June 28, 2019 — This summer, Mer et Monde is highlighting two important events. First, its 20th anniversary, which is quite the milestone for an organization focused on international solidarity. On June 14, this anniversary was not only celebrated with the current team, but also with employees and interns from 15 years ago and more, showing how ties have lasted the test of time. Then, Mer et Monde recognized the outstanding work performed by Mireille Chilloux, who is retiring and leaving her position as Executive Director after 14 years of service.
She granted us an interview to reminisce about the development of Mer et Monde, as well as to speak on its future. She highlighted that the key to the success of the organization has been the relationships and mutual learnings between interns and local partners. She also teased plans to operate within English Canada and with indigenous communities across the country.
What is Mer et Monde’s strength? First, the fact that, despite its growth, the organization has been able to remain true to Michel Corbeil’s (SJ) initial idea. “The basic foundations are there, but we did change the walls and the decoration, that’s for sure,” says Ms. Chilloux. Their success is also rooted on its concern to do things right. This means respecting here and abroad, staying committed to the motto of “being together to act together.”?
Mer et Monde embodies this motto first by listening to the needs of partners. According to Carmen Martinez, Coordinator of the Tierra y Vida Association in Nicaragua, therein lies their strength:
“International cooperation should function this way: the NGOs should enter the country, see the local mission and objectives and only then insert themselves into this reality. This sensitivity is precious to us. Mer et Monde isn’t like other organizations which might carry out a project and leave. We bring along a work process.”
Indeed, this respect and attention to detail are present throughout the internship program which is rooted on sound training for participants. This leads interns to develop discernment skills and a critical spirit; all of which makes a big difference in the field. The educational components include, among others, self-awareness, group dynamics and community life, intercultural communication, knowledge of the host country, principles of international solidarity and familiarity with the challenges of globalization. “I always say that Mer et Monde has two well-known strengths: its training, but also the crew in the field,” explained Chilloux. “When the interns arrive to their destination, they’re very well supervised and prepared, guaranteeing their reflection and respect.”
“But Mer et Monde’s success also resides in teamwork, the conviction that all players work together against injustice,” repeated Chilloux throughout the interview.
“We must underline how lucky we are to have everyone’s participation. If we consider all the people who serve others within Mer et Monde, it’s huge: our local partners make what we do possible, the families that welcome our interns. It’s extraordinary to witness their kindness. Our northern partners (schools, Jesuits, ministries…) are also vital. It’s like a puzzle. If you take away one piece, it doesn’t work.”
The organization has faced and still confronts several challenges. It must always succeed in obtaining financing and handling government cuts. In partner countries, it has had to adapt to coups, sociopolitical tensions and the outbreak of epidemics. One key element to overcome these obstacles was the concern for diversification, from internships in schools and universities to those for people over 50, or young professionals. Also, throughout the years, the participants’ rigour has been more and more recognized, creating visibility and gratefulness. However, the team is constantly reflecting on how it can further enrich its offering and not remain in a single niche.
And what about the next 20 years? True to what has made it successful, Mer et Monde plans to continue diversifying. It is starting to implement development programs that don’t require interns thanks to the support of financial backers, such as the Ministère des relations internationales et de la Francophonie du Québec.
For example, Mer et Monde has partnered with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) for a project in Senegal. Over the next five years, it also hopes to open two avenues in which it wishes to work with the Society of Jesus, with which it is associated. First, Mer et Monde wants to be closer to indigenous people. This interest has existed since the creation of Mer et Monde, but the recent canoe pilgrimage strengthened the conviction that it is an important project. Then, since the organization has a federal status, it wants to grow into the English side of Canada and implement internships in anglophone countries. Why this diversification? “We do things well, said Ms. Chilloux, why not reach out to other populations?”
Mer et Monde reaches the young and not-so-young of the entire province of Quebec for these international solidarity internships. For example, just at Laval University 14 departments participate in them, allowing students in programs suchas nutrition, law, medicine or agronomy to live this experience. But why do people, especially young individuals, decide to reach out to those on the margins? According to Ms. Chilloux, they seek to get out of their comfort zone, as well as to be in relationship with others.
“15 years ago, for the interns, it was their first foreign experience. This isn’t the case anymore. We travel quite a bit, but 'living with’ the population is something to be developed. For interns, it is an opportunity to trust each other and to gain self-esteem.”
In fact, this kind of internship enables individuals to work a lot on themselves, to be confronted in their beliefs, to rediscover their fundamental values: less “having” and more “being.” For those over 50, they often rediscover values of the past, such as sharing and family.
Gabrielle Laprise, a former intern in Senegal, explains this learning:
“I had been warned: the academic internship in itself is only a pretext to reach out to others. What this three-month stay in Senegal gave me exceeded my expectations; it is sincere values like welcoming, respect, sharing, mutual aid, community and tolerance. It is family, the present moment and simplicity.”
What is it we are looking for at Mer et Monde? The internship is indeed a pretext which enables to raise awareness and create champions for social justice. In fact, when the interns come home, they want to see what else they can do with their experience. Faced with the problems of today’s Québec, they can take concrete steps and participate with others to cause change. “You probably can’t transform the world, but you can be an agent of change in Québec,” said Ms. Chilloux.
The allies in southern countries also gain much from this collaboration. The concerted action between interns and partners allows for the support of smaller organizations. Codou Mbaye, member of the Group of villagers of Notto-Diobass, in Senegal, explains: “The partnership with Mer et Monde enabled us to reinforce cooperation between various peoples (young ones, the elderly, women and men). We also improved our functional structure and were able to shared mutual experiences.”
Hence, relationships and growth are mutual.
Another example: during her first internship in Senegal, Mireille Chilloux had thanked her host family for their hospitality. They had, for instance, bought her a bottle of soda when she had simply asked if they drank any. Mireille Chilloux’s host father thanked her for the dignity and sense of equality that her presence had brought to them.
If Mer et Monde’s success is based on teamwork, the fact remains that it is Mireille Chilloux’s effort that enabled the organization to grow. Her work as director has been, before everything else, human work. “If you have positive relationships, you can do anything,” she said. Careful to foster each person’s autonomy within her team, she instilled a climate of trust which also helped with institutional development.
Executive Director of Mer et Monde for 14 years, Chilloux was interested in international projects long before that. In fact, she had been a pastoral animator, and spiritual life and community involvement facilitator in a school where she had established a solidarity program. In 2003, she happened to fall upon a brochure for Mer et Monde, just before going to give a conference in Dakar. She then phoned Michel Corbeil to contact the partners of Mer et Monde. And things clicked. In March 2005, Fr. Corbeil offered her the title of Executive Director. After careful consideration and discernment (and refusing 4 other positions which she had also received!), she accepted. Her challenge? To develop the organization. Since she was well respected in the educational sector and knew the players in the province’s schools, she was able to carry out this task; a task that is still taking place today and, we are convinced, will continue in the future.