In 2015, while doing my master’s degree, I attended and presented at the Canadian Association for HIV Research (CAHR) in Toronto and I loved it. No seriously, look at this plenary session line up! It was the first conference where every research discipline working on HIV from different angles (epidemiologists, clinical scientists, basic scientists, social scientists, medical doctors) came together to discuss how their research was impacting the people living with HIV - who ALSO attended the conference for free. This was my first exposure to a space where the research being done on HIV at any level was broken down and made explicitly accessible to those affected by it. We took into account knowledge barriers, cultural barriers, stigma, religion, ageism, you name it. Didn’t I say I LOVED IT?
Over the weekend, after a plenary session, I was in a room with a colleague from my lab, a social worker, a community member, a neuroscientist and a basic researcher talking about how one of HIV’s favourite ways to hide in a body and escape treatment is to make reserves in the brain’s immune cells. And because of the blood-brain barrier (BBB), medication in the bloodstream couldn’t get to the brain immune cells to eradicate the virus. The basic scientist talked about how in some labs people were testing nano peptides (very tiny protein parts) to carry the medication across an artificial BBB - REALLY cool stuff - for efficient drug delivery. The neuroscientist interjected and said that these artificial studies are good and dandy but the real test would be to see the work in a donor brain. He was talking about getting terminally ill patients to donate their brain to research after they died but it’s just so hard to convince people to do that, to which the community member living with HIV said something along the lines of “Take whatever part of me you need as long as we get this bug!”
The social worker pursed her lips and inhaled slowly. I obviously look at her with my smile fading to a frown. The community member looked at her and asked her if she didn’t agree. She replied that, in her experience, the barriers to just giving your brain to research comes from a lot of hidden and internalized stigma that, along with HIV, is very prevalent in cultures in black and brown communities. In fact, did you know that African, Caribbean and Black communities in Ontario are disproportionately affected by HIV? Although these communities make up less than 5 percent of Ontario’s population, they accounted for 25% of all new HIV diagnoses in 2015.
She said that black communities are over-represented in new cases of HIV and some cultures strongly believe that you need the whole body to enter into the afterlife. It wasn’t so much a question of not wanting science to find a cure, this was a question of having the chance to be reunited with family and ancestry that was denied to people because of the stigma they lived with while they were alive. There were so many truths to this fight against a killing disease, and somehow some conversations were given more light than others.
I think I blinked twice and the moment was gone and the room was cleared. But that precise interaction was one of the few moments I remember so clearly to this day (the other two moments were Dr. Galit Alter’s plenary about synthetic antibodies and Dr. Viviane Namaste’s plenary about Feminist Research and Knowledge sharing). It wasn’t totally about the science, it was about how people spoke about the science, how people in the position of doing the research and proposing the policies that shape drug manufacturing, drug distribution and treatment possibilities, were having to show their work in an accessible way to the people who will be directly impacted by these policies. It was the sense of community, connection and accountability that really made all my grueling hours in the lab worth it, I thought.
Why am I telling you this? Like Elle Woods once said in court, I have a point, I promise. I turned to the community sector, to communications and outreach more specifically, because I wanted to connect people to information that can change or have an impact in the course of their lives. Public policy and politics became an interest to me after I finished grad school because I wanted to see a more tangible outcome to the research, data, conversations we have in labs, conference halls and dinner tables. I just thought that instead of being the person changing the world, I would be educating the bright minds after me to take the fight all the way. I thought I had chosen my lane.
When I was nursing myself back to life from my burnout after my first dive into the underfunded deep end of the non-profit sector, and also repairing all the bridges I had torched with friends while I was going through my depression, I found a job listing looking for Communications Coordinator for a relatively bigger youth-led non-profit, non-partisan organization called Apathy is Boring (AisB). For those who don’t know AisB’s mission is to connect, educate and activate young Canadians aged 18-30 to become informed participants in Canadian democracy by first becoming changemakers in their communities (say that 3 times, fast!). And I was really excited to apply because I had a wonderful experience interacting with them while I was a youth ambassador for the city of Montreal’s 375th anniversary (also Canada’s 150th anniversary). When I got my call for an interview I was floored. When I got my call to let me know I was offered the job I cried.
This job was going to be EVERYTHING. It was in communications, it was 60% community outreach (something I was doing everyday for Rock Camp), there was traveling involved (I love traveling and I always wanted my job to be a source of travel in my life), so much learning around democracy, politics, community and there was a SWEET benefits package - holy smokes I was set! I spent 2 years as the Communications Coordinator and in my time on the team, I was able to develop content for our social media, learn to use and then maintain our website (NationBuilder is a BEAST), travel to Edmonton and Calgary for the first time to support with the Alberta Elections activities my colleague and good friend Andrew was running, and take part in building the most successful and the largest GOTV campaign our organization has ever seen in 2019. Looking back at our team’s achievements, I can’t be anything but proud. But I was hungry for more, and I think that is a common thing when you hire motivated young people who love their job and see the fruit of their contribution, they want to grow and expand and take up different roles in the organization.
In October of 2020 I transitioned to the Youth Friendly Coordinator role, working on getting our consulting program back up and running for a re-launch in March 2021. I got to work on managing the project from learning, to planning, to executing, and to monitoring and controlling the resource development, the marketing plans with our contractors, and service feedback collection (can you tell I am currently completing a CAPM course? Does it show I need another way to prove myself worthy? Yes, okay good.) After the re-launch, I was promoted to Youth Friendly program Lead, that’s the position where you’re the specialist in the department, and a step into the leadership arena along with managers and directors. My job as lead of the program encompassed a lot of what I loved doing: admin work, creative work, client outreach, partnership development, and public speaking. But something always felt missing. I felt like I was doing what I liked, and what I was good at, but there were many challenges in my work that were out of my hands to address. And after two years of working with a team I can depend on, who shared a work flow chart and knew what the other team members were up to, there was a sense of belonging and visibility that was missing from my current position.
To put it quite simply - I felt alone. And I know, 2020 made everyone feel lonely, isolated. I am also not someone who needs 4 zoom meetings in a day to make me feel “seen”, I just work best in a team setting where I can support my peers but also where I am being supported. But I was working on my program all by myself, and the few leadership meetings that were supposed to show me that I was a part of the leaders in-group, and where my voice mattered in the way the organization was shaping up in the face of a global pandemic and institutional changes for the better, were being cancelled one after the other because of employee turn-over, lack of capacity. This situation gave me flashbacks of when I was working all by myself in the little community centre that drove me to my burnout - and I was scared. And that’s the reality of non-profit work, everyone is always at max capacity trying to meet funder expectations, during a snap election, in the middle of program recruitment, etc. I just didn’t feel like there was any space for my struggles to come up, because it was just going to be another burden for people at minimum capacity to take on. I also knew that I wasn’t going to be able to nurse this new program for the next 5 years in my role before it can become the size of our other programming, not only because I didn’t have the time but also because as a business division in a charity it needed to show a very restricted amount of organizational resources attributed to it.
The thing about youth-led orgs, whether it be for better or worse, is that it pushes you out eventually. Eventually it has no space for you.
I am turning 31 in a month. I recently moved into a new apartment with my partner, we have 2 cats and a million plants (hello Covid hobby). My entire life changed from when I started at the organization in 2018. My entire view on life changed in 2020 when my - and the world’s - priorities were readjusted. It’s also when my partner and I made life plans for the first time. I had to accept that by the end of 2020 I wasn’t the same person who entered 2020. It’s also hard to come to terms that after a while, organizations that are meant to empower youth are going to stop being able to support youth of a certain age. Through 11 breakdowns, 38296502956 rants sessions, and several weeks of therapy, I had to come to terms that I was a youth at the end of the spectrum of those who can grow and benefit from the resources and opportunities a mostly program-based government funded youth-led organization can offer at a given time.
Looking a steady job I once loved in the face and saying that I’m choosing to nurture myself instead was one of the hardest heartbreaks I had put myself through this year. It took a lot of courage, introspection, therapy, venting, soothing, ranting, crying, to arrive at acceptance. Having a job, especially this job, was such a huge part of my identity that I had spent so much time cultivating, letting it go was very painful. Add to that a slew of rejections from places citing your years of experience in certain fields just weren’t enough, that your body of work wasn’t enough, that you weren’t enough, well that was just gut wrenching. Needless to say that it affected my mental health looking for jobs while I was trying to mourn leaving my current job.
So I took a break. I am taking a break. I am no longer looking for a job. I cast my lines and whatever comes will come and I will be here, wrapping up my 3 years at an org that gave me so much and to which I gave the very best of myself. I will be taking a nice, well deserved, well supported break from “the hustle” to focus on my hobbies, to re-centre myself, investing in mapping out concrete steps towards my 4-year plan in public service.