Helen Tewolde is Law Foundation of Ontario new Policy & Programs director
July 30, 2019
Canada has been good to Helen Tewolde.
Even though her parents are grateful to find a home here, it pains the new Law Foundation of Ontario (LFO) Policy & Programs director that they weren’t given the opportunity to maximize their potential.
A Math teacher and senior accountant, Kidan Tewolde brought his family to Canada 35 years ago to escape the civil unrest in war-torn Eritrea. On the way, they spent a few years in Jordan where he was an accountant at the Holiday Inn Hotel in Aqaba which is the country’s only coastal city.
“He went to some of the top schools in Eritrea and had a really good life with my mom,” said his daughter who was born in Jordan. “But being Black, African and refugees, they didn’t want their kids to be raised in the Middle East because they didn’t think me and my younger siblings would have the opportunities that are available in Canada.”
Like many professionals coming here from other countries with myriad skills and talents, her father – who is recovering from illness -- was forced to drive a cab for more than two decades while his wife – Meaza – worked as a packer and machine operator in a factory.
Making huge sacrifices to ensure their children thrive in Canada makes Tewolde proud and emotional.
“Once dad got here, he didn’t disappoint,” she said. “It hurts though that he wasn’t able to work in the field that he’s qualified to work in and that he was unable to use his capacity to the fullest extent. It was a waste of human resources and I know his spirit was broken. Everyone has value regardless of what their story is.”
Tewolde pledged a long time ago that she would do all she could to show her parents that their hard work and sacrifice weren’t in vain.
“I know first-hand what struggle is like, what it means to support your family, work, go to school and have dreams while trying to build a life in Canada,” she said. “I feel privileged to have hard working parents. To me, there is no option but to give back. If I didn’t have parents that toiled long hours and made huge sacrifices, I didn’t think I would have the values I have in terms of service, giving back and gratitude. That’s why I am so passionate about leveraging the privilege that I have had and ensuring that it works for other people.”
In her new role with the LFO that’s the only foundation in the province with the mandate of improving access to justice, Tewolde will develop and implement granting activities within its access to justice objectives, support and manage relationships with grantees, justice sector organizations and other funders and provide leadership to staff.
“When I saw the job opening, my first thought was ‘the fit is too perfect’,” the 2011 DiverseCity Fellow said. “I have done grant making, I have been on boards, I have worked in the college sector and I have been employed at the municipal and provincial levels. Over the years, most of my work has centred on supporting our most disenfranchised communities, whether it is in education, health, housing, refugee issues and access to justice. The job became even more attractive by the fact that we fund access to justice initiatives and I recognized most of the organizations they have funded. I have a lot of respect for those organizations, so I thought it would be great to come and do policy work here. I am in a place of influence to advance change.”
Tewolde brings more than a decade of management experience developing research programs and partnerships related to access to post-secondary education and employment.
Prior to joining the LFO, she was a senior researcher and manager for two years with the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario’s Centre for Equitable Access, designing , developing and advancing the organization’s research and policies priorities related to post-secondary access.
Tewolde also spent two years as George Brown College’s Program & Partnership Development manager and four-and-a-half years as the Council of Educators of Toronto first Project Director.
Graduating with her first degree at McMaster University where she used her own money to help start the institution’s first online newspaper for Black students, she completed the Comparative, International & Development Education Master’s program at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and was the recipient of the 2007 Gordon Cressy Student Leadership Award and a 2008 New Pioneers Community Award.
There was a time after finishing her undergraduate degree that Tewolde contemplated going to law school.
“I knew I didn’t want to practice law,” she noted. “My interest was in legal research and sort of changing the confines and parameters within which we talk about legal discourse, especially in international public law and human rights law.”
Never afraid to take a risk, Tewolde made a cold call to Osgoode Hall Law School professor Dr. Obiora Okafor who is the United Nations Independent Expert on human rights and international solidarity.
“I told him I am interested in his work and he said, ‘OK, come work with me’,” she recounted. “I will never ever forget that summer I was with him because I got to do the research I wanted to do. I was 21 and he really inspired me. He also gave me books that I used for some of my presentations at conferences. That meant so much and he gave me a lot of confidence. Since then, I never say no when someone asks me for help because I know how much of a big deal it could be for that person as it was for me.”
Always wanting to work internationally, Tewolde’s plan to take up a United Nations Development Program job offer in Jakarta, Indonesia was thwarted by a Canadian government travel warning.
“My bags were packed and I was ready to go,” the former City of Toronto community development officer said.
She remained in Canada, joining the Youth Challenge Fund that supported youth initiatives led by 19 organizations working in the city's 13 priority neighbourhoods.
“That was a wonderful opportunity and experience because I got to understand the barriers young people face and what their hopes and dreams are,” said Tewolde who served for three years as a community grants developer. “Just to see the brilliance that lies within our community and getting a grasp of the infrastructure around services to individuals across the city were really eye-opening.”
Always seeking higher education, Tewolde said a Ph.D. is on her agenda.
“I love research and I really want to be clear on the niche and agenda I want to serve with that doctorate,” she added. “I just don’t want to start it and end up reading, studying and going on forever. I want to be focussed. I am considering research in constitutional law because, at the end of the day, I think the law is the foundation of all of our activities.”