Tanya De Mello – Community Builder. Humanitarian. Mobilizer
Whenever people find out that I have worked in the United Nations and I have worked in war-torn countries, with refugees all over the world, the first question they want to know is: “How did you end up at the UN? Tell me how to get there. I am dying to get there, just give me a tip.”
So that is what I am here to talk about to you today. Not exactly how to end up at the UN, but how you can end up doing what you were meant to do, what you want to do, and what you should be doing. But before I can answer that, when people ask me how I ended up at the UN, I need to tell them why I ended up there, why I do the work that I do, why I want to work with people in emergency and in devastating situations.
So I start with this story: when I was a little kid, my mother took my brother and I to a musical. Our family didn’t have a lot of money, so this was a really big deal. It was “Les Misérables.” And I remember the costumes, the singing, and the theater. It was the most exciting night of my life. My brother and I were like little kids on Christmas Eve: we were giggling, singing, and fidgeting in our seats. I remember that, at the end of the night, it was a really cold January night, we sort of giddily darted off to our car to get in to go home. And we turned around, and my mom was just sauntering across the parking lot nice and slowly.
So we started yelling, “Hurry up, hurry up! Let us in, we’re cold!” When she finally got to the car, she looks at us and says, “What’s the problem?” We said, “Mom, it’s January, we are cold, open up the door!” She said, “Are you cold?” We said, “Yeah, we’re freezing, let us in!” She looked at us, and she said, “Can you imagine that somebody has to sleep outside tonight?” And it just hit me like a ton of bricks. I couldn’t believe that I’d been singing, dancing, and having the time of my life, while somebody was braving that winter cold. I think that is why I do the work I do.
Because I cannot reconcile that I have such a good life and so much fortune, while people right beside me, not in some far-off country, are struggling so much. When people ask me how do I get a job at the UN, I tell them to worry less about getting a job at the UN, and to do those small things that have meaning in your life, because even if you don’t end up at the UN, you’ll be making a really meaningful contribution. So that is my first tip: do something.
While the idea of going off to another country traipsing around and saving the world is something that we romanticize, most of us can’t really do that. I am always surprised when we talk about people like Mother Teresa, a woman who literally picked children up out of gutters right before they were dying. We are all so inspired and so moved, but none of us can really imagine doing that for our whole lives. So what do we do? We make her a saint, and because we can’t do everything she does, we do nothing. I think that is our biggest problem: because we can’t do everything, we do nothing at all. So I guess my first tip is to do something, something small and meaningful in your community; and I can promise you, it’ll turn into something bigger.
My favorite example of this is of the Secretary General of Doctors Without Borders. Her name is Marine Buissonniere. When I first met her, this woman wowed me. She was bright, she was full of character and personality, she was extremely effective, and she was the fiercest and most passionate advocate I’ve ever met. We became friends, and after a little while, I had to ask the proverbial question, “How do you end up a secretary-general of Doctors Without Borders?” So she told me her story.
She said that, when she was young and living in France, she got a little restless, so she decided she would try something new. She traveled to China, she liked it, it was something different and fun, and eventually, she opened a small little pastry shop, where she would sell French pastries and breads to local people. She was happy living in this little community. She learned fluent Mandarin and was living a happy life.
One day, a young boy from a group of street youth came to speak to her. He asked her if she wouldn’t mind at the end of the day, if there were a couple of pieces of bread or pastries left, if some of the boys that were street youth could have them. Marine stopped. She knew that, if she said yes that day, she would have to give these boys what was left over everyday. But she did it.
At first, she started giving them what was left over at the end of the day, but within a few weeks, she decided she could maybe make a couple of extra sandwiches for them. She got to know them better, and one night she said, “I wouldn’t mind if you slept under the stoop of my store at night, because nobody is there anyways, it wouldn’t bother me.”
Then, within a few weeks, she decided they could sleep inside the store, because no one was using it at night. As she got to know them better, she realized they had never done anything wrong, they just had really difficult pasts and bad fortune. So what she wanted to do was get them some sort of small apartment that they could maybe stay in in the evenings. She went to all the local organizations in the community to see if she could get some funding. One of them was Doctors Without Borders.
Now, they didn’t have funds to give her, but they were so moved by her passion and her love for these kids, they thought they could find her something else. They happened to need someone who spoke fluent French and fluent Mandarin to help them with some of the emergency needs that they had in the community. Marine started working with them, and 12 years later when I met her, she was the Secretary General of Doctors Without Borders. She didn’t get there by potting her resume with all of these impressive achievements. She just did something small, and more importantly, she did something that she loved.
Contribute in your own way
That brings me to my second tip: contribute in your own way. Nobody else’s but yours. I am so saddened nowadays when I see that the way we’re training young people is to follow some calculated recipe that will lead to this inevitable and wonderful end goal. Somebody says they want to go to med school, we say, “Well, start tutoring or volunteer in your local hospital. Do whatever you can so they know you are really excited about doing it.” And I think these are all great things and they do end up getting you to that end goal, but sometimes I worry about that when you get to that end goal, you might find out it wasn’t what you really wanted in the first place.
Larry Smith, who will be speaking later and is one of my favorite professors at the University of Waterloo, said something to me that changed my life. He said, “You better love what you do, because I guarantee you cannot compete with the person beside you that reads about business trends, or health statistics, or human resources on their weekends in their leisure time for fun.”