Building a career working with Indigenous communities as a non-Indigenous person
In the last three weeks, I have been asked by six different people what’s it’s like to work with Indigenous communities as a non-Indigenous person. Am I accepted? Is there pushback? Why do I do it? I would normally start out by saying, for close to 10 years, I have worked with Indigenous people and communities all over BC who had a common goal – to feel empowered to communicate meaningfully and powerfully to others. Then carry on to say, my team of all-womxn are motivated to create higher levels of success for our clients by providing the tools and support to empower, motivate and communicate.
Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Did I get your attention? Was my explanation meaningful? Ya, it was pretty flat to me too. What I have learned in nearly 10 years of doing this type of work is that lip service will get you nowhere. My 7th-grade teacher, Mr Feldman used to say to us, say what you mean, mean what you say and say what you are going to do. So here it is, Mr Feldman – I am going to say what I really mean here.
First layer – I do this work, not for the so-called bragging rights and not to identify as someone who is woke or all-knowing. I do this work because I was born to a refugee and an immigrant (settlers to Canada) who left behind their countries and culture to create a better life for their children. They gave up their identity and everything they knew and, in the process, lost the power of their voice, and I lost my connection to culture. No way of speaking to my dad in his first language and no way of recreating my mother’s traditional foods because my parents hid in a time they felt they had no other choice. I did not know I was brown until I was 11 years old, and I was embarrassed—the reason I did not discover until later in my 20s. So, through this work, I am able to connect with those who are also doing the work to reconnect with, preserve and celebrate their culture. This work is healing.
Through this work, I am able to connect with those who are also doing the work to reconnect with, preserve and celebrate their culture.
Second layer – I grew up in a controlled environment. Although I was disconnected from much of my culture, my parents imposed strict restrictions on our day-to-day lives. I was told what courses I would take in school, how to dress, who to be friends with and at one point, who to marry. Leaving my home in my early 20s, I was ready to leave behind the person I used to be. The person who, at the age of 8, told her friends she wanted to be a neurologist when she grew up. I do the work I do for those who grew up in a similar controlled environment who are working to find their voice once again or discover, in fact, they have one. This work is empowering.
I do the work I do for those who are working to find their voice once again or discover, in fact, they have one.
Third layer – The deepest reason I’ve reached to date. I am not quite ready to talk about this one yet, but I will very soon.
Other reasons – I have widely spoken about my ancestors on my father’s side as being one of the original tribes of Kurdistan. To this day, they are working to reclaim their rights to land that was stolen from them.
To answer the other questions, yes, we have been called out by members and overlooked by potential clients for being non-Indigenous and labelled as individuals with no capacity to understand cultural protocols. To that I say, we don’t assume to know, but we are here to listen, learn and co-create. Although there is much work to be done, we value and appreciate being welcomed into communities so that reconciliation is not just a word we throw around, but rather the essence of the work we do.
The last four years of owning a business that is deeply rooted in meaning, purpose and intention has taught me many things about myself. I better understand the driving force behind it all, and I am ready to do more, speak more and continue to do the hard work to empower those who feel they don’t have power.
More on that to come.