Tag Archives: Social change

On Finding Unexpected Clarity

Here’s a super quick summary of my last year for a bit of context: Completed the most indescribable arts degree. Spent the summer applying for jobs and volunteering for projects around Calgary, trying to figure out what to do with my life. Decided to “courageously commit” to an organization I already loved. With help from friends, convinced the organization to hire me as a Communications Intern and moved to Toronto. This work resulted in lots of compliments, but no job. And that’s how a small-town Albertan ended up unemployed in Toronto…

I suspect that everyone who gets a degree without a straightforward label struggles to figure out what to do with their life post-graduation. Ever since I realized that I did not want to sacrifice my youth to become an architect, I’ve been trying to find another career that would fill me with the same passion without architecture’s “sleep is for the weak” culture. However, the months of cumulative informational interviews, research, and testing out ideas have led to one inevitable conclusion: my soul refuses to accept the confines of the cookie-cutter jobs available to me. If only I could be a Designer-Entrepreneur-Storyteller-Community Builder-Artist-Adventurer!

Amazingly, a friend forwarded me an application that looked perfect. A town in Pennsylvania has this Changemaker-in-Residence program, where they pay for driven, creative young people to come to their town and do cool shit (aka social innovation). They have an interesting theory of change:

“We believe that the more creators and trend-setters we can encourage to play in our community, the more others will want to move here. So your one and only expectation is to create, create, create. Be a positive force for change that serves as a magnet for others to join you.”

It sounds like a dream-come-true! Creative work, with mentorship and housing included, in a town surrounded by incredible natural beauty would be amazing. But as I filled out the application I butted up against a painful contradiction. I truly believe that brain-drain poses a serious threat for the social and economic vitality of rural communities, and educated young people can have an outsized impact on the health of these towns. The problem is that, with a population of 80,000 people, State College doesn’t seem rural in comparison to my own hometown. Winfield has a shrinking population of about 250 people. No joke! I looked it up.

I’ve spent my whole life thinking that I would get out of Winfield and never look back. Yet I’m faced with the uncomfortable knowledge that, if I truly care about creating social change, there is nowhere in the world that I can be more valuable than in the very place that I fled. So I will go home.

Of all the careers I’ve imagined, this is the most terrifying. I don’t know precisely what I will be working on, or how I will fit into the small town culture (I wasn’t exactly popular in school), or what it will mean for my future. All I know is that I have to try to create change close to home before I take on global challenges, or it will haunt me forever.

On the bright side, Winfield offers the same perks of natural beauty, freedom to create, easy access to mentors, and affordable housing that the Changemaker-in-Residence program does. Who knows!? Maybe I can entice some of my big-city friends to come play in Winfield, and it won’t be so bad 😉

Until next time.

(un)Ambiguously yours,


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On embracing change

*Jumping on this trend of writing a year end recap, as inspired by my fellow writers here at EA, I want to try and switch it up a bit and look right at the ambiguous space that has been left in front of me from the end of this past year

As 2013 comes to a close, so did several chapters of my life as well.  One of the most notable things is I FINALLY slayed the beast that was my master’s degree.  It took me 4 months longer than I was planning or hoping, countless hours more than I’d thought, with extra bumps along the way, and nearly throwing my dying laptop at a wall; but I finished it and submitted to my University.

Another major part of my life that has taken up the former 8 months of my life was the National Conference I had been working on with an incredible team of individuals across the country. Okay, so technically, this didn’t happen until after the New Year, but it ties in with the whole theme of things, trust me.  With that, I’ve also decided I am going to give myself a bit of a break from the organization I’ve been working with for about 4 years now.

Now with all of those things wrapped up, I’m now sitting in my room, all moved back in with my parents, in my quiet city, and trying to figure out my next steps. Yup, I moved home with my parents again.  Yup, I’m unemployed.  Yup, I’m too poor to allow my wanderlust to grab my hand and lead me into the world.

Moving home somehow wasn’t as bad as I had made it up in my mind to be.  My family has been very understanding about the new boundaries I need, and it’s about relearning how I fit in to the household dynamic again.  My time in Toronto for the conference has challenged me about what I’m capable again, that I underestimate how far I can take myself, but I realize I also need to start somewhere, and learn what I can to take me to those places.  And my wanderlust? It probably won’t go away for a lot of my life, but that wanderlust can take me to new discoveries within places close to me as well, if I let it.

This picture is one I found wandering around Toronto when I had some extra time before lunch with a good friend.













I probably stood there on that cold sidewalk for a good 5 minutes looking at the simple graffiti on that wall.  (I disguised myself as being a tourist and was busy trying to decide what filter I was going to use on Instagram to not look like a crazy person).  But I couldn’t help but be moved by this simple piece of art, and it made me start thinking about my life and past year.  And the first thought that came to mind when reading those words was, “I hope I have changed”.  I hope that I am always going to change, and become a better person; to come closer to being that person I want to be.

These words left me proud and hopeful.  It reminded me that through these ambiguous times I’ve struggled with, I’ve learned to change and adapt.  More importantly, I will continue to do so with the next few chapters of ambiguity that are undoubtedly going to come.

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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.


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On…forget it.

In my last post, “On losing track…”, I wrote about the challenge of holding on to your passion and motivation from day to day; about those days when you wake up and don’t feel like doing anything at all.

More recently, however, I’ve been experiencing a different kind of challenge.

I’m just…kind of fed up.

Worn out.


After another week of late nights, 9pm meetings and crazy back and forths between different projects, I’m just feeling a little tired of it all. Don’t get me wrong, I love the work that I’m doing; love that it is fulfilling and leaves me feeling as though I am accomplishing something worthwhile. But sometimes I just can’t help but wish it were…easier.

Wish that I didn’t have to give up most of my nights in a week to put in extra hours (or, alternatively – I wish that when I did take time for myself, when I said “no” to work, that it wasn’t also accompanied by strong feelings of guilt. As if somehow, by prioritizing my own needs, I’d done something wrong). Wish I had a predictable schedule so that I could actually manage a social life without going crazy in the process.

Working in the social justice sphere is great, but it also forces you to make certain life adjustments. It’s not always the case, but there are days like today where I just…don’t want to.

Sometimes I’d like to get home at 5pm, and actually have ended my work day. Would like to be able to go to the gym (would like to be making enough money to actually afford going to the gym), or for a run, without having to wake up at 5am (or at least, have waking up at 5am to do so be a choice, not a necessity). Would like to be able to disconnect from email and job related social media over the weekend without fearing the inevitable onslaught of things to respond to come Monday morning.

I’m not sure what the answer is in addressing this issue. It is made more complicated by the fact that, despite these occasional feelings, I wouldn’t change what I was doing for the world. At the same time that there are days where I want to say “forget it”, I also love the busy rush, the late nights and the looming deadlines. It keeps me fueled, motivated and energized. So maybe this is all normal, and maybe I’m just whining (I prefer the term “venting”). But maybe that’s also ok. Maybe that’s just what we need sometimes. Besides, I’M AN ADULT NOW I CAN DO WHAT I WANT.

Until next time.
Ambiguously yours,

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On struggling with identities

In the midst of dealing with being in graduate school, I also had an identity crisis.  Seriously, it wasn’t something I needed on top of being stressed out about research.  Basically, I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. This stemmed from the constant day dreaming of finishing up my master’s degree and finally leaving the safety net of school…and a future where I didn’t have to ever hold a pipette again, deal with ass mud, or wait for science to defrost.  Through my time as a graduate student, a co-op student working in the engineering field, and my time in Engineers Without Borders, I simply didn’t know what I wanted to do.

Now, I want to explain quickly that graduate school has a funny way of undermining your self-confidence; making you realize how little you truly know and how easy it is to stumble into failures.  And in the middle of this identity crisis, this lack of self-confidence filled me with doubt at what I could succeed in doing for the rest of my life, and more importantly be happy and content in doing.

So. What should I do? What should I be?  Should I be Jeff the Environmental Engineer?  Should I be Jeff the researcher?  Should I be Jeff the social change leader?  Should I be Jeff the youth advocate?  Should I be Jeff the educator?  Or should I be Jeff the coach and enabler?

All I wanted was a niche.  I just wanted to fit in.  It was junior high all over again!  OH MY GOODNESS!  My worst nightmares that I thought I were over were coming back into my life!

And then it dawned on me.  And I don’t even remember how this thought finally came into my exhausted mind, but I realized I was thinking about this completely backwards.

Reality is, I am Jeff.  I am multi-faceted.  I am not any one particular thing or role.  Instead of being shoved into a tiny cubby hole in society, it is completely the opposite.  I realized I was actually the cubby hole, and that different roles fit me (Please… I’m trying to be serious here, must you think of the innuendos?).  I can be, and I AM, an environmental engineer (in-training I guess), an environmentalist, a youth advocate, a researcher, an educator, a coach, a social change agent and so many more things rolled into one.  I don’t know how I came to the idea that I needed to fit into society in some way, but I’m glad I realized that was bullshit, and that I am more dynamic and abstract than any one identity.

I’m still not perfect at this, and I never will be.  But, I’m learning that at different points of my life, bits and pieces will be thrown out, and new roles and identities will be thrown in the mix to make me who I am. After all, Life is about creating, learning, discovering and growth, not about finding, fitting in and being complacent.

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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 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


and say:

Until next time.

Ambiguously yours,


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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,


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