Category Archives: Introductions

on thunderstorms and optimism

So as I was standing at the bus stop in the middle of the night, there was a thunderstorm starting to gain momentum. At that point it was still silent flashes of lightning at very regular intervals. They lit up the clouds in the best of ways. But aside from the poetry of it all, it also made me feel incredibly small. Thunderstorms tend to do that. I looked up at the sky for a good seven minutes and just marveled at the weather trying to wrap my head around just how big the world around me was. I couldn’t conceive it; it was like hugging someone who is just too big to put your arms completely around.

It made me feel like anyone attempting to make this world a better place, including myself, has a hell of a challenge ahead of them. I don’t mean the people who “help the world” by putting their Starbucks cup in the recycling, although – thanks, I guess. I mean the people who pour their entire lives into helping others, into righting wrongs. People whom others call crazy but who are actually the most valuable kind of human being there is. I love that those people exist, I love surrounding myself with them, and I have a glimmer of hope that I could maybe one day be a fraction as awesome as they are.

There is a whole lot of fighting left to do before things start looking up. It’s a huge uphill battle.  That’s why I’m so thankful that I have the gift of optimism. I’m not sure where it stems from, as most of my family are total cynics and in my general experience people kind of suck. Still, there is some tiny thing inside me, with its own energy and vitality, which makes me truly believe that things will be OK. Maybe that’s naïve, but I like that this thing lives inside me, so I let it be.

On the other hand, I have met and discussed with a lot of negative people, pessimists, cynics, whatever you want to refer to them as. I’ve heard their arguments, and frankly, it’s bullshit. I’m calling them out! If there really was no hope for anything and people are awful and the world is going to crumble like a poorly baked dessert, then what’s the point? Why even keep doing anything at all? Why keep trying? The fact that these so-called pessimists have jobs, families, homes, a role in society means that there’s something keeping them going. It could be their kids, maybe they really fucking love watching Sunday night football or Pinterest is just the best thing since sliced bread to them. Whatever it is, there’s always something people enjoy that keeps them from giving up. That’s hope! Hate to ruin your pessimist rep, but that’s something to fight for, no matter how small.

In the grand scheme of things, all this really doesn’t mean much and I doubt I’ve converted many negative Nancies. I simply wanted to share how easy it is to be an optimist, and that maybe you should give it a try sometime.

-M

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On whether or not I’m actually doing anything

I should begin with a caveat, I would imagine I am unlike most of the people writing for this blog. I have never worked or interned for an NGO. The idea of sitting and working in an office with the paid staff of an organization that serves (or at least attempts to serve) no other purpose than to better the world is completely foreign to me. I have worked alongside many, and have worked to start one, but there is certainly a part of the NGO experience that I lack.

All this is to say that I must accept that perhaps the feeling which I’m about to discuss is not shared by those who are in more established roles, but honestly, I hope it isn’t.

The thought comes every once and a while. Often during a day or two of lull between projects. And when it comes, I can’t easily shake it.

 Am I actually doing anything?

Am I just wasting my time?

Have I made any kind of difference?

 And before you think it, and I’m sure you are – as a critical mind should – no I’m not some delusional twenty-something who thinks that all my work should be rewarding or that the world owes me anything. This question doesn’t come from anger or annoyance but rather, fear. And this fear manifests itself in two distinct ways.

The first is the selfish fear that I am wasting my time professionally. That what I’m doing has no worth in the ‘real world’ because I’m living the life of a volunteer. Money is the fast track to perceived worth in our society. Sure accolades, awards and other forms of recognition can give you worth as well, but in the end, there will always be the thought, if you aren’t getting paid, how good could you be? And knowing this, the fear is always:

 If I fail,

If this doesn’t work out,

If I have wasted my past few years,

What can I do?

The second is more metaphysical (I’m sorry; I have to use my Philosophy undergrad for something). Ideally, those who enter the world of NGO’s do so with a purpose in mind. Whether it be specific, “I want to work with communities in rural India in an effort improve solar power infrastructure and access to electricity” or the generic “I want to make the world a better place”. It’s the answer to why the first fear is worth it.

But to be driven by such a purpose opens one up to a second fear, a fear far more difficult to eradicate from the corners of one’s mind. And it takes the form of the same question. “Am I actually doing anything?” “Is my fourteenth hour of copy-editing improving the lives of the impoverished? Have the last few weeks of video production put the world in a better place to fight climate change? Is anything I am doing really making a difference?”

These are the kinds of questions you ask yourself at 10:00 pm, when you know that another long night lies ahead of you, with the couch and a cold beer beckoning. I imagine that this fear is most common with those who are young and new to the NGO realm. As you stand more removed from the decision making process, the more generic and seemingly pointless your work can feel, but I’d be surprised if it ever goes away completely.

As an aside I often feel that it is this fear that leads to the more traditional (read: inferior and arguably detrimental) development projects. No one will ever agree to have their 2 week voluntourism stint revolve around data entry. You build a school and BAM! There’s a school where there wasn’t one before; that’s tangible. The logistics behind maintaining the school certainly aren’t. But that’s why all the ads tell you to buy a village a goat rather than an administrative assistant.

Getting back to the point at hand, most of us, and if you aren’t included in this us consider yourself incredibly lucky, find ourselves doing work that is at best tangibly related to our ‘purpose’. Some causes lend themselves more to ambiguity. Was all the work to get Kyoto ratified for naught? Or is just the idea of its existence at least some form of a victory? Even in organizations where the work is clear and tangible, that good can feel miles away from the underpaid intern whose job consists mostly of fawning over corporate donors and filling out spreadsheets.

And so the question comes back again.

 Am I doing Anything?

I’ve been asking myself this question for the better part of two years, and I’ve come to two conclusions. The first is that I will never truly know the answer and the second, is that I never want to stop asking it. The impact of failing to ask this question can be seen within the plentiful examples of NGO’s gone wrong, whether it’s the Susan B Komen foundation suing other Cancer charities that use the phrase “For the Cure” or World Vision dumping 100,000 NFL shirts in Zambia.

Organizational culture is a powerful thing, and without employees who ask themselves this question it can become overwhelming. “This is how it has always been done” trumps “Wouldn’t this be better?” Commitment to the organization trumps commitment to the cause. The only defense against this is to simply never stop questioning. For the second that you stop asking yourself the question is the same moment that the answer becomes, almost certainly: no.

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On comfort zones and unrealistic self-expectations

I haven’t always been as into social justice as I have been in the last few years of my life.  I mean, I was always curious about it growing up, knowing there was a lot I didn’t really understand.  I ate up a lot of the targeted advertising and skewed perceptions that media provided.  I dabbled in some social justice activities in high school, joining our tiny Amnesty International chapter, doing the 30-Hour Famine challenge (which I cheated I admit… I know…I’m a bad human being), and taking part in my friends’ initiatives to hold mini-conferences for junior high students on issues dealing with prejudice.

It wasn’t until halfway through my undergraduate degree in environmental engineering, that I was finally convinced by some amazing classmates and friends, to get more involved in Engineers Without Borders.  This is when I think I truly found an appreciation for social justice.  I found it empowering!  I was surrounded by so many remarkable individuals who shared this immense passion for disassembling and fighting against the numerous inequalities and injustices in this crazy world!

But by the last year of my undergraduate career, I found myself in a crisis.  What do I do now?  I’ve always been “good” at school.  Now that I was nearing graduation, I didn’t know what to do.  I’ve always been told what the next steps were, what I should be doing next, but things were changing, and changing fast.  It was finally up to me to decide the next chapter in my life.  I was mortified! Shit! I’m not ready for the “real world”! Fuck, I’m screwed.  I’m just sitting there, mindlessly busying myself, whereas my friends were actually looking for jobs and doing other adult things.

At the time, I was also getting deeper and deeper into this world of social justice and human development.  I didn’t want to give that up; I didn’t want to give up that family and network I slowly got to be a part of.

Then one of my professors said that she and one of my favourite professors were looking for a student to do some graduate level research projects.  I immediately jumped on that opportunity, and started the process of meeting with the professors and applying for graduate studies and scholarships.  It gave me a chance to stay in my comfortable bubble and stick with my EWB family.  I started applying for exec positions in our chapter and going on all the EWB things that I missed out on through my first 4 years of University.

The first 6 months of grad school went by, and I started going down this dark and dank rabbit hole.  I underestimated how difficult grad school was going to be; how its structure was so non-existent and something I wasn’t used to.  I also started struggling with finding meaning and purpose in my research.  I wanted so much to have my research project actually mean something; to have some strong social implication and actually help people.  I was slowly poisoning myself with my ridiculous expectations.  I even joined a third lab group, put myself in a graduate level class that I had no business being in, and worst of all, willing to compromise my personal and professional boundaries. I was becoming so depressed and down on myself that I had friends suggest that I should probably just quit, which hurt me, because I’m not a quitter.  I had pride myself on finishing what I started, and doing a decent job at it.

I was very fortunate however, to have two very supportive supervisors that could tell something wasn’t right with me.  A few personal meetings, an awkward break up email with that third professor, a winter break not knowing what I was going to do for a thesis, a trip to beautiful Montreal with friends and an amazing EWB conference in Ottawa later, things began to clear up.  That time off and realization to step back was the best thing to happen to me!  I could think clearly again, and figured out that I can challenge myself in realms I was still comfortable with, but was still forced to learn new things and that I can still make a difference, but in my own way.

A year and a half later, I’m rounding up my final bits of my project and writing my thesis; a thesis to be proud of and one that I saw a lot of personal growth from. Sure there were speed bumps and sinkholes along the way.  But that can be shared another day.

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On things they don’t tell you about the “real world”

Upon graduation, you cease to be defined by what you study, what sports you play, and what clubs you join. Instead, you become defined by how you answer the question “What do you do?” And if your current “doings” aren’t employment for financial gain, or if your employment activities aren’t easily summarized in one sentence, you have just thrown a giant wrench into the question-poser’s day. Graduation, essentially, is a massive paradigm shift in your life. After over 16 years dedicated to being a student, you just change gears, and start being…an employee? a citizen? an ADULT?

You would think that after 16 years of study you should know every single thing about life and living it, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. There is going to be some culture shock. For example, once you leave university, it will no longer be safe to assume that everyone around you is computer and technology literate. You may encounter situations like the following:

  • People who don’t know where to find the control panel.
  • People who ask you how to hashtag things while composing a Tweet using only one ring finger.
  • People who don’t understand why printing out non-static, shared calendars to organize their month is a bad idea.
  • People who did not know that you could make a “neat chart like that” in Excel.
  • People who do not know “how to print this.”
  • People who think that it would be okay, since they don’t have Photoshop, to just “fix it up” in MS paint.
  • People who do all of these things combined, and are your boss.

Another culture shock comes with the realization that your former knowledge base is mostly useless, and that your new life paradigm requires a completely new type of knowledge, of which you are entirely devoid. You might be able to rattle off (easily Google-able) factoids such as all of the former PM’s, or sing a soulful tune about the Kreb Cycle, but chances are that your education did NOT teach you:

  • How not to cry during your first oil change, and phone your partner crying about your cabin air filter.
  • How to not sound like a total moron the first time you call your insurance provider.
  • How to obtain said insurance before even being able to ask silly questions regarding it.
  • How to have a tough conversation with your boss, or in the event that it becomes necessary, your boss’ boss.
  • How to write a resignation letter that doesn’t teem with seething resentment.
  • Where to even start when you just moved across the country and you literally need to buy one of everything that anyone ever needed in a house, ever.
  • That not every city has rodent and raccoon problems like Toronto does, and that enquiring as to “how bad the rats get around here” may get you some strange looks in Alberta.
  • How to look semi-composed in your office parking lot in the middle of a tearful phone call home.
  • How to do your taxes in a timely and non-stressful fashion.
  • What the letters TFSA stand for, why mutual funds are mutual, or the tenuous difference between the words stock and share.
  • How to FUNCTION at LIFE.

But another thing that they don’t tell you? Figuring all of this out is complex, and terrifying, and humbling. It is full of uncertainty, and flip-flopping, and stress-eating. Some days you might open your front door, and look out at the real world, and get so nervous that you barf on your doorstep. But some days, you take a deep breath, and walk out said door vomit-free, and realize that real life, however uncertain, can actually be a lot of FUN.

 

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on black holes and “success”

If you were to look at my resume, and look at my trajectory from high school through university to now, I did it “right”. I did what everyone tells you to do about school to get a job.

I volunteered. A lot. I did a degree that was equal parts job applicable and artsy. I had summer jobs that were fun, terrible, and sector relevant. I got an internship at an NGO when I graduated, and three months in got offered a full time job.

The thing about university is that its a huge fucking black hole. You have no idea where you are, or who you are, or whats going on. Some days it might be all blue skies and answers (hooray for A’s on papers!), and then next you’re wallowing in a bottle of wine wondering if development should even be allowed. But the great secret to university is that this, the black hole, is expected.

I remember the first time I was told that we, as political science students, must “speak truth to power” and how that blew my mind. I remember a lecture given by a woman who was part of a polyamorous group and how it completely opened my eyes to a world I didn’t know existed. I remember hearing Jane Doe speak and asking why men weren’t told not to rape, instead of telling women not to walk alone at night, and how that both enraged and empowered me. These were moments of pure learning – I was hearing things for the first time that changed how I viewed and interacted with my world and despite that world being confusing and frustrating, I kept being told that it was expected.

I left university thinking that I knew a lot, and because I was following the pre-determined success plot line so carefully, I felt confident in my ability to join the workforce as a “real person”. Finding the internship I did was mainly luck. I interviewed well, but had friends working at the organization who could vouch for me being competent. Getting offered a full time job was the result of working 60+ hours a week for 3 months, and a need to fill a couple of roles fairly quickly.

When I started as full time staff in September I was so excited to have found something that aligned with my values, something that challenged me, and all in an environment that was supportive and community oriented. All of this continues to be true, and wonderful, and what makes coming to work every day so beautiful.

However, it turns out working for an NGO is a fucking black hole too, but no one talks about it. That narrative that leads to success? It stops at “got a job!”, and then starts up again with “get a boyfriend, get engaged, have babies!” etc, (which is a conversation for another time). I didn’t do all of the learning I needed in university, and was blindsided by the every day challenges of being a “real person” with a job.

I have no idea how to resolve conflict with a coworker. I don’t know how to balance paying a huge student loan, with rent, with a work lifestyle that dictates I eat out 5 nights a week. I don’t know what I’m even suppose to know to do my job well. A lot of this has to do with my own naiveté, and believe me I ask myself everyday how I could have been so silly.

OF COURSE IT DOESN’T GET EASIER. It just continues to be hard, but in a different way.

So to cope, I’ve started redefining my own success. Last night I had a PB&J with barbeque chips for dinner and watched the first episode of Glee. I felt like I was 8 and it was awesome. I’ve started buying books to teach myself the things I think I need to know – the most recent one of which is on “emotional intelligence” (who knew that was a thing?!). I make playlists by month to chronicle my emotions through song.

And now, I write blog posts about having no fucking clue what I’m doing with my life, and I’m being ok with it.

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On Transitioning to Real People Life (Pt. 2)

If you missed last week’s post, you may want to check it out before reading this one: https://embamb.wordpress.com/2013/04/03/on-transitioning-to-real-people-life/

Or, you can just jump right in to this week! We won’t judge (:

_____

After a depressing summer of throwing out bread and sense of self-worth, all the while pretending I gave two shits about how neatly arranged the shelves were, I happily left the world of Loblaws behind me and jumped into an internship (or, more correctly, a ‘Social Change Fellowship’) at Engineers without Borders.

With an interest in videography that had developed over the last few years of University, I applied to the communications team (logical, no?). When I got my “Congrats! You did it!” email (perhaps not in those exact words) soon after my interview, I was stoked. This was my out! Along with the excitement, I was also…confused. In the email, it mentioned that I would be working not with the communications team, but rather, with the Invested Partnerships (IP) Team. My first thought was: “The what?”

This initial confusion was cleared up rather quickly, when I learned that the IP team had was the entity formerly known as ‘Fundraising’. The difference, in short, was a focus on a dual bottom line of revenue generation and genuine, two-way partnerships with donors both big and small.

Though my experience over the next 5 months would be an incredible one, filled with a consistent sense of challenge, excitement, freedom and incredible relationships (you can read a more detailed account of it here), the initial note of ambiguity that the placement started on never really went away.

When I sat down to write this post, and attempt to put some of my thoughts over the last five months to paper, it quickly became apparent that I could take this in one of two directions. One, a much more specific rant about the complexities and challenges of working within the organization itself. Along this vein, I could discuss the difficulty of jumping into a high level of responsibility and work load at an organization that I didn’t even fully understand (my previous interactions with EWB had been limited, at best). I could talk about the ambiguity that exists within the organization itself; EWB is an organization built around core dilemmas: around what exactly it wants to be, around focuses in both Canada and Africa, and most recently, around making the shift towards becoming an incubator of social and systemic innovation.

On the flip side, I could talk about some of the broader, more abstract questions and challenges I faced on a daily basis; things related to working in the development sector generally, and, as the title of this post suggest, on “transitioning to real people life”.

I’ve decided to go with the latter.

When I think about the five months I spent at EWB as an SCF, it is an interesting experience to consider holistically. On the one hand, I absolutely loved it. It was challenging, exciting, unique. It left me feeling fulfilled and like I was contributing to something I could feel good about. I felt pushed to put myself in new and uncomfortable situations, I felt trusted by the people I worked with, and I felt free to explore things in my own unique way. I met and worked with truly incredible people.

With all this in mind, and considering the summer I’d had before this, you’d think that I would have found exactly what I was looking for.

To an extent, that was true. But, also…

What exactly was I doing? What was I working towards? Where was I going in life, in both my immediate and long term future? What was my place in social change? What is it that was driving me to this work; to spend nights working in the office or to voluntarily take on additional tasks outside my field of responsibility? How do I balance my desire to do this kind of work, to volunteer and give all that I can in the service of something vaguely defined as “social good”, with a very real financial need to provide for myself (the internship was not unpaid, but I was only making enough to barely cover costs. I also spent what little free time I had outside of work volunteering on other endeavours.)

I also found myself grappling with something that, I believe, came directly from my experience working at Loblaws. I am not exactly sure when it happened, but somewhere, sometime over the last half-year or so, I made a decision…

Before I get to that, however, context! Two things:

     1)      I can be relatively impulsive in the way I make decisions

     2)      I am very much someone who sticks to their principles and decisions, once they have been made

Example: I am in university, and sitting at my desk in PJs, sweater hood pulled up over my head. I am staring out the window, slowly sipping coffee at 4 o’clock in the morning, when suddenly, I have a thought: “I am going to become a vegetarian”. Starting that day, I stopped eating meat, and have stuck to that since. There was no reasoning behind this decision. I was not a staunch animal rights activist, and I had not just finished a viewing of Food Inc. I just…decided. And once I decided, I had to do it.

Aaand we’re back! Now, where were we? Ah, yes – decision! At some point over the last half year, during all of my uncertainty, I made the following decision; the one point of certainty on the open path that was my life:

     Someday, I will die. When I get to that point in my life, I want to be able to look back at my life and see that I have left behind more than I have taken.

Like my sudden vegetarianism, I quickly stuck to this, and it would come to guide the decisions I made moving forward. Decisions around what work I was taking on, how I was setting priorities, and how many hours I was putting in (a recurring thing with me is the outright resentment of the biological need to sleep that I have developed). An added bonus with this decision, over the one to become a vegetarian, is that I was not even really sure what it meant. “Not eating meat” is a little more clear cut than the somewhat abstract concept of “leaving behind more than you take”.

Despite this uncertainty, it started to have impacts. I began to feel as though I could not, in good conscience, take another job at Loblaws. It started to make me question whether video was actually the right path for me (I enjoyed it considerably, and I like to think that I have some skill with it, but my thinking was: a) there are many other more skilled individuals currently doing video work in the social justice space, and b) is it really what I am best at? Or do I have another skill I could be leveraging?)

On a more personal level, it left me with a lot of questions around balancing my commitment to this kind of work with other aspects of my life; a task that, to this day, I can’t say I have gotten much better at.

I can’t pretend that I have discovered the answers to most, if any, of the questions I asked in this post. But, while sitting in a meeting at the EWB office one day in late January, I did come to one particular realization.

We were gathered to discuss strategic planning for the upcoming year, when all of a sudden – a light bulb in my head clicked on. I had a moment of clarity, and spent the rest of the meeting furiously recording ideas in my notebook. I left that meeting feeling more excited, passionate and fired up that I had felt about anything in a long time.

What was it, you ask?

Well, for now I’ll leave you with this

Logo

and say:

Until next time.

Ambiguously yours,

-t

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On Transitioning to Real People Life (Pt. 1)

I graduated last June. If you had, at the time, asked me what the last four years of my life had been like, I could do one better than simply telling you and instead could give you a set of instructions that, if followed to the T, could replicate my experience for you. Right in the comfort of your own home. Here:

Step One: Since you’re reading this post, I take it that you’re probably sitting down (unless you have one of those new age stand up desks, in which case, proceed to Step 2) – stand up.

Step Two: Take off your slippers (if applicable) and socks (and if you’re wearing shoes in your own home, just…stop reading this. I don’t understand what you’re doing with your life.)

Step Three: Look around. Identify the thing in the room that has the sharpest corner and briskly walk towards it. Faster! It’s getting closer – quick! Stick out your foot, and slam your toe onto the corner of said object.

As you proceed to hop around the room on one foot in a maelstrom of obscenities and shame, clutching your now bruised and or bleeding toe in one hand while biting a knuckle on the other, do the following (this step is important): every time you land after a hop, shout out the name of a different career. Anything at all. Don’t hold back or over think it. You can do it.

Now that we’re both on the same page, let’s continue (also, you may want to get a band aid). So, yes. My university experience was about as enjoyable as a stubbed toe, and filled with as much uncertainty as a Late Autumn Uncertainty Fair (what, you’ve never been?)

I went to University because it felt like that’s what I was supposed to do after doing well in High School. Like everyone else, I was sold the concept that if I wanted a job, if I wanted to “do something” with my life, I needed a degree. So, a degree is what I got…well, $40,000,  a lifetime of stress and an unhealthy amount of sleepless nights later, anyway.

Then, something crazy happened. I graduated. It was over. I had won. But you know what didn’t happen? Jobs. Clarity. A sense of “Hm. That was all worth it, after all”. Despite everything we’d been told going through the school system, the fancy piece of paper with your name and program on it does not, in fact, leave you any better suited to navigate the world than had you climbed up a tree in a broccoli costume and shouted the names of US Presidents at passers-by.

With school done and me uncertain of what I wanted to or should be doing, I just started applying to any and all jobs I found. Office assistant? Yep. Street fundraiser? Sure, why not. Dog snatcher? You betcha. Wait. What? Scratch that last one. Then, after weeks of disappointment and confidence crushing, I got a job at a grocery store. You know how I got that job? By taking my degree off my resume, so as not to appear over-qualified. Yes, four years and $40,000 later and for the honour of baking bread for Mr. Loblaw, I had to pretend none of it had ever happened.

Needless to say, that summer sucked. As someone devoted to social change work, it felt like my soul was being eaten away every time I was forced to throw out almost expired product. I spent the rest of the summer in something of a state of depression, grappling with some difficult questions around where I was, where I wanted to be, and how in the hell I was supposed to get there. Luckily, at the end of the summer I managed to get an internship at Engineers without Borders (or more correctly, a “Social Change Fellowship” – it’s all about the names, people). Needless to say, I was pretty stoked. Little did I know, however, that the real ambiguity was only just beginning…

Until next time.

Ambiguously yours,

-t

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