Michelle Ehlert Debelak ’06 Spreading Cultural Awareness in Pittsburgh
Michelle Ehlert Debelak ’06 knew that she loved arts and international law before attending the Moritz College of Law. And while she attended law school, she ensured that she would be able to find a career that blended her two passions. By traveling abroad and working for various nonprofit organizations, Michelle has already tackled some important missions, and she has plenty more on the horizon. Currently, she is working to bring nonpartisan debate and cultural awareness to her community as the development and community outreach director at the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh.
Michelle’s position requires her to reach out to different ethnic communities in the city and bring their voices to the table, as well as manage all major donations to the organization. The World Affairs Council’s mission is to promote, on a nonpartisan basis, understanding of important international issues throughout the community and with a special focus on the region's secondary schools.
“There is a lot of legal work involved in planned giving and grants, so I’m making great use of my law degree here,” said Michelle, a native of Medina, Ohio.
Prior to her current job, Michelle spent two years working as a major gifts officer for the Pittsburgh Symphony; the job, she said, was also steeped with tax law. “My ability to write concise, accurate grant reports and advise donors was greatly enhanced by my law degree as well,” she said.
During her time as an undergraduate English major at Ohio State, Michelle began to develop her vision for a career. A year studying abroad in Ireland not only piqued her interest in foreign relations, but allowed her to graduate a full year early due to the expeditious nature of Irish universities. Following graduation, Michelle immediately packed her bags and moved to New York City, where she accepted a job in the development department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“I was at the museum during Sept. 11, and I witnessed so many legal issues that crossed international boundaries come up that no one quite knew the answer to,” Michelle said. “It made me want to learn more about this area of the law that was still being pieced together.”
Michelle said that she chose to return to Ohio State for law school in part because she knew she could she could study nonprofit and tax law. “I really tried to tailor my legal education for a career in nonprofit management,” she said. “I was always trying to pick unique classes that weren’t part of the traditional legal curriculum.”
A semester studying in Oxford at the end of law school continued to expose Michelle to international law, particularly how law pertains to arts. England’s extensive collections of foreign works of art and artifacts makes it a prime location for this area of law.
Since this trip she has been planning to one day create her own nonprofit fundraising firm. “I believe that someday soon Midwest cities are going to realize the value of international engagement. When they do, social- and arts-based organizations could really thrive in this environment,” Michelle said. “I would like to work to help those types of nonprofits get the support they need and grow.”
In her free time, Michelle does some independent consulting and is involved in political activism geared toward the upcoming elections. She and her husband, Peter, a fellow Moritz graduate who now practices labor and employment law, founded Just Democracy when they were in law school. The nonpartisan organization helped students know their voting rights during the hectic and confusing 2004 elections, she said.
She looks back on her time at Moritz fondly. She especially appreciated the flexibility and willingness to help of faculty members like Professors Jenkins and Solomon. For now, Michelle and Peter intend to stay in Pittsburgh and raise their 10-month-old daughter, Madeleine.