Sameen Zehra is the Everyday Political Citizen Programming Director at Samara Canada, a charity dedicated to reconnecting citizens to politics. Having recently completed her bachelor’s degree in Peace, Conflict and Justice studies at the University of Toronto, Sameen spent the last four years researching global politics and volunteering as a community leader in areas of refugee aid and accessible youth education. Last week, Samara Canada awarded the winners of the Everyday Political Citizen Awards, which celebrate the unsung heroes of Canadian democracy.
We caught up with Sameen this week.
SDTC: Walk us through a typical day in your life, from getting up until going to bed.
SZ: On a good weekday, I get up quite early to exercise before commuting downtown for work. As someone who works at a relatively small non-for-profit, no two days are exactly the same in terms of the tasks I have to tackle. I am responsible for social media, communications support, and coordinating the Everyday Political Citizen project for Samara Canada. Since the project involves running a national contest that highlights ordinary Canadians making a difference in their communities, my focus has been on outreach for the contest; coordinating with nominees, finalists and jurors; and designing a day of programming in Toronto for the shortlist, as well as the winners announcement. This past week was centered heavily on arranging the travel, logistics and promotion for the latter. I have also spent the past few months studying and working on my applications for graduate school after work. Other than that, I try to spend time with my family before calling it a day and doing it all over again!
When did you realize that you wanted to work in the political sphere?
I had been interested in understanding various global challenges and conflicts around the world from a very early age. Over time, I came to realize that many of these issues require political solutions for long-term change. Laws and policies need to reflect the people they serve. They need to reflect the time and reality we live in. If I can contribute to that on any level, I will be happy.
What is one major challenge you’ve overcome in your career?
As someone who just recently completed their undergraduate degree, I know that the next few years will require a lot of hard work and intentional decision-making to create a career that is meaningful and has longevity. Making sure that doesn’t overwhelm me is a challenge. It’s vital to remind myself that I need to take things day-by-day and that it’s okay to make mistakes along the way.
What did you uncover that surprised you during your time researching global politics and volunteering in areas of refugee aid and youth education?
My interest in these issues actually stemmed from my time volunteering and leading various university campus organizations focused on these issues. I was the president of Sol Music, a group of volunteers that provided free music education to students who often didn’t have the financial means to take piano or guitar lessons. I was also the president of the University of Toronto Refugee Alliance, which raised awareness and funds for displaced people.
Being on the ground and trying to create some form of change from such a grassroots level was a learning curb and very formative for me. I was surprised by how much power individuals can have in their communities if they truly want to improve the lives of those around them.
What is the best part of your job?
Coordinating the Everyday Political Citizen project has been a very fulfilling experience. It has allowed me to meet and learn from such a diverse group of people who have taken very personal experiences to fuel their fight for a better future for everyone. It is so rare to have multiple people on such inspiring missions in the same room. This project made that possible. I will carry their stories with me, whenever I need that extra push to be brave and challenge the status quo.
Who inspires you the most?
My mother inspires me every day. She has faced so many obstacles in her life – from finding strength in a society that’s highly patriarchal, to immigrating to a new country with a three-year-old and baby on the way, and re-building her life with close to nothing in her pocket. She has overcome health challenges and managed to be both the glue and the breadwinner of her family. She is my biggest cheerleader and I don’t know what I’d do without her.
What is one thing we can do on a practical level to encourage more inclusive systems of representation in our democracy?
Diverse representation requires empowerment, at the most basic levels. Teaching children that don’t see themselves reflected in politics or media that they have a voice is paramount. Whether that’s at home around the dinner table, or by creating opportunities for students to contribute to their communities. That’s how you find your confidence and realize there’s space for more than one type of voice to be at the table – especially when it comes to decision-making in our democracy.