April 2018 | Sofia Simeonidou
The thing is that we need to look up to the people who do the good work. And the people who do the good work need to talk about it more. Because we want to know about it. Meet Shawna and her good work foundation. Meet Shawna and her "how to rewrite your life's narrative" story.
Tell me a few things about Reckoning?
Reckoning is the name of my foundation. The aim is to facilitate local and global leadership experiences for today’s youth. At the moment our focus is on Insite, our youth leadership programme. We already took students to South Africa and this year we are branching out and doing shorter term experiences. Next, we’ll be taking students to refugee centers either in Calais or in Brussels for w/end experiences and training.
What’s the aim of those trips?
The aim of the trips is to move students from the idea of volunteering and activism so they see the bigger picture of what’s going on with the refugee crisis and frame their volunteering experience and how to move this cause forward. By being more of an activist and attach the humanity to the service. And then we’ll be offering 3-month programmes for college students with more intensive leadership and social justice courses. We’ll take students to places within the EU to help where they’re needed the most and always with the same intent: moving them from a volunteer perspective to an activist perspective and making sure the humanity is intact. Our aim is for the students to walk away with a sense of purpose rather than with a selfie photo. We’ll start with these programmes next year.
How did it all start?
I was a Mathematics and Science teacher back in California and I worked with youth and youth programmes together with my late husband. We were about to launch a youth centre focusing on the same ideas and principles I mentioned earlier. But he was killed in a car accident. And after he died I lost everything. My youngest was 4 months old and my oldest was 15 years old. Our idea died, the project died. Everything changed.
And that's when you moved to Amsterdam?
After that, I was recruited by an organisation to come to Amsterdam and start a youth centre here and be in charge of developing the education programme. This was a great way to start over and my kids were excited about moving to Europe. But then 3 months after we moved here, the project was canceled. I didn’t want to move again. We’ve already been through a lot and I made a promise to my kids that we weren't going to move again. We all needed some stability so I had to figure my career around. I stayed with the organisation a few more years and then I went back to school and I got a Master’s Degree in Global Urban Leadership. I also did a lot of interviewing and research about Amsterdam, I met with a lot of people and I tried to see what I could do, where do I fit. And that’s how I started Reckoning. That’s how I started with local projects. I started working on these projects alongside my job and later I resigned in order to focus on the foundation's work.
It was not just a journey of starting something new. It was also me doing something alone. I worked together with my late husband and so starting something on my own was scary. I wasn't sure I was going to make it. I’m an introvert and I used to be more in the background and make sure things work but in my new reality, it wasn't like that. It was lonely for a while. And on top of that, I had to do something to support my family, raise my kids, do the mum thing. All these things happening at the same time.
How many kids do you have?
I have 5 kids.
What are your challenges now?
I think just how to navigate the nuances of the kind of work I’m doing in a way that preserves dignity for all the people that we work with and give space for that to grow and change. And also how to promote what we are doing in a way that people see it in our ethos. I’m not exploiting others for a promotion. I really struggle with that, with how to represent the communities we are working with, in a way that preserves their dignity.
What do you do about marketing?
I don’t do much. I started to do more blogging and writing to explain our mission. I’m writing a couple of blogs a month to give more context to our local community about how we work. I’m on Facebook and Linkedin and Instagram. Right now I’m focusing on getting into the habit of doing these things and be more visible. And I’m challenging my staff to do the same. I also help my students to craft their stories keeping everyone humane.
Would you go back to having a job?
I’ve thought about it. I’m open to working for another organisation if there’s a good fit. I like to keep my options open. There’s a lot of people doing a lot of great things. Or I would collaborate. Always and only if our goals and mission are aligned.
What’s your best working day?
When I have the time to write the things I need to prepare. When I have appointments and meetings to recruit another school, or when I have good contact with people.
Do you miss human contact?
I think so. I often work from home. I’ve tried common working spaces and having desks in different places but then why do I pay when I can do the work from home? I understand there’s the benefit of the contact but very few contacts I made while working in a co-working space turned out to be something that moved what I do forward. I have to be very intentional with my contacts. I do miss it though but I don’t miss the small talk.
What’s your worst working day?
When I have things that I know I need to accomplish and I can’t get to them. When I feel that at the end of the day life got in the way. This is something that frustrates me.
I’m reading one I love right now and it’s called “The hidden life of trees”. Another one that I really like, although difficult to read, was the ’The State of Africa”. Really hard read, very sad. but gave me a lot more context about Africa. And one of my favourite spiritual authors is Eugene Peterson and he wrote a book called “Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places”, which was a very transformative read about how I look at spirituality from the Christianity’s point of view.
How can we change what we don’t like?
We have to start. Starts with starting. The first thing to change is how we think about a thing. And then think of possibilities to change that.
Any special projects?
Actually, my son is involved in the work we do and I think the next thing we want to do is try with a podcast. We have many stories and interviews we want to showcase with the people, we work with from the settlements. It’s all about how we tell our stories. That’s what we’re doing next. A really good way to give more of a voice to the stories that are happening there. We plan on starting after the summer once I get the writing down. My son will graduate in July, he’s getting a degree from the Royal Academy of the Arts in Interactive Media and Design, and his final project is all about how we tell people stories in a non-exploitive way.
What about the future?
Big question. My youngest will finish school in 3 years and I have a very strong pull to be in California near my family, my parents are getting older. And I have a big connection with South Africa. If I move there I see myself being extremely happy. My husband is on a new trajectory, he’s getting his pilot license. We have a 3 to 5-year plan because we need to figure out where we want to go next. Our aim would be for Amsterdam to be our hub but then also move towards careers we can both have mobility and work from everywhere so that we can spend extended periods of time in South Africa and extended periods of time in California. That’s our plan.