BC Association of Community Response Networks

BC CRN Spotlight: Joanna Li, Regional Mentor – Vancouver


BC CRN’s team of Regional Mentors helps communities establish Community Response Networks (CRNs). Mentors provide ongoing local support in the coordination of responses to abuse, neglect, and self-neglect, and community development initiatives. Some Mentors are also community development partners who collaborate with local agencies and organizations to respond to the needs of their people.

Joanna and her family in 2013. (Photo: J. Li)

Joanna Li (pronounced: “Lee”) is the Regional Mentor for Vancouver proper, the largest urban centre in BC, which includes the neighbourhoods of Grandview Woodlands, Mount Pleasant, Marpole, Renfrew, South Granville, the West End, Coal Harbour, Yaletown, the Downtown Eastside, as well as the urban Indigenous community. (She is also the mentor for the “borderless” Chinese and Francophone CRNs.) Vancouver is also one of the most ethnically and linguistically diverse cities in Canada: 52 percent of its residents have a first language that is not English.

Joanna’s academic and professional expertise and experience are as diverse as the region she serves: she has an uncanny ability to bring people together, weaving talents, strengths, and abilities to impactful results in the community. Her sunny disposition, positivity, and curiousity are infectious in all the best ways.

In addition to her current Mentor responsibilities, Joanna is also a language facilitator, connecting people from all over the world, helping teams bridge Chinese and Canadian cultures. She is also project managing a biotech start-up based in Richmond, BC, and Taiwan.

Allow us the pleasure to introduce you to Joanna Li as our BC CRN spotlight for our final edition of 2021.

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Just as we are about to start our Zoom interview, we see a hand holding a red bean popsicle slowly enter the frame. The frozen treat was an impromptu snack offering from mom, which Joanna graciously tried to decline at first, but then accepted. “Our fridge is always blessedly packed,” she explains. “We went grocery shopping today, so something in it had to go.”

Joanna is the eldest of two daughters to Chinese immigrant parents, who chose to raise their family in East Vancouver near Commercial Drive.

Fluently bilingual in Cantonese and English, Joanna’s youth followed a routine many Chinese kids had at the time. She attended public school during the day and then was in Chinese school right after, five days a week. Education was valued and very important.

“I went to a Chinese school located kitty-corner from Strathcona Elementary. I studied Chinese in church too,” she says.

After completing high school, she went straight to university to study psychology and criminology.

While in university, Joanna’s church asked her to teach. “I taught English as a Second Language (ESL) to children and youth, and really enjoyed it,” she says.

Joanna would continue teaching English in local learning centres and offering private tutoring while studying.

“I didn’t know if I wanted to be a psychologist or a criminologist, so I studied for both,” she says.

Joanna earned an undergraduate degree majoring in both disciplines from Simon Fraser University.

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Joanna’s professional career has taken her to different, seemingly unrelated sectors: business, health and wellness, youth, seniors. Through it all, she was able to (and encouraged to!) apply her language, public speaking, counseling, and teaching abilities.

Joanna with her mom and sister at Lougheed Town Centre in 2020. (Photo: J. Li)

Her first job out of school as a child and youth care counselor would eventually take her to the Better Business Bureau where she worked for six and half years, first in membership development, then in communications, and finally becoming the director of business development and strategic partnerships.

“It was also my first exposure to working with older adults,” she says. “I learned that inviting participants to share stories and insights further enrich our time together, making it more meaningful and relevant for everyone.”

Her respect for seniors would continue to grow with subsequent roles with the Arthritis Society of BC where she was responsible for educational programming and services in the Vancouver Coastal and Northern regions, and then with a Richmond-based seniors’ centre where she was responsible for programming for older adults. “I have great memories of these places, and the work taught me so much about community development,” Joanna says. “It was also a lot of fun.”

She also volunteered extensively, contributing her time to non-profits such as Valley Women’s Network, the Kerrisdale Oakridge Marpole Better At Home Advisory Committee, and Friday Night Live, a weekly social program for older adults at Minoru Seniors’ Centre in Richmond, BC. In 2010, she co-founded Women on the Edge, a social network that brought local businesswomen together to talk business…and just talk. (The network disbanded in 2014.)

Throughout, Joanna craved school. “It had been about 15 years since my undergraduate degree and I was thinking about doing a Master’s in public health or business,” she recalls. “I had also just completed a project management program and a mentor told me about a leadership program that a colleague of hers spoke of fondly. It was exactly what I was looking for.”

Joanna earned a Master’s of Arts degree in Leadership from Royal Roads University in Victoria. “I really enjoyed learning more about appreciative inquiry, which is a strengths-based approach to leadership and organizational change,” she explains. “It spoke to me and it has also helped me focus my strengths and get clear on my own values.”

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Joanna was just starting to build her own learning and leadership consultancy when the opportunity to apply for the Regional Mentor role came about in 2020. A former co-worker notified her of the posting.

My partner’s colleagues printed dozens of copies of this photo and hid them in his drawers, calendar pages, between binders, etc. It was hilarious! We kept some of these print-outs as momentos! (Photo: J. Li)

“The role really appealed to me and resonated with my values. It checked all the boxes,” she says. “I could see how doing the work would help me truly live my values of community support, lifelong learning, and collaboration for the greater goal of creating safe communities. I had never been directly involved in a CRN before, and I was honoured that they took a chance on me.”

And the learning in BC CRN is ongoing for her. “Everyone is a mentor in their own right,” continues Joanna. “Everyone who is part of the BC CRN – the CRNs, partners, contractors, volunteers – has so many unique strengths and gifts. It’s a reflection of what we offer to our communities to help foster their strengths and talents. This is what I love about being part of this organization.”

And, her love for her work also led Joanna to the love of her life. “My partner and I met right before one of my first events in a parking lot. I was late and he showed up from nowhere and asked if I needed help. Before I could say anything, he picked up the heaviest of my boxes and walked them down the steps to my booth,” she shares. “We’ve been since 2014. I jokingly say we should get married in that parking lot!”

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Joanna has always been a little bit crafty, but only in her free time. “I worked retail for a major arts and crafts supplies store for a season back in 2017,” she says. “It was so fun, except I didn’t save a dime. I would work a five-hour shift, and then shop for two.”

Today in her spare time, Joanna crochets. “I’ve done it since 2013 when my dad passed,” she says. “I learned from my mom and watching Youtube videos.”

She made small things to start – lanyards, scarves, and beanies – and donated them until she finally soft launched Happylee Crochet in 2018. For a couple of years, Joanna would casually sell her crochet wear at gallery openings and online, donating the proceeds to organizations important to her.

Today, Happylee Crochet is Joanna’s vehicle to give back – a mini social enterprise of sorts. Currently, she is crocheting 30 beanies for the Renfrew Collingwood CRN’s Christmas Activities and Food Support project for older adults. “I’ve been crocheting every day for two weeks now and I’ve got about ten hats done!” says Joanna.

When asked how the name Happylee came to be, Joanna says: “I wanted to honour my dad. My family’s name is actually ‘Lee’, but immigration services spelled it as ‘Li’ on my dad’s paperwork. He always reminded us to be happy: it’s the most important thing. My mission is to pass this blessing to those who wear my creations, and to wear them happily.”

Joanna may be reached at joanna.li@bccrns.ca.

Header Photo: Joanna (right) and her mom on an Alaskan Cruise in 2019. (Photo: J. Li)