Everything doesn’t have to be perfect — I’m a bit of a perfectionist and have had to learn not to be so hard on myself. A little self-compassion can go a long way.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rhonelle Bruder.
Rhonelle Bruder is the Founder and Executive Director of Project iRISE, a survivor-led anti-trafficking agency. Project iRISE provides free branding tattoo removal for survivors of human trafficking and runs a survivor leadership program to support healing, enhance skills, and diminish isolation by mutual support. Alongside her work leading, Project iRISE, Rhonelle is a current Ph.D. student in Social and Behavioural Sciences at The University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health. A passionate human rights advocate, Rhonelle’s work has been recognized both in Canada and internationally, with one of Canada’s 100Accomplished Black Women, the 2021 distinctions as L’Oreal Paris Women of Worth Honouree and as a part of the Canadian Delegation to the 65thUnited Nations Commission on the Status of Women (UNCSW). Her work has also been featured on many national and local media sources, including but not limited to CBC, CP24,TheToronto Star, Flare Magazine, Global News, and many more.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My work within the anti-trafficking space is very personal to me and draws from my own experiences, but I may not be doing this work today if it wasn’t for a volunteer position I took on a few years back. I worked with young women who were experiencing homelessness and many confided in me; they had been or knew someone who was working in the sex industry against their will. It became apparent that the experiences I had of being sexually exploited as a teenager were not unique and still very much happening to young, vulnerable children. And, much like myself, once ensnared in this lifestyle, these young women found it almost impossible to get out and rebuild their lives. The horrors of sex trafficking had left such an indelible impression on their lives that many struggled with chronic mental illness and substance abuse. And, while there were services available, very few were rooted in survivor-centered practices that utilize strength-based — not deficit-based — approaches to supporting survivors of trafficking.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
When I started Project iRISE and we started to garner some me
dia attention, a famous Hollywood actress came across our work and reached out, wanting to support. This was an actress who I had grown up watching and who starred in a few of my favourite movies, so it was quite a surreal experience. In fact, at first, I thought I was being ‘Punk’d’ and really didn’t believe it was her until we had a Zoom call and I could see her face. She was passionate about anti-trafficking work and wanted to support our cause anyway she could. Originally, we had hoped she would be able to join our Board of Directors but, due to scheduling conflicts, it never worked out. But for a second there, I almost had a famous Hollywood actress on the Board of Directors. I’m still in touch with her though, so you never know what could happen down the road.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Running an anti-trafficking agency is emotionally-intense work and there are often many days that leave you feeling that, despite all of your hard work, you are only making a small dent in the problem. But despite the intensity of the work we do, there are still some lighthearted moments, especially between our team. One such time was when, after spending days working on a virtual presentation for about 3000 service providers, about 5 minutes in, we realized we had uploaded the wrong version of the presentation. The version we were using looked fine but was missing some critical content we had updated at the last minute. And so, there was a moment on all of our faces when were realized our mistake. And since it was on Zoom and was being recorded, we just had to push through. I don’t think anyone noticed but I know we were all so nervous and were just hoping everything would work out. Funnily enough, it worked out better than we could have imagined; without the slides to ground us we had to improvise, and the presentation ended up being more engaging and interactive with our audience.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
I have always been a believer in the saying, “If you don’t like something, change it,” and Project iRISE was founded on that exact principle. Historically, the anti-trafficking movement has been led by non-profit agencies and other stakeholders but has left out those with lived experience because lived experience is often not recognized as a legitimate form of expertise. And when those with lived experience are engaged in anti-trafficking work, it is often tokenizing, precarious, and even sometimes exploitative. Project iRISE was created to transform that way of thinking, because we believe survivors of trafficking hold a great deal of expertise and are leading the movement away from survivor-inclusion to survivor-leadership. Through our Survivor Leadership program, we are providing opportunities for survivors to enhance their vocational skills while building community through mutual support. Ultimately, our goal is to create an equitable and inclusive environment for survivors of trafficking to thrive and hold others accountable to engage responsibly with those with lived experience.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
I’m fortunate to have many people that have supported my vision along the way, but one particular person would be my team member, Shanna Lacroix. Shanna and I met a year ago when she reached out to volunteer with Project iRISE, and we almost immediately hit it off. I was instantly impressed by her dedication to this cause and her willingness to help in any capacity. Shanna moved up from a volunteer to the coordinator of our Branding Tattoo program and has been there helping build this organization every step of the way. Starting a non-profit can be a daunting experience, especially during a global pandemic, but I was fortunate to have met Shanna — someone who understood the vision of Project iRISE and was willing to roll up their sleeves to help. I can wholeheartedly say that we would not be where we are today without her passion and dedication.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Absolutely. Firstly, I would suggest people take the time to learn what trafficking is and how it happens. There are often many misconceptions around trafficking that can lead to either the under-identification of trafficking or the development and thriving of conspiracy theories. That’s why anti-trafficking training is so important. There are many great organizations, including Project iRISE, that provide training on the indicators of trafficking for businesses, service providers, educators, law enforcement and more.
Secondly, folks can meet with or write to their local, provincial, and federal leaders and let them know that they care about combating trafficking and ask what they are doing to address it. But don’t stop there, we must hold our elected officials accountable and ensure they will make the changes necessary to address trafficking.
Lastly, you can support anti-trafficking organizations, either through financial donations or by volunteering. Many anti-trafficking agencies are operating with limited resources and are understaffed, so any support from the community is always greatly appreciated.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is so many things to me. It’s about guidance, encouragement, and motivation, but it’s also about being able to listen and learn and recognize you may not have all the answers. But leadership doesn’t always have to be leading a team or an organization. We can be a leader in our communities, our families or in our own homes. Any place where we can motivate others and lead by example is a demonstration of leadership.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Everything doesn’t have to be perfect — I’m a bit of a perfectionist and have had to learn not to be so hard on myself. A little self-compassion can go a long way.
- You can’t do everything — No matter how skilled you are, there are some things you can’t or shouldn’t do. That’s why it’s so important to build a team of people around you that have the right skills to complement yours.
- You can’t pour from an empty cup — This one builds off of my last point. Trying to do everything yourself can lead to burnout and mental exhaustion. I have experienced this myself and am now more intentional about creating a work/life balance. I work hard Monday to Friday, but the weekends are for me to spend time with my friends and family.
- Take risks — It’s important to have a sound business plan, but sometimes you need to be willing to take a risk. Always do your due diligence but don’t let fear hold you back from taking on new opportunities.
- Have fun — There is an incredible amount of work involved with starting a non-profit organization — months of program design, submitting grants, meetings with stakeholders, and trying to get things off the ground — that it’s easy to forget to enjoy the process. Although building Project iRISE from the ground up wasn’t easy, I have so many wonderful memories with my team that I will always cherish.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would love to start a kindness movement where everyone commits to doing one nice thing for someone else every day. It can be holding the door for someone, buying a stranger a coffee, or just saying a simple “hello” to your neighbour in the morning. Everyone is facing their own battles that we often know nothing about, so taking the time to reach out and spread kindness around would make the world a much nicer place for all of us.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my favourite quotes is from the ever-charming and inspiring Muhammad Ali. It states, “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”
It’s a reminder to me that we each have a responsibility as citizens of the earth, to not think solely of our own needs and desires, but to give back and make the world a better place for others living in it. Through our Survivor Leadership program, we see this firsthand. Once a survivor has gained new skills and opportunities, the first thing she will do is reach back into her community and share the knowledge she has gained to helps others so that they, too, can find success. That’s the beauty of paying it forward.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
That’s a hard one. There are so many people I would love to meet, but Oprah is definitely at the top of my list. Growing up, I remember watching The Oprah Winfrey Show everyday at 4pm with my mom. She was an inspiration to me as child and still is today; a self-made woman from humble beginnings who worked her way up. And now, through her philanthropic endeavors, she is continuing to inspire so many by giving back and helping others achieve success in their own lives.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Rhonelle Brude of Project iRISE Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.