Refugee 613’s co-founder Louisa Taylor takes her cue from lessons gleaned throughout a lifetime of volunteering.
BY SARAH FOX
PHOTOGRAPHY BY BLAIR GABLE
Louisa Taylor’s introduction to volunteerism, she admits, got off to a rocky start.
While a student at McGill University, she joined a patient support program at a neurological hospital down the street. “The stories were so devastating that I cried every day after leaving,” she remembers. “I realized that [patient support] was not the role for me.”
Wanting to avoid tears, but committed to making a difference in her community, Louisa found other volunteer initiatives fulfilling, including event support for the MS Society and charity fundraisers, as well as a buddy program for newly arrived immigrants.
Through her relationships with new Canadians, the country began to bloom before her. “The single greatest insight from that experience was seeing Canada—seeing my city, my country—through the eyes of someone new,” Louisa says. “Seeing the different ways it was hard for them and the different ways others took advantage of them. It really puts your community in a whole different light.”
Later, Louisa helped to create the Travers Debates, an annual fundraiser in support of a foreign reporting fellowship in honour of the late great journalist Jim Travers. That experience helped her realize her organizational skills could be useful in volunteering, too.
The next stage in her life was defined by a career change. A journalist with a passion for covering diversity and immigration issues, Louisa left newspapers in 2013 and became a communications consultant. Now able to contribute her volunteer time to the settlement sector, she became honorary co-chair of Welcoming Ottawa Week and organized a hackathon on migration issues.
But it was in 2015 when Louisa truly fused her professional skill-set with her volunteer know-how and her passion for migration issues. When the Syrian refugee crisis was making headlines, Louisa thought she would volunteer her communications skills to whoever was going to rally the community to bring more Syrians to Ottawa. Instead, she became one of the founders of Refugee 613, an information and mobilization hub working towards creating a welcoming home for refugees. After two months of intense organizing and communicating, Louisa became the project’s first employee.
A storyteller/gatherer by nature, Louisa applied the passion that fueled her as a journalist to her duties as the leader of this new grassroots project. “That acknowledgement that everyone has a story, of the humanity in everyone, is very easy to lose in the rush of daily life,” Louisa says on the topic of her motivation. “I really try to retain that understanding.”
For this community change-maker, success has been the outcome of trial and error, on top of healthy—even necessary—self-reflection. “I’ve learned that a little bit self-reflection and course-correction can go a long way… not just to improving the outcome, but to understanding yourself and to understanding the people you’re helping.”
Read on for Louisa’s tips on how to make the most of your passion for volunteering… maybe even turn it into a career.
Louisa’s 5 tips to on how-to add value to your volunteer experience:
1. “Don’t wait for a formal initiative to start actively building inclusion into your life.” You can practice inclusiveness in your daily life right now. “Some of the best networks can begin with a smile to a stranger, an invitation home for a colleague, a meetup of classmates in the park.” It is as simple as slowing down to make sure we are acknowledging others around us. “Too often we go through our day and we don’t pause. We don’t pause and we don’t see people.” Taking 10 minutes out of your day to connect with someone can make a big difference in the life of an individual who needs a friend, while only taking the smallest portion of your day.
2. “Start local—really local.” Louisa suggests that we study the world around us through a critical lens. “Challenge yourself and your peers to look for ways to overcome the barriers to inclusion,” she insists. “Start by asking those who aren’t there. [For example] what could your sports club do to be more welcoming? Outreach to underrepresented communities? Bursaries to help with fees? Help with carpools?” Examining the diversity of your local neighbourhood unlocks a chamber of opportunity for improvement i.e. get out there!
3. “We all have the power to make a difference, but our personal desire to make an impact shouldn’t come first.” Louisa and her friends call this the “dark side of goodwill.” Volunteering and helping others is something that brings a great deal of pride and fulfillment to your life, but as Louisa puts it, “it’s about you, but it’s not.” Louisa elaborates that this is “the tendency for people to think their good intentions should be embraced, whether they make any sense or not.” To avoid this, Louisa reminds others to take a deeper look into the organization and what they need. “Be open to hearing ‘no.’ Be gracious and adjust, or move on.”
4. “Don’t automatically take the light that comes your way—ensure it shines on others, too.” As you grow success, more opportunities will come your way. “Get in the habit of asking yourself if you should take that role, or if should you defer to others,” Louisa says. “Maybe there are experts who would be better placed or will benefit more from the opportunity.”
5. “Lean in to the learning, especially when it hurts.” As Louisa suggests, this is where most of the major growth happens. “I have learned more about my community and myself in the past year than I ever thought possible—some of it through painful lessons in coalition building and humility. Think of yourself as a lifelong student and volunteering as a seminar in building your world.” Don’t be afraid to slow down to soak in the teachings, pace yourself “one relationship at a time.”