Leaders by nature

Kareina D'Souza. Photo: Submitted

Since she was a child, nature has fascinated Kareina D’Souza.

Interested in animals, she went to the University of Guelph planning to become a veterinarian. But then she saw a new world of possibilities by getting out into nature and doing fieldwork.

“I started to see the thrust of the problem of the environment,” she says. “As you go further and further into the field, you start to realize where the problems are and how you can affect change. That is how I ended up in this world. It wasn’t the path that I saw myself going down when I first started.”

Completing her master’s degree on the East Coast, D’Souza now works as sustainability manager at Dalhousie University.

As she worked in Halifax, D’Souza came up with the idea for the Women of Colour Leadership in Nature pilot program.

“I was looking for leadership training of my own,” she says. “I was looking at a lot of executive education programs at the University of Toronto and Dalhousie. They were very expensive—thousands of dollars, lots of time—and focused on a very old-school leadership style. With that, I started looking for a program that was more focused on women of colour … and there are not that many.”

The pilot program is a peer-learning model adopted from a free Women of Leadership Circle program from a non-profit organization based in Boston.

It is a monthly program with five themes: mentorship, book club, resume, interview preparation, and strategic thinking. It wraps up with an art project. Overall, this program aims to build a community for women of color and equip them with tools for success in leadership roles.

“I have a few friends here who we’re not all in the same field,” she says. “We’re all people of colour … It’s always eye-opening to me that we’re in different fields, different age ranges in different stages of our careers.”

The common thread is that their experiences are very different from those of most people in leadership positions in Halifax, which is why they use nature as a “safe and grounding” space.  

“It takes us out of that traditional workplace—the boardroom, the conference centres—and into beaches and hiking and camping,” D’Souza explains. “I have always found it a great way to connect with yourself and with other people.”

The goal is to help women of colour challenge typical leadership traits.

“This program is essentially just trying to shift the view of what a leader is and helping women advocate for themselves,” she says. “We come from a leadership background where the traits people look for in leadership are assertive or dominant, and that’s focused on white, Eurocentric male vision of what a leader is. But other traits make a great leader—empathy, kindness, and also being able to stand up for yourself.”

Photo: Submitted

Recently, D’Souza’s work has gained attention as she received a 2021 Young Nature Leadership Grant.

The selection committee “just felt that her proposed project showed a compassion for nature, but also a passion for engaging and inspiring other young people to get involved,” says Jodi Joy, Nature Canada‘s development director. “Kareina … wants to ensure that nature is welcoming to everybody to participate and engage in nature, as well as take action to protect nature because it’s important for all of us.”

Ultimately, D’Souza hopes this program empowers and develops a new breed of leaders.

“I am not a version of what a leader looks like in the past,” she says. “I grew up dealing with that sort of attitude. I want to make sure that isn’t the case anymore. I want to empower more women, feel they can advocate for themselves, see them in leadership positions, and know a community of other people just like them who have their backs.”

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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