How a small town bowling champion became a fierce advocate for social justice

By Elisa Nguyen
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
enguyen@fortfrances.com

Last month, the Fort Frances Times’ Daily Bulletin republished a photo dated March 2, 1988, featuring Fort Frances youth bowlers heading to a provincial five-pin championship. In one of the photos, a young girl named Leigh Naturkach, representing the Bantam Girls team, smiled proudly with a medal around her neck.

Fast forward to today, Naturkach lives in Toronto and works as executive director of The Mosaic Institute, a small organization with a big mission: to dismantle prejudice and work toward social justice. The organization has provided programs and resources to over 38,000 youth, 550 teachers, and 73 organizations seeking to make a difference in their community.

Although she moved to Canada’s largest city, Naturkach never forgot her love for bowling and her hometown.

In 2013, she wrote a personal essay called “What I learned rolling with the holy bowlers” for the Globe and Mail, expressing that she missed bowling so much that she joined a Catholic bowling league for seniors, where she regained “the the joy of being a kid—and the sense of community [she] missed after leaving Fort Frances.”

Naturkach caught up with the Times about how her early years led to her passion for social justice, and ways in which communities in northwestern Ontario can partner with The Mosaic Institute.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Thanks for sharing our Bulletin photo. It was so cool when I saw you reposted it. I’m also a fan of looking at old throwback photos and having a “blast to the past.”

Yeah. I moved to Toronto when I was 19. I actually ended up marrying someone from Fort Frances so I’m back there quite often and my family is still there. You can’t get away from that town.

How did you get into your work with Mosaic?

The real turning point was when I volunteered for Canadian Women’s Foundation. I ended up getting a role there and leading a national fundraising campaign to help women achieve economic independence and security. That really helped give me many translatable skills into the nonprofit sector, and understand intersectional issues around all aspects of identity and inequality in Canada.

About two and a half years ago, this opportunity came up. It brings together so many objectives of why I was volunteering and pursuing the work I did, and the opportunity to help a small organization do some really interesting, unique things in the landscape.

Was it that time when you were volunteering for the Women’s Foundation that began your passion for dismantling prejudice? Or was there another personal moment or conversation that sparked your passion for these initiatives?

It’s been many things over the years. Growing up as a white, young girl, I wasn’t as exposed to diverse cultures. There were a lot of prejudicial attitudes that I also perpetrated out of ignorance. I started to get more exposure to different challenges that my classmates were faced with when I moved to Toronto. Pursuing my degree and working in the media was a huge component of how to address prejudice. Media is an enormous factor in shaping our perspectives and our biases—the sometimes inaccurate, limited or lack of diverse worldviews presented when I was growing up was a huge factor. I made the career switch in my late 20s to the nonprofit sector and became more active as an activist and advocate. It’s also, I think, coming from a place of values. I think about who I’ve respected, who I’ve learned from, who I admire—they’ve been people who’ve had a really strong sense of justice and empathy. One of the reasons why I’m so passionate about Mosaic is that we teach youth the things I wish I had when I was 12 years old, and those skillsets around understanding identity, communicating through difference, and how you can take action on issues that are important in your community.

In your role as executive director, what does a day in your life usually look like?

Because it’s a small organization, I’m wearing a lot of hats all the time. I can be sitting on the Toronto For All campaign by the city of Toronto, writing our e-newsletters, overseeing our impact and day to day activity, making sure our stakeholder groups are informed and thanked, in a meeting with the Central Tibetan Administration, or approving linens for our gala event. I’m so far from where I grew up, at the Plaza Lanes bowling alley, but also you bring along all those parts of you when you’re in those moments. It’s a very broad role. It requires all the skill sets I’ve ever learned, and requires you to still be ready to learn.

Do you have any advice on how people can handle leadership roles with confidence and courage?

Know where your strengths lie, but also understand where your gaps are. That leaves a lot of room for grace and for growth and for you to succeed. Also, have a wise council of people around you. I’ve had amazing relationships with other leaders who I meet with regularly to talk through challenges as a sounding board, and offer that in return. I would also say, go easy on yourself. Some days are hard and you’re going to make mistakes. It’s having humility to know when you were wrong, saying “I’m sorry,” and modeling that for others. I think that there’s a really high expectation of leaders that they’re not human somehow. And also, hiring and having people around you that are smarter than you. My vice president is a rock star. We divide and conquer, and I think part of leadership is knowing that everyone has a leadership role to play. It’s not about “the Leigh show,” it’s about “what is best for Mosaic,” and how do we all represent the organization in our areas of expertise. Only through working together and supporting each other, that’s how we’re going to get where we need to go.

How can individuals and communities in northern Ontario get involved in Mosaic’s initiatives?

Leigh Naturkach is a former Fort Frances resident and the executive director of the Mosaic Institute in Toronto, an organization that aims to dismantle prejudice and work towards social justice. She saw a photo of herself from her younger days bowling in Fort Frances in a Bulletin page last month and shared a little bit about what she’s been up to since 1988 with Times reporter Elisa Nguyen. – Submitted photos

Especially during COVID, we shifted a lot of our offerings being online. Next Gen—there are elements of that program that can be offered online. Addressing Online Hate is online and free, Breaking Down Barriers will be online and free. And our Dialogue work, we have dozens of community partners and we are always seeking to grow. Our UofMosaic program, it’s a fellowship program for college and university students. We are looking to engage and attract college aged students who would bring their knowledge and tools to dismantle prejudice to whatever career or community that they’re in. We’re really looking to expand more rurally in Ontario and beyond because there often isn’t the same access to that kind of training and education. And because we have a generalist-approach, we’re not necessarily representing only one community or identity. Everyone can sort of see themselves in the work that we do. I definitely would encourage anyone to reach out to talk about what they would like to achieve in their community.

What’s the best way for people to reach out?

Info@mosaicinstitute.ca—that way myself or one of my team leads can see the request and direct them to the correct person to carry on that conversation. For people who want to make a change but don’t know how, reach out and if it’s not us that is the solution, we have many partners who would be able to support them.

And for our last few closing minutes here, I wanted to bring us back to the photo that originally connected us on Twitter. It was the throwback photo from March 1988 when you were on a provincial bowling trip to Sudbury. Can you tell me a little bit more about what you remember from that day?

Bowling was a huge part of my childhood and adolescence in Fort Frances. Sports is actually a lot like this work. It’s discipline, learning to collaborate, teamwork. And the competition piece—I do love to win, I’m not going to lie. I think it’s always special to appear in the newspaper, I think that’s such a beautiful way to talk about what’s going on in the community. But what bowling did for me, I’ve travelled all over the country with bowling, I billeted, and I got to know so many people who I ordinarily wouldn’t. And I still am connected to a lot of those folks. Coach Toni [Bale] in the photo, we chat with friends on Facebook. Tara in that photo is one of my best friends. So many elements of my hometown are still such a huge part of who I am today.

Do you have any plans to continue your bowling career in the future?

Oh gosh. With the day to day, it’s hard to find that time, but I can see it making a return. One of my dreams would be to reopen Plaza Lanes. It’s got good bones on that building, and my husband and I have thought about it. So, never say never.

To learn more about The Mosaic Institute, visit https://www.mosaicinstitute.ca/.