I have recently decided to leave my role at MARL to pursue another opportunity. While I am excited about this change, it is also a bittersweet reflection of my time at MARL.
I think back to my first day when I walked into an empty office. I was hired as the only full-time paid staff, working alongside volunteers and casual student interns. A stack of papers on my new desk contained information about ongoing projects and upcoming grant deadlines, but it was up to me to put these pieces together and learn about the values and vision that I was now tasked to uphold. As I worked through the weeds, I saw many moving parts that were not necessarily connected. The organization wanted to do a lot, but with limited resources, was struggling just to scratch the surface. After community and member consultations, I saw an opportunity for MARL to focus on human rights education to work toward the envisioned systemic change.
Six years later, MARL is a recognized name in Manitoba’s human rights community, and programs such as the High School Ethics Bowl are earning interest and praise. Looking back, I was given enormous responsibility and an opportunity to grow alongside the organization and bring strategic and creative leadership to the table. At MARL, we often describe ourselves as underdogs, but there’s an advantage to being driven by a purpose and exceeding expectations.
Trying to summarize this time in a few words is no easy task. In many ways, MARL has been a fundamental layer of my personal and, indeed, professional identity. As an introvert, I don’t think I would have ever seen myself as someone who could be effective in a leadership position before landing this job at MARL. In this way, I want to share a few lessons - some came as surprises, and some were more confirmation of intuition and experiments in putting theory into practice:
Leadership doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Rather than attempting to know and do everything alone, it is far more effective to surround yourself with people with a different lived experience from your own. It’s a myth to think leaders guide people; they are guided.
Stay focused on the big picture. The organization’s vision statement should be posted somewhere prominently in an ED’s workstation, so every decision will be directed by this message of hope. Also, share and define this vision with the community.
Approach every challenge with curiosity. There will always be an opportunity to try new approaches to old problems. Continually ask yourself the underlying causes of these challenges and what tangible steps need implementing. Often, barriers are systemic, multi-faceted, and complex to unpack. Trust that small changes make a big difference over time.
Connect with your successes. The most fulfilling part of leading a human rights organization is talking to the students and community that enjoy your services. My fondest memories of my time at MARL are seeing people enjoying an event that I helped plan or grappling with big ideas in the workshops. When you’re focused on budgeting and outcomes, remember to see those numbers as a qualitative experience.
When I think back to who I was as a fresh ED, with only a few years of work experience and previously limited opportunity to develop as a leader, I was eager to prove myself and implement my ideas. Of course, there were mistakes made along the way - there were many times I felt in over my head. But I knew along the way I was never alone; I had a cheering section of volunteers and community members, as well as a guiding vision to lead the way. In how much has changed in recent years, I’m eager to see what new lessons have yet to be learned.
MARL’s Former Executive Director