Membership Spotlight: Michèle Biss

Michele Biss

NAME: MICHÈLE BISS
YNPN OTTAWA MEMBER SINCE: 2014
CURRENT POSITION: LEGAL EDUCATION AND OUTREACH COORDINATOR AT CANADA WITHOUT POVERTY (CWP)


Why did you join YNPN Ottawa?

I am one of the founding members of YNPN Ottawa and have been there since its inception. Currently, I’m chair of the governance committee and also a member of the programming committee.

When you started YNPN Ottawa what was your hope?

One of the things that drew me to YNPN was the idea that there are many young people in the legal community who are bright, driven by social justice, and genuinely interested in the nonprofit sector. While those individuals originally intend to work in the sector for marginalized groups, they end up going to the government or a law firm. Often the road to meaningful work at a nonprofit is closed for young lawyers with high amounts of student debt – and I think this is especially true for young female lawyers. And so, when I joined YNPN I had that very much in mind.

You have a pretty unique role, what does it actually look like?

My official title is Legal Education and Outreach Coordinator, but we’re a small organization, so my work involves a wide variety of tasks. On any given day this can mean drafting blogs; making submissions to the Canadian government or the United Nations; or coordinating CWP’s efforts to educate the public about Canada’s international human rights obligations for people in poverty (like the right housing, food, or an adequate standard of living). My job also involves maintaining and building relationships with partners to make sure that we’re genuinely acting as a national voice for grassroots organizations as well as those in poverty.

You've worked and advocated at the UN? What was that like?

It’s an incredible experience - and as a young advocate it’s so meaningful to walk into this hallowed space. The first time I went to Geneva two years ago, I remember being awestruck surrounded by the flags, monuments, and peacocks walking around. It was such a powerful experience to be surrounded by advocates who have been working on human rights implementation for decades before I entered the sector.

One of the unique aspects of CWP is that were the first NGO to appear in front of a United Nations treaty body (when we were previously named the National Anti-Poverty Organization or NAPO), so it’s amazing to be part of a long tradition of bringing the voices of people in poverty in Canada to the international stage. When I’ve gone to the UN I’ve attended with a member of our Board of Directors, all of whom have lived experience of poverty, which means my job as a lawyer is to ensure the pathway is clear for their voices to reach the ears of committee members at the UN.

Watch Michèle at the UN!

One of the most powerful moments for me on a personal level at the UN was attending the review of Canada by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). As a young feminist, it was a spectacular experience to be among this community of women’s rights advocate who have for so long pushed for equality for women in Canada. 

Do you think if had gone the “high pay, big firm” route you would be getting to do things like go to the UN? Or that you would feel as rewarded?

Definitely not. And I think that's the value of working in the nonprofit sector – at the end of the day, you have this feeling in your gut that you may have made a change in the world in a positive way, even if it’s just a small change. That's a pretty powerful and worthwhile thing.

What's on the horizon for you professionally?

October is our busiest month at CWP with October 17th being the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty and our Chew on This! campaign that we coordinate with an organization called Citizens for Public Justice.

Chew on This Photo 2016In this campaign, we coordinate organizers all across the country in communities from coast-to-coast-to-coast. This year, we’ll have over 70 groups taking to the streets to call for a rights-based national anti-poverty plan. Handing out paper bags containing a postcard and an apple, volunteers will talk to people in their neighbourhoods about poverty and the fact that 1 in 8 families in Canada struggle to put food on the table.

This year will be our 5th year conducting the campaign and we’ve changed things up a little bit because the government has started some work on an anti-poverty strategy. What remains to be seen, however, is whether the strategy will have a human rights approach. Concretely, that means that the government has to meaningfully consult with people in poverty and approach the strategy from the understanding that poverty is a violation of Canada’s international human rights obligations – we're not creating a poverty strategy because it's a nice thing for the government to do, we're doing it because people have a right to be free from poverty. Critically, a human rights approach means that the strategy ensures accountability for those who are marginalized – it’s not just a strategy that sits on a shelf – instead, it allows people an avenue to exercise their rights.

The postcard in the paper bags goes straight to the Minister responsible for the Canadian Poverty Reduction Strategy, Minister Jean-Yves Duclos. Passersby can sign the postcard and send it off to the Minister (it’s free to send it to his office on Parliament Hill). Last year, when we conducted Chew on This! Minister Duclos put up a photo on his social media surrounded by thousands of postcards that had arrived at his office. This year, we’re hoping to emphasize the message that people in Canada want an effective poverty strategy that recognizes the rights of those who are the most marginalized – and is backed by funding in the next federal budget.

Minister Duclos 2016

Photo credit: Jean-Yves Duclos Facebook page

So if somebody wanted to get involved what would they do?

They would email me at michele@cwp-csp.ca and we would connect them to a local event happening in their community.

If someone doesn't manage to get one of these coveted postcards in their town is there something that they can do instead?

They can go to our website at www.ChewonThis.ca or our twitter feed. On the website, there’s also information to sign up for our Thunderclap which will automatically send out a tweet, Facebook, or Tumblr post at noon EST on Oct 17th from their social media accounts calling for a rights-based plan!

Are you hoping that he'll stop by and get an apple?

We’ll have to wait and see! We do have some opportunities for MPs and Senators to engage with the campaign on October 17th. It’s so important that Parliamentarians from all parties are aware that people in Canada really care about poverty and want to see concrete change. Hopefully, they’ll take the opportunity to come out to Chew on This! events to show their support.

So, for somebody who's thinking of entering the nonprofit sector. What's one thing that you think they should know or look at?

The first recommendation I have for those individuals is to volunteer as much as possible. It’s really important to meet people in the sector and demonstrate how skilled and passionate you are. Volunteering can be helpful as well because it helps you get to know people in the sector through networking and building a community. Finding employment in the nonprofit sector is rarely about walking into someone’s office to drop off a CV – instead, I’d encourage people interested in the sector to focus on building their community, and in my opinion that’s the biggest benefit of joining YNPN Ottawa.

The second recommendation I have is to make sure that you’re volunteering or applying for a job at a nonprofit that serves an issue that you genuinely care about. It’s important to research opportunities carefully to match your passion. There’s so few resources at most nonprofits that if you can walk in the door and demonstrate that you understand what the organization does from the outset, that is a significant benefit for the organization.

Want to be featured in your own spotlight? It's one of the many benefits of being a YNPN Ottawa member! Just email ynpnottawa@gmail.com to set an interview time

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