In 1999, I was head hunted by Bentley consulting firm in Canada for an anonymous organization in Canada that was interested in my work. After series of interviews I was offered the job as a Human Rights Officer and my life changed. I was blessed to be supervised by Bonnie Greene. This experience remains the best gift in my career.
I had just completed my master’s degree and was a new immigrant to Canada and alone without family in Toronto. Bonnie personified brilliance and competency in a very compassionate form. She modeled for me how to be strong, effective, speak truth to power. She reconciled her passion for social justice with compassion and she mentored me on how to be this too.
Bonnie became a living testimony to me that you can celebrate and affirm difference that transcends racial difference, and at the same time, she cheered me on as I upheld my African root and heritage as a place of empowerment. I worked with Bonnie for 7 years before she retired. I have been working in Africa for the last 11 years so have not seen Bonnie for some time.
Her daughter reached out to me yesterday to tell me that Bonnie passed away last week: This was her message: “I am Bonnie Greene’s daughter (name mentioned but edited out by me). I wanted to let you know that my mum passed away this week after a yearlong battle with Leukemia. You have always been a bright light in my mum’s life and as she recalled her days at the (name of organization edited out by me), your name and your work was mentioned often. She wishes she had been in contact, but you must know, she was very proud and in awe of the work you went on to do. My apologies for getting in touch for you this reason, but I feel you would like to know.” I cried and then spent last night reflecting on this amazing woman who changed my life.
Eight years ago, Bonnie sent a reference for the transition of my work contract to continuing status. Below is an excerpt of what she said. I keep a copy and refer to it often as a compass for my career:
‘I have known Choice since the time she was hired by (name of organization taken out}] to offer leadership in our human rights and peace-building position. At the time, I served the Director of (name edited out). Choice applied for a job I had held myself when I first began working in this field in 1980. For the first few years of her time in the (…), I was her supervisor.
As I observed Choice in the interview for her job, I sensed that my organization was finally being offered the gifts of the extraordinary young leaders who have emerged from Africa. I knew we would be changed as she moved among us. This turned out to be true. Choice brought passion and profound faith to her work. I felt privileged to work with a young woman whose deep faith was simply an integral part of her being.
Choice’s passion for the work was grounded in her own experience as a Nigerian journalist, as she made her precarious journey to official status in Canada, she made many significant contacts in Europe and the United States. It was my impression that the determination learned from her mother was fortified by her personal experience of finding a firm place to stand as a “stateless” person. She carried the marginalized peoples of the world in her heart. Her own family was among them. This brought an authenticity to her work that most of us in Canada had grasped largely by meeting others or by reading books.
One of Choice’s qualities that I particularly valued was her ability to help us adjust our approach to human rights work to reflect the enormous changes that have occurred in the post-colonial and post-Cold War eras. She came to us with a deep passion for the human rights legacy that we had built on for so many years, as well as the intellectual framework of a younger African. She demonstrated an ability to take her deep commitment into her role as a professional human rights worker. Again, this was a gift from the South.
Choice was assigned the task of leading our work on aboriginal rights in Canada, an extremely sensitive and complex issue for all Canadians, particularly for churches which struggle to overcome the legacy of their role in the colonial period. Choice’s background as a journalist and a human rights worker in Nigeria made her a natural asset. On the other hand, she had to win the confidence of traditional aboriginal church leaders in remote areas of Canada. I knew that her gender and her ethnic background would be perceived as major obstacles by the aboriginal church. However, Choice simply established relationships with native leaders. Having related to them at the level of human beings and as Christians, she established a basis for working together on human rights and justice issues. One of those was the legacy of residential schools in which our church was involved. This was a painful and difficult area to work in. However, Choice used her instincts for dialogue and peace-building helped bring people to a new place.
Choice’s peacebuilding responsibilities involved work with Project Ploughshares, the peace organization of the Canadian churches. That work involves strategies for war prevention and overcoming social tensions in many foreign conflict zones, as well as reducing social conflict in Canada. More importantly, it involves working with the ecumenical community to build a consensus that will allow the churches to speak together. Having experienced the impact of militarism and civil conflict, Choice brought practical insights to ways we could move forward.
I have known many human rights workers in my own professional career, particularly through the World Council of Churches and bodies within the United Nations and the Organisation on Security and Co-operation in Europe. Many are fine public servants for government bodies. Others have the passion and perspective that allow civil society organizations to play their crucial role in advancing the human rights and peace agendas. Choice finds her way easily in the both groups. Her experience in making her way through tough places empowers her to cross boundaries to engage people in positions of power and authority. I would hire her again in a minute. I will be her friend and admirer for the rest of my life’
Bye Bonnie, Thank you.