Interview with Tasha Nijjar

Tasha Nijjar is the outgoing Sexual Programs Manager and co-Executive Director of YouthCO. She has been at YouthCO for many years, and we talked to her about developing as a volunteer and staff member during that time.

Why did you first become involved at YouthCO?

My history at YouthCO goes back a long time. After I finished school and moved back to Vancouver, I saw a poster for communications coordinator at YouthCO. I thought it was cool, so I applied and never heard back, but volunteering at YouthCO was always in my mind. I started working in other organisations and heard more from other people in the community who did social justice work and found out how HIV is tied in.

Fast forward, I was at a facilitation training for another organisation when I met Anna Soole and talked to her about YouthCO and Theatre Troupe. Even though theatre was new to me, I thought it was exciting and got started as a volunteer a couple of months later. When I first came to YouthCO, I felt overwhelmed because of how different it is from other places I’d been, but I really quickly fell in love.

Youth get together and break down a lot of the barriers to our voices being heard by coming together and working on an issue that we all care about so much – HIV/Hep C. I had some understanding of that before coming to YouthCO, but it’s become closer and closer to my heart as I’ve been here.

What are the roles you’ve had here?

As I mentioned, I started out volunteering in Theatre Troupe. After that, I left Vancouver for a little while, living briefly in east Africa. While I was there, I made a list of places to look for a job when I came back – and when I did return, YouthCO was looking for a Sexual Health Programs Manager.

I was really excited, so I started with Theatre Troupe again and put in an application for the Programs Manager position. Of course, I was very nervous throughout the interview/hiring process, but when I got the job, it was one of the happiest days of my life! I’ve been working at YouthCO for a few years now, and this summer, I took on the role of the co-Executive Director with Jesse after our former Executive Director went on leave.

What is the most important thing you’ve learned here?

It’s hard to say, since I’ve learned so much at YouthCO. One thing is the importance of communicating, something I’ve always valued beforehand, but improved upon working here. Let me explain it using a story.

When I first came to YouthCO, I was in Theatre Troupe. At the start of meetings, they do really long check-ins, with people sharing a lot of personal stuff. Meanwhile I was thinking, “this is professional environment,” and I wasn’t really comfortable in sharing that much. But in order to work together with people, in a way that everyone is contributing, you have to be ready to share and listen and talk about what you’re doing.

It’s important to build a community so you can talk to each other. Otherwise, when issues come up, you can’t deal with them as well. Sometimes people have ideas they want to share, but not sure if it is okay if its okay, because we’re often told that we need to have qualifications before having an opinion. At YouthCO its not about what you’ve done before, but what you bring right now. Since you are in a room with other people, you have a right to contribute.

How did volunteering help you in as Sexual Health Programs Manager?

Volunteering was huge – I’m sure I would not have this job if I didn’t start as a volunteer. The majority of staff, both at YouthCO and other places I’ve worked, have been former volunteers. One part of it is that we work together in a small team. YouthCO only has 10-12 staff, and really understanding the environment is important to working here. Not everyone is going to like the fast-paced youth-driven environment, so it’s good to make sure it’s right for you. Another important part of being hired here showing others that you fit in and want to contribute to the culture here. You need to get to know people, and they need to learn what you’re all about. You can do that much better as a volunteer than in a 1 hour interview.

In my job now, I work with other HIV education organisations, and I haven’t seen much else like YouthCO in Canada. What we do is always changing, it’s youth-driven, and we don’t use fear in our sexual health work. In so many other many places, fear of disease is a part of the program – it’s HIV education for negative people by negative people. So if you come from that type of environment, YouthCO is very different because we put value on being inclusive – our education is for both positive and negative people by both positive and negative people. Getting to be a part of that and understanding it as a volunteer really helps when you move into a staff role.

But aside from YouthCO, every job I’ve had was at a place where I was a volunteer. It allows you to develop skills like facilitating groups, that will make you a stronger candidate for a staff position when it comes up. At YouthCO especially, since everyone is so young, there is a lot of turnover in the staff so new jobs come up every few months.

What is one thing you love about working at YouthCO?

When I think about the most important thing about being a part of YouthCO’s community, whether as a volunteer, staff, or member, this is an amazing place where you don’t need to have every skill before starting. This is a place to try things out and develop skills. When I first came here I saw that side, and being here longer, I’ve seen we are also building other skills – the ability to listen to each other, work together, challenge each other, and support each other.

We’re challenging what the world says – we say that you don’t need specific training to be valuable, that you can learn things here, that having too many requirements just creates barriers to great people joining our organisation. We’re trying to create an environment where we can share and express ourselves, and we’re challenging world in new way, working together in a new way, being inclusive and supportive of each other.

How has your time at YouthCO contributed to your career?

In the past, as much as I enjoyed other jobs, I got a little bored because I kept doing the same thing. This wasn’t the case at YouthCO. Something new comes up everyday – new opportunities, new projects, and new ways to do things. I thought I was good at adapting before, but working here has really improved my comfort with change. It means working together with people from many different backgrounds, and making consensus decisions.

For me as an older youth, in managerial role, figuring out when to step forward and when to step back has also been something important. I still don’t always know the answer, but you have to find a balance between taking leadership and giving others room to grow and learn things I’ve already learned. And being here means that other people have done this for me, given me a chance to learn and grow.

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