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  • Writer's pictureTaha Habib

How I made lemonade with really hard lemons

Updated: Jun 20, 2022

People have called me resourceful before. I don’t think I can find another moment where that word could have been more accurate to describe myself than when I left the life I spent over a decade building to start an entirely new career trajectory.

And I was scared.

In the final year of my bachelor’s degree in Molecular Biology, we had a Virology class. That was it, I instantly saw myself in my professor’s shoes teaching a class of bright eyed students learning the wonders of viruses. I applied for an internship right after my final semester - because breaks are for chumps - and spent the summer in the lab where I would enroll to pursue a master’s degree in microbiology and infectiology studying HIV on a molecular level.

Fast forward 3 years, which included almost 5 months working in a 4 degree fridge (that for sure added to the rapid decline of my asthma, now that I think about it) and spending too many late nights with bacteria, I can say for sure that the ONLY thing I loved about my academic life was connecting with people and demystifying the work done in labs to the people affected directed by the research trying to cure diseases. I was, and am, a people person.

When I finished my master’s degree in Sherbrooke, I couldn’t wait to come home and work in Montreal as a biology teacher at a CEGEP. Little did I know, 2016 was going to be a tough as sh*t year to get hired in education - not only was no CEGEP hiring, teachers were being let go.

“Okay, okay, okay. Cool cool cool.” I told myself, at least 4 times a day in front of the mirror in my bedroom at my parents’ home. “You’re gonna DO something.”

I spent 6 years on student loans and bursaries in Sherbrooke city all the while LIVING IT UP by myself where no one knew me by anything other than Tara (that’s right, my name, Taharima, was too long and needed to be shortened to Tara on my second day at uni - but that’s a story for another day). Never being able to actually save any money while in college, I was aggressively aware of the fact that I would have to move back in with my parents because I was broke and hadn’t taken the time while I was writing my thesis to also look for a job.

Let’s be honest, and I am sure many will relate here, when you’re a woman of colour trying to “find herself”, you cannot do it in your immigrant south asian parents’ home where curfews and phone lists are not just for teenagers. Needless to say, the fire I lit under my ass to get a job, save and get my own place was burning bright red.

Not going to sugar coat this, looking for a job SUCKS. It is just such a soul crushing and emotionally abusive process. The sheer amount of courage and self-determination it takes to go through rejections, to keep reminding yourself that you are good enough and your skills are good enough and that someplace might want you so you keep applying - is a lot.

I started tutoring high school, CEGEP and university students, teaching French, Math, and Sciences at 3 different centres as a way of making money while I looked for something more stable and sustainable, but most of my time was spent scrolling my calendar making sure I got to the different meet-up places on time with the right material. I was doing pretty great too, my students loved me, they were doing well in school and I genuinely loved seeing them really GET IT. But I just couldn’t keep up with the running around the city anymore, I needed something sedentary and a bit more lucrative.

I started to turn my attention to the community sector, because I was pretty much in it anyway connecting to students, and their parents, listening to their dreams, guiding their future decisions. It started with volunteering, and then applying for a 6-month ambassadorship program with the city of Montreal as one of the 19 youth representatives of the 19 boroughs in 2017. This experience solidified the work I wanted to do in proximity to youth in the community sector - I also went to Brussels, which became one of my favourite cities. So naturally, I took the first job I could get my hands on with no formal coordinator or community experience, leading a community centre in one of Montreal most underfunded neighbourhoods. What could go wrong?

Even if my motivation was a 100/10, my eagerness to bring in innovative organisational and operational processes was often challenged by members of the board and young staff members for going against how things were always done. I was expected to give all of myself to the centre and to be more than just a coordinator to the members. I was looked down on for setting professional boundaries, I was disrespected by junior staff because I made decisions that the previous coordinator would have never made. And I told myself that this is coming from a place of hurt and loyalty to a friend they lost. As much as I tried to build trust with the board and the staff, the expectations were so high and misplaced, I just felt like I was being tested all the time with no way forward.

It was like waking up stranded on a canoe in the middle of a lake and rowing to shore frantically, never really moving because the canoe had too many holes in it and you were already sinking.

Through my time reading past coordinators’ notes and documentations and discussing challenges with my community peers and borough employers, I noticed a lot of discrepancies between what I thought this job was going to be, what was promised on paper vs what it actually turned out to be. And I always remember thinking to myself that if I was able to go through 3 years of a master’s program in sciences/fundamental research, I was going to be able to face anything the community sector can throw at me.

I was obviously wrong. Between the inner politics of the board of directors and the expectations and distrust of the youth staff and centre parents, this job came at my HARD. 2018 was the year I remember the least, because for the first time, and unbeknown to me at the time, I was going through a depression and a burnout at the same time. Working in isolation, in a sector and centre so underfunded and so starved for capacity that there was no way to meet my needs of support. I ended up quitting and needing 2 months off to rest and heal.

In my time off, I remember reminding myself that this is not the end, this is just a time off. I wasn’t DONE with the community or non-profit sector. There HAD to be something better, someplace a little better off, where support was available, and where there would be a team I could join and grow into the leader I knew I was capable of being.

And there it was. My light at the end of the burnout tunnel. A space, an org, a job I thought was straight out of my dreams and the answer to everything I was asking for at that precise time - Communications Coordinator at Apathy is Boring.

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