Job Title: Executive Director, Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers
Why He’s Top 40: The socially conscious economist is changing the city’s political, social and economic landscape.
Key To Success: “I don’t get in my own way, and I don’t get in other people’s.”
For many children, to sacrifice a Christmas present so it can instead be given to a stranger would inflict trauma of Citizen Kane proportions. For Erick Ambtman, it was an awakening.
His mother, a social worker, would bring kids home on Christmas Eve. “In the beginning, I resented having to take things out of my stocking and hand them to some stranger,” he says. “But it taught me that the world is about a lot more than just me.”
Ambtman, naturally, inclined towards social justice – though his route, by way of studying economics, was unconventional.
But Ambtman isn’t your average economist. After graduating in 2002, he chose a job with the Alberta Native Friendship Centres Association over a steady career in the federal bureaucracy. Then, after a stint working for a social housing association in South Africa, he returned to Edmonton in 2006 and started working for the City. Keeping up his social advocacy, he joined the board of Change for Children, an Edmonton-based international aid organization. “I have no clue how to drill wells in Nicaragua,” he admits. “But I understand how to navigate a bureaucracy and how to structure an organization to be more efficient.”
At the City, the economist stirred things up by introducing City Trends – a publication that contextualizes dry quarterly economic reporting. “If you know the big levers that change the world,” he says, “you can be one of those people at the levers.”
Last year, he got a hand on those levers when he became president of the Alberta Liberal Party. With Ambtman leading an aggressive agenda pushing change and renewal, the party changed its bylaws to allow supporters – not just members – to vote in a leadership race. By August, the party had swelled its supporter base from 2,500 to more than 25,000.
But social advocacy remained his calling. Combining his bureaucratic and non-profit experience, Ambtman yearned to make a bigger difference. “Our not-for-profits know what they need and they know the solutions,” he says. “But government likes to impose solutions. If you start by listening to those not-for-profits, they’ll tell you how to get there.”
In August, he became the new executive director for the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers. In heading up a major immigrant support and advocacy agency, he will become a voice for new residents and for ethnic minority interests. Government better be listening.