Executive Director, PHS Community Services Society
Bachelor of Public Affairs and Policy Management (’03)
Jennifer Breakspear worked as a paramedic in Eastern Ontario for ten years, until she felt the need to find work that didn’t take such a heavy toll on her “body and heart”. While working as a local staff person for CUPE she enrolled in night courses at Carleton, something she’d long wanted to do but couldn’t make fit in a paramedic’s shift work schedule.
“I took courses in different subjects—French, political science—and found my passion for learning. I discovered I loved going to school, chewing over new material and engaging with professors and students about ideas,” says Ms. Breakspear.
When she heard about the human rights policy stream in the new BPAPM program, the 35-year-old immediately signed up.
“I had identified as a queer woman in my teens and had long been a human rights activist for LGBTQ rights, so the opportunity to work on issues directly related to that was exciting,” recalls Ms. Breakspear.
She enrolled in BPAPM’s first cohort as part of the human rights stream. The students became a tight-knit group, despite the age difference.
“We quickly formed a little study group who would come to our place to study. It was an intense workload and you either had to pull together or sink alone,” she recalls.
Ms. Breakspear says they were all excited to be part of this new adventure and she remembers the wonderful faculty, staff, and the guest lecturers in the BPAPM program.
“They cultivated a supportive environment,” she says. “They brought a passion to the program that made it an exciting and fun place to be.”
They also taught her about policymaking—knowledge she still draws on as the Executive Director of PHS Community Services Society, a non-profit organization that offers supportive housing, healthcare, harm reduction, and community development in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and beyond.
“Professors Les Pal and Calum Carmichael took us through the steps of policymaking: researching, identifying issues, analyzing current policy and implementing it,” says Ms. Breakspear. “Now when I walk into a meeting with government policymakers I have a good sense of how to engage with them, where they’re going and how to address the issues important to our organization.”
The PHS Community Services Society operates 18 social housing facilities and shelters in Vancouver and two in Victoria. The organization opened the first legal supervised injection site in North America.
“As the leader of one of the largest non-profit supportive housing organizations in BC, I engage with all levels of government on pressing issues,” she explains. “Getting a degree in public policy was one of the best ways I could have prepared for this career, even though, at the time, I didn’t have any sense of where I might end up. I really appreciate that I developed a solid grounding upon which to build my career at Carleton. ”
She says her work reflects her upbringing, which taught her to strive to change her community for the better. Her previous roles were as the executive director of Qmunity: BC’s Queer Resource Centre, and executive director of Options for Sexual Health. Then and now, her focus has been on building relationships.
“I often think of my work as relationship management. I meet a lot of people every day and I’m astounded by how often I refer back to them. Maybe we hire them down the road or call them for advice,” says Ms. Breakspear. “My advice to new graduates is to dive into your community and be fearless about getting to know people.”