Director of Operations, NORDIK Institute
Adjunct Professor, School of Life Sciences and the Environment, Algoma University
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Appointee, Canada Water Agency Task Force, City of Sault Ste. Marie
At the core of my project approach is collaboration that results in collective impact, especially in community-based projects (i.e., local implementation with broader scopes in mind). I strive to build lasting partnerships and effective working relationships among diverse organizations, persons, and empowered communities, with much of this experience being from youth engagement and, more recently, Indigenous-led projects related to freshwater quality. In my experience, collective benefits (e.g., sustainable development) are best achieved by meaningfully working together.
I earned my PhD in Social and Ecological Sustainability (Integrated Water Management) in the School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability, University of Waterloo. As of 2014, I am a certified Project Management Professional (PMP) through the Project Management Institute. My experience includes several years of entrepreneurship, founding and operating three small businesses in North York and Waterloo (Ontario). I have also contributed to the growth and success of several other businesses and non-profit organizations.
Read my statement of positionality and learn about my journey towards Indigenous allyship here.
Journey and accomplishments
Real questions I've had to answer
What career path did you take?
I have always been drawn to environmental work and exploration, since as early as I can remember. My path has wound through a variety of focus areas – e.g., renewable energy, climate change, corporate sustainability, life cycle analysis of building materials (from an engineering perspective), sustainable development goals, social justice, and freshwater science – all of which contribute to my ability to collaborate across disciplines and implement highly collaborative projects. My journey formally began in 2006 while in high school, when I co-founded the Solar and Wind Initiatives Towards Change – ‘SWITCH’ (2006-2011). SWITCH’s focus was to generate renewable electricity on the public school’s grounds. After this project I pursued environmental studies at the University of Waterloo, during which I was privileged to have a number of experiences including attending the UNFCCC COP15/CMP5 (“Climate Conference”) in Copehnagen, Denmark, in 2009. It was there I met then-National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Canada, Chief Atleo, who negotiated a symbolic accord with me – then a 21-year old undergraduate student – to single-handedly take on the Canadian oil sands industry not just for our climate, but also in solidarity with Canada’s Indigenous peoples. While I knew an oil sands war was not my calling, I felt obligated to explore allyship with Indigenous nations.
My first Indigenous collaboration was with a rural Maasai community in Kenya (2012-2014), in which I explored income diversification to support financially sustainable and equitable opportunities for the women. This steered my journey to consider a variety of social justice issues, especially those related to women and girls. In 2018, I represented women at the United Nations High-level Political Forum, where I also contributed to policy documents about freshwater and presented an intervention on accountability. In addition to other engagements that year, I co-authored ‘Generation SDG: A blueprint’ for Canada’s implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals at a local level. My combination of experiences to this point led me to pursue my PhD research (2018-2021), ‘Democratizing water quality monitoring processes for the lower Grand River and nearshore Lake Erie’. This award-winning research focused on broader, more meaningful collaboration with diverse persons (e.g., Canadian and First Nations community members), and was the most transdisciplinary research project her department had ever seen. I now build on this work in my Postdoctoral research, in which I lead a multi-organization collaboration to develop a community-led water quality monitoring program at Garden River First Nation which brings together western and Indigenous knowledge to support objectives of the binational St. Marys River Area of Concern.
What makes you a good leader and/or mentor?
I have benefited from others mentoring and supporting me throughout the years and I believe it is an essential part of personal, academic, and career development. My diversity of experiences, lifelong learning, and the way in which I direct my passions to drive productive and tangible social change contribute to my leadership in my field; however, my compassion, personal experiences overcoming challenges (which powers my drive to remove barriers for others), and my ability to empathize with others are what make me a mentor. For example, I am the first female in my family to have earned a PhD in any field, and I have faced and overcome many examples of discrimination as a woman in STEM; this, coupled with the experiences I described earlier contributes to my drive to integrate social justice and equity in my everyday work. I became an entrepreneur – starting three of my own local businesses during my graduate studies – out of simultaneous needs for funds and efficient use of my time (as a full-time student). In addition, my experiences overcoming challenges demonstrates to others facing similar challenges that it is possible to succeed in spite of them.
From my experiences with SWITCH and with Chief Atleo, I became so interested in how youth can lead social change that I focused my masters research (2013-2015) on how youth had made change across Canada over the previous 35 years. My results only strengthened my interest in providing meaningful opportunities for young people to become the leaders we hope they will be. This has led me to explore potential youth development opportunities with Indigenous youth in the Algoma District, as well as opportunities for Sault Ste. Marie youth to participate in civic activity. I have been called upon by faculty and students at my alma mater to mentor young researchers in my field. I also continue my journey as an ally of Indigenous persons, which I ground in community-based and critical methodologies. This means I co-create my work with those who I work with, ensuring their priorities and capacities are the basis for project design. I take pride in planning for my own obsolescence in projects undertaken with (Indigenous) community partners. In other words, my measure of success is that the projects I take on can continue without any need for me to be involved long-term. This approach works for me, as I am able to build personal, meaningful and lasting relationships with those I work with. Those relationships (collectively) – coupled with my education and experience – position me as a leader in my field.
How do you keep connected with and contribute to your local community?
I strive to always keep connected with my community regardless of my professional position. For example, in 2020-2021: I dedicated time and effort to reciprocate Indigenous youth contributions to my PhD research by organizing a traveling art exhibit and sharing their voices widely (e.g., international news outlets, national industry publications, etc.); I volunteered as a Board Member with the Long Point Biosphere Reserve Foundation; I sat on the implementation committee for Action for Sustainability (a global network of organizations implementing the Sustainable Development Goals) – first as the women’s representative, then as a regional representative (for Canada); I was appointed a Research Associate with the NORDIK Institute at Algoma University (months before beginning my Postdoctoral research) in recognition of my extensive work with community members over the years; and I currently sit on the Canada Water Agency Task Force for the City of Sault Ste. Marie. In addition to contributing my time, I constantly seek capacity building opportunities for current and former people and organizations in my network – e.g., funding opportunities (which I often help to pursue), subject matter expertise, engaging people/organizations in capacity-building programming (often through others in my network), connecting skilled personnel with projects that need them, etc. In this way, I strive to be strategic with the networks/relationships I build and the (community or professional) projects I engage with, often leveraging resources from one to another. I also strive to raise the profile of the people and organizations I work with, either by aligning with broader issues of concern (as applicable and according to the strengths and vision of those I work with) or undertaking extensive outreach (including writing articles and delivering presentations for local, regional, national, and international audiences).
What are some examples of how your efforts resulted in real-world impacts?
As mentioned, I have benefited greatly from the success and mentorship of those who came before me; therefore, some of my life goals are dedicated to sharing my knowledge, experience and networks with others. I have 15 years of experience teaching (9 years teaching martial arts, 6 years teaching at the university level). I have produced dozens of publications in both peer reviewed and gray literature, and I have delivered ~30 presentations in the last 5 years at venues that range from local community meetings to international conferences. My first publication is one of the most downloaded papers in the journal (Futures), and my PhD-related publications have resulted in my being consulted by Ontario’s Office of the Auditor General (re: developing environmental monitoring indicators for Ontario) and Canada’s Minister of Diversity, Inclusion, and Youth (re: water quality and Indigenous equity objectives). My PhD research won an industry award from the Canadian Water Resources Association (the “Our Water – Our Life – The Most Valuable Resource” award) in 2019, and my collaboration with local Indigenous youth continues to empower them as they develop into leaders of their own community.
My community-based initiatives have catalyzed systemic/long-lasting change. For example, by 2013, the women I worked with in the Maasai village in Kenya were selling products to tourists from around the world at a dedicated shop at a resort, and multiple visiting groups were hosted through their new microtourism activities – an exponential increase in tourism. As a result of my work with the community, the elders provided me with a Maasai name – Reto (‘philanthropist’) – as a symbol of adoption into the community. By 2014, more than 300 Toronto schools generated renewable electricity on-site, powering more than 5,000 homes as a result of our SWITCH initiative. In 2018, when I spoke on a panel to launch the Generation SDG document, my talk changed the framing of the largest SDG-focused conference in Canada (to date) by switching the language from discussing “marginalized” perspectives to referring to “excluded” persons – encouraging accountability for those we choose to engage with, or not. Attendees from organizations like the Waterloo Global Science Initiative and Cooperation Canada held discussions after my talk about how to integrate my speaking points strategically into their organizations. In 2021, the Long Point Biosphere became the second biosphere in Canada to recognize Indigenous ways of knowing in its values statement and in other aspects of its mission, and vision – achieved largely because of my giudance and recommendations.