June 30, 2023

Calgary Awards honours community-building law alumna

Meenu Ahluwalia receives 2023 Calgary Community Achievement Award for Community Advocate
Calgary mayor, Jyoti Gondek (left) and Meenu Ahluwalia (right) at the Calgary Awards
Calgary mayor Jyoti Gondek, left, and Meenu Ahluwalia at the Calgary Awards. Courtesy Meenu Ahluwalia

The efforts of a tireless community champion — and University of Calgary Law alumna — were recently recognized at the 2023 Calgary Awards.

Meenu Ahluwalia, BSc’95, LLB’99, received the 2023 Calgary Community Achievement Award for Community Advocate at the annual honours ceremony hosted by The City of Calgary.

Aside from her work as a lawyer, Ahluwalia is a community volunteer and mentor who embodies UCalgary’s entrepreneurial spirit: taking action and using her dedication to law to be an advocate for underserved communities in Calgary. 

Ahluwalia is passionate about reducing barriers marginalized communities often experience. Her involvement in Calgary organizations such as Momentum, YMCA Calgary and Punjabi Community Health Services (PCHS) Calgary Society showcases her commitment to community building, which extends to volunteer initiatives in Colombia, solidifying her role as a catalyst for positive change.

Journey from adversity to advocacy

Meenu Ahluwalia

Meenu Ahluwalia.

Meenu Ahluwalia

Ahluwalia's interest in law was inspired by the struggles she and her family faced when they were forced to leave their homeland of Uganda in the early 1970s when dictator Idi Amin issued an expulsion order against all South Asians in Uganda.

"In facing this adversity and having to re-establish themselves in entirely foreign countries, my parents instilled in all five of their children a value of community support, a strong work ethic and education. With their example, I found the opportunity to use my legal education to contribute to the community, bringing compassion into every aspect of my work,” she says.

Ahluwalia began her law journey in the late 1990s and has continuously been involved with various organizations and firms in both professional and board capacities.

A pillar of the community

Ahluwalia started her community work at the University of Calgary in the early ’90s by volunteering with the Punjabi Students’ Association, and then upon becoming a lawyer, at Calgary Legal Guidance as a volunteer lawyer for evening clinics. She served as a board member with Momentum, a financial literacy and poverty-reduction organization, from 2009 to 2015.

Ahluwalia says Momentum also appealed to her when she became aware of the significance of there being fewer opportunities for women in business and skill-building. 

"It’s critical to address the economic inequities that come from ignoring women in the world of economics,” she says. “Women need to feel empowered in their financial literacy skills to ensure we’re creating a thriving and inclusive community in Calgary and beyond.” 

Starting in 2013, Ahluwalia played an instrumental role in establishing the PCHS Calgary Society, an organization that provides linguistically and culturally appropriate education, social services, and support to clients from the South Asian community.

“As a managing board, we were able to tailor programs to help reduce cultural and religious barriers and end stigma surrounding addiction, mental health and domestic violence in the South Asian community,” she says.

Ahluwalia is also one of the founders of the South Asian Inspiration Awards, an awards platform established in 2021, that furthers equity, diversity, inclusion and belonging for South Asians in Calgary by honouring and providing visibility for those doing great work. 

From 2015 to 2022, Ahluwalia served as a board member for YMCA Calgary, where she supported all levels of board strategy related to community wellness through recreation, community development, volunteer engagement, and services for newcomers, Indigenous people and other underserved populations.

From Alberta to Colombia

Welcome sign for YMCA volunteers landing in Bogota, Colombia

Welcome sign for YMCA volunteers landing in Bogota, Colombia.

Meenu Ahluwalia

Ahluwalia’s community involvement has stretched well beyond Calgary. In 2018, while a board member at the Y, she travelled to Bogota, Colombia, to help celebrate 40 years of the international partnership between the Alberta and Bogota YMCAs. While there, Ahluwalia met with women in impoverished neighbourhoods where YMCA programs allowed them access to safe childcare so they could work and safely exit street life.

The Bogota experience left an indelible mark on her and a desire to continue impactful community leadership in Calgary. 

“Without hands-on experience and a first-person point of view, we’re unable to truly identify what is needed to aid these communities in a meaningful and lasting way,” she says.

Ahluwalia takes a people-forward approach, learning from her experiences to then focus on the needs of the people she is serving. “What I take from one cause, I use to positively contribute to another,” she says. 

In addition to the Calgary Awards honour, Ahluwalia has also received the 2023 Department of Justice Prairie Region Sage Award, the 2022 Women in Law Leadership Alberta Award — Leader in Community Service; the 2020 Department of Justice National Award —Humanitarian Excellence for Community Service; and the 2020 Law Society of Alberta/Canadian Bar Association Distinguished Service Award for Community Service. In 2022, she was also one of six lawyers nationally selected to take part in a Canadian Bar Association Sustainable International Resource Development project in East Africa, to provide volunteer legal support for women’s organizations to set up community legal services in Uganda and Kenya, but due to an Ebola outbreak in Uganda, she was unable to go.

While continuing to work at the Department of Justice, as a true example of UCalgary’s entrepreneurial spirit, Ahluwalia’s next project is to support families by providing cost-effective and accessible mediation services by incorporating cultural awareness into everyday practices, a model she hopes can be replicated for other ethno-cultural communities. 

“We couldn't be more proud of Meenu Ahluwalia for her extraordinary contributions to the community,” says Dr. Ian Holloway, dean of the Faculty of Law. “As an alumna of UCalgary Law, her tireless advocacy and passion for justice, particularly for underprivileged communities, is a testament to the spirit of initiative, resourcefulness and learning from experience that we aim to instil in our students.”

UCalgary’s support of the Community Achievement Awards showcases its dedication to celebrating the outstanding contributions and achievements of Calgary's exceptional citizens. Past and present recipients of these awards, such as Meenu Ahluwalia, are testament to the university's entrepreneurial spirit, displaying initiative, cross-disciplinary collaboration, resourcefulness and experiential learning to affect long-lasting community impact.

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