Redefining what is possible
For ACU psychology graduate Mehak Sheikh, who arrived in Australia in 2012 after growing up in Kenya and spending time in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a desire to help others was instilled from a very young age.
“My parents and my religion always encouraged philanthropy – I have vivid memories of this in Kenya and UAE, even when they had very little – and it was often directed at children. So, when we came to Melbourne, I got involved with the local community centre, starting with dance and play classes for children after school. I chose to work with children because I believe that we need to invest in the next generation and that the world we create now is the world we leave for them,” says the 24-year-old.
“Through volunteering I slowly transitioned into youth affairs and into working with youth-based organisations that focused on advocacy and women’s safety. I dedicated myself to this work because I saw how much young people, amongst other marginalised communities like people living with disability or from non-English speaking backgrounds, were getting left behind in important discussions that affected their lives and futures. As a young person of colour, I experienced this too.
“Because of my own experience being a migrant and someone with multiple cultural identities – fourth generation Kenyan, Punjabi ethnicity and Islamic upbringing. I became an advocate for cultural diversity and intercultural engagement including creating spaces where we bridge the gaps between cultures for meaningful integration.”
U-Learn, which stands for Unconventional Learning, is how Mehak went about creating a safe space. The social enterprise delivers life skills and emotional intelligence programs in culturally accessible ways.
“I distinctly remember during my psychology course, I learnt about systems change and how there are ways for us to prevent issues from happening or working in areas that indirectly contribute to the wellbeing of people,” Mehak said.
“That's when I decided to set up U-Learn as a way to give people skills, tools and knowledge to navigate life transitions. I also wanted to make information about self-care, resilience and stress management financially and culturally accessible to marginalised communities.
“I worked as a therapist after graduating and realised that individual care is not the best place I can use my skillset. I have the skills and mindset for more systemic and community-wide impact.
“I care most about the people that are left behind, mostly young people, people who have financial challenges and others that are marginalised from mainstream services. I’m driven to do something about injustice with my privilege. Seeing the trajectory of people’s lives be determined by their location, finances and identity makes me frustrated and makes me want to demand change.”
Those frustrations and the drive to right wrongs, as well as taking the time to self-reflect, led Mehak to stand as a first-time independent candidate in recent local government elections.
“There are so many moments that have lead me to where I am today, but one that I hold dear is participating in a leadership program called Shout Out, which supported young people from migrant and refugee backgrounds to speak on issues in public forums. We went through a process to understand and articulate our own story. This was the first time I realised I had a meaningful story and I was able to reflect on it, and I felt propelled onto the path I am on now.
“It's an experience like no other to stand for public office and put myself in the public eye, to be in the spotlight representing constituents' views and ideas. But, I'm so grateful for the opportunity to do it and I feel more equipped to create change around me. It really built my self-confidence, introduced me to more incredible people and taught me a lot about myself.”
A life less ordinary
When asked about what her average day looks like, Mehak was quick to say there was no such thing.
“Alongside U-Learn I work in a part-time role as a capacity building coordinator for a national non-profit supporting young changemakers and I have co-founded a network called The Brown Come Up, a space of South-Asian identifying changemakers. I also support a few other start-ups and networks, so my day could include phone calls with incredible humans, designing newsletters and hosting impact-focused events or just a social gathering, and then finishing up with a podcast interview,” she said.
“I know it sounds a bit cliché but I genuinely learn so much every day and I love it – there is too much to know in the world and anything that answers philosophical questions or even random menial questions always catches my interest.”
Engaging with empathy
Mehak is also mindful that grinding daily for change can be arduous and complicated and an intimidating road for anyone. The career she has chosen has many challenges, including self-belief.
“I've had my share, and continue to in various ways, of self-doubt, feeling not good enough or peer-pressured about doing more. But having challenges means that I too am human just like anyone else, and it means that if I can achieve, so can anyone else.
“Just keep at it, turn up to things and always ask curious questions from a place of empathy. This is important for me to say because I remember what it was like when I was looking at someone else doing ‘great’ things and wondering how it was possible, but it totally is – define what ‘possible’ means to you.”
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