“Holding space to have difficult conversations can be incredibly difficult,” said Samantha Coelho, an Advocacy and Networking Specialist at Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Canada. “But I think having these conversations can lead to more intimate and fulfilling relationships, allow us to build empathy, and remind us to have humility about the positions we hold.” 

Supporting marginalized communities, working for justice, and exploring creative approaches to addressing world issues have become a regular part of Samantha’s life, but her introduction to advocacy, justice, and peacebuilding began a decade ago during her undergraduate degree at the University of Waterloo and Conrad Grebel University College where she studied Arts and Business with a major in Peace and Conflict Studies (PACS). “Grebel paved the way for my work in advocacy today. Helping me to deepen my sense of justice but also mercy, I am able to advocate for peace,” she said. Samantha graduated in 2017 with her PACS degree and attained a Master of Theological Studies (MTS) degree from Grebel in 2019.

“At a time in my life where I was questioning my place in the church and world, Grebel provided community for me and a true sense of belonging,” Samantha explained. “It became my safe space for asking hard questions, allowing myself to doubt, and find comfort in wrestling with big ideas alongside my peers. After leaving Grebel, I continue to hold space in my life for uncertainty, difficult questions, and hope that I give space for others to do the same.”  

Exploring complex topics with trusted classmates helped Samantha establish her identity and beliefs more concretely. “My time in the MTS program was central to the deconstruction of my faith and reshaping my theology. Where I may have held harmful beliefs about God and the world before, the education I participated in helped construct a larger and more inclusive perspective of the Divine and my role in the world,” she said. Samantha pointed to courses on Restorative Justice and Liberation Theology as classes that changed her career path, the communities she participates in, and even her personal relationships.

“My favourite Grebel memories are the lunch time conversations with my peers,” she noted. “After class each day, we would gather in the dining room to discuss class material, share stories, and engage in meaningful conversations. This is where I did the other half of my learning, and I loved it.”

While learning about peacemaking in the classroom was rewarding, helping people in her community was where Samantha gained valuable experience and personal satisfaction. As an undergraduate, she spent two co-op terms working with an organization that holistically addressed the needs of people suffering from homelessness and extreme poverty. “At Regeneration Outreach, I developed relationships with the guests and saw the importance of building community for people who lacked social support,” she said. “I wanted to be a part of this work that sought to provide community for all people, and prioritised upholding the dignity of the people they were supporting.”

After graduating with her MTS degree, Samantha applied her knowledge and experience in advocacy when she began working in community development as Ministry Program Director with a small ecumenical charity in Toronto. However, Samantha identified with Regeneration Outreach’s ideals so deeply that she returned there a few years later as Resource Development Officer, working to support the organization’s efforts long-term. “In this position, I had the opportunity to build relationships with the guests and walk together with them through difficult moments,” she explained.

Samantha Coelho

During this time, Samantha married and then had her first child in 2022, marking the start of a new and joyful chapter in her life. “My favourite thing to do is spend time with my family and I cherish each moment learning how to parent my son,” she said. 

Building relationships with empathy, respect, and dignity, led Samantha to her current position with the Mennonite Central Committee Canada Peace and Justice Office in Ottawa as the Advocacy and Networking Specialist with an international focus. “The two priorities in my current role are peacebuilding and climate change,” she explained. “At this time, I am participating in conversations about what is happening in Gaza and also learning about the global impacts of climate change,” she shared, reflecting on some of the world’s major concerns. “Every day, I am receiving new pieces of information which bring me a lot of pain and have real emotional impacts. It is incredibly challenging to be faced with these kinds of realities on a daily basis, but the real hope is working alongside other groups and individuals who are doing this work together. Knowing that I can lean on the experience and support of my colleagues and others in the sector is encouraging.” Samantha’s role involves monitoring government legislation, policies, and advocacy, helping to represent MCC within the government system and building bridges between MCC’s programming and Ottawa stakeholders.

To current Grebel students readying themselves to step into the workforce, Samantha offers wisdom founded on personal experience. “I encourage new graduates to follow their interests and apply for work they feel suited for, even if it seems out of reach. Once hired, trust that every experience has led you to this opportunity and accept it with gratefulness. Be willing to stretch out of your comfort zone. Be confident in your capabilities.”

By Jiho Mercer and Jennifer Konkle

Hero image - meeting between Anna Vogt (Samantha's Director), Samantha, and MP Dave Epp.

Samantha Coelho is an Advocacy and Networking Specialist working with Mennonite Central Committee Canada in the Peace and Justice Office in Ottawa. With a lifelong interest in helping marginalized communities and building meaningful relationships. She has come to value uncomfortable conversations and deep introspection, which have allowed her to contextualize her own values within what she sees as truly important. In her free time, she loves spending time with her family, learning how to parent, and taking on hobbies like playing ukelele, cooking, reading, exploring new places, writing poetry, crafting, and playing carrom (an Indian tabletop game). 

Samantha's story is part of Grebel's 60 Stories for 60 Years project. Check out our 60 Stories page for more articles in this series. If you would like to nominate a Grebel alumnus to share about their experiences at Grebel, please submit a nomination form.