Selah Woelk

Selah Woelk is a University of Waterloo student with a passion for community-based peacebuilding and restorative justice. She is currently in her 4B term of the Peace and Conflict Studies (PACS) degree, with a Minor in Music. For Selah, her introduction to PACS came when she was researching Grebel as a residential space and exploring the courses offered there. Selah was not sure what she wanted to study after high school, but after reading what PACS was all about, she was struck by the realization that it was exactly what she had been searching for in a university program. The very first PACS course that Selah took immediately captured her interest.

We had a Zoom call with an Indigenous elder who talked about peacebuilding from an Indigenous perspective, and we had all kinds of cool readings about what peace looked like around the world, and I thought ‘Oh! I want to know about these things!’ The more courses I took, the more grateful I was that I was in this program.

Selah noted that one of the benefits of the Peace and Conflict Studies degree is how interdisciplinary it is: “You’re not just taking courses from Peace and Conflict Studies, you’re taking PACS-approved courses from all kinds of different faculties and disciplines to get that interdisciplinary lens.” For Selah, this meant she could pursue many other interests along with her PACS courses, including courses such as Environmental Law and Climate Change Fundamentals. This interdisciplinary lens has given her a skill set that has served her well in her academic studies and her work terms as a co-op student.

Through co-op, Selah has been involved in peacebuilding work on many different scales, from global policy-based peacebuilding to smaller community-focused initiatives. Her first co-op work term was in a communications position with Project Ploughshares, an organization within the Centre for Peace Advancement (CPA) that works to prevent armed violence and build peace. Although she was not yet doing the hands-on peacebuilding work that she was keen to pursue, this role gave her a chance to explore the many moving parts involved in peacebuilding organizations. Working as a graphic designer, Selah was tasked with making the organization’s projects more accessible to the public. Topics like nuclear disarmament and space security are not exactly common knowledge, but Selah read academic research on these topics and distilled it down to create engaging and accessible materials like animated videos. This experience gave her the chance to both learn more about these topics herself, and to share that knowledge with others. Selah also worked as a program assistant for the CPA, where she got to see the range of peacebuilding efforts made possible by the Centre’s Peace Incubators, which support peace and justice-oriented startup organizations within Canada.

Even though her heart was drawn to on-the-ground, person-to-person peace work, these communications roles gave her a chance to explore peacebuilding organizations and have important conversations with the people within them. This included people like Michelle Jackett, the Ontario representative for Just Outcomes, an organization which reimagines just responses to harm to help and heal communities and organizations. Speaking with and learning from people like Michelle gave Selah valuable insight into the types of avenues that might be available to her in the world of peacebuilding and restorative justice work.

I felt very supported, and like I got to have some mentorship and learn from other people’s journeys.

In her most recent co-op with the City of Kitchener, Selah was pleasantly surprised by how applicable her PACS skills were to her communications role within the Stormwater Management Division. When she began her role, the City had just received a grant that would support stormwater management adaptions which were necessary due to the impacts of climate change in Kitchener. These adaptations included the implementation of new stormwater management ponds.

In this role, Selah helped lead community open houses to talk with residents about construction that would be happening in their parks and neighbourhoods. Not everyone was welcoming to the prospect of new stormwater management ponds, and Selah was part of a team who fielded the community's concerns.

I learned that when you are influencing people’s community spaces … that can be contentious. It can lead to a lot of conflict.

Having learned about how to engage in advocacy work through her PACS courses, it was a shift for Selah to be on the receiving end of this advocacy from concerned community members. Selah rose to the challenge, applying her conflict resolution skills to diffuse these situations and foster productive interactions with the public.

Seeing climate change adaptation in action felt like a really fun intersection of some of my interests in the environmental sector with some of the things I’d learned in Peace and Conflict Studies.

Reflecting on her favourite courses throughout her PACS degree, Selah noted PACS 329: Restorative Justice as one of her most transformative learning experiences:

In [PACS 329], we talked a lot about seeing restorative justice as a philosophy and as a worldview, not just as something you can come in and “do” when there is a conflict.

Selah reflected on how discouraging it can feel to see injustices happening in the world, including the harm caused by the justice system— especially because many of these injustices do not have a clear solution. PACS 329, she says, opened her eyes to new possibilities to move forward with seeking justice and fostering peace.

It connected with values and hopes I had for the world that I did not think were possible … It was so hopeful and so exciting, and it shifted my perspective on how we think about justice and how we can approach situations of harm.

Principles of restorative justice are now a critical part of how Selah views the world. They influence how she interacts with coworkers, how she viewed her responsibilities as a Residence Don, and even how she approaches her school assignments.

After graduation, Selah is not yet sure where she wants to take her next steps, but the idea of hands-on peacebuilding work and community mediation really speaks to her. Her experiences in PACS and co-op have shown her that her path does not have to be linear. She has seen people who have formed new peacebuilding organizations or carved their own path towards meaningful peacebuilding work; she has also spoken with supervisors who worked in many distinct positions before landing in their current roles.

[These experiences] taught me the skill of figuring out your path as you go, and taking opportunities and connections where you can find them.

Whatever path she decides to traverse, Selah will undoubtedly be taking the skills and lessons she has learned from the Peace and Conflict Studies program with her into this next chapter of her life.

By Alivia Schill