Mehak Sheikh is a connector by nature, and a facilitator by nurture. She is a Capacity Building Coordinator with a national non-profit that backs youth-led movements and campaigns and also runs her own business, Unconventional Learning. Here’s the story!
Can you tell our readers what a normal day looks like for Mehak Sheikh?
Every day is really varied and it’s frankly what I love most about the opportunity to curate my career. Some days of the week you’ll find me working as a Capacity Building Coordinator with a national non-profit that backs youth-led movements and campaigns, other days you’ll find me running my own business, Unconventional Learning and delivering life skills / professional development programs and then in the evenings and weekends I might be facilitating intercultural dialogue amongst the South Asian diaspora in Australia through a collective I co-founded called The Brown Come Up, or sharing my perspectives on identity, culture and social impact on a panel.
This variety also means that I’m constantly being challenged and learning, always meeting new people and have become really good at picking up on generalist skills.
I’ve also been recently trying to re-adjust my habits, lockdown has really thrown a spanner in the works for this, so a normal day looks like trying to fit in a walk or an online ladies Zumba class or a stretch, prayers, and two-and-a-half meals a day, a Netflix show and maybe some journaling especially on the stressful days.
What role does diversity and inclusion play in the work that you do?
I actually started my journey in advocacy and movements from this exact topic. In 2016, I signed up to a public speaking program and I was also trying to discover my own identity and community which proved to be challenging because I’ve had multiple layers of migration in my own lifetime but also generationally, so I was the embodiment of the “cultural diversity” everyone was speaking about in policy and programs. For context, I identify as a 4th generation Kenyan-Punjabi-Muslim, so you can image how diverse my life is. However, I didn’t feel that the words “diversity” “cultural community” were those that resonated with me. Instead I leaned towards Interculturalism and Third Culture Kid – which I think encompass more of what inclusion tries to do.
I think “diversity and inclusion” are very buzzwordy at the moment, but I would say that intersectionality, equity and representation are more relevant to what I do in my work. My day job actually can’t take place without an acknowledgment of the diversity of this country, and more so the challenges that communities of colour face in an Individualistic world. All the advocacy and movement work that I support needs to be rooted in First Nations justice, Accessibility, which is what inclusion looks like to me.
We set up The Brown Come Up in 2020 as a literal response to how non-inclusive spaces can be for South Asian folk living in Australia, but also in an attempt to demonstrate the diversity within the same community. It started with a conversation about representation in media and arts spaces with my fiancé who identifies as a Music Producer and led to community dialogues about how nuanced culture is where generalisations have been falling short, where they are useful, and how to challenge any internalised racism that hinders the progress of diversity and inclusion.
Have you ever faced challenges in your professional career from others because of your identity and if so, how were you able to overcome that?
I would say the most significant challenge is two-fold; the assumptions that people make about you when they first see you. I felt this most when I was running for local government elections in 2020 for a seat in the City of Wyndham. I ran as an independent, and the youngest in my Ward, so not only was there an attitude about my potential because of my age or gender stereotypes, but it was compounded by the fact that I am visibly Brown. Some of the comments floating around the community were really derogative which isn’t helpful when you’re putting yourself out there, and others come in the form of micro-aggressions to my Muslim identity or migrant journey, which are so much harder to point out.
In that time, it really helped to be around other folks who were also on a similar journey and having a community of care and joy – a place to go to just decompress for the day, sit in the sunshine or have a cry.
I believe the assumptions made about you are either from some deep-seeded racist attitudes or fear of the unknown, when they haven’t met another Brown woman doing similar kind of work. Which alludes to the second layer of challenge in that it’s really hard to know where you’re headed, be inspired, or learn from people who aren’t even there to begin with because of systemic and structural barriers. Your own career progression and exploration, or being able to bring collectivist values to your work becomes limited. I’ve felt stuck when working in environments that don’t have representation and I’m still finding ways to deal with this one but for the moment, deliberately finding Women of Colour to surround myself with has been very uplifting – and this is also extends to content from them on my social media or articles I’m reading.
ADVICE FOR THE YOUTH
I understand that it’s so hard to be something you can’t see but someone once told me that I might have to become the person I can’t see and that it will lead to other, greater impacts. So my advice is to give it a shot. If nothing, you will learn about yourself, and the system you’re operating in.
My other and related advice would be to reflect on your identity and ancestral strengths – it’s true that in mainstream we might not see people like us, but we come from lineages of innovation, resistance, courage, and care – so lean into these and learn from communities around the world who’ve taken a step.
Want to follow and support MEHAK?
If people would like to work with me, my values and services can be found on www.mehaksheikh.com
I post opportunities on Facebook: @mehaksheikh_official
I occasionally also share reflections on Instagram: @mehaksheikh_official
About the diversity champion:
My name is Mehak Sheikh (pronounced Meh-Heck Shake), I am a connector by nature, and a facilitator by nurture. As a 25-year old woman (I use she/her pronouns) from Melbourne’s Western suburbs, I identify as a fourth-generation Kenyan background with Muslim Punjabi heritage, currently residing on unceded lands of the Woiwurrung, Boonrwrung, Wathaurrung, Daungwurrung and Dja Dja Wrung people. All of this guides my existence in the world. I am driven by my passion for systems change, community and youth-led voice and education. I am also influenced to engage in social justice causes by hearing from of my peers and my own lived-experiences of being a young person from a migrant background living in Melbourne (Naarm). Having trained in Psychology (Hons) and published works on acculturation attitudes in education for migrant communities, my expertise lies intercultural and intergenerational dialogue, emotional intelligence, accessible capacity building and advocacy. In all my work, I hope to contribute in the development of a fair, equitable and sustainable society.
Image description: Mehak is looking at the camera wearing a purple sweater and using her laptop