Can you really ‘put a lid on it’ if your life is about social justice?

In one of my early professional roles, a mentoring leader once told me that she noticed I carry around a sense of justice with me, and that justice manifests itself in my work. She reminded me that this sense of justice is both a blessing and a curse. She couldn’t have been more right.

Anyone who knows me in London or follows me on Twitter knows that on my personal account (@AMFEngage), I am very vocal in my commentary on social justice (and other) issues in our community. I don’t always use the tact and diplomacy that I was once trained to use, which can be problematic at times. When I see a discourse on issues that affect people, especially when well-being is concerned, I (usually) add my $0.02 in, often for my own satisfaction that I did my part in trying to mitigate the polarization that happens between people when social justice, human rights, or large-scale community issues come to the forefront. I’ve come to love (and equally hate) Twitter for its fodder on justice issues. I’m learning I have a reputation for my “speaking out”, and have been referred to as “edgy”, respected leaders of mine often comment to me about the content of my posts. I’ve heard that my professional colleagues who know me well have coined a term called “The Anne-Marie” – the ability to present oneself professionally, but once justice is involved, the edge comes out… and truthfully, I am not sure how I feel about this.

I grew up in a Catholic family, with a father that was very steadfast in his beliefs and took every opportunity to remind us so. I am daughter to a mother who also has her beliefs, and often shares them, quite eloquently actually, but can get stirred up when she needs to be, especially if the issue at hand is something she has taken a strong stance on. With these examples in my life, combined with a bloodline that combines very strong German, Scottish and Irish genes, I learned at an early age that if you believed in something, believe it with all you are, stand by it, and hold to it unwaveringly so.

The sense of justice that my former leader noticed in me all those years ago goes beyond what is right and wrong. It began on a moral foundation, but is backed up by knowledge, research and a personal commitment to calling out injustice where I see it. This sense of justice is what I can physically feel manifesting inside me as my whole person reacts to what I know is not the way things should be. This sense of justice is what prompts me to sometimes speak in what others may deem “out of turn”. This sense of justice comes from knowing that women, young people, and especially vulnerable populations have been quieted too long. This sense of justice is what led me to dedicate a career to social justice – because in social justice, justice needs to be felt, acted upon, and manifested – however gruelling and even if what you have to say isn’t always what people want to hear.

I’ve been in London for almost a decade now, and it’s a hard place to be a social justice advocate in. It’s a hard place to speak out in, and a hard place to stick your neck out in. It is a conservative place that reacts strongly to strong opinions. Throughout the decade, I’ve had my hands slapped more than once because I commented on something, raised an issue, or spoke about something without its veiled language (also known as truth) where my other responsibilities should have had me practicing constraint.  I have conflicted interests. I’ve misrepresented viewpoints. I’ve contradicted world views. I’ve shed light on something others were desperately trying to cover up. I’ve made passively aggressive comments. I’ve done it all. I’m not all proud of what I’ve done or said throughout my journey in social justice. As a result, I’ve of course, had to try my best to be so mindful about what I post, what I soapbox on, and who may interpret my posts. I don’t always succeed.

I know I need to strike a better balance in the way I use my voice, especially as I advance in my career, where how I represent myself online has a direct correlation to my success and people’s desires to work with me. My father, the man who taught me about being steadfast, as was going through a long illness before he died shared that he had wished he had lived his life less judgemental. “Put down your sword, Tom”, is some advice he had received when his sense of justice overpowered his tact. Sometimes I wish I could put down my sword, and take the weight of the world off my shoulders. But I can’t. People need me. The world needs me. The world needs people like me, however distasteful I may be. While I can always strive to be a bit more tactful and pay close attention to my use of language, I know that I’ll never ever lose that need that I have inherent in my blood, heart, and at my very core, to recognize injustice, call it out, and demand a better world for us all.

Do people actually care?

Working in the area of social justice, I am involved in many community groups that are aimed at delivering a particular message with the goal of engaging people in their cause. As community workers, we spend a lot of time discussing our strategy to engage people to raise awareness in order to create social change. We strategize, brainstorm, research best practices, plan, and work hard to implement our ideas to get people on board.

A few weeks ago, I was at a community table, working to actively strategize our approach to our work and our public engagement. We were all working hard to toss out many ideas based on the issue we were working for, hoping something would stick. It was a hard process, as most strategy meetings are. After some time, someone boldly asked the question to our group: “Do people actually care?”

Social justice advocates, volunteers, and non-profit staff working towards a specific cause have a tough job. We stand outside stores asking people for donations. We create web and social media content aimed at getting people to “click to care”. We gently intrude into people’s sense of altruism through our approaches, all because our causes rely on awareness, donorship, lobbying or investment to move the needle towards change, cures, or a general societal improvement.

On many levels, its very easy to see that as a society, we care. Volunteer Canada, a national body dedicated to promoting volunteerism and giving in Canada, reported in 2013 that Canadians volunteered close to 2 billion hours, however, the number of Canadians volunteering declined from 13.3 million in 2010 to 12.7 million in 2013. Analysis suggests that the decline in the number of Canadians volunteering could be due to a lack of focus in engagement efforts. In terms of donorship, the donor rate is higher than the volunteer rate, for reasons that can be understood, yet trends show a decline in donorship. The only saving grace is that while there are fewer Canadians donating their money to causes, donation amounts followed an opposite direction, with donors making larger financial commitments.

I care because social justice and dedication to community work is in my blood. Having two very engaged parents, I learned at a young age the importance of using one’s talents and resources for the benefit of society. Thus, I started to pursue working within areas in which I could make a difference. When I gained the professional opportunity to work towards MANY areas where I could make a difference through a general community engagement program, I wanted to do EVERYTHING. Change the world and contribute to every single social issue that I came across. I worked hard to do so. I put in volunteer hours. Researched all the social issues I could. Donated as much money that I had available. Said yes to every single ask for help, and thought that if I said no, that would mean that I didn’t care about a particular issue. I pulled this off OK for a while but I soon began to spread myself too thin – I came short on commitments, began to resent those things I had became so invested in, and generally disengaged due to engagement overload.

I was given the opportunity to make a professional change that allowed me to hone in on one focus area, which has allowed me to release myself of the guilt that I wasn’t making a difference in every single area of social justice, and replace that guilt with the satisfaction that my focus allowed me to actually do work that had the possibility of moving the needle towards change.

Canadians are inundated with requests to care. Online advertisements, door solicitations, store-front donation representatives, check out fundraising campaigns, school fundraisers, church donations, corporate fundraising campaigns, friends’ fundraising events. So many organizations, initiatives, fundraisers, and advocacy groups exist that people in communities get inundated, and confused.

“Do people actually care?” I think the fundamental answer that question is “yes”. However, the desire to care has been replaced with a general confusion on how to care. With the lack of focus, and mostly collaboration, on the approaches we take to solving our society issues, comes a lack of focus from those we rely on to carry on our causes through donorship and volunteerism.

As social justice advocates, fundraisers and non-profit staff, we need to get away from the belief that just because we exist as a cause, people will automatically jump on board. Instead of finding the best ways to attract the dollars and time of the public, we need to first clean up house amongst ourselves to better coordinate together the way we reach out to the public so to not only stop stepping on each other’s toes, but to keep an even playing field that the most valuable players actually want to play in.


Pay attention to the man behind the curtain of international learning

When I worked within international learning programs in the university setting, many things kept me up at night, and ultimately led me to reconsider my career in international learning, but one issue that I struggled a lot with was the lack of authenticity in the construction of some of these international learning programs.

North American higher education institutions are touting the “Internationalization” flag with, in my opinion, a lack of resources, know-how, and mostly time to carry out authentic, ethical and meaningful international partnerships that actually produce results for the institution (students) and the host communities involved. This idea that I am bringing up is nothing new. We’ve thankfully seen some great critical perspectives come into the purview of the public about these programs in recent years. I love Talya Zemach-Bersin’s perspectives shared in the 2008 article “Why American Students Abroad Can’t Be Global Citizens” that questions the whole “why” of it all, and in 2015, CBC’s Doc Zone came out with the documentary “Volunteers Unleashed” that looked at the phenomenon of voluntourism: programs designed to combine international tourism experiences with the promise of making global impact (worth a watch!).

For many years, and until recently, I was involved in sending university students abroad to work on service and engagement projects within host communities touted with the idea that a student could “give back” to the global world while engaging in an authentic, integrated cultural experience among the locals. The idea universities would sell the students was that through true integration within local communities (usually only for a week), and providing a service based on “defined” community needs, they would make true impact on the global level, and in turn, be provided an enlightening and transformational learning experience. Truthfully, it hurt to say it anymore, but it was my job to.

Universities work from strategic plans. Within these strategic plans includes a quota or goal of sorts for their International programs. For X year, the academies will accept X number of students (cha-ching!) and send out X number of students, with exponential growth year after year. It provides great PR.

University staff and the departments that make up the university (i.e. student life, housing, etc) are usually tasked with meeting these outcomes. They recognize that with quantity you have to risk quality, and thus, this is why universities turn to (usually for-profit) third-party providers* that provide “canned” experiences, designed for large groups, and designed to meet Internationalization missions of higher educational institutions. The spots with the third party providers are committed to before the students have been recruited to fulfill them. With this magic number of students to send abroad to be met in mind, students are recruited into these international learning programs at both the co-curricular (non-academic) and curricular (course-based) levels at a price (of multiple thousands of dollars), with the idea they will provide a much needed service to a community in the Global South or third world who needs them. They are recruited, are accepted into the program and pay a fee to participate. They are provided orientation, reflection exercises and lessons on intercultural communication, cultural humility, and all the wonderful things that universities sell as global citizenship (a term still so engrained in my own vocabulary). The students go on these experiences, participate in a highly scheduled roster of activities, and are put in service situations with people in host communities who “need them”** so that these students can fulfill resumes with eye catching experiences that they’re told employers eat up. The students come home, with a promise and a dedication to save the world, but then altruism gets replaced with ambition, and in more cases than not, the student resumes on his or her own path from their academic to professional lives, and their international experience, and the people they worked with, becomes a distant memory. Only in some cases with the structure of the academic year allow students to have adequate debriefing experiences to help draw out the learning that the universities expect of them. Then rinse and repeat for the next year.

I don’t want to paint all international learning programs with a bad brush, as I have been witness to some incredible programs that are still continuing that ARE actually making meaningful global connections that I’ve been able to evaluate first-hand with the host community and the students involved. I still remain proud to have been involved in such authentic moments of exchange and experience, and I am happy to be affiliated with a new institution whose international learning programs I have become a big fan of. Within these programs, the third-party provider is left OUT, and the relationships are built directly between university staff and/or faculty member, and a host community abroad. This process requires a huge degree of time, money, travel, and thorough process of negotiating the partnership and understanding what each party hopes to get out of the experience. These programs also don’t stress that they are bringing something as a service, but rather, position these as opportunities for true exchange where not one party is more advantaged than the other. These programs are still built on the premises mentioned above of quotas, economic exchanges, and designing of experiences, but when these experiences are made with a high degree of intention and host community participation, where the host community’s outcomes are placed before the student outcomes, better outcomes truly are produced for all involved.

How an international learning experience is advertised can make all the difference. If you are going to another country to strictly observe or learn from them, name it as so. If your international learning experience represents more of a tour rather than a true engagement experience, name it as so. It’s OK to travel abroad without an altruistic purpose. It is not OK to travel abroad with stated altruistic purpose that it is inauthentic, and doesn’t represent altruism at all. Let’s all stop kidding ourselves by placing fancy names on things to make it sound better than it actually is.

While it may appear to the contrary, I do not think that international programming within higher education programs that tout themselves as engagement experiences should stop, however, I can pose a few questions to those considering international learning, as practitioners or participants, that may allow these experience to move towards a place of authenticity:

  • What is the source of the partnership? How was the connection to an international host community made? Why was it made in the first place?
  • Are resources available to ensure that proper time is spent visiting the host community in advance, building relationships, and understanding opportunities for true engagement?
  • Are students provided universal financial access to these programs? Are students with disabilities accommodated in these programs?
  • Are host community participants given the opportunity to participate in similar experiences within North America? (i.e. read about fair trade learning)
  • If working with a third-party provider, is it a for-profit or nonprofit? What are the margins for overhead vs. financial contributions made to the host community?
  • Is host community impact measured? Are impacts reported? Whose testimonials are being used to recruit students into these programs – the students or the host community’s?
  • Exactly how is this North American presence building community capacity within third world countries? Is it at all?

Tough questions that make you think, don’t they?

The truth can’t be denied that universities will continue to increase their numbers of students going abroad; everywhere you turn, another university in North America is smattering the news with a renewed dedication to internationalization, and the buzz words: integration, global citizenship, service, international development, transformation, new perspectives, new horizons, intercultural, are not showing any signs of dying.

I wish and hope for the future of international learning within higher education to be less based on numbers and more based on impact. For funding to be provided so that relationships can be developed first-hand between universities and host communities rather than having to turn to sterile, canned packages provided by those who profit off the international and altruistic missions of universities and the eager willingness for host communities to accept these students for their own economic benefit. For a unification of the scholarly attention that is being paid to the true impacts of international learning and the practitioner, quota-based approaches. For international learning programs to move away from canned alternative reading week/spring break co-curricular opportunities to international engagement through discipline-specific, curriculum based international experiences that require rigour in the planning and intentionality in the building of the partnership. I wish and hope at the core of it all that we can all just be authentic and transparent in our intentions, actions and strategies as people of the world, and the institutions that facilitate our mobility across cultures and continents.

*Third-Party providers are usually for-profit (but some are non-profit) companies and organizations that provide international learning opportunities as a service. These organizations claim to have created true partnerships within host communities and constantly work to design student activities around community-defined needs at the time. Universities can pay these third-party providers a per-student fee, and in turn the third-party provider will organize all aspects of the travel experience. I do not agree with some of the practices of some organizations, but have witnessed some excellent and ethical practices by some organizations, namely Solidarity in Action (Canada-based) and Amizade (US based)

**Another blog post for another day will be the activities that students can sometimes be engaged in as part as service trips. Many times, students will be placed in remote villages that do not have access to medical services, and students (aka children) are placed in situations where they are wearing medical scrubs and providing basic medical triage activities after being trained for only a few hours. The host community does not understand that these students are not trained medical professionals, yet the students clothing leads them to believe they are. I don’t think I have to write much more to highlight how wrong it is to extend a scope of practice to a third-world country where that wouldn’t be stood for in North America.

Sometimes you get the best light from a burning bridge

At one time in my life, I thought I had landed the job that I could have stayed in forever, and I was prepared to do that, but things change, and I’m very glad they do.

A couple weeks ago, I had the privilege to attend a local event called “Women in Transition” where two inspiring women, Jodi Simpson and Karen Schulman Dupuis shared their stories of transition within their careers. I was drawn to this event, not only because I had already made some major career transitions, but also because I knew that statistically speaking, my generation (Generation Y) will hold almost 4 jobs over their first 12 years in the job market, and will stay shorter on average at each job (2.7 years) in comparison to previous generations.  That’s only the first 12 years.

I’ve made a few professional transitions within my life. Having begun my career as early as I could, I moved from the nonprofit sector, to manufacturing and technology, to human resources and the corporate world, to education, to international work, and now I am hovering in research with a special focus in engagement and knowledge translation. I’m lucky that I seem to surpass the average tenure for most of my jobs, which speaks highly to job satisfaction. Right now, I love the area I am working in and plan to stay here for a good while.

Many of my transitions have been by choice or by opportunity, or natural life progression. However, not all have been in situation within my control, executed with grace, or with outcomes I’m particularly proud of. Going through a job transition, while incredibly exciting, can also be incredibly traumatic, not only hard on the individual, but the family. I’ve heard that going through job loss or major career transitions can be often close to as traumatic as an illness or death of a loved one, and having experienced both, I can somewhat attest to this. When we lose or leave a job, we lose or leave a part of our self. In addition to being our sources of income, jobs are linked to our interests, our pursuits in education and training, but most of all our professional identity.

Recently, I chose to leave the job that at one time I thought I could have stayed in forever. That job became my dream role I never knew I wanted, but will forever be a defining feature in my career.  I grew up in this role, and grew as a person and a professional, through some incredible triumphs and tough lessons.

I had made the decision to transition out of my role a couple years before I actually did (after 6 years!), was often scared to, or just couldn’t find the right opportunity to do so – most of all, I just loved what I did, and who I worked with, and was comfortable. But I grew, and needed and opportunity to make an important transition from something so meaningful to me.

I eventually made the transition through a string of events and interactions that allowed me to recognize that it was time. I was in a work situation working within a program where things just no longer lined up for me, and I felt a sense of incongruence with the work I had been involved with, and the work I wanted to be involved in. After a long, grueling process, one that involved many hours of therapy, some tears, and A LOT of introspection, I made the leap and found a great opportunity to transition. I DID IT!

In the spirit of sharing experiences as Jodi and Karen did so eloquently in the Women in Transition event, here are a few things I agree with these women on, and a few lessons and realizations I picked up along my way (and continue to pick up!)

Career transition help you know your own value
One thing Karen Schulman Dupuis noted is that transitions help you know your own value. They allow you to step back and assess all you have done through your career, and all the kickass skills you have acquired along the way. They allow you to recognize and revel in why you were invited to work within amazing organizations, within amazing initiatives with gifted people, and take all that value to offer to a new opportunity. Transitioning in my career gave me the breathing room to assess myself, and taking myself out of my role allowed me to open my eyes to the infinite world of opportunity I had available to me, and what I had to chase those opportunities with a rate of success. Through my transition, I met amazing people, got invited to participate in awesome opportunities, and by recognizing my own value, others did too.

Career transitions allow you to let go
Every job I have had, I’ve poured 150% (or more) into. I can remember one leader asking me to calm down and step back because I cared too much about my work. In fact, I have a bit of a reputation of going Mach 10, a pace that people aren’t always ready for. Choosing to transition out of a role that was overwhelming at times allowed me to step back, while ensuring and having confidence that my work was left in good hands. I slowed down, to a speed I no longer recognized. I needed to slow down and let go in order to have the space to restore my own equilibrium. While it was hard to let go, I get equal satisfaction of knowing that the work I was so passionately involved in has new life and new direction, while I find my own new path. It also allowed me to set a new pace for myself that allows me to understand my own work style so that I work most effectively, with only having to give 100%, which I’ve learned is enough.

Career Transitions help you know your tribe
One tough yet necessary truth that I’ve had to come to terms with, and that I’m still coming to terms with, is that career transitions can have the potential to have important relationships tested. Sometimes a decision to transition comes from a difference of vision, or for me, an incongruence of direction, values and vision for the future. When I transitioned once I made that tough decision to do so, I unfortunately lost some incredibly important relationships to me, that I had fostered for many years, and with people that I actually very much loved. This is an unfortunate casualty of doing business, so I’m learning. From these losses, however, grew something greater. What I value most about this transition, is while I lost some valued relationships, I gained many more through my experiences and through (re)connecting with all those who had always been a part of my tribe, and stood there unwaveringly so. Through my transitions, an overwhelming number of many people came out to support me and stand behind me, and as a result, my network grew, and I got new opportunities and created a new tribe of treasured relationships with new ones being fostered every day. I’ll always be grateful for all those who were a part of my journey and will always wish my old tribe well, while poised and ready to create and innovate and do new things, with new visions with those in my new extended tribe. The singer/songwriter Don Henley wrote in his song “My Thanksgiving”, “sometimes you get the best light from a burning bridge”, and this couldn’t be more true in my experience.

Career transitions allow you time for yourself

Career transitions aren’t always easy times, but anyone who is in one remarks on the fact that the transition period has given them the opportunity to concentrate on their mental and physical health. My transition period finally gave me the opportunity to find time to talk to others who could help me find new directions. My transition period finally gave me the space to try anxiety medication for the first time in my life, which I am so glad I finally did (another contributor to reduction of my capacity for work from 150% to 100%). My transition period allowed me to reconsider what my work meant to me, and for my life. My transition period made sure that I have enough steam to put my best into everything going forward, and now I am able to more intentionally and in a way that produces the best outcomes for all involved.

Transitions are scary, and sometimes can be traumatizing, yet I can’t wait for my next one, when it eventually comes when the time is right. While I absolutely love the area of work I am in right now, I know that the world is big, and opportunities are vast. With technology and the world the world integrates globally so rapidly changing, jobs will be available in the future that I can’t even conceive of right now, but I can’t wait to get hired!

Tattoos represent our human right to express; let’s let it be that way.

I have 14 tattoos and I’m at the point in my life that I am getting tired of covering them up, especially with the weather getting so warm.

My tattoos are a part of me. They are my art and creativity. They are an outward journal. They are what is important to me. Tattoos are what helps support my family and our future.

So why have I spent so many years covering up my tattoos?

I began getting tattoos at age 19. My first one was on my lower back (as it was unfortunately for many of my age group), and at the time, I felt like a rebel getting it. I can tell you that it certainly did NOT please my parents. While it wasn’t visible, I always ensured that it never “popped out”, especially in professional settings. In my twenties, while I pursued a successful and fulfilling education and career that spans both academic and community sectors, my tattoos took a back seat. Throughout this point in my life and career, I’d still always adhered to the conventional wisdom that there was no place for tattoos in the workplace, and at times, took great lengths to cover up my markings and truthfully believed others should too.

In my thirties, things changed. As adults do, I became more aware of myself, and being tattooed started to become more and more of my visual identity, so began to collect more. My tattoos were and are a part of me that I want to share with the world and who I know and come in contact with. Thus, I’ve stopped covering up my tattoos (most of the time) in order to fight that antiquated ideal of what a professional should look like and hope for a change in perception against tattoos…

This is in defense of tattoos and a plea for the acceptance and professionalization of tattoos in the workplace. It’s an encouragement to my fellow tattooed friends to stop covering up tattoos when the opportunity allows it. Through this, I urge all to reconsider their position on tattoos, and make more room for them in the workplace, and society. Here’s why:

Simply, tattoos are art.
I am the first to admit that tattoo culture doesn’t always have a reputation of pushing out the most tasteful, tactful, or visually pleasing forms of art. Tattoos can often go awry, and too often, tattoo choice and placement can show an error in judgement by the untrained tattoo artist, but mostly the willing canvas. However, tattoos are and can be beautiful when the right artistry, vision and tact are applied. As humans, we spend our days enjoying what is aesthetically beautiful. Our history has shown centuries of appreciation and reverence for the visual arts. Tattoos are an underappreciated art in the mainstream culture of professionalism, and I’m perplexed as to why. Why not use the most beautiful canvas of the human body to create the most beautiful art?

Tattoos are the norm.
While stigmatization of tattooed individuals is alive and well, and thriving at rapid rates, soon there will be no place for it within our society. A study completed in 2010 (6 years ago) stated that while uncommon among the baby-boomer generation (15%), tattoo popularity grew with Generation X (32%) and continued to grow with the Millennials at 38% admitting to having tattoos. In the US, it’s estimated that 42% of adults have tattoos. This number can only be growing. Look around you at any public event or venue (especially in warm months), and you’ll see that tattoos aren’t as uncommon than they once were.

Tattoo stigma and tattoo reality don’t correlate. That’s why it’s a stigma.
My mother is the absolute worst for perpetuating stereotypes of tattooed people. “They look like they smell,” she’ll say, and I’ve not been able to figure out why as I’m yet to find a smelly tattooed person. She has quoted tattoos as being trashy, unprofessional, tough, rough, and everything else negative. This is particularly troubling to me because my partner is an aspiring tattoo artist. I am tattooed. We are both tattooed, and I certainly don’t think we smell, or are trashy, unprofessional, tough, rough and everything else negative. My mom knows this too as she loves us and has always had unconditional love and acceptance. This is the case for SO many individuals and there’s no reason to have this. I know researchers who are educated to the gills that sport full sleeves. I know successful engineers whose ink is one of their most striking visual features. I know communications professionals with well-crafted stories down their arm. I know tattoo artists who are regular citizens like you and me – they do not fit the profile of being rough, partiers, or strange. My partner, for one, likes to spend his time with puppies and usually goes to bed ridiculously early at night in order to get a good sleep, and couldn’t hurt a fly if he tried. There needs to be a loosening of the old-time association between tattoos and the ridiculous idea that tattoos are for rough sailors, motorcycle gangs, and serial killers. Tattoos generally are beautiful outward representations of inner goodness. I hope that my partner and I, as well as all we know who are tattooed, can continue to change old and antiquated perceptions on tattoos dictating character and behavior.

Tattoos mean something to those who get them.
Of my 14 tattoos, 2 of them represent my late father, 5 represent my heritage, 3 represent a love of classic literature, 2 represent my nostalgic ways (especially in music), and the remainder represent traits I value in myself and for my life: freedom, adventure, and exploration. These are the things that I have taken the time (and expense and pain) to ink onto myself permanently to have a permanent place in my life, my character, and what I present to the world. Ask me, and I’ll always tell you what my tattoos mean. Ask others who are tattooed, and I’ll guarantee you’ll also get a satisfying response and a good story. Tattoos allow the whole person to shine through.

Tattoos are a freedom of expression, which is a basic human right.
I don’t know about you, but I value working with individuals and organizations that value diversity, freedom of expression, and the power of individuality. I don’t like to be around judgmental people who may automatically be guilty of some of the ignorant associations for tattooed people mentioned above. What I do understand is that we are currently not in a place where tattoos are always tolerated. I keep an array of blazers around for any business purpose that would require one. However, the freedom of expression is a chartered right to Canadians (and many other of the world’s citizens). As a result, we should be at place within society where in the workplace they are not met with punitive actions, or used as a reason not to hire or engage with someone (aka. discrimination). In a world that demands and needs tolerance for diversity in terms of race, language, country of origin, age, gender and ability, we must also promote tolerance of the freedom of expression that tattoos are for people. I don’t think anyone wants to be around anyone who automatically thinks like my mom in regards to her perception of tattooed people.

As I mentioned, we are not yet at a place in our world – in North America where I am currently, and most important globally – where tattoos are a wholly accepted practice and form of outward expression, but we are getting there. I’m optimistic for tattooed people and the tattoo industry and the wonderful artist who make up it. My employers have always been accepting of my tattoos, knowing that I am able to exercise discretion on how much they are visible with in each context, and in turn, I respect the boundaries of when my tattoos should be out. My mom – well, she’s coming around. She loves me, and she’s proud of me, and she loves my partner and so far has been “cool” about the tattoos her three daughters have been accumulating. I do urge everyone to consider and reconsider their ideas and perceptions on tattoos. Ask people what their tattoos mean. Consider revising workplace policies to accommodate this form of expression. Perhaps maybe you can consider getting some ink yourself.  Why not?

I would do my dear partner a great disservice if I didn’t give his work a plug. Levi Moodie is an amazing artist, tattooing as an apprentice at Manson Tattoo in Old East Village, London, Ontario. He has done the majority of my pieces and I love them all couldn’t be more proud of him and the hard work and passion he puts into his craft.
Twitter: @tattoosbylevi
Instagram: @tattoosbylevimoodie

Keep your higher education administrative professionals close.

As a career, I’ve chosen to be an administrator within higher education and I absolutely love it. That doesn’t mean that I’ve chosen to work as university “staff” because I have fallen short of other academic goals – this is the path I’ve chosen, enjoyed, and will continue to work in for the foreseeable future.

I have been extremely lucky that within my career as a higher education administrator, I have been for the most part treated respectfully, and have forged partnerships with academic partners that have done amazing things, and this is due to a change in mindset among specific faculty that involves placing an incredible amount of value on the higher education administrator.

Not every higher education administrative professional has been fortunate enough to have the great experiences I have with faculty members, as not all academics embrace the value – and power – of the higher education administrator.  Every higher education administrator, self-included, has a nightmare of a story of when they were dismissed, treated poorly, or simply ignored due to their status as “non-academic staff” who will mostly lack the highest academic credential. Each higher education administrator can tell a story of pulling long hours, on tight deadlines, pulling something together for an academic colleague’s work. Each higher education administrator is familiar with the phrase “your failure to plan has become my emergency”. Each administrator can tell a story of being wildly misunderstood – in terms of professional capacity, professional credentials, or place held within the university. I can remember being at a research event where the question was asked what the role of staff and administrative professionals was in research. The researcher, flustered to come up with a good answer, finally concluded that the role of support staff was to “put up with researchers”. I was a bit flummoxed by this answer, and to be honest, felt a little angry that the vital role of support staff in research (and all academic functions) was overlooked, and seemingly not valued at all. Would this researcher’s work have even happened had it not been for the support staff standing behind him?

Academics, I encourage you to think of the administrators that work with you. What is their role? How do they advance your work? What skills do they bring to the table? What would happen if your administrators just weren’t there?

My academic friends and colleagues, I urge you to keep your academic administrative professionals close, and hold onto them. Here’s why:

Higher education administrators study higher education for a living. Yes, that’s right – our area of study is the academic institution – the inner workings, working with academics, student life, organizational behavior – you name it. We have chosen a profession that has required us to get intimately acquainted with how higher education institutions work. In fact, some higher education administrators have advanced degrees in issues of higher education. Myself, for instance, studied within my Masters degree issues of pedagogy, curriculum development, knowledge translation, research methodology, leadership, and many more aspects of higher education, which has equipped me with the toolbox to take on many types of higher education administration roles. Higher education administrators eat, sleep, and breathe higher education, and they are a wealth of information for academics looking to navigate the system or explore possibilities.

Higher education administrators have skills that academics don’t necessarily have. If you poke around your talent pool in your higher education environment, you’ll likely see that your administrators not only hold high levels of education, but also a skill set that academics don’t (and vice versa). Higher education administrators quite often have backgrounds in communications, marketing, finance, human resources, and other professional areas that have allowed a high degree of transferable skills enter into the ivory tower. They’ve specialized in all the areas of expertise that help elevate the work of academics. One thing that many higher education academics won’t do is tell you how many skills they have, as we sometimes just like to see that we can just “make things happen”.

Higher education administrators will let you take the credit. That’s not meant to be as harsh as it may sound, but the statement has some truth. Higher academic administrators don’t need to have their name on things. They are happy to lend academics their time, expertise, skills, and dedication. They are happy to take on tasks and initiatives knowing that they’ll be making someone, or something, else look good. And we’re OK with that! Higher education administrators have chosen a career within the folds of the ivory tower knowing that they will be the backbone of the great things that come out of education, but will never get the glory. And again, we’re OK with that!

Higher education administrators are committed to seeing the academy innovate. I’ll be the first to admit that one of the biggest frustrations I’ve had with working in higher education is what we would refer to as the “old boys’ club” or the “canon” or the “academic tradition”. These phenomena are both what make academia unique and one-of-a-kind, but they are also what makes the academy outdated, irrelevant, and missing the boat on the potential of higher education. I won’t spend time on listing those things that make higher education stuck in the Ice Age, but I think we can all name a few. Higher education administrators are the ones that have their finger on the pulse of what’s new in higher education. Higher education administrators have spent their time with other administrators exchanging ideas and practices on how to move the needle on the effectiveness of a university education.  Higher education administrators are interested in meeting the needs of the changing workforce and the global world, and they are excited and posed to help their academic colleagues do so.

Higher education administrators understand academics. Academics are a rare breed. I don’t think it’s a shock for me to make such a statement. They have chosen career paths that are unlike any you would find outside the academy. They spend their time in different ways that people do in other kinds of careers. They can sometimes have “interesting” personalities, usually as a result to their intense dedication to their discipline, field, and research process. I, for one, love academics. I love the way they think, and I love that they have chosen a life of inquiry and helping to mold young minds. Yet I also understand the challenges that can arise in working with this rare portion of people, as do my colleagues. In terms of working with brilliant minds, we’ve seen it, and felt it all. This is to say, bring it on – we can, and will, work with you, and will come equipped to face any challenge you may throw at us.

Here’s a few tips for academics on leveraging your resident higher education administrative professionals:

  • Ask your administrator about his or her background and why they chose a career in academia
  • Use your administrator as a sounding board – they will be able to give you an honest opinion of whether your ideas will gain ground or fall flat
  • Find out what’s in your administrator’s toolbox – they may bring a skill to your work that you don’t have, yet can significantly increase the impact of your work
  • Understand your administrator’s limitations and areas of expertise – just because they are an administrator, doesn’t mean they are suited for all administrative tasks, or will take on any task you’ll throw their way (for instance, I can’t organize paperwork to save my life!)
  • Appreciate your administration – just because a higher education administrator may not need the glory, they do appreciate feeling valued and small gestures that make them feel so

Keep your higher education administrative professionals close – you’ll never find a greater fan or supporter for what you do.




“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”

When I think of Cool Hand Luke my mind gets stuck somewhere between how Paul Newman can make imprisonment look so damn good, excessive amounts of eggs, a little bit more about Paul Newman and his classic handsomeness, but then I always go back to and settle on that scene between Luke and Captain and the famous line that we all know and love from that film:

“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”

A little reminder of how the scene goes….


Captain: You gonna get used to wearing them chains after a while, Luke. Don’t you never stop listening to them clinking, ’cause they gonna remind you what I been saying for your own good.

Luke: I wish you’d stop being so good to me, Cap’n.

Captain: Don’t you ever talk that way to me. (Gives him a good hit) NEVER! NEVER! (Luke rolls down hill) What we’ve got here is failure to communicate. Some men you just can’t reach.

This scene is a good précis for the whole film – it shows Luke’s brave and sly insubordination against the prison system pretty clearly, but what gets me here mostly is the line that precedes Captain’s little reprimand: “I wish you’d stop being so good to me, Cap’n.” More on that later…

The one thing that always frustrates me in my professional and personal life is how often poor communication, lack of communication, or miscommunication affects relationships, productivity, and overall impact. In my decade in the professional world as I work to build my own professional competencies and modes of operating in professional contexts, I’ve made sure to make astute observations on the way people interact, and then try to make sense of it all. It hasn’t been easy, and what I’ve seen hasn’t always been stuff I am overly impressed by, but I’ve also seen people use methods that bring people together.

I’ve also taken the same keenness for understanding how people communicate in all aspects of my life. As we know, communication is key to any successful relationship (partnerships, marriages, parents, friends, siblings, children – basically everyone in your life); you are best served when you pay attention to the communication cues, and learn from them.

Conducting social experiments in my head over the past few years has allowed me to come to some conclusions, observations and what I hope is a way forward. I credit experience, mentors, and all the people who have come into my life for the way they have also helped me understand the issues of communication, trust, and understanding among humans. Here they are:

“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”:Why This Happens

Fonzie tells us that assumptions are the termites of relationships. It was actually Henry Winkler, but I can’t help love the Fonz and jump at the opportunity to mention him.  When you think of it, this is extremely true. fonzieAssumptions are predatory on relationships. Assumptions create holes, gaps, and a loss of cohesion. Let’s run with Fonzie’s analogy for a bit. How do you prevent termites? First, you ensure no termites exist. Then you take action and measures to protect your foundation against termites. Once this is done, you regularly check up to ensure your foundation is safeguarded and regularly maintained. We need to treat our relationships the way we prevent termites. When beginning any kind of relationship, whether it is professional or more personal, whether it’s for a new business venture, or initiative or you are entering into a relationship of vulnerability, it’s good to uncover and look for those termites – those damn assumptions. What do I know about you? What have others told me about you? What do I think about you? How much of what I think about you is based on hearsay or gossip? What assumptions may I have of you that are wrong? What assumptions may be right? This doesn’t need to be about bearing souls and singing kumbaya, but more just about getting real and getting to know a person with intention and with best intentions. We need to prevent our assumptions from creating gaps and holes in our understanding of each other by working to set that foundation that allows assumptions to be explored before they become what hurts the foundation of a relationship. Coincidentally, as I was writing this blog this morning, my sister-in-law in an online silly family banter said “You know what happens when you assume? You make an ass out of U and Me.” We don’t want to be asses, do we? Again, just be real.

Trust is at the heart of everything. A lot of the discordance and tension between people comes from a complete lack of trust. Trust is not something that is easy to build, nor should it be taken for granted that every relationship is conducive to trust-building. Right now, we see a great mistrust in corporations, institutions and those structures that are set up to protect our societies and the people in it. People lash out because their trust has been broken. Relationships dissolve because trust was taken away. Some relationships never truly move forward because trust cannot be built. Our history in Canada shows the devastating consequences of lack of trust. A nation is divided as the constant struggle for reconciliation happens between Canada and our Aboriginals. Those in poverty have been let down by the systems and dallaire-rwandastructures that are supposed to be their safety net. We need to build trust before we can move forward. It’s as simple as that. We need to break down barriers, elevate the voices that have been quieted for too long, and bring people together with the one thing that brings us together – our humanity. I saw Former Lieutenant General (Ret’d) Romeo Dallaire speak the other night, and his words stayed with me: “Not one human is any more human than another”. We need to remember this and get back to the one thing that we have in common in order to build back our trust and learn to communicate more productively.

Kindness matters. I tout myself to be a bit of a spreader of kindness. Sometimes that annoys people. I’ve relented and through it, I’ve paid attention to the impacts of kindness and how it can make people feel, and I’ve come to the very simple conclusion that no matter what your life situation, who you are, where you come from, what you’re going through, or who you are engaging with, kindness goes a long way. A sad realization of my life is that you just can’t force people to be kind. Some people just aren’t wired that way. Many people are emotionally, mentally, physically not able to spread kindness to the level that I generally wish for the world. That’s OK. It has to be. But that doesn’t stop me from being kind myself, or asking others to consider kindness as a first approach. This is where I go back to Cool Hand Luke. “I wish you’d stop being so good to me, Cap’n,” Luke says, obviously with a great deal of sarcasm and irony. Look how the Captain reacted in this scene, and obviously Luke didn’t come out too far on top in this scene, but he eventually did. Luke killed Captain with kindness, Captain didn’t like it, but it did send quite a message to him.

How can we all work a little harder to communicate to avoid communication breakdowns and come to a bit more understanding of each other in all our professional and personal pursuits? I can present a few ideas:

Talk. We all (self-included) can tend to have the bad habit of hiding behind screens, emails, Twitter handles, or text messages. This has led to a lessening of our ability as a society to effectively communicate, and this is not news to anyone. Text often lacks context. Emoticons don’t help. What ever happened to picking up the phone, or asking someone out on a coffee meeting?A_small_cup_of_coffee The amount of time wasted in the space of misunderstandings and miscommunications can be what breaks an individual relationship, an organization, a society, a world. Make face to face contact a priority. Talk instead of tweet. Call instead of email. 10 minutes over a coffee can do more than what any email, tweet, or text message can ever do.

Learn how others like to communicate and get information. We can’t assume that the way we communicate is the way our audience, or who we’re communicating with, prefers to communicate or receive information. For me, I constantly battle between speaking and communicating academically with more colloquial language. The latter is how I prefer to communicate. I don’t like jargon or conversations where the message seems buried, yet I do have to adapt how I take in information, and put it out to who I am engaging with. When entering into a relationship or professional collaboration, take some time to notice how others communicate. It may not be the same way you do, but we you do what you can do adapt, and “work around” communication styles to keep focus, cohesion and move together in trust productively. You may also learn different communication styles from others, as part of finding our way is also figuring out what is working for people, and what isn’t.

Commit to kindness and thinking the best of everyone. Everyone has something to bring to the table, and kindness helps us see what that is in each and every human. I was reminded that those who are marginalized are not the ones who marginalize themselves. Think about that. Not anyone is more human than another human, as Romeo Dallaire stated the other night. By virtue of being human, we all have the ability to be kind; yet can’t deny that as humans, we also tend often to act out of anger and fear. Personally, I shut down when people are unkind. It is not a space I am comfortable being in and not an approach that I promote. However, I understand why people get angry. People are frustrated with how things are I see this on social media all the time. I’ve seen it in past workplaces where it’s had consequences for everyone involved. I see it at home with my partner if we disagree on something. Anger is a normal emotion, and sometimes it’s incredibly necessary as a catalyst for people to be moved forward into action (the subject of one of my Masters’ research projects actually), but it actually takes more energy to be angry than kind. I think there’s some good science behind that. As humans, we have outlets that can allow us to approach our frustrations and desires to see better things happen more productively, cathartically, and in ways that gets the message across more effectively so that things actually change. We can all work together to find ways that we can work together better in a spirit of kindness and a general love for humanity.

Help others understand and live their worth. One of the biggest inhibitors of people not communicating is because of their own sense of worth. The marginalized people remind us that it is not themselves who create the marginalization, it’s the mainstream who force these people to the margins. As a community, as humans, we need to get rid of notions of “top down” or “bottom up” approaches and meet more in the middle, using communication strategies that help us create spaces where we can be a bit more balanced in delivering our messages. We can create events and spaces that promote people of all backgrounds coming together, and we can use great tools to help facilitate balanced conversations (see Tools page for some resources). As individuals, we can take our time to sit and spend 5 minutes with the individual on the street that you gave a toonie to, and understand their story, and what makes them unique and special. Recognize what is unique and special within yourself and wear that as your badge of glory and wear it with confidence. As a community, we can recognize the barriers that exist when people and positions of privilege aren’t able to reach those they claim to be serving. As people, we can commit to working better together. Let’s all level out a bit, get off our high horses, and walk together. It’s not that hard to do.

 “What we’ve got here is ability communicate.”

I encourage you to keep the Captain from Cool Hand Luke’s soundbite in your head, just like I do. When you feel like things are going off the rails, consider what has happened within your communication. Do you know who you are communicating with? Is your message being heard? Are you hearing theirs? Does trust exist? Are we truly communicating? You may just come out on top if you start from that place.