By WAYNE CAMPBELL
WELLAND – Charity does not go far enough to feed hungry children or to put roofs over the heads of homeless, says social justice activist Ellen Kaas.
The former Wellander dipped into her social justice experience during the 20th annual Distinguished Speaker Night in St. Kevin parish hall Monday.
“Politicians and power brokers do respond to public opinion,” Kaas said.
Change can be slow but you never know how far a letter, phone call, protest or other action may go.
For Kaas, social justice is about all people being treated equally. No matter where they were born “they should have the same opportunities to be all you can be.”
She referred to Pope Francis’ encyclical letter Laudato Si, “on the care of our common home” to back up a worldwide application.
Kaas said her first experience in bring about change came as a student at Notre Dame College School.
In the early 1970s, female students were required to always wear skirts despite standing in the cold or rain waiting for buses.
“It was not fair or just.” Pants made more sense, she said.
The struggle by the students included “protests, detentions, out of uniform slips and rallies,” Kaas said.
She learned that “you have to be bold and sometimes break the rules to bring about positive change.”
Later, as a Rotary Club exchange student in Mexico, Kaas saw how easily unfortunate habits take hold. She stayed with a well-to-do family with servants.
“It didn’t take long to pick up the attitude of family members toward servants” such as judging them as lazy.
The chartered accountant, who now operates a business serving non-profits and charities, almost didn’t go to university. Her Notre Dame teachers persuaded her otherwise.
At St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto, she found a whole world opened and she became involved in the student union.
She saw how deeply consumerism was embedded in society as a don in a students’ residence.
“Young girls would overcome sadness by going shopping.”
Similarly, while studying commerce and finance, Kaas turned away from a Bay Street attitude of “the more profit, the better”.
To take a break from consumer values, she volunteered to work in Guatemala with the Sisters of St. Joseph.
“It was an unexpected learning experience.”
The sisters ran a centre that worked co-operatively with villagers to make improvements, such as digging latrines to avoid illnesses.
Kaas noticed how a co-operative approach raised the confidence of extremely poor villagers.
“To be,” she discovered, “was more important than do.”
The work of the Sisters of St. Joseph centre alienated foreign industrial interests who sought rights to the lands villagers had farmed for generations.
Later, those interests used violence against the centre and those it served to drive out the Sisters of St. Joseph.
“It was so unjust that they could just take the land away,” Kaas said.
Now Kaas is on the board of Peace Brigades International, which defends human rights around the world “by waging peace.”
She returned to Canada, earned her chartered accountant credentials, and worked on social justice projects with the Youth Corps.
She played host for Mother Teresa in Toronto, during a visit to Canada in 1982.
Kaas stayed at home to raise four children and with her husband Tom worked part-time as lay pastoral associates at Holy Name Parish in Toronto.
A group of women came together in 1986 to meet monthly to support each other and sharing spirituality. It continues 31 years later.
The members promote a greater role for women in the Catholic church. It is not easy and some of the women gave up and moved on, she said.
“The Catholic church is not the most equitable association.”
After her children grew, Kaas started a chartered accounting service for non-profits and charities.
Recently, she has served as a volunteer director on boards of the Catherine Donnelly Foundation and Peace Brigades International.
The $40-million foundation shifted investment in stocks to companies that demonstrated social responsibility.
She said they moved away from mining industry, fossil fuels, and child labour.
In summary, Kaas said change is slow but even small acts can influence people.
“We must see ourselves as one family around the world,” she said. “We must hear the cry of the poor.”
(Wayne Campbell is a retired journalist living in Welland. He worked for the Welland Tribune and newspapers in southern Ontario and British Columbia.)