keep me thinking in new ways. “Hunh,” I’ll say, walking with my earbuds in.  “That’s interesting.” Then I usually come home and say, “Can I play something interesting for you?” and we sit and I relisten.

What’s your deepest learning from this past year? How did/will you apply it?

This is super cheesy and pretty middleclassy but The Nod podcast put it best: “Self-care is showing up for yourself.”  I live a tremendously privileged life in many ways and so I’ve never taken self-care seriously at all. Even writing about it here feels silly.  It’s also not something I’ve ever really given much thought, mostly because I’ve always felt that I was right in my stride. But as I grow and have ever more responsibilities professionally and personally, that little space for me to pursue my own interests kinda fades.  So when I’m feeling like there’s just too much of a good thing for me to handle, I think, “Self-care is showing up for yourself.” And I try to show up.

Who’s inspired you, directly or indirectly? How have they inspired you?

I am forever inspired by people who are honest about who they are and who have big hearts for others.  There are so many people who are giving so much; seeing and recognizing their generosity is humbling and inspiring.

What would you have done differently?

Sometimes this question is asked as: “What are your life’s regrets?”  Something like that.  

I wish, when I was a girl/younger woman, I’d gotten more into playing sports.  I love, love playing sports but I know I’m somewhat limited because when I had the time, I didn’t invest it in training or getting better.  Now I’m at this weird stage in my life where I want to play but feel I’m not quite skilled enough to contribute to a team. So instead I goof around with family and friends on the courts/in the field/on the rink but never at a level that satisfies me.  

I wish I’d had a mentor who had seen me as an athlete and pushed that part of me to grow.  

Women’s physical activity is still highly political and our joy in our bodies doing cool things like sinking baskets or hitting pucks in the top corner belongs to us too.  I wish I could have more of that.

What are the principles you live by?

Strong. Loving. Kind. 

"Hard on the issues, soft on the people."

"Everyone is at a different stage of their journey. Bring them along as you can."

"Don't confuse serious with deliberate.”


Advocate, community-minded, decision-maker, policy informer, nonprofit leader.