Embrace the Choices Before You: Ratna Omidvar

June 28th, 2012

Embrace the Choices Before You
Convocation Address by Ratna Omidvar
President, Maytree Foundation

When Maytree President Ratna Omidvar received an honorary doctorate from Toronto’s York University earlier this month, she had the opportunity to address the graduating students and send them off with some words of advice.

She told students about the challenges she faced as a refugee in Canada and reminded them of the incredible privilege they have to exercise many choices in their lives. She encouraged them to not merely enjoy this luxury of choice, but to embrace the responsibility it offers them, to be active and take the small steps necessary to create a better world. Here is an excerpt with “five good ideas for your life.”

As you go out into the so called real world of work, you don’t need me to tell you the uncertain future you are facing. I am not a vocational counsellor. I can’t predict where the job market is headed. What I can predict is that you will be faced with many choices, and that these choices will play a far more important role in forming your future than any trends in the labour market.

You are indeed lucky. You have the privilege of exercising many choices, choices that you may well take for granted. You can go wherever you want, be whoever you want and be with whomever you want. You can choose if and who you marry or date; you can define family in your own in your own unique way. Your parents may well have something to say about this, but nobody is going to put you in jail for exercising your choice. You are the architect of your own future which is not entirely reliant on your social class to propel you forward or conversely hold you back. And you have the power to vote governments in and out as you please.

Some of you will say “Big Deal.” But, yes, these are indeed big deals.

Growing up in India in the 1950s, I didn’t have the luxury of all these choices. I was for the first two decades of my life someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, someone’s student, someone’s responsibility. And then my life changed as I chose to strike out on my own. At first, it was scary as hell, but then I tasted freedom. And claiming freedom, I made many choices, some of them foolish, like a summer I spent hitchhiking with truckers in Italy, a few of them wise. And it is from these choices I have made in this new life that I wish to draw my comments.

Some of my choices were purely coincidental or accidental. I did not set out to come to Canada; I had no intention of leaving home, until a famous revolution in Iran forced my family to look for a new home. Even then, my husband and I, who is in the room today, made a thinly researched but ultimately very smart choice – we chose Canada, and Canada chose us, over Australia (too far) and over the US (too imperialist).

Other choices were thrust on us from day one of our arrival. Almost the first choice I had to make was whether to keep my name or change it. Like all anxious immigrants, we were fixated on getting work. And an old family friend, a successful and powerful immigrant, who I thought I should take my new life lessons from said to me: “Ratna, you must change your name. It is strange and does not roll easily off Canadian tongues. It will stand in the way of getting a job. People will not remember you because they will not remember your name.”

That was serious for me. After all, I was only three days old in the country. Here was someone who had changed his name from Ashok to Ash … maybe he was right. And to be perfectly honest, I did mull it over, made up a list of names … Rhonda, Rita, Rosa … but in the end, I could not do it. My name is as much part of me as the colour of my skin, so I chose to keep it. And, yes, I do correct its pronunciation many times, but the very act of doing so reminds me of where I came from and where I am going.

My next difficult choice was my career. I qualified as a teacher of German as a second Language from Germany. But even I realized that no one in Canada would want to learn German from an Indian who had just arrived as a refugee from Iran. So I did what I felt was the only course that was open to me – I reinvented myself. I don’t say this to pretend that I had a clear formula, in fact quite the opposite.

In retrospect it felt like the game of snakes and ladders, up four, down three – I was a sales clerk selling tubes and pipes, I was an assistant to a film production company where I learnt to make the perfect cup of coffee, I tried my hand at working for a writer, I thought about becoming a real estate agent … and then one day I realized that the best career was literally staring at me in my face … and that was working in the not-for-profit world. I found incredible strength in working with and for people who were on the margins. I found wonderful mentors. One thing led to another, and my path as a social activist emerged, took shape, grew and flourished, and here I am today

So before I let you go, I thought I would leave you with five good ideas for your life, derived loosely from the lessons I have learnt. Why five? Because it’s an easy number, and if even one of them sticks with you, then I will have done my job:

1. Embrace risk with both arms. I know it is scary, but it is only by opening yourself to possibility and reality of failure that you will grow and find and reach the depths of your own capacity. And when you find them, you will be in wonder of yourself. I have learnt far more from people who have said no to me than from people who have said yes, and I know that what I don’t know is so much more important than what I do know. Remember that today you are students and teachers, but that tomorrow you may well be poets, inventors, entrepreneurs, lawyers or simply travelers. Your degree is not a formula for the future, rather it is a passport to possibilities.

2. Don’t let perfection stand in the way of good.
I often think that the pursuit of perfection in our lives holds us back from being excellent, because we are so frightened of not being perfect. There is something rigid about perfection, and it gets in the way of being good or very good. In the immediate next few months remember that there is no such thing as the perfect resume, the perfect interview or the perfect job. You can always recover from failure, but I don’t quite see how one can recover or go forward from perfection.

3. Help yourself to free advice and find a mentor.
I have a small secret list of advisors, I call them my personal board of Directors, they just don’t know they are on it. I call on them for advice, feedback, guidance, perspective. They help me see things differently and often unpack the written and unwritten rules of engagement. They have, over time, become my champions. So create your own personal board list of advisors, change the list every now and then, shake it up every now and then, and one day, because someone will have helped you, remember to pay it forward to the next person standing in line.

4. Remember the most important privilege you have: the privilege of exercising your vote. Your generation knows how to make our generation sit up and listen to: you made us sit up in York a few years ago, and we are certainly listening to you in Quebec. You are remarkably willing to walk in protest, as is your right but you are also remarkably unwilling to walk to the ballot box, as is your responsibility. Exiting from politics, leaving government and governance in the hands of my generation is not a good choice to make and works against your self-interest. My generation’s interests are in health care, home care, pensions, benefits … boring stuff for you. Yours are in the cost of education, the environment, child care, investments in the work place … and the only way the pendulum will swing is if politicians hear from you. And if you don’t like what they do, well then, the next time around, you have the power to vote them out, or run for office or create your own new party.

5. Action trumps inaction any day. We live in a world that is dedicated to describing, redescribing and re-redescribing problems, instead of progressing to imagining and implementing solutions. Winston Churchill, the man famously credited for turning the tide in the Second World War said: “I never worry about action, I worry about inaction.” If he had indeed worried about action, then our world today might look very different. I hope that you don’t have to face a war, but living in this world, you will have cause for fear, cause for hope and cause for anxiety. If you are concerned about the environment, about human rights in Afghanistan, about your local school or hospital, about Canada’s relations with the world, about growing poverty and exclusion, or anything else that twigs your fancy or strums your guitar, then translate your fears, concerns and hopes into action, imperfect as these might be. If you have an idea, then implement it, if you have a thought, put it on paper, if you have a concern, then shout out about it, if you have a solution, then test it, even if it fails. Your action may not lead to nirvana, but remember that the great work is done through small steps which create incremental change which ultimately lead to the solution.

Viola Desmond, an African Canadian teacher in Nova Scotia in 1946, refused to sit in the balcony of the theater instead of the main floor reserved for white patrons. She could see better from the main floor so that’s where she sat. The police came, put her in jail; she was not advised of her rights. Viola remained sitting upright, wearing her white gloves (a sign of sophistication and class at the time). She was charged with defrauding the Government of Nova Scotia for the difference in the tax between a ground floor and a balcony seat, which amounted to one cent. And then she took the Nova Scotia government to court.

A fascinating story of one small step that unleashed an avalanche of change.

So feel free to freak out, don’t let the nay-sayers or fear-mongerers hold you back. Keep your name, it is your personal PIN. Embrace the choices before you. Don’t take yourself too seriously; the more you are able to laugh at yourself, the happier you will be. Welcome the unknown.

This time won’t last forever, and tomorrow, thank goodness, it will be something else.

Read the full address at the Maytree website.

Related story: Inclusion Means all of Us (Ratna Omidvar)

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