Every volunteer organization needs to have cornerstones: key volunteers who are instrumental in shaping volunteerism within the organization, who work tirelessly to support the goals of the organization and who provide leadership in critical areas. Ellen Shifrin is one of our long-standing cornerstones for Amnesty International in the Greater Toronto Area. She is an active member of our Speaker’s Bureau, one of the leads of the Business and Human Rights Team and a passionate defender of human rights. She is also a dear friend and mentor. Well done and deserved Ellen!
In Ellen’s words:
“I grew up in a middle class Anglo neighbourhood in Montreal. The only remarkable thing about it was that my parents instilled in me a sense of social justice. Recently a cousin said that I was like my parents on steroids. They found a way to live their beliefs, have a family, contribute to “culture” (classical music, theatre, dance, art), and do some travelling. I haven’t yet found that balance, as now everything seems to clash; travel = not good for the environment, classical anything seems colonial, and beliefs are urgent top priorities.
Amnesty International rose into view for me soon after I left a so-called spiritual community. As an Indiaphile, I had always wanted to find out what had happened with the Bhopal disaster, and contribute to that. I had travelled in India on meditation retreats; now I turned my attention to the work that really needs to be done. 2004 was the 20th anniversary of that disaster, and AI came out with a report that remains one of the important writings on Bhopal, almost 10 years later.
After exploring other issues and learning more about AI, I realized that Bhopal falls under the “Business & Human Rights” category, and so joined the BHR group. However, I found that unlike other issues, there was, it seemed, only I who wanted to work on Bhopal. To satisfy that inquiry, I joined the North American wing of International Coalition for Justice in Bhopal, and became part of the Advisory Committee. For the AI December 10th 2006 event, I helped organize the making of a solidarity banner for Bhopal. Three months later I presented it in Bhopal to a group of survivors and activists. There I met some of the amazing people who work on this issue, and resolved to return.
I finally got that opportunity in the winter of 2010. After a month in Andhra Pradesh on a team writing for an ESL curriculum, I headed up to Bhopal for the annual meeting of all the organizations working in various ways on the effects of the disaster. I was to spend the next 6 weeks there as a volunteer.
Enter the twist: on the evening of the second day I was walking back to the Sambhavna Clinic, an internationally funded clinic and research centre that provides health care free to all gas and water-affected people. In spite of the fact that I had been in India for almost 3 years off and on, and that I’m good at crossing streets there (it’s almost fun), I looked the wrong way and got hit by a motorcycle. Poor chap, he really didn’t have an opportunity to stop – I just walked out right in front of him. I heard a shout, and the next thing I knew I was down on the ground with a horrible pain in my left foot. A crowd of young men gathered around me, looking. Eventually a couple of the fellows got me up, asked me where I was staying, and helped me to an autorickshaw. They rode with me to Sambhavna, ensured that people were there, and left. They wouldn’t even let me give them some rupees for the auto. Satyu, one of the leaders of the clinic and Bhopal movement, smilingly said that I had insulted his countrymen by offering money.
Since then my other human rights work – teaching children with dyslexia – has taken priority. This means that my eco-destroying trips to India haven’t resumed, although my heart is often there, and I enjoy listening to others’ experiences. I’m more involved with the current work of the AI BHR group, Corporate Accountability for Canadian mining abroad. My lens remains Human Rights, and each day I work to provide others with the means by which they can make informed decisions to participate in our eroding “democracy”. I am always grateful to AI for its vision, leadership, and opportunities to make a difference.”
There are many stories to tell since I met Ellen during my first B&HR group in Toronto. However, more than a story about Ellen, I would like to highlight her commitment to solve human unkindness. She always keeps our perspective clear: we do what we do in order to alleviate and prevent harm done when we loose perspective of the impact our actions have on other humans. Her kindness extends beyond the work we do to make for a compassionate, strong, humble and wonderful human being.
If it’s someone profiting from cutting costs on maintenance from the Bhopal disaster, or a company that don’t want to clean oil spills in Nigeria or companies disregarding impact of mining in Latin America, Ellen is there to remind us all the very human suffering that we are causing each other in order to maintain a particular way of life.
One of the marks of a caring and compassionate organization is in how it treats those with special needs. A task that Ellen cheerfully and ably took on as Toronto hosted the 2008 and 2010 AI Annual General Meetings was to serve as our special needs coordinator. This behind the scenes work at the Toronto AGMs was in addition to the many things Ellen was also doing out front in campaigning for human rights – but working towards a fairer world also requires quiet behind the scenes efforts too.