Shelley Gilbert

Recipient: March 2014

Establishing a level playing field where individuals have the opportunity to flourish has guided Shelley Gilbert's work for over 20 years. Shelley Gilbert, BSW, RSW, is the Coordinator of Social Work Services at Legal Assistance of Windsor and the founding member and Chair of WEFiGHT (Windsor-Essex Fights the International Growth of Human Trafficking). She is also the founding member and current Chair of WESWAG (Windsor-Essex Sex Worker Action Group). She is being recognized by OASW as an Inspirational Leader during Social Work Week, which is celebrated March 3-9, 2014, under the theme: "Social Workers: Champions of Positive Change"

The opportunity to translate her clients' challenges into systemic and policy reform has propelled Shelley Gilbert's work as the Coordinator of Social Work Services at an interdisciplinary community legal clinic, where she also provides direct therapeutic support.  She states: "It is their stories, their challenges and successes that should inform public policy and programming. Social action and policy reform can be an empowering intervention. People with lived experience are able to be part of a process that minimizes isolation and creates community."      

A professional focus to develop initiatives that promote social justice has led Shelley to work with diverse groups of people including survivors of crimes of violence, those with disabilities, low-income earners, social benefit recipients, immigrants and refugees, individuals living with addiction and human trafficking survivors. She recognizes the courage it takes for people with difficult life circumstances to come forward. She explains it is their determination to make changes, educate and reach out to others that inspires passion in her work: "The stories of courage of many of my clients have inspired my work as a social worker. It is impossible to not be inspired to do more when you are working with human beings who have survived torture, war, the loss of the people they love and who are now hoping to build a new life. I am inspired by their strength to live. I am inspired by a woman with the strength to look her trafficker in the face across a court room.  She deserves someone who will fight for her." 

Shelley elaborates that she has used this advocacy strategy - validating the stories of others through policy and legislative reform - most ardently on behalf of, and with, survivors of human trafficking. She has been the Chair of WEFiGHT since 2008 and was a founding member in 2004. This community-led initiative, including community service representatives and people with lived experience, responds to the needs of domestic and internationally trafficked men and women in the areas of forced labour, sex trafficking and those trafficked through marriage. In collaboration with national partners, Shelley Gilbert has advocated provincially and nationally for policy and legislative reforms including those on behalf of migrant workers and the protection of survivors and their families. She has been asked to lecture on this topic at various local, provincial and national forums.   She emphasizes: "The crime of human trafficking, the slavery of people, is not only happening in other countries. Our work must involve helping survivors determine their method of healing, the establishment of programs that respond to those needs and ensure that our policies and laws protect those most at risk."  

At Legal Assistance of Windsor (which is a joint service of the Faculty of Law and Legal Aid Ontario that is staffed by lawyers, social workers, law and social work students), Shelley Gilbert provides and mentors an interdisciplinary approach to the delivery of services to low-income people. She has encouraged and taught both law and social work students to develop and sustain effective and innovative partnerships that respond to several of our community's most pressing social issues. 

Shelley motivates students to direct their passion and talents to assist some of the most marginalized and vulnerable individuals in the community, including men, women and children living without immigration status. She says emphatically: "Our human rights, our ability to access basic supports and protections, should not be tied to our immigration status. We have an obligation to argue against policy that promotes slavery or exploitation and to support policy that ensures justice to all of us."  

The development of innovative partnerships in the community, province and country has allowed Shelley Gilbert to share best practices and establish protocols and relationships with service providers and law enforcement. The result of these partnerships is the knowledge that there are very few jurisdictional boundaries: "We have to be prepared to work with partners across the city, across the country and even internationally. It is crucial we understand how each other work and how we can best work together."  

Shelley notes that, internationally, these partnerships include ongoing connection and communication with non-governmental organizations that provide support to the families of trafficking survivors in Windsor: "An important part of the healing strategy for survivors is the knowledge that their family is safe and supported and they are able to communicate again. It begins to break down the perception that the traffickers have ultimate control."  Shelley further states: "As social workers, we must be available for those individuals who cannot get to us, who feel they won't be understood or believed. We have the chance to change perceptions, to help people exercise their rights and improve their lives." As such, she emphasizes the importance of working locally with service providers and women with experience working in the sex trade. One example was the establishment of a "satellite clinic" at a drop-in centre for homeless and at-risk youth.  

Standing up for individuals who are deprived of a voice, who are marginalized or systemically disrespected, these are the actions associated with social justice and the roots of social work that are the qualities of leadership most admired by Shelley Gilbert. When asked to consider the attributes of a leader, she describes being inspired by the words of Martin Luther King Jr.  "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter." She explains: "I have had incredible mentors, both social workers and non. All of them have strong and incredibly consistent views on professional integrity. They have taught me to voice wrongs and establish a plan." She adds: "This is not always easy or popular. That is why the King quote is impactful. You have to be prepared to be criticized at times. But above all - do the right thing.  That is a leader." 

Shelley Gilbert is an inspirational leader in the social work community - inclusive, driven, innovative. During Social Work Week, March 3-9, 2014, and throughout the year, take the time to acknowledge social workers who make a difference.