What is your name and role at DIVERSEcity?
Tahzeem Kassam, my role is the Chief Operating Officer.
How long have you been working at DIVERSEcity?
Can you tell me about your journey here?
I started on June 4 1996 as a part-time, 17.5 hour Volunteer Coordinator. Being a settlement agency our role was to support newcomers in understanding civic engagement through volunteering. I did that for awhile, then because of how funding was shifting, we started really looking at how to change and expand the program delivery, and we started to look at other funding to find a way to sustain some of the work we were doing. In 2000 after I had come back from a 6 month maternity leave, things had changed. At that point, the government had shifted and we didn’t really have funding. My role then changed dramatically because I didn’t really have a volunteer coordinator job anymore. I came back and worked with the agency in a different capacity which was much more administrative. Before, I was working directly with newcomers who were wanting to settle and were using volunteering to get connections and employment references. Now, in both my part-time capacities I was doing a lot of administrative, management, and paper work but no direct service work. It was quite the shock to the system. It took a little bit of adjusting to for sure, and it took awhile to find the passion in that type of work. In 2004 I came back from my second maternity leave. By that point I was heavily involved in the management of program areas. I was overseeing settlement. I then moved to Director of Resources. I stayed in that for a year and a half. It wasn’t just a big job, but it was also my first go at senior management. It was a brand new job, no one really did it before. Stepping into that and it being new, there was internal dynamics and lots of different factors. There was the open tendering of contracts: all of our settlement and ELSA contracts were being put out to tender instead of being renewed. There was stress on the organization as the majority of programs were going through that process. Managers reporting to me were relatively new through the process and the sector, generally, was going a little haywire. We lost some contracts and it was a very big, heavy year. About a year and a half into that job I took a leave for about a year. When I left an HR position was created, and program oversight directors were created over time. In April 2014 we went back to federal government contracts, which is very different from the provincial government. When we were preparing our proposals under their contracting model, it became quite clear that we were not going to be able to sustain the number of senior management positions. We had a shift in our structure which resulted in our current model, and where I am today.
What inspired you to work here or why do you do what you do?
When I did my first degree at SFU, about halfway through I realized it wasn’t for me. I had an interest in multiculturalism and integration and biculturality but at that time, in the early 90s, there were no real program streams to study that stuff. I decided a degree in psychology wasn’t going to hurt me, so continued the program and completed it. I did co-op and I also gave myself a year to find a career/path in what I as interested in. I graduated in October of 1995 and started here on June 4 1996. I actually got a job with a person I did an informational interview with! My sister connected me with a few people she did consulting with. She mentioned to me that there was going to be a posting for a volunteer coordinator position. I think why I’m still in it – I’ve said to people over course of time, I’m not doing same thing year after year. I’m still learning things, so why would I leave? Just because I’ve been here for a long time is not a reason to leave. It’s an ever-changing environment. From a big picture we’ve always provided similar programs and the needs don’t change dramatically, but there are still variations and the days are never really the same. I feel like at DIVERSEcity, we really keep the end game in mind. We aren’t just about today. I feel like we’re always thinking about how we can make this better for the client, and thinking about how we can get outcomes for the clients that will move them forward. I think that’s what keeps me working here as opposed to somewhere where I come in, do the job, and go home. I feel like we are small enough to keep somewhat grounded in our geographic region, and to the clients we serve. We’re small enough to keep that present.
How do you spend most of your work time?
I do a lot of meetings and emails. In those those meetings and through emails, I do a lot of traffic control and innovative problem solving. In my capacity as the Chief Operating Officer, I see a lot of potential where x and y should talk. There’s strategic thinking around that. Who else should be involved with this? Who is the potential funder? What’s coming down the pipeline? In problem solving – given the new role as the Chief Operating Officer and the current structure, I can’t literally be in the minutia of the work that mangers do now that I’m seeing 9 or 10 of them. Often I see myself as the point person when managers get stuck. I’m the one thinking outside the box to help overcome the roadblocks in the way of the work that people need to do. I help put puzzle pieces together to get a full picture.
What advice do you have for your immigrants or refugees?
My advice to people would be to not forget their dream. I think that people come here with really high expectations and hopes for what their life will be like here. I know people arrive and it’s so not what they thought it was going to be. It’s very difficult for people to accept that and figure that out. Even if things never get exactly where they thought they would be, my advice is to not just give it up completely. It does get better and it’ll get better if you keep holding on to that dream. I guess I’m a little bit of an eternal optimist. In order to have dreams come true you have to have the vision of the dream, will never come true if lose that.
Knowing what you know now, what advice do you have for someone interested in this field?
I think it’s good to know that the not-for-profit sector is not entirely different from the business world. There are still operations to look after, there are still administrative aspects that need to be paid for, and we still need to comply with legislation. There are still business operations.
What do you find most enjoyable about your work?
I think what I enjoy is finding the pathway to success, whether it be a funding thing or how to overcome a particular obstacle in our way. I think that’s what I enjoy, discovering how we can make things work and being willing to be unconventional about how we do those things. Whether it be funding, programming or people telling us we can’t do x or you can’t do y. I enjoy finding a way to negotiate those things and finding solutions that are mutually agreeable.
What are some of the challenges?
The fluidity of contracts and negotiations. Even with 3 year contract, negotiations and changes happen every year on that contract, which is very laborious. There are questions of how do we can sustain and grow things. Sometimes it feels very difficult, like we’re not moving forward but we’re just treading water. Now, we’re pushing beyond that and we’re pushing to grow again.
What do you do outside of work and how do you de-stress?
I enjoy spending time with my kids and doing family stuff like watching movies. I have been trying to find a new work-life balance for me but I haven’t quite struck the balance yet. I’m getting better, I’m getting there, but there’s still a struggle to find that right amount of balance.
What country or city would you like to visit?
Trinidad and Tobago in Caribbean. I’ve always wanted to go there.
What books are you currently reading or read last?
The last book I attempted to read was I am Malala.
Can you share something you are proud of or a success you have had at DIVERSEcity?
My involvement with what’s now the Moving Ahead Program. It started as a different program and I feel like we [five agencies in the lower mainland] have done some good work in developing the model as the way it stands now. We provided the province with the initial model and we also gave them a lot of consultation while they were developing the current model (VIPP).
Has your job affected your lifestyle? Has it changed your outlook on life?
I’m sure it has. I think that it’s been a good relationship given who I am, how I see the world, and what I think is important. I think it’s been a good relationship between me and the work that happens here. I like to think I’ve influenced DIVERSEcity and DIVERSEcity has influenced me.
What impresses you during an interview or on a resume?
I think what impresses me is an openness to expressing a learning perspective, someone who is able to say, “I’m really good at this, but I’ve realized that I can’t do this well.” They really know that they want to pursue this level of skill development. They want to learn and they acknowledge that they aren’t perfect, and they are open to different areas of growth. In my opinion we’re always learning and we can’t stop that. If you think you know it all then you’re not aware of the things you can learn.
If there was one thing you could get the public to understand about this immigrants and refugees, what would it be?
That there is a strength and a resilience that comes from this process. Although they come here and they are newbies in their knowledge base around how we do things, they have an internal strength that those of us who don’t have that experience don’t have and will never have. Picking up and immigrating somewhere, even though you choose to do it, is not a vacation. It’s a very difficult decision, people turmoil over it. It’s not easy process practically or emotionally.
What is something interesting about yourself that you would like to share?
I used to compete in gymnastics.