One month ago today, on September 24, 2018, I was honoured with an Alumni Horizon Award from the University of Alberta. The prestigious award was a surprise as I was nominated by the Dean of Arts and is a once-in-a-lifetime award meant to provide recognition for outstanding community work and positive contributions to society.

While I am on a research and writing sabbatical in Morocco, I requested that my family, friends and colleagues still attend the ceremony as my mother would be accepting the award on my behalf – and they did. Some of my closest family members, friends and people I am blessed to work with spent the day just thinking about me and loving me. For someone with a history of mental illness and negative self-talk, it is unbelievable to me that folks would do that while I was 10,000km away – some even taking the day off work!  It was an incredible day of jubilant celebration and support from people of all walks of life who I am blessed to know. And that could be felt all the way in a little village north of Marrakech where I am currently staying.

I have been humbled by the award and want to reflect on it a bit. I genuinely feel that I share it with every amazing person I have been blessed to do community work with: from my committee with Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council to the advisory crew with the Chester Ronning Center for the Study of Religion and Public Life, from the amazing fundraising team with the Young Indigenous Circle of Leadership Cree Women’s Camp to every interfaith leader and community organizer I have been blessed to meet. My colleagues in the Department of History and Classics at the University of Alberta, along with fellow researchers at the Tessellate Institute and the Institute for Religious and Socio-Political Studies all share this honour with me.

I know that these awards are not always what they seem and I was (and remain) hesitant about accepting it from an institution I have benefited from but am ultimately concerned about in terms of its exploitation of folks with excessive tuition rates and underpaid intellectual labour, and especially for its often tokenistic/abusive treatment of Indigenous and Black folks I know directly. I always hesitate when a large neoliberal institution values what I am doing because it might mean that I am fitting a convenient narrative about brokering social change in ways that are merely superficial and don’t get at the deep structural violence implicit in the system itself. I am terrified of the implications of that and of being complicit in the systems that benefit me above others for no other reason than the social positionings I was born into. I am mindful of my privilege as a white convert to Islam in being recognized and amplified when so many of my merited siblings and kin of colour are not.

Ultimately, this award has never been about me. It is about the work and about the people I am privileged to share dignified spaces with as a result of that work. I can’t think of many people I have met and worked with who haven’t influenced me or taught me wisdoms beyond even what they imagine they do. This is our award and I pray that it serves to remind other people about the types of work we can do when we come together. Above all, I wish that it will inspire other people to build more spaces of social change and justice – ones that are unapologetically critical in all the right ways. And for the person who feels like they want to suck back the very last dregs of despair before seeking oblivion, it is my desire that this kind of recognition makes its way to you and serves as a source of hope – as those I have served are a continuous source of hope for me.

Much love,

Nakita

Read Nakita’s award feature in New Trail Alumni Magazine or an article profiling her work from the Faculty of Arts.

Some of you might have heard of analytical writing in academia. If your major was anywhere near the humanities or social sciences, chances are that writing analytically was instilled in you through countless edits and thorough comments from your instructors. Maybe you even took a writing class. However, when the memories of your alma mater start to fade, so do the analytical skills you thought were instilled in you.

If there is one valuable writing tip I picked up in school, it’s that your mind has the unique capacity to interpret facts, merge ideas, and uncover patterns that can make your voice– channeled through writing – authentic. Whether you dabble in fiction writing, work in communications, or wordsmith for pleasure, an analytical text will help you and your reader get more meaning out of words, nurturing a better understanding of the reality around us.

Writing analytically involves peering at the world and asking questions. It’s about connecting the dots, capturing diversity, and challenging biases. The highly-coveted skill of making sense of information and facts will always rank above other communication skills. As we’re getting bombarded with terabytes of data, our brains need to interpret it before sending calls to action. An analytical piece takes you on a journey towards deeper understanding of a topic that goes beyond mere facts.

Analytical writing is a symphony. Let your writing be a platform where ideas collide and coalesce. Collect data, voices, and opinions to fill in the gaps and capture a full picture. Don’t slip into judgement as your learn about new traditions, people, and cultures.

Analytical writing is revealing. Look for the intricate, minute details, compare facts, dates, and numbers to uncover implicit connections. Oftentimes, single numbers and dates don’t say much to the reader. But they might speak volumes when compared or contrasted with a larger corpus of data.

An analytical text asks questions. Why is the topic you’re developing important? How does it fit into the bigger picture? How does it impact our lives? Why should the reader care?

Analytical writing is critical. Challenge your thought to shy away from biases and assumptions. Keep your heart, mind, and writing open.

Analytical writing is a muscle that you can flex and stretch. Follow these tips before your tackle a new writing project:

  • Think of the sources you’re interviewing or researching – do they offer diversity? Are they reliable? How far from your set of beliefs are they placed?
  • Wrap your factual information in a context. Bare facts alone might not always make the most sense to the reader. Gather context, compare and contrast your numbers and dates to offer possible interpretations.
  • Tame your judgement as much as you can for as long as you can. Walk the reader through your thought process before making any conclusions. Remaining completely subjective might not be realistic; equally covering diverse opinions and approaches before stating your opinion is.

Your unique way of making sense of facts, information, ideas – topped off with a firm grasp of the English language – makes your writing stand out. And this will never go out of style because a riveting story and quality writing will always be in demand, no matter what audience you’re serving.


Screenshot_20181023-160649Olga Ivanova is an Edmonton-based communications professional and writer with a knack for storytelling.

It has been awhile since I wrote and something important has been weighing on my mind as a result of some of the things I am seeing in the realms of activism, anti-racism work and community organizing:  growing concerns about the effect of classism on our ability to advocate properly and bring about necessary changes.

It took me a long time to realize that a lot of the issues and inertia I have been witnessing/experiencing in community-organizing stem from the fact that many of the people I worked with in the past are upper-middle class or rich. And as a result of their class privilege and other factors, upper class advocates have also managed to avoid experiencing traumatic incidents in their lives one way or another. In fact, being surrounded by non-traumatized, cisgender, heterosexual, middle class men who are the dominant ethnic group in the communities I am serving has opened my eyes to just how stark the disconnect can be between them and the communities they claim to serve. And it has also opened my eyes to see just how out-of-reach power is for the folks who do not embody those social positionalities.

While I definitely and undeniably have my own privileges as a cisgender white woman that I absolutely acknowledge and try to leverage at every possible avenue, I have noticed that my perceptions differ greatly from a lot of folks in community who have the economic leg-up that myself and others lack.

THE PROBLEM

There is a big problem with organizations, houses of worship and other entities that do not hold regular elections for their boards. These groups tend to recruit within their own class and it creates a snowball effect where everyone on a board start to look the same because they have the same privileges. It not only stems from a lack of access to different people, but a general unwillingness to break outside of those bubbles in order to “remain effective.” You see, rich folks recruit other rich folks because they have the resources and the connections they need to do “great things” –  great being relative in the eyes of their immediate peers, rather than in relation to the people who really need great social change.

What follows from this is also a conscious rejection of the term activism/activist for the allegedly more civil moniker of advocate. I myself naively listened to this advice in the past and now reject it for its classist roots. Activists are folks who hold demonstrations, protests and rallies because they may not have access to the same meetings and consultations with power that advocates do. Their approach is not inherently “bad” – in fact, it is historically more effective because it doesn’t rely on politics of civility and respectability while pushing for what amounts to the status quo in the same way that many rich advocates do. As a Muslim, I’m going to have the adverb “radical” applied to me against my will anyway, so why not at least make some real change with it?

The myth that people of lower economic statuses do not have as much time to serve their communities also pervades and perpetuates these practices. In fact, folks with the lowest incomes are often much more acutely aware of social issues tied to structural violence such as systemic racism and neo-liberal economic policies because they actually live it: they know how hard it is to break those systems and how easy it is to be broken by them. They have more experience with issues of labour disputes and exploitation, homelessness, addiction and other related conditions – or they know people directly who do. Such folks can be organizing in their own way but it is less visible because it might be more radical (and therefore less widely accepted) than typical liberal approaches to combating social issues such as pat-on-the-back certified sensitivity training for people who think racism is an individual problem or charity work to combat homelessness (instead of, say, pushing to just give people houses).

The other problem is that class-based issues seem invisible to so-called middle class* and rich folks because how they physically move through the world is different. I can’t tell you how many times upper-class hijabis have told me that they have never experienced Islamophobia when they might be folks who drive their kids to school in their cars, head to their office and then pick up their click and collect groceries – all the while unaware of what people like me have to deal with taking public transit daily. And I have it easier than my sisters of colour or Indigenous folks in public spaces, so that’s saying a lot! To compound the issue, many of these upper class folks are unwilling to hear about the experiences of others or don’t create spaces to do so and as a result, people get exhausted from trying.

*The middle class is largely an artificial social category occupied by poor folks who have accrued major debt to maintain a lifestyle widely-recognized to be the middle way.

SOME POTENTIAL SOLUTIONS

I don’t have the answers and this is just an off-the-cuff reflection more than anything. Nothing fancy here, but I do have some reflections based on my experience that I think could help bring some change to our communities in light of this rampant issue.

Active Listening: If you are a community advocacy group and you are not conducting surveys, attending town hall meetings of community groups, or holding listening sessions to hear the grievances of the people you claim to serve in an organized and intentional way, you’re only serving your own interests. Now, kind-hearted folks might come at me and tell me not to be suspicious of peoples’ intentions and my answer to that is: I’m not. Someone from a higher class can want to do the best for their communities, but if they don’t know what their communities actually need, aren’t taking the initiative to find out, and aren’t leveraging their vast amount of privilege to then transmit those needs to the state or other bodies of change and assistance, then it doesn’t really matter what your intention is if your impact is null. Create spaces (with food) for people to come forward and talk about their concerns. Consult key organizers of lower classes doing work within their own communities (and pay them!) Attend rallies, demonstrations and other events where people will be discussing community organizing work and open your ears there.

Giving up seats at the table: No, not just one seat. Plenty of seats. Maybe step back and let someone else take the lead in your organization for a while, rather than just serving as a token poor person for the sake of so-called diversity. Make yourself uncomfortable by giving up some of your comfort and helping support and uplift someone else’s vision of justice for a while, lending expertise and advice where it will help with being more effective, but without taking everything over all the time.

Fund, amplify and labour the work of lower class folks. If you have money and you aren’t doing this, that’s a problem. Period. Redistribute the wealth.

Check your intentions and leverage your privilege. If you are unwilling to listen, learn, leverage and amplify other-classed voices, it’s time to sit back and think about why you are doing what you are doing and just who is giving you permission to do it. It isn’t enough to work behind the scenes without credit if the work you are doing continues to not serve the most oppressed members of society. Activists can easily build their own personality cults, even in the shadows, and obtain tons of funding for work that never gets to the heart of social matters – it is something that must be actively resisted if we are to see our communities actively healing, made safe and ultimately thriving in the long run.


16265681_10154323322850753_2679466403133227560_nNakita Valerio is an award-winning writer, academic, and community organizer based in Edmonton, Canada.

Since our brand relaunch in Spring 2018, we have been busy beyond belief with a variety of exciting and interesting jobs in the world of digital marketing, writing and editing. Sometimes it is a good thing to take a step back and look at everything you have accomplished, especially in quantifiable terms so without further ado, here is a little list of (most) of the new work we have been up to:

  • Built and launched a freelance translator’s website, social media and blog
  • Built and launched (this week!) a highly complex website for a non-profit association that includes a dynamic searchable directory of site members and global content restriction based on a member’s subscription plan
  • Built and launched a new website for a different non-profit association that included brand development and a membership function
  • Wrote 80 articles for a new client in the Caribbean to begin populating their 2 blogs with content and have established an ongoing relationship to continue to fill their content in using inbound marketing techniques
  • Edited a 235-page master’s thesis on the Syrian civil war
  • Mailed 823 print marketing material packages for a non-profit association and sent to relevant
  • Edited 7 scholarly articles written by a Professor Emeritus in their area of historical research
  • Wrote 6 editions of a religio-cultural newsletter for print and web publication
  • Ghost-wrote two articles for a client
  • Published one major research study with The Tessellate Institute and IRGS
  • Wrote 8 new articles for The Drawing Board blog (with 4 more set to be up before November!)
  • Wrote 12,000+ words for Nakita’s non-fiction memoir project and patron blogs
  • Participated in 7 media interviews
  • Delivered 4 keynote addresses
  • Delivered 5 public anti-racism talks
  • Edited a memoir writing pitch for a global influencer
  • Took part in one 5-week intensive non-fiction writing course for Professional Development
  • Received one major community recognition award
  • Signed up for NaNoWriMo 2018 – add Nakita (nvalerio) if you are doing it too!

It has been an exceptionally busy time and we couldn’t be happier than to support writers, businesses and academics in everything they endeavor to do while serving our communities and making our own art too!

Bring on the rest of 2018 and in to 2019!

Much love,

Nakita

The notion of “inspiration” is exciting, romantic and, well, inspiring. Our mythologies of creativity tell us that the right synchronicity of circumstances will spark not only The Idea that will change everything, but the will and ability to execute it. In reality, sitting around waiting for inspiration to “strike” is about as effective as waiting for actual lightning to strike and start your campfire. Inspiration can be cultivated and sought out, though.

Creativity doesn’t happen in a vacuum, no matter how much consistent work and practice one puts in. It is the encounters and experiences that excite, intrigue and teach us that generate and motivate creativity. Sudden, striking ideas do happen – but they don’t come out of nowhere, they are the result of a long-simmering idea suddenly coalescing as the last piece falls into place. To be creative, go out into the world and seek out inspiration. This can take any form you like, from getting back to the land and nature, to delving into works of philosophy for new ideas. Inspiration is all the little pieces of life that keep you motivated and keep you thinking until The Idea finally coalesces (or, more likely, is finally forced into being like molding a stiff piece clay.)

Do not shy away from engaging with others’ works of creativity as a source of inspiration. Far from tainting the authenticity of your creative expression with influence, others’ art can be a great source of inspiration. Most peoples’ original inspiration to become a writer, artist or any other creative was probably someone else’s work. Don’t be afraid to revisit that original inspiration in times of low motivation.

Art exists to provoke emotional and intellectual responses and to expose new ideas and perspectives, all of which are the essence of inspiration. In a sense, art is a short cut to inspiration! Whatever kind of creative you are, try to be open to what all kinds of creativity can teach you – visual art, performance, music, literature, digital arts….

A risk of relying on others’ art to inspire you in periods of low motivation and inspiration is that witnessing the peak of others’ creative process may stir up insecurity and fear. The doubting voice inside might just say “Well I can’t do that, so why bother…” The gulf between where you see yourself and where you want to be may become stark and intimidating. Remember that inspiration is also about learning. Look at work that you admire, or consider “better” than yours, as something to learn from rather than envy. What is it that you see in that work that seems to be missing from your work and how can you develop that missing piece? What technique and craft does that artist use that you can learn? If inadequacy and fear clouds inspiration, focus on learning and honing your craft.

Creativity requires consistent work, but it also needs to be nurtured with inspiration. Fortunately, creatives do not need to passively await inspiration: they can go out and find it. Part of the work of creativity is spending time immersed in others’ creativity, looking for the little pieces that will build and motivate your own.

 


IMG_20180718_115103_621Elisabeth Hill is an Edmonton-based writer and researcher who currently works as a Programming and Engagement Coordinator at the Art Gallery of Alberta.

Trauma is used both to describe distressing events and the human reaction that occurs afterward. It is not simply one singular horrific event in time. It is a series of outcomes that affect every part of one’s being. Reasons for trauma can be large – Holocaust, wars, Residential Schools, internment camps. Trauma can also result from “smaller” experiences – the death of a loved one, a rejection from a friend, a breakup, a car accident. How someone reacts to such events are individual – and the physical, emotional, and spiritual reactions are not usually within our control.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a collection of symptoms that one may develop after a distressing event(s). These symptoms include: re-experiencing the event, avoiding reminders of the event, negative thoughts or feelings, and hyper-arousal. PTSD is a formal diagnosis for intense emotional pain. But what is it like to really live with the effects of trauma, big or small?

“PTSD is a whole-body tragedy, an integral human event of enormous proportions with massive repercussions.”  ― Susan Pease Banitt

I have heard the following from survivors, paraphrased in my own word:. living with trauma is like not living your own life, like not being in your own body; a sense of floating; a sense of complete numbness;  a feeling as though your body is always on alert, as if it will never truly relax. The body is constantly in flight or fight mode, something that one gets very used to living with. Life becomes sped up, or slowed right down, as if walking through sludge. It becomes an existence colored by the quickness and vulnerability of life, and the reality and permanence of death, sometimes leading to the question of “what’s the point?” asked over and over again. Guilt comes easily, trust becomes impossible. One turns to drugs or alcohol to try and numb it all out, or to try to feel outside of the numbness. A life is truly changed.

But what happens when you experience these symptoms, but you are not aware of any traumatic events that have happened to you? Because trauma gets inherited in more ways than one, you may look beyond your past, and to your parent’s pasts, and even to the lives of your grandparents.

The well-known form of passing trauma on is through the way we are parented. The way we are parented as children can form the basis for what we are like as adults. If our parents experienced trauma and are living with symptoms like those listed above, it may affect one’s ability to be fully present as a parent. Moreover, if our trauma is directly from our parents, then we are likely to use the same harsh parenting style on our own children.

But here is the fascinating part. We can also pass on our trauma through our genes, not only our behaviours. Relatively new discoveries in the world of genetics have created a new field of study called Epigenetics. This is the study of the mechanisms that switch our genes on or off, or even alter genes completely without changes being made to our underlying DNA sequence. There are triggers in our environment that will determine if that pesky allergy gene we inherited from Dad will actually be expressed, or if that ability to be social and outgoing that we inherited from mom will be turned off. Backing up a generation or two, the genes that may have been altered in Mom or Dad, Grandma or Grandpa, due to their trauma, can be passed on to a developing fetus. Studies examining children of trauma survivors show that PTSD symptoms, such as nightmares, will manifest under stress, which is linked to inherited trauma through epigenetics.

A very relevant example of how we see this affect our society is in Residential School survivors. Many children today who have not been in Residential Schools, but have parents or grandparents who have attended these schools, are suffering from PTSD-like symptoms that have been inherited.

The good news is that epigenetic changes do not have to permanent. Remember, what you are exposed to in life, and how you design your children’s environment will affect if these genes are expressed or not. Moreover, trauma is overcome, through hard work, perseverance, and allowing trusted human beings to help us undo the responses that have occurred as a result of other human beings. We can heal our relational hurts relationally – in fact, there is some evidence this might be the best way. Everyday cycles can be broken, PTSD can be healed, family legacies can be changed, and genes can be switched. Compassion for this process is paramount.


20181009_113447Erin Newman is a therapist by day, and a writer by night. She is also a parent, student, advocate, artist, and teacher.