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.”
A few years later, I am sitting with my best friend on the side of a lake. It is really quiet, we are on vacation. He is in Human Resources. He pulls out of his backpack this magazine and starts droning on and on to me about the wonders of e-recruiting. I literally couldn’t believe it. He was reading about his career in Human Resources on the weekend for fun.
So here is how you contribute in your own way: you find what you love doing, what you are good at, and you use that to contribute to your community. Here is another example I love. You have all heard about Doctors Without Borders, most of us know that organization. How many of you have heard about the organization Clowns Without Borders? I swear to you this exists. It is a group of people in North America that go to war-torn countries, into refugee camps, and literally serve as clowns. Having worked in these areas, when I first heard about this organization, I was baffled. All I could think was, “What these people need is food and shelter. They don’t need clowns traipsing into their community.”
And then I read and learned more about what they do. One of the things that struck me the most when I worked in these countries and areas was working with malnourished children. When kids are so malnourished, when they are that malnourished, they don’t have energy or any vitality. And no matter what you do, you can’t get a reaction out of these kids. So you tickle them, you take them on plane rides, you tell jokes, you act crazy, and you cannot get children who are that malnourished to laugh. And these clowns come in, they put on a red nose, and they bring laughter into these communities.
And more than that, when you look at the results, you learn that they’re building self-esteem in children, they are involving children in theater, getting them to speak. They are building community, and if nothing else, for a few short moments, they are bringing laughter. So that is what I say: that if you can start somewhere and contribute in your own way, it will make a difference.
Make sincere connections
My third tip is, that in order to do all of this, you need to make sincere connections to people, to the community, to the Earth. I think that most people that are here today want to dedicate some of their time to doing something, but don’t really know where to start or how to get started. And so I say: pick something that you are genuinely connected to, and it’ll grow.
Here is my story. When I was an undergrad at the University of Waterloo, I was part of an organization called Habitat for Humanity. So what we do is, on the weekends every once in a while, we would go and help to build homes for people who couldn’t afford them. And I have to tell you while I loved the concept of putting a house up that somebody could live in, the best part was the amazing people that I met. So this group of people decided we would participate in a collegiate build. The collegiate build is when students decide that instead of going crazy on March break in some exotic area, they’re actually going to commit to a week of service.
Our group went to New Orleans. We spent a week building houses, having fun, working really, really hard, but most importantly, when we were down there, we were allowed to build with the people that would actually live in those houses. We got to know them, hear their stories, and I’d say, become friends.
Ten years later, I’m starting my Master’s in International Development at Princeton. I’m so excited, I feel like a little kid in a candy shop again. And I’m there at the orientation meeting with all of these amazing people, and Hurricane Katrina hits the Gulf Coast and devastates New Orleans. I remember watching the images on TV of people that I had met, people that I felt I knew, literally drowning. Once again, I couldn’t reconcile the fact that I was running off to picnics, meeting all these great people, staying up all night, and people in the country I was living were literally dying right beside me. And I decided I had to do something. I couldn’t give up my Master’s, but I knew I could give a week.
So during my break at school, I decided I would go down there. A bunch of students found out I was going and decided they would come with me. We didn’t really know what we were going to do, but we knew we could give our hands. So we get down there all excited and at first, we are kind of just twiddling our thumbs. We start working in some local soup kitchens and asking around saying that we are energetic and excited to work. When people see that we are serious, they start to give us tasks.
Before we know, we are helping people clean out their flooded homes, we set up a makeshift Medical Center, we worked heavily in a soup kitchen, and we were handing out blankets and food. A local organization noticed us and asked us if we could conduct surveys of the survivors. So we went around and asked dozens of survivors what it was that they needed most, and we went to their local governments and asked them to provide those needs.
One woman saw the work I was doing, and she came up to me and asked me what organization I was with. I said, “I’m just a student. I’m only here for a week.” We started talking, and she said that she was moved by my passion and my ability to organize, and that she could see me as somebody working in emergency relief. I didn’t even know that was a career.
And a year later, I found myself at the United Nations, not really knowing how I got there. So I can’t tell you how to get a job at the UN, but I can give you three tips to do meaningful work. The first is to do something. The second is to contribute in your own way. And the third, and I think most important, is to make sincere connections.
I want to end by sharing the most important lesson I’ve learned. I think it’s going to surprise you. In a lot of these talks, and including the stories I’ve given, we talk about people that started with these little things, and they all became these grand endeavors, but I actually think the little things are the ends in themselves. And I think that what is important is that no matter where it ends up, if you do something meaningful, it will matter. I know how busy you are as students, and I know how right now and most times, you feel pulled in a million directions, but you will never be less busy than you are today, I promise you. You will have jobs, you’ll have families, you will have pets, houses, and cars, and so many things that will be pulling you in a million more directions.
So whatever you’re going to do, big or small, it needs to be today. You know that best friend I told you about in Human Resources? Many years ago, when I was working at Covenant House Shelter, he came to see some of the work I was doing. He was so inspired I could work with street youth, and by the work that the shelter does, but he said it just wasn’t him; he didn’t know if he’d feel comfortable, or if he’d say the wrong thing, it just didn’t seem like his environment. But soon enough, he came more and more, and about once a month, he started running a class for the youth. He taught them how to write resumes, he taught them how to interview, he taught them how to get jobs in the city. He used his skills in human resources to help in that situation.
And years after I left Covenant House, he was still working there. It’s now ten years later, and my friend helps people in organizations all over Toronto: new immigrants, elderly people, people with very little means to write better resumes, to interview better so that they can work to feed their families. He didn’t leave his full-time job, it’s just something he does every once in a while when he has time.
When I started working for the UN, I had these big visions. I thought I’d be in a plane dropping packages of food onto people who needed or at some big, amazing negotiating table as the lead ambassador, but I don’t think that my future is at the UN. Turns out my mom got sick, and my dad got much older, and all of a sudden, I find myself wanting kids and a family, and wanting to have roots for the first time. I see my future in Toronto today. I know that, even if I don’t end up at the UN, I will find some small way to make a contribution to my community. It may not make it on the front page of the paper, but I promise you that it’ll matter.
Let me ask you this: if I could give you all half an hour more this week, but I said to you that you have to use that half an hour to help somebody else or to help something you’re passionate about – the environment or animals – if I told you you could use it to write a letter to your grandma, to help somebody struggling in school, to teach a kid in your neighborhood how to play basketball, what would you do? What would you do if I told you that you could never put it on your resume and you could never tell anybody else that you did it? What would you do that has meaning to you?
I challenge you to do that this week. Actually, I challenge you to do it today. And I promise you that if you do, that step will make the difference. In fact, it was Mother Teresa who said, “Do not try to do great things. Just do small things with great love.” Thank you.
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