She is graduating in May 2010 with a Major in General Life Sciences and a Minor in International Relations. A founding member of the Africa Canada Accountability Coalition and currently on their Board of Directors, this young woman inspires us with her uninhibited optimism and passion for social justice.
Can you guess?
Yes! Tanja Bergen
T: “Passion.” What comes to mind?
Tanja: Passion is wanting to see something happen. It is a central and motivating force. It is a base and all things you do in life stem from this force – this passion. To me, it’s something I purposely orient my life around.
T: What are you passionate about?
Women’s rights and justice. I was actually thinking about this recently and I think there’s a lot of misinformation about feminism. I think it’s unjust that information is structured in a way that is biased against women and I want to see this movement redefined. And the injustice? Well, how can gender prevent you from doing what you want to in life?
T: What motivates your action in this regard?
Tanja: When I see the injustice that comes from women’s rights being abused or women being deprived of their rights entirely, I get angry, and this motivates my action. I’m also really motivated by a sense of hope – a strong belief in the power that lies within a community of women.
T: We can definitely see you taking action, particularly with your role in ACAC – the Africa Canada Accountability Coalition. Can you tell us a bit about how this got started?
ACAC came into being through a Political Science class – Security Studies. We had a project where we had to create a presentation to a mock parliament addressing a humanitarian crisis. My group was given the Democratic Republic of the Congo – a situation we knew nothing about. As we started researching, we learned that Canada was linked to the Congo in so many ways. And this shocked me. Learning that Canada was not really the ‘peaceful Canada’ I believed in really made me angry. As we got deeper into the project, so did our desire to take action.
Through ACAC, I had an opportunity to do research at the Liu Institute for Global Issues and began to focus a lot on Congolese civil society and local women’s organizations. I was so inspired by the incredible presence of these organizations and the integrity and the drive that fuelled their efforts in the Congo. They were a force to be reckoned with. Imagine that situation – meeting with rebel groups. I would be so scared and probably just want to hide in a corner but these women were, and still are, at the forefront – meeting and talking to rebels to negotiate their lives. Seeing that these women are the hope of their society sustains me. If we as Canadians join their fight, we can help them as they lead the way. If we get involved, we will get further. Our desire to get involved has resulted in quite a bit of advocacy work –holding awareness events, taking political action through sending letters to Parliament etc.
It was funny (she laughs)…at first, we were like “Dear Canada, if you send peace-keepers and …” Of course, with time and research, we realized the complexity of the situation, but even with our simple and somewhat naive letters, people actually listened. The responses often acknowledged the issue and were accompanied by suggestions on how to make our proposals more effective. There was a lot of positive direction. That totally inspired me. Despite being so far removed geographically, we find Canadians who care and this is so encouraging. But really, what inspires me the most is seeing Congolese women kicking ass! And this is the story of women around the world.
T: Tanja, it never ceases to amaze me how quickly you and your team were able to formalize the work of ACAC and really take action in tangible and meaningful ways. The work you are doing is nothing short of inspiring and necessary. So, ACAC, school, work, play…what are your biggest challenges?
Tanja: Getting over-involved! There is a whole lot of work being done around social justice and women’s rights, and while I like to get involved in all of this…it just excites me!…I need to realize that I can only do so much in a given day. Making the time to eat and sleep is so important. I ended up leaving Oxfam UBC, which is a big part of me, but I’m proud of myself for taking this step. If I kept going, it would have been unethical because I just couldn’t put as much forward and the team was not going to benefit. I love the organization, the club, and the people, but yes…it was time. If you want to save the world, you need to be a well-rested and well-fed person! Oh, I also don’t like prioritising. But I’m getting better…slowly.
T: Through these personal challenges and more, who or what is it that keeps you going?
Tanja: Friends, faith, and awesome role models.
The guys and gals in ACAC – there are only 5 of us and we’re all really close and passionate about what we do. Being around a group of people who really care about the things you do and being able to rely on them. Having a really amazing support group always brings me back to the bigger picture.
Apart from my friends, I also look to my faith. My faith gives me the idea of a common humanity; an understanding that every person is meaningful. Basically, my faith helps me contextualize how everyone is important despite differences.
I also admire Dr. Erin Baines a lot. I don’t know her whole story but the fact that she balances her family with her passionate professional work for women and children’s rights really inspires me. She’s done a hell of a lot of stuff with her work – a lot of very practical, tangible stuff.
T: I completely agree – there’s just something about Dr. Erin Baines. She’s one of those people I’d love to have at my dinner table. I have only met her once but that was all it took – I am a fan.
Tanja : Exactly! She makes me feel as though if I work hard and follow my passion, I can create change.
T: Apart from the admiration for Dr. Baines, is there anyone in your life whom you consider a hero?
My grandma. She’s a very traditional woman from a Mennonite family and for a woman of her time – for all that she was told to do and all that she was told to be – she just turned it aalll on its head! She was really her own woman. She was the only one of her siblings to go to high-school, learned how to drive, married my grandfather (it wasn’t a popular choice), and tree planted for a summer! She’s also always known what is right and wrong. It amazes me that a woman of such strong principles and beliefs could manage to be so accepting of all different types of people. She doesn’t tread on other peoples’ beliefs; she’s a source of unconditional love. My grandmother also has a lot of wisdom – she never had a complete education herself but was able to guide all of her children to pursue degrees at university.
T: She sounds like an incredible woman. If there was one thing you could take from her and make it a part of who you are, what would it be?
It would be the ability to display strong leadership without having to take away from others – learning to lead without saying – “this is my idea and what I think should be done” – and listening – listening to bring out the best in others. I’m a really chatty person but two of my closest friends are super quiet so it’s really helped me to take a step back and wait…pause to listen.
T: I couldn’t help but laugh. Yes…the chatty thing certainly resonates with me! Let’s keep working at it! What’s your big dream? Is there something you’d like to change in this world?
Tanja: I’m interested in health care, women’s rights and entrepreneurship. I think business models are really empowering – they can give something meaningful. I’m interested in figuring out how these things can come together. For now, it means travelling and learning more. In the future, it involves a Master’s degree – being really open to learning new things.
And I want to change how women are perceived and received in society. I want women to be seen as the agents they truly are. Let it be that no one woman is seen as helpless and no woman is seen as needing to be saved. I want the idea of a non-essentialized woman to become universal.
That’s the big idea…but on a smaller and more local context, I’d like to change the accountability loop around our tax dollars. I want Canadian leaders and businesses to be held accountable for where our tax dollars are going. I want Export Development Canada (a Crown corporation) to release a full list of companies they invest in so that we as citizens can be aware of the ethics surrounding investment. Companies really should have to obey a higher level of corporate social responsibility.
T: Did I mention that you are inspiring?! Ok, so this isn’t meant to be one of those career questions or scary future questions, but where would you like to be in the next five years?
Tanja: At the end of five years, I want to know about where I will be in the next ten! Does that make sense? See, I don’t know what these next five will look like, but after the five, I want to know about the ten! With all the travelling and learning, I want to see myself as somehow changed. I want to keep some parts of me the same, but I also want to have my beliefs and perspectives challenged.
T: Exciting times ahead! You seem to have come a long way since when you first started here at UBC. Is there anything in particular you’d like to share with students?
Tanja: Well, we as students are told to think big. But we are also often told (or it’s implied) that there is a certain way of thinking big and having an impact. But I think it’s really about examining how one can make change – from person to person, from community to community. So, talk to professors about your social justice ideas or whatever it may be, about projects and so on, and you’ll see how good your ideas really are. They are credible and worth voicing. Don’t be intimidated.
T: Thanks Tanja. It’s been great chatting with you.
Tanja: GO PASSION PROJECT!