CCLOW New Brunswick was interested in looking specifically at the needs of mature women returning to school but also wished to target a population from a variety of backgrounds: native, rural, immigrant, those on social assistance, and disabled or elderly women. Many such "minority" women have never had the means nor the information to consider continuing education for themselves due to barriers in their work or home situations or financial arrangements.
The first stage of the CCLOW project, the focus group discussion workshop, was held at a central and easily accessible location in downtown Fredericton. The aim was to receive from the participants their concerns about returning to learning and with this information a handbook would be developed for the use of mature women across New Brunswick. The workshop was advertised widely in all kinds of media: in newspapers (local and provincial), on local television stations and through women's church groups. Posters were displayed in the local YW/YMCA, in laundry mats and in grocery stores.
Eleven women participated. They varied in age from twenty-five to fifty-four years and the number of children each had ranged from none to four. (The ages of these children varied from one year to thirty- four.) The average annual income of each participant was less than $10,000 per year. One women was of native background, one a rural community, and two were mildly disabled.
The women did not come to the workshop to be told what they should do to further their education, but were given the opportunity to explore a future for themselves. The workshop was set up to be sensitive to the needs of the potential students, to allow them to create, or recreate, themselves out of their own experience. Such a format has been shown to be a successful vehicle for women to share reliable information about their own experiences (2). The empowerment of women is possible in such focus groups, for through these channels women can confirm their experiences and perceptions, attempt changes, and receive feedback from others like themselves. Groups provide women with the opportunity to assess their own experience against that of others and to find in this process a respect for each other's lives.
There was indeed a sense of empowerment within the group that met for the discussion workshop. Energy was high throughout the day as knowledge passed from one woman to another and, through their voices, was made real. Their values were acknowledged and the language they used in their discussions was incorporated into the handbook which further legitimized their voices and their concerns. The issues they raised ranged from doubt about being "too old to go back to school" to anxiety over leaving young children at home: "Where do I put them if I decide to go back to school?"