Urban Matters is delighted to welcome Talia Ahmad to our team as our Social Health and Well-Being Analyst.
Talia is a dedicated community organizer who brings a social justice lens to policy analysis. She’s also a skilled community researcher, adept at navigating through social complexity to identify and understand the needs of and foster resilience among vulnerable communities. Talia comes to us from the City of Richmond, BC, where she spent four-plus years leading strategic planning initiatives intended to enhance community safety and resilience. She also supported the implementation of key regulatory changes and programs aimed at facilitating sustainable development and effective land use. In all of her work, Talia is committed to using her knowledge and empathy to leverage organizational and community strengths that eliminate barriers, in order to ensure policies and services meet the needs of the community.
As a South Asian, immigrant woman, Talia draws on her lived experience to advocate for integrating intersectionality into service design and policy-making to build equity into our systems.
What sparked your passion for social justice and community organizing?
I was born in Lahore, Pakistan, and immigrated to Canada at the age of 11. In Pakistan, I saw vast social inequities all around me, and I saw their detrimental effects on society. These realities developed my sense of curiosity that led me to question the status quo. While I had a privileged and comfortable life, I knew that children my age were forced into labour and begging on a daily basis. At the same time, I was also inspired by women, such as domestic workers or craftswomen, who lacked political agency or any social currency, but built their families and communities through their resilience. I knew from then on that I would dedicate my life to creating a more just world. Of course, I articulated this back then by stating I was going to become the Prime Minister.
When I came to Canada, all of a sudden, I became a visible minority and suddenly found myself devoid of any social currency. And I watched my mother — an educated woman, but also now a single mother, with a disability — as she tried to access services in a new country. I watched as the system refused to recognize her skills that effectively denied her opportunities to participate in a meaningful way and subjected her to racism and disrespect as she attempted to access services.
Like my mother, so many immigrants are left to fend for themselves in social systems that are not built to treat them equitably, that are not equipped to reinforce or respond to their skills sets. Being an immigrant and a woman of colour in a predominantly white society, seeing my parent struggle, seeing the impact of that struggle on our mental and social health, and seeing this strip a person of their dignity and self worth — that affirmed my commitment to challenge oppressive systems and fight for social justice for all.
And where has the journey taken you?
In Canada, I grew up — and still live — in Surrey, British Columbia. It was, and is, a very diverse community and I love it. The vibrant immigrant community here allowed me to develop a sense of belonging as I found others with shared experiences. I began to recognize the strength of community networks. It’s where I began to establish what is now a very strong community network of my own. From cultural organizations, settlement agencies, planning tables, school programs, politicians, or local businesses I have actively engaged with community groups to foster inclusion and celebrate diversity in our community.
Volunteering keeps me grounded in the community – whether that’s providing mentorship support for immigrant youth, developing cultural media programming, helping seniors understand technology or coaching mature immigrant students to navigate the education system.
And then you built that community focus into your career studies.
Yes. My next step was to translate these community experiences to the systems level. Macro-level policy is developed every single day. And often what’s missing from that process is an understanding of how people at the grassroots level will be affected by that policy. In order for policies and programs to be effective in the long term — so that they produce sustainable development outcomes and empower all members of society — we need to understand how those policies and programs will take into account and meet the needs of the most marginalized members of society.
What we see, over and over again, is that marginalized populations and communities who are excluded from the policy design process and denied key resources, create their own solutions through their own resilience, creativity, and strength. Solutions that are based in the community are more likely to garner acceptance and honour the local history, geography and culture. And so the question is, how can these voices be brought into the planning process? How can we use local knowledge and community networks to truly empower communities and facilitate development that is both scalable and sustainable?
These were the kinds of questions that drove my academic pursuit. I did an undergraduate degree in international relations, with a focus on international economy and development. And I did a master’s degree at UBC in public policy and global affairs, with a specialization in development and social change. My graduate work focused on digital banking and identifying barriers to financial inclusion in South Asia. This experience allowed me to recognize the power of technology and micro-finance to act as a democratic force and bridge the gap between policy development and service delivery at the last-mile.
You are an advocate for integrating intersectionality into service design. How do you define intersectionality, and how does it inform your work and your outlook?
For me, intersectionality is the understanding that multiple levels of identity can intersect or combine in different ways, sometimes to reinforce privilege and sometimes to challenge or restrict capacity or opportunities.
Intersectionality has shaped my understanding of the world since I was a child. Again, I go back to witnessing my mother, and the ways in which multiple aspects of her identity — as a woman, a single mom, a person of colour, a newcomer, someone with a disability, someone with experiences of trauma, someone for whom English was not a first language — combined to challenge her capacity to access services. In my work, I’m really driven to ensure that policies and service provision take an intersectional perspective in order to truly understand people’s needs and how those needs can be accommodated.
Why did you join Urban Matters?
Well, intersectionality is at the core of all Urban Matters’ work. That’s one of the main reasons I wanted to join the organization. The projects they undertake take an intersectional approach in their design and implementation: ensuring that the voices of the most marginalized members are represented, that their lived experiences are brought to the forefront and honoured in project development and delivery.
Beyond that, I really welcome the opportunity to work with and bring forward the voices of diverse communities across Canada. I’m looking forward to building out my own capacity as a social development practitioner, leveraging my own strengths, particularly in ensuring that growth in urban areas happens equitably. That’s something I’m really passionate about.
And then there’s the UM team: Urban Matters is comprised of a very robust team of professionals who are dedicated to the same causes as I am. They’re wonderful to be around. They bring unparalleled energy and humility to the table, and intellect and understanding of needs that is really uncommon. I’m so excited to work alongside this team.
What do you do when you’re not working?
I still continue to work with community organizations, especially those that are focused on diversity and inclusion. More recently, I’ve dipped my toe into community theatre: I have acted in and directed a couple of plays exploring the role of trauma in the lived experiences of immigrant women and of minority groups living under oppressive regimes. I also serve on the board of a social serving organization that nurtures community resilience and social health of families and children through effective intervention and support services.
How has the pandemic affected your day-to-day life?
Well, as I worked comfortably from my home, with a roof over my head, and all my basic needs met, it drove home to me just how deeply privileged I am.
If you want to talk about intersectionality: we can see it in the pandemic, how the negative effects are disproportionately borne by racialized populations, women, people living in poverty, seniors, people with disabilities, and those suffering from substance use. It has highlighted the systemic inequities across societies and reinforces the need to use an intersectional approach to develop and deliver policies, programs and services to address these inequities going forward.
A lot in life comes more easily when you know what your purpose is. At a personal level, the pandemic has reaffirmed for me what my purpose is in life: to dedicate myself to building equity in our society in whatever way and in whatever forms that I can.