Autistic polymath born and raised in the Canadian Maritimes, Elissa is an interdisciplinary artist, ecofeminist, and NGO founder with Asperger’s. She practices Earth-based spirituality and is a student of Buddhism and yogic traditions; as such she is devoted to the ten living principles of yoga.
An activist for peace and sentient rights, Elissa has worked for the past twelve years for the rights of non-human animals, refugees/displaced people and victims of trafficking – namely child soldiers, rape and sex slavery survivors – as the founder of Caleb’s Hope and Move Together Foundation. She is also the founder of WomenMake.Art, an online library devoted to the history of women in fine arts. and (coming soon) ArfieTV, a streaming network promoting non-violence toward animals. As an ecofeminist, she rejects speciesism. Her passion for non-human animal welfare led to becoming a force-free, non-violence based CPDT and canine behavioral specialist which allows her to go further in her work rescuing behavioral special needs dogs at home and helping grassroots organization in volatile regions that are equally devoted to animal advocacy, rescue, and rehabilitation.
She is currently in her final year of pursuing a Bachelor of Laws with University of London, focusing on international law and how it relates to human rights, women’s rights, environmental law and animal law. She is a proud ambassador to the Give 30 campaign supporting those who face hunger across Canada. Elissa, after her own ‘white saviour’ blunders, is a reformed aid worker and contributor to challenging colonial narratives and tired aid models in African nations as an advocate for responsible foreign investment, social enterprise, and humanitarian aid. Randomly, she has survived Malaria four times and a lightning strike once.
Elissa’s roots are in the theater, music and fine arts. Her childhood was spent primarily with pencil or brush in hand – to draw, paint or write. Elissa began studying classical flute and piano at age 12. Excelling in flute, she competed at local and provincial music festivals with her school music program. Elissa’s original career path was to either enter the fine arts or performing arts as a classical musician and composer. Her first time on the boards, however, instigated a complete change in focus. As a teenager she won her first awards for Best Director and Best New Play at provincial drama festivals. After several years focused on film and television, in 2005 Elissa returned to the stage with the original contemporary ballet,’BruK’. Written, directed and produced by Elissa and mounted at the Beaumont Theater in Vancouver, the highly acclaimed run was sold out before opening night.
An acting veteran in ‘Hollywood North’, her extensive film and television credits include critically acclaimed and award-winning productions from USA, MGM, CTV, Fox, Warner Bros, NBC Universal, The CW, Syfy, Lifetime, Showtime, Sky and ABC. Her career in front of the camera in film and television opened the door to a natural curiosity and exploration of the world through a lens.
As an interdisciplinary artist – photo essayist, visual artist, writer and filmmaker – Elissa is motivated to tell stories that explore cross-cultural understanding and human rights through innovative yet accessible narrative and documentary films as well as photo and video essays. Her work in AFrica and the MENA contributes to her point of view, specifically the danger of the single-story narrative.
In 1989, Janet Jackson’s critically acclaimed album ‘Rhythm Nation 1814’ was released. The music video ‘Rhythm Nation’ – a deep call to humanity, justice, peace and freedom – left a profound impact on Elissa. It seeded the idea that art has the capacity to foster change. Art is humanity, politics, activism. In 1991, Elissa read No Easy Walk to Freedom which was her first real introduction to Nelson Mandela and apartheid in South Africa beyond her social studies class. In April 1994 she watched television news coverage of the historical South African General Election. Soon after she watched the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech on a DVD-Rom encyclopedia at the school library for the first time. She became engrossed with the work of MLK Jr, Mandela as well as Mahatma Gandhi. These respective freedom and peace movements had a strong impact on Elissa’s path as an activist.
At age 16 she volunteered for SIDA/AIDS Moncton, canvassing high schools to participate in the AIDS Walk. With homophobia and a stigma with AIDS deeply ingrained in the culture no school agreed except her own, Moncton High School. 19 students including Elissa completed the AIDS Walk. While enrolled at Dalhousie University, Elissa joined Students for a Free Tibet and participated in marches and peaceful vigils.
Her first experience in a large-scale peace march was the February 15, 2003 anti-war protest. The day was a coordinated day of global protest and is still held, to this day, as one of the largest protest events in human history. The day was a significant marker in understanding the power of interconnectedness, a unified voice, and grassroots mobilization.
As a youth mentor for over 9 years, she has volunteered with various organizations working with at-risk and special needs children. She has had the honour of being an in-class volunteer for vulnerable children in both Vancouver and South Central Los Angeles classrooms.
As the founder of Caleb’s Hope, Elissa worked with refugee women and children in Atiak region of Northern Uganda – widows, former child soldiers, sex slaves, PLWHA, and child headed households. With the ongoing assistance of local leaders and experts, they developed the Atiak Women’s Business Group; a women’s social enterprise group focused on sustainable economic independence and child welfare and education. AWBG currently focuses on farming as their sustainable industry of choice with many having dreams to expand their farming productions while others use funds to complete school or plan to use profits as start-up capital for other business endeavors.
Unfortunately the deeply flawed and oppressive colonial structure of most foreign aid in Africa has systematically led to an inevitable unhealthy co-dependency between western charities and their developing nation recipients, despite the best of intentions. Because of this reality, Caleb’s Hope could no longer, in good conscience, continue programs in Atiak. All programs were completed, fulfilling the NGOs promise in Atiak in 2014.
“If we within the aid and humanitarian industry don’t talk about where we’re failing, how can we improve? Rooted in Euro-colonial patriarchal ideology, the system is broken and always has been. It’s impossible for empathy to truly exist and flourish if you’re clinging to ‘our’ idea of ‘right’. How can you say you are in service to those in need if you’re not even willing to listen? And yes, that means take some criticism too. It would behove everyone to have a little more humility; with mouths shut and ears open. Academic credentials and lengthy resumes don’t make anyone infallible nor all-knowing. Your way isn’t the only way – or even the right way. We are to serve intelligently from a place of compassionate mindfulness with awareness and insight, not blindly from ego motivated by pity. It’s time to de-colonise the system.”
Move Together Foundation emerged in 2018 with a pilot program in Canada to address the urgent needs of vulnerable children. Learn more about Move Together here.