The advocate's journey

August 8, 2016

How personal experiences led MacEwan University student Courtney Cliff and faculty member Petra Schulz to advocate for others

By Caitlin Crawshaw
(Originally appeared in
M Alumni News—Summer 2016)

image-story-M-petrasThe famous anthropologist Margaret Mead once wrote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the World; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” A half a century later, her words still hold true—advocates shape society by speaking out and standing up for the things that matter.

Of course, the journey is not for the faint of heart. It’s no easy thing to change public attitudes, attract media attention to a cause or convince politicians to back a legislative change. But that hasn’t deterred MacEwan faculty member Petra Schulz or student Courtney Cliff. Inspired by the events in their own lives, both work tirelessly to help vulnerable populations and bring about change.

“ We decided to speak about addiction openly. ” Petra Schulz  

Keeping other parents out of the club

In 2014, Petra Schulz lived out every parent’s worst nightmare when her youngest son died. Danny was just 25 years old, a talented chef and musician. He was “the funny one” in the family. But Danny had been suffering from depression and anxiety since his teens, and had turned to using drugs to cope. When the addiction spiraled out of control, his parents convinced him to move back to Edmonton to get his life back on track. By all accounts, it was working—Danny was seeing a therapist, had a job as a chef and was rebuilding his life, bit by bit.

“Slowly things were coming together again and we had over a year where things went well with some relapses,” says Petra.

But tragically, a year-and-a-half into recovery, he became one of the earliest victims of Alberta’s fentanyl crisis. Like many oxycodone (oxy) users, he was tricked into taking a small green pill that was actually fentanyl—a dangerous narcotic 100 times more toxic than oxy, heroin or morphine.

image-story-M-dannysAfter his death, Petra’s family decided to be candid about what had happened and spoke of Danny’s addiction and overdose at the funeral. It opened up a floodgate of people—friends, colleagues, neighbours and others—who approached them afterward to share their own stories of addiction. People told them of their own struggles, the loved ones they’d lost and the children they were trying to support. “Even though there’s a lot of stigma attached, we decided to speak about addiction openly,” she says.

It began when she and her husband penned a tribute to Danny for the “Lives Lived” section of the Globe and Mail in July 2014. The fentanyl problem was becoming a full-blown crisis in Alberta and other parts of the country, so Petra agreed to media interviews and began writing letters to the editor, critical of how the crisis was being handled. Not only were health warnings issued too late, but they didn’t offer addicts any way to stay safe—for instance, Vancouver’s supervised injection sites provided oxy users access to medical help in the event they accidentally overdosed on fentanyl.

Knowing that there is power in numbers, Petra helped create a national activist group called mumsDU (moms united and mandated to saving Drug Users). The group’s goal wasn’t to push sobriety, but rather lobby government to adopt more harm-reduction strategies to save lives. Petra’s advocacy work has contributed to a number of changes, including the ability of Alberta firefighters and paramedics to carry naloxone, an antidote to fentanyl that can save people who have overdosed. She has also shared Danny’s story with hundreds of MacEwan nursing students in the hopes of inspiring more compassionate care for addicts.

It’s emotionally taxing, but Petra perseveres. “As a parent who has lost a child, what I gain from this advocacy work is making sure others don’t join my club,” she says. “And it allows me to keep Danny’s legacy alive.”

Helping LGBTQ youth find community

image-story-M-courtneycBefore Courtney Cliff came out to her friends and family at 15, she was terrified. “Lucky for me, it went okay,” she says. Unlike many LGBTQ youth, she wasn’t disowned or abused by her family. “But I still had the fear of ‘what if?’”

Nearly a decade later, Courtney is a fourth-year Bachelor of Arts student who advocates for the next generation of queer youth. As the community liaison worker for the non-profit altView, she works closely with school boards to create Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) in junior high and high schools throughout Strathcona County. These student-run clubs can take many forms, but all provide safe spaces for LGBTQ youth and their allies.

“My school didn’t have a GSA and I can’t even imagine what my life would’ve been like if it had,” says Courtney. She thinks having the support of her peers and teachers would have made navigating her identity as a queer teen smoother. “It makes it a lot easier if you have at least one support system.” In fact, research shows that social support can save the lives of queer and trans youth, who are four times more likely to attempt suicide than young people who are heterosexual or cisgender (individuals who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth).

“ I don't stop because I just respect these kids so much.” Courtney Cliff  

While GSAs have many benefits for students, they’re still a relatively recent phenomenon. Last year’s changes to Bill 10 mean that Alberta schools are now legally obligated to provide a GSA if a student requests it—but sometimes students don’t feel safe enough to ask. That’s why Courtney approaches school administrators about creating GSAs regardless of whether a student has asked for one.

For the most part, schools are receptive, but she still hears “no” more often than she’d like. “It’s hard not to take it personally because I’m standing in front of school administrators as a person who understands what it’s like to be discriminated against and oppressed,” says Courtney.

It can be overwhelming, but working alongside resilient queer and trans youth helps her stay the course. “There are times when I want to stop because it gets so tough, but I don’t stop because I just respect these kids so much. They’re doing things I could never have done at that age and it’s remarkable.”

Advocacy 101: How to be an effective and resilient agent of change

In her disability studies course on advocacy and activism, assistant professor Karen Heslop teaches students that there are as many different approaches to advocacy as there are issues to advocate for. But whether you’re advocating for a relative with a disability or lobbying for environmental protections, you’ll be more likely to succeed with a full toolbox. Here is Karen’s advice on what you need to know.

Understand political and social structures

Inequality in society stems from the nature of the community we live in, says Karen “If you’re an advocate and either working for people who are disadvantaged or disadvantaged yourself, it’s important to try to understand why that disadvantage exists.”

Know your options for action

Advocacy exists on a continuum. Start with subtler actions like education and lobbying politicians before you move to more extreme actions like civil disobedience. Assume people will help you.

Understand how the system works

By knowing how an organization or government functions, you can identify the people who can help and any protocols you’ll need to follow to get their attention.

Be clear on your goal

“Articulate what it is you want done,” says Karen. Is it raising awareness? Changing a law? Funding for a program? Having a specific goal can allow you to target your efforts for the biggest impact.

Connect with others

Gather other advocates around you or find a group to connect with. Not only is there power in numbers, but you’ll need the social support when things get tough.

Commit to self care

Advocacy work comes with emotional risks. Avoid burnout by taking good care of your body and mind—and take time to celebrate the victories, even when they’re small.

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