When Ellen Campbell first learned she was the recipient of the 2016 Knight Award, she was surprised. “It was very moving. I never expected it because I thought much of my contribution had been as a staff person and I figured I wouldn’t qualify.” The Victor and Nancy Knight award is given to a living person who, as a volunteer, has contributed to furthering the principles of Unitarianism in Canada. Ellen Campbell, who served as Executive Director of the Canadian Unitarian Council from 1990 to 2000, preceded her time on staff as an active member of Toronto First Congregation, and followed it up ten years later by serving on the CUC Board.
Joining the CUC Board happened in a bit of a roundabout kind of way, as Ellen describes: “The CUC board had had a number of resignations. John Hopewell was suggested to fill one of the positions and I agreed to help persuade John to go on the board, which he did. Shortly after that there was another resignation, and at that point John had been elected president. So he called, and there wasn’t any way I could say no. So I went on the board.”
In that position, Ellen worked hard to re-invigorate fundraising campaigns to support the CUC, in particular the Friends of the CUC campaign.
“I really believe in the importance of institutions as central places that support what people want to do. I think there are many things that you can do as related to an institution that would be very difficult to do on your own. And certainly things like the refugee project illustrate that.” The value of the collective, national organization becomes quite evident when Ellen speaks about it.
“Because it brings us together. It makes us much stronger. My commitment in fundraising has often been not to special collections in projects we want to do, but for the money that ensures the organization can survive and be healthy. I learned this while working at the YWCA. We got lots of government grants, but if we didn’t have that core funding that paid the phone bill, and the postage, that keeps the building clean, we couldn’t have done the other programs.
The same is true of the CUC. You need the core funding that pays the basic expenses that keeps the organization healthy so that people can do the projects, raise their voices, and change the world, because they’ve got a secure base.”
After serving the CUC in one way or another for 26 years, Ellen can’t imagine being without the connections that Unitarianism has brought her. She learned about the movement locally, nationally, and internationally, her awareness growing over the years. “To discover Unitarians in all kinds of other places and to see that the story that we tell about people coming to a different understanding of what was initially Christian doctrine and then being freed to think more broadly is a wonderful story and it gives meaning to our lives.”
Ellen was working for the CUC at that transitional time when the Canadian Unitarian Council was struggling with an ambiguous relationship with the Unitarian Universalist Association, which eventually led to an independent national organization. “When we got out of the idea that we were the little brother in a two member family and began to see that we were one of the larger components in a much larger family, it changed the way we related to ourselves and to other Unitarian groups.”
The international awareness that we as Canadian UUs have of Unitarianism across the world can largely be credited to Ellen’s work, (although she credits Herman Boerma with bringing the idea to the board) and Canadian involvement in the establishment of the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU). When asked if any memories or moments of the past 26 years have stood out in particular to her, Ellen’s first thought was to the founding of ICUU.
After years on staff, on the national board, and an active Unitarian, you would think that Ellen would have nailed down a definition of Unitarianism, but she claims, “I have tried several times to do an elevator speech and I never quite manage to do it. Maybe I’m just wordy. I probably need to do a little more Twitter.
“But I think the idea that each of us builds our own theology out of our experience and we do that in community rather than as isolated persons. That we draw on wisdom from all kinds of places, but respectfully. That’s in some ways an elevator speech.”
Ellen has missed a rare few CUC National Conferences over the years, and regrets not being able to make it to Vancouver to receive this award in person, and reconnect with the friends she has made along the way. Serving the principles of Canadian Unitarianism not only has an impact on the national movement, but has a remarkable impact on those who do this work. “I have made so many friends and connections with people and it’s just made my life so much richer.”
Watch Ellen’s acceptance speech on YouTube.