Job Title: Executive Director, John Humphrey Centre for Peace and Human Rights
Why She’s a Top 40: For dedicating her life to creating change on a global scale and mobilizing youth to do the same
“Hope is a really important thing, and we don’t have enough of it,” says Rene Vaugeois, a lifelong humanitarian. “When I meet people who believe in the world, that gives me hope.”
Growing up on a farm in Wildwood, a hamlet west of Edmonton, Vaugeois had little exposure to the greater world, but she always understood the pain of alienation and torment. When she was little, she was mauled by a dog, which left her face permanently scarred, and exposed her to ostracism. “From my experiences in my childhood and family life, I think I grew up knowing what it was like to be hurt, and I never wanted anyone else to feel that way.”
Decades later, she has turned that empathy and compassion – and a growing urge to speak out – into a career as the executive director of the John Humphrey Centre for Peace and Human Rights. “I feel like that is where we can really have an impact and create a shift in thinking – helping people to see beyond themselves.” When Vaugeois started with the organization four years ago, it was struggling. Today, she is breaking down barriers by creating dialogue, bringing community organizations and diverse people together and mobilizing the most ideological of them – the youth.
Vaugeois initiated the Global Youth Assembly, a biennual event hosted twice so far by Edmonton. The assembly brings young delegates from across the globe to learn about community-building, human rights, and how to become active citizens, through workshops and talks by such humanitarians as Ocean Robbins and Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. “I’m getting e-mails every day [from delegates who attended the 2009 seminar], saying, ‘It changed how I think and what I want to do,'” she says.
Only 15 years ago, she was one of those eager young people, just completing a master’s degree in political science, ready to make any global change she could. While attending university, one of her professors piqued her interest in Africa. Straight after graduation, she embarked on a community water-health education and sanitation project in Uganda; when she left, she knew she’d return. Several years later, she and her Ugandan friend Obed Aharinta started the Ainembabazi Children’s Project to enhance and promote educational opportunities, health care and means of income for orphans and deprived children.
Vaugeois returns to Uganda at least once a year to further the project, and plans to take her six-year-old daughter with her this November. Vaugeois willingly admits to “insane” overachievement, but she counters, “I feel like you can’t live in this world and not realize the impact you can have around you. I think that when you know about the world and you don’t participate in it, that’s fundamentally wrong.”