Written by On Purpose London
Published: 16 Mar 2021
On Purpose London October 2019 Fellow, now Community Organiser at High Trees Community Development Trust.
Can you tell me about your background and your career prior to On Purpose?
I was a mechanical engineer in the energy industry. I worked in several sectors – nuclear, biomass, oil and gas etc. I worked in a number of roles, and a lot of them were focused on project management. At the same time, since early on, I was always involved as a volunteer in different types of activism and campaigning on issues of political and social injustice.
What are you doing now?
Since becoming a fellow of On Purpose, I have been working as Community Organiser at High Trees Community Development Trust. I bring people together to take action around their common concerns and overcome social injustice. Community organisers reach out and listen, connect, and motivate people to build their collective power.
How did you feel in your work before you decided to make a change?
A mixed bag. I was lucky to work with some amazing people on challenging projects of all kinds. I learnt a lot and made great friends along the way. However, I always saw the change towards cleaner energy being driven by regulation and policy, that is, by politics and political movements. It is difficult to change industry from within.
Also, the ways of working in the sector, didn’t leverage the best in people nor their potential contribution to society. The idealist in me, while battered and bruised, always held out hope for a better way.
At what moment did you decide to make the change?
I can’t pick a single moment. I got increasingly more involved in activism and political campaigning around issues like migration and trade injustice. My passion clearly lay in my volunteering more so than at work. I spoke to a lot of people around me who were getting by fine but not really satisfied with their working life. Without being too dramatic, the tired faces, cynical cliches of resignation and the ‘living for the weekend’ mentality were a constant and stark reminder of what I didn’t want to become as I got older.
Why did you join the On Purpose Associate Programme?
I was looking to move into the kind of work I was doing as a volunteer but with little luck, as I was competing with people who had been doing that work professionally, and for much longer than me. On Purpose was a blessing as one of the few programmes in the UK to allow for a career transition into work with more purpose driven organisations.
The variety of placements was attractive in providing an opportunity to explore different options and the training sounded good, but, of course, as with many things in life, I had little idea of what would really be important over that year as an Associate – that would come in due course.
What was the most difficult thing about making this change?
When I got to the point of deciding to change career, I don’t think it was difficult. In fact, it was inevitable. The most difficult thing was the battle I had with myself. This was deciding if I was going to do what I was doing for the rest of my life and whether that was enough. Once I realised the answer to this was a clear, painful, and unavoidable ‘no’, my mind was set firmly on what, practically, the next steps would be.
What was somewhat difficult was moving out of a city, Glasgow, I’d grown to love and leaving the close friends I’d made while I was there. Apart from that, I have been privileged with the upbringing and education I’ve had so I knew I could, and I should put that to better use.
Can you tell me more about your placements?
At Ark Ventures, I worked as a ‘Venture Associate’ in two relatively new charities working in the education sector, one working on recruiting professionals into teaching and the other supporting the non-state education sector across the world. I worked with high performing teams on varied and interesting projects with a particular focus on data, evidence and impact.
At King’s College London, I worked with the What Works team, applying behavioural insights and robust evaluation to higher education, as part of the ‘Widening Participation’ department. I owe a lot to my experience with this team. They are a very special group of people passionately dedicated to helping students get the best experience from higher education. The work was fascinating, cutting edge and immensely rewarding. I have to give special thanks to my line manager, Vanessa Todman, who encouraged me endlessly throughout the placement, and models the kind of leadership that is needed for a changing world and supported my first forays into community organising.
King’s is also a member of Citizens UK and it was here I got my love of community organising and discovered it was what I was supposed to do next with my life.
What’s the most important thing you learnt during your year as an Associate?
Whilst I learnt so much about leadership, systems change and social impact, it was the work on myself I had to do through the programme that bore the ripest of fruits. Through the various training sessions, the residential at Embercombe and many activities I did with my cohort, I had to seriously re-evaluate my own capabilities, values, hidden strengths, and blind spots. This helped to envision possible futures for myself which I previously hadn’t seen.
To give two personal examples: I learnt to trust my instincts more. It was feeling more than thought that pushed me to change career – heart over head. While it certainly causes problems to do this to excess and logical, rational thought is crucial for human progress, I learned to listen to this ‘inner voice’ and treat it with more respect. Secondly, the importance of being ‘whole’ and not compartmentalising who I was or ‘showing up’ differently in different places and situations. I am trying hard to be the same person everywhere I go and whoever I speak to which I wouldn’t have done as much before On Purpose.
What support did you get along the way?
I wouldn’t be half the person I am without the love, guidance and support I received from so many throughout the year. Alongside people in my placements, my mentors guided me expertly with finding my next steps. They did far more than just mentoring me in one particular placement. My coach, Adina Bratescu, is an astounding person. Among the many things she taught me, was to be unapologetically myself and to treat myself as I wish others to be treated. The On Purpose core team, particularly Beth Anderson and Katherine Hewetson, made the year an exceptional experience and one unlike any other I’ve had.
My greatest support, however, came from the rest of my cohort. They were instrumental in challenging how I thought, encouraging me, helping me make decisions and so much more. I didn’t know you could gather so many genuinely great people in a single space, but, somehow, On Purpose did and I will be forever grateful for that.
How did your year with On Purpose set you up for your new career?
I learned a lot about Systems Thinking through the various models of social change we were exposed to. Alongside this was practical guidance on many areas of leadership, organisational development and culture, finance and different ways of thinking about impact. A key part of it was meeting the people who would help me set up my career in community organising.
What advice would you give to others in a similar situation?
While I think it’s important to listen to everyone and really listen to them, I am somewhat suspicious of giving advice. One of the joys of being part of the complex, flawed and beautiful mess called ‘humanity’ is that we are all so different. No one can tell you exactly what the best thing for you is.
Having said that, if you are looking to switch to a career with more meaning, purpose and to realise more of your potential, I can say with a clear head and honest heart, joining On Purpose may be the best decision you make. It certainly was for me.
What do you miss about your old career, and what don’t you miss?
Engineering, at its best, is a noble endeavour. It’s applying the latest science for the betterment of society. It was a pleasure working with people committed to doing so on projects that were building the physical infrastructure that will power the future of this country. Seeing the physical results of intellectual efforts, be it a machine, a power plant or even the most minor component is rewarding in a way that is difficult to express in words.
What I don’t miss are organisations where ‘values’ becomes a meaningless word in the pursuit of profit. I don’t miss top-heavy hierarchies, arbitrary management decisions with no connection to the average employee, pointless meetings, and most importantly, crap coffee.
What gets you out of bed in the morning?
Anger and hope. Anger at the world as it is and hope for the world as it should be.
Written by On Purpose London
Published: 16 Mar 2021