June 14, 2024

‘A surfeit of waves’

Memorial event recalls remarkable life and impact of Jacqueline Ismael, longtime professor and researcher in Faculty of Social Work at UCalgary
A funeral booklet

Thought leaders, family, friends and colleagues gathered to reflect on the impact of Dr. Jaqueline S. Ismael at a celebration held to mark the anniversary of her passing.

They travelled from across Canada and the U.S., filling the seventh-floor meeting room of MacKimmie Tower beyond capacity — members of Alberta’s Legislative Assembly, deans and former deans of social work, and leaders from Canada’s social science and humanities sector. 

Transformation, both personal and societal, was the overriding theme as colleagues and former students paid tribute to the longtime professor and researcher with the University of Calgary Faculty of Social Work.

“She really set me on a course,” said Dr. Ellen Perrault, current Faculty of Social Work dean, “to thinking about how we can do social work to transform society.”

Each speaker at the May 27 celebration detailed how Ismael — through her personal support, or her teaching and research — changed the trajectory of their lives and their work, leading to systemic change that went far beyond the ivory tower to impact lives of generations of social workers and the people and communities they served.

Ripples of impact

“Once a pebble is tossed in a pond, the pond is never the same,” said Dr. Andrew Johnson, PhD, former dean, emeritus professor with Bishop’s University, and a world-renowned expert in international political economy. “Jacquie tossed handfuls of pebbles and the ripple effects continue … her legacy is a surfeit of waves, caused by those handfuls of pebbles.” 

Social work professor Lana Wells, the leader of SHIFT: The Project to End Domestic Violence, a researcher who has tossed her share of pebbles, has a special term for the rocks that Ismael regularly threw into the world. 

“I call them ‘Ismaelites’,” said Wells, who is recognized nationally and internationally for her work in changing the conditions that lead to domestic violence. “Ismaelites are her former students who go on to make substantive changes in the world. Ismaelites always stand out, in both their analysis of social problems, and also in their desire to advance social justice.”

Lori Sigurdson, MLA for Edmonton Riverview, is another proud Ismaelite whose life — like so many others — was forever changed by Ismael’s social policy class, “It was an amazing experience for me,” recalled Sigurdson with a wry smile. “Several people today have mentioned her very sharp analysis, and I was completely terrified of her all the time!

“One of the things that I used when I was the minister of seniors and housing and something I continue to use now as an opposition MLA is: Who benefits? Who benefits from the social policy? As minister you get to ask those questions. And when I taught at UCalgary Social Work’s campus in Edmonton, those are the questions I wanted my students to think about. It was Jacquie who taught me to look deeply into what is going on in policy and legislation to look beyond the smoke and mirrors.

“She was always on my shoulder, reminding me about the importance of doing that analysis and certainly not just being a ‘good girl’ — you know, doing what the bureaucracy wants you to do. You question that, and you bring your social work values, and your larger systems perspective. And I feel, and I hope that I've been able to do some of that work that she was so passionate about, and I'm so grateful to her for her support. When I was much younger that helped me go on this trajectory.”

While there’s not enough space to detail all of the ripples that Ismael created, John Graham, professor and former dean of UBC Okanagan’s social work program, mentioned that it was Ismael who created the UCalgary Social Work’s International and Community Development specialization, regarded as a landmark in Canadian social work. 

In an interview published shortly before her death, Dr. Betty Bastien, PhD, pointed out that Ismael’s social policy course also changed the trajectory of her life, where she became a trailblazer and passionate advocate for social justice.  

That course,” she said, gave me a perspective of where and how to make a difference in terms of providing services that are relevant to the needs of the people who we were providing services to. Also, the whole notion of social justice — how to work in the social service area and to be an advocate for marginalized peoples. That course really gave me a sense of where I needed to go in my life — in my practice — and gave depth to what I can do.

The power of conviction

For someone who was described as universally kind, supportive and even a “cheerleader” for the many students she mentored, every speaker, including three of Ismael’s former deans always touched on the intimidating force of her keen mind and passionate focus on social justice. 

“She was not one to suffer fools lightly,” recalls Wells. “Her sharp intellect and keen insight were matched only by her unwavering passion for truth and justice. Many of her students can recall moments when Jacquie became so animated in explaining an idea or concept that she would bang her hands on the desk to emphasize her point.

“And it was in these moments that her brilliance became intoxicating, illuminating the world around her and inspiring all who were fortunate enough to witness it.” 

Former Dean of Social Work Dr. Gayla Rogers, PhD, reflected, “My interactions with Jacquie were always with passion, always with energy, and always with zeal. There was never a question about who would win an argument. So, I found it was far better to really listen than argue, as her passion, energy and zeal always had a purpose. And it was usually about advocating for a student or seeking a way to right or wrong, or making something better. Jacqueline was a gift to our faculty, and the many colleagues and students who are lucky enough to know her.” 

Another former UCalgary Dean of Social Work, Dr. Jackie Sieppert also knew Ismael as student, colleague then as dean, touched on the source of her intimidating power, which was her uncompromising passion in the pursuit of social justice. She usually won arguments because she was always standing on the high ground of principle.

“In social work, we tell students they must adopt a critical lens,” said Sieppert. "When we imagine what that looks like, Jacquie often comes to mind for me. She searched for underlying societal dynamic dynamics, considered motivations and special interests and always always fought against oppression in all its forms. 

“Jackie never wavered from that critical lens, no matter how complicated or how messy the situation was, or how loud the argument got, she remained at the centre of all of that. This is to the power of a true advocate, and the power of conviction.”

Power of intellect and power of conviction were the source of this beloved professor’s seemingly endless, dynamic energy. But she was always respectful, and never used her considerable academic clout to bully or berate others. She also always checked her personal privilege at the door. 

Proof of this is that none, or at least very few, of her colleagues were aware that she was the granddaughter of legendary U.S. fleet admiral Chester William Nimitz, who played a huge role in the naval history of World War II as commander-in- chief U.S. Pacific Fleet, and commander-in-chief, Pacific Ocean Areas, commanding Allied air, land, and sea forces during World War II.

For Ismael a person’s value related, as Johnson pointed out, to how they “responded to what Martin Luther King referred to as life's most persistent and urgent question: What are you doing for others?

“Despite her breathtaking accomplishments as teacher, scholar and mentor,” Johnson added, “Jacquie was also modest. She was also courteous, thoughtful and above all compassionate.

A constellation of meuses 

The memorial celebration was capped with a few words from one of Jacquie’s daughters, Dr. Jenann Ismael, who is also a leading academic, who has published 58 academic papers and authored four celebrated books. Jenann, who holds the endowed William H. Miller III Professor of Philosophy chair at Johns Hopkins University, spoke on behalf of the family, who, even a year later, feel the grief too keenly to speak in public. 

It should be noted that her other daughter, Shereen, is also a respected social work professor at Carlton University and is the author of three books and multiple papers focusing on international social work in the Middle East in the context of conflict. 

The philosopher recalled a metaphor that author and photographer Sally Mann used in her book Hold Still, to capture what is left after an individual passes. In that book, Mann talks about the meuse, the imprint an animal, such as a rabbit leaves behind after it beds down in long grass for the night. As Mann puts it, “Each of us leaves evidence on the earth that in various ways bears our form.”

Jenann Ismael said the celebration had shown that her mother’s meuse was much greater than just her own imprint. Her teaching, advocacy and scholarship had instead created something much bigger: “I think listening today, I'm realizing it's not one meuse, it's a whole constellation of meuses. Listening to the speakers today, and talking to some of you here who knew my mom makes it clear that she was something different for each of us. We all in some way, I think, retain her meuse.”

To honour and continue Jacqueline Ismael’s passion for social justice and international social work, the family has created a lecture series in her name. Who Pays the Price for Conflict? The Dr. Jacqueline S. Ismael Lecture Series, which will be devoted to understanding the true cost of conflict on women, children, and other innocent casualties.

‘Look to the end’

While the May 27 celebration focused more on the remarkable person she was, the respect and admiration was also built on the foundation of her remarkable scholarship, “The result,” pointed out Gayla Rogers, “of being a hardworking, driven, intellectually curious scholar in the true almost old-fashioned sense of the word scholar.” 

As a scholar, animated by her passion for social justice, Ismael became a recognized global expert on womens issues in the context of war and occupation. Her drive led to her authoring a staggering 16 books and publishing an astonishing 120 papers. 

She worked nearly every day of her life, including her final day on Earth when she gave her beloved husband, lifelong academic collaborator, and partner in every meaningful way, Dr. Tareq Ismael, her last edits of their final book together, The Unending War on Iraq: Pax Americana, which is about to be published.

In typical fashion Jacquie took him by the hand, and looked him in the eye, telling him, “Don’t you take any shortcuts on this!” 

Besieged by grief, Tareq, who is a professor with UCalgary Political Science, a prolific author and internationally recognized Middle East scholar, takes some solace in the legacy of their work and the support of the community that Jacquie formed in her life. 

One of their mutual good friends, Dr. Les MacDonald, was a driving force in the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council as director of strategic operations. MacDonald, who recently lost his own life partner, reflected on the meaning of a life well-lived, recalling the work of Greek historian Herodotus, who famously recounted an exchange between the Lydian King Croesus and the great Athenian legislator Solon. 

MacDonald recounted the story of when Croesus asked Solon to name the happiest person he had met in the course of his many travels, expecting him to say that he, Croesus, the king of a great empire, was the happiest. Solon instead named a number of others who died while pursuing civic and family virtue. 

“Solon explained to the perplexed Croesus,” said MacDonald, "that one cannot know how happy someone is, until they have died happily. Until then, the word happy must be kept in reserve. Solon said, ‘Until then he is not happy, but only lucky. Look to the end, no matter what it is you're considering.’

“I think Solon would agree that Jacqueline was among the happiest people. In spite of her precarious health, she pursued justice, truth and human compassion throughout her life. Solon might have said, “It is not a matter of luck that we are here celebrating her life.”