No stranger to a strange land

Noreen Mabiza. Photo: Bruce Murray. Illustration: Rob Hansen

Noreen Mabiza believes that social justice and environmental sustainability are one and the same, and she won’t rest until she proves it

On her first day in a new country, one hemisphere and six time zones from home, Noreen Mabiza knew she had to be somewhere. It was a typical late-August Halifax day, with the sea-salt smell blowing ashore from the outer harbour and old-man summer sun spreading rumours of approaching autumn, and the Dalhousie university-bound newcomer was late for orientation. 

But, at that moment, she didn’t care. 

“I was just taken in by the views and everything, so I told myself it’s OK,” she says of that afternoon in 2014, when she decided to get lost along the waterfront. “I thought it was beautiful. I had no map, no working phone. I just kept walking.”

In a sense, Mabiza’s been walking into local terra incognita ever since. 

She was born and raised in Harare, capital of Zimbabwe, with its embassies and World Bank towers and 1.5 million residents. But since graduating from Dal in 2018 (with a degree in international development and environment, sustainability, and society), she’s become an advocate of housing reform for low-income folks and energy coordinator for sustainable communities at the Ecology Action Centre in her adopted city.

Now, the fiercely effective, increasingly influential social justice champion is about to embark on a whole new journey through territory both foreign and familiar as the project lead for the EAC’s freshly minted Green Jobs For All program. 

“It’s about having conversations with immigrants and newcomer youth and identifying the barriers that they face in entering the green economy,” she says. “I’m really excited to dive into this as the coordinator and also work in partnership with other organizations.”

According to her colleagues, few are better suited for the job. The program had been sitting on a shelf for years until Mabiza ran away with it last year. 

“She talked to different people and partners and really formulated an approach,” says Marla MacLeod, the centre’s programs director. “It was like following a trail or connecting the dots, kind of like being a detective, to get the right questions to address. How can immigrant and newcomer youths participate in the world of green jobs? How can we ensure that this group, that we really want to succeed, get to be part of this transition that’s happening in the world?”

MacLeod adds: “Noreen is deeply curious. And to my mind, that’s an exciting quality. She’s a person who finds something interesting, explores it and then brings it about.” Mabiza’s EAC colleague Gurprasad Gurumurthy concurs: “She always brings new ideas to the work. After every single meeting, she goes away and comes back with new perspectives.”

A different way of looking at what could have been an intractable problem propelled her here from central Africa in the first place. She had just finished high school and, as the daughter of an engineer-father and lawyer-mother, she was surveying the international landscape for a suitable institute of higher education to continue her studies. Friends suggested Canada. It was a good country, they said, with an excellent reputation for academic achievement. 

She recalls her reaction with a laugh: “No way. You won’t find me anywhere in Canada. It’s way too cold.”

She changed her mind after reviewing the course description for Dal’s environment program. The write-up promised, among other things, an “exploration of the links between complex environmental issues and poverty, globalization, consumption and urbanization.” Studying here, it purred, would give her skills to become “a leader and changemaker” in her chosen career. How could she resist? “I was 100-per-cent determined to go right then and there,” she says. 

But it wasn’t just the promise of building her changemaker muscles that intrigued her. 

She was genuinely interested in how people can live well, equitably, and sustainably. She was also aware that she was a child of privilege. 

“Growing up, I went to boarding school, and I got to do two international trips through school without my parents,” she says. “But really, as part of the regular curriculum (in Zimbabwe), we would go out into nature and see animals and talk to the wildlife rangers. I think it’s really only been within the past couple of years that 

I’ve fully realized the big influence those trips had on me. The land, the environment, environmental policy — there’s a relationship there.”

Dal’s program fit her aspirations perfectly and as time passed, she became familiar with the campus and the city, the main streets and side alleys. “I got a map,” she cracks. “My residence was on Morris and South Park streets. So, I had a view of the water from my room. Coming from Harare, it was pretty. It wasn’t big-city rush. It was slow enough that I could find my pace and do what I needed to do. And everyone wasreally great.”

She threw herself into the university community like a long-lost friend, becoming a residence assistant who needed to be “self-motivated, capable of functioning independently and as part of a team, empathetic and fair, and an excellent communicator,” according to the job description. Her college friends remember how thoroughly she ticked all the boxes.

“What drew me to Noreen is a kind of a calmness, which is an odd trait as I don’t see it in a lot of people,” says Margaret MacDonald, a roommate in 2014 and still a close friend, now working for the Workers’ Compensation Board of Nova Scotia. “But she’s just such a relaxed person that I instantly was like, ‘I could be friends with this person.’ The feeling was like, ‘Oh, we’ve been friends for a long time even though we’ve just met.’” 

Ramin Nauman, who met Mabiza in 2015 and who is now an engineer in Halifax, says her friend’s generosity frequently blew her away. Originally from Pakistan, Nauman missed her family especially around the Muslim holiday Eid. 

“I was here by myself without my family for the first time and we just we went out to dinner together even though it wasn’t her holiday,” she says. “It’s just been a recurring thing. We’ll check in with each other. We’ll do our holidays together.”

For Falayha Khawaja, a graphic designer in Calgary who got to know Mabiza in 2017, it was her discipline that somehow both impressed and charmed. 

“I remember many times when she would come into my room just to practice her speeches and pitch her ideas to me,” she says. “I was always in awe of that. Even with all her work at the Ecology Action Centre, she would practise her 

speeches with me for her webinars there. She definitely knows what she wants. She works hard. And she advocates for what she believes. And she dedicates the time, and gets it done. She’s so passionate about what she does. I believe that if you’re passionate in your work, you don’t work a day in your life.”

If that’s true, then Mabiza definitely isn’t working. Her passion for fairness, equity and justice sometimes consumes her, she may admit, especially since moving to Halifax. 

“We all know that everything is connected, everything is interrelated, and as we call for climate justice, we can’t separate that from social justice,” she says. “You know, I came here as someone who grew up in a community where most people looked like me. I didn’t really have to think about some of the things I was forced to think about suddenly being in Halifax, being a Black immigrant. I think those things just became so much more apparent to me.”

Noreen Mabiza. Photo: Bruce Murray. Illustration: Rob Hansen

And increasingly more irksome. After graduating, she took a job as a social justice coordinator for the Nova Scotia branch of the national Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). There, among other initiatives, she helped launch a mock food drive in 2018 to “support” the Bragg family, owners of Eastlink — a business that claims it’s too small to provide inexpensive internet to low-income Nova Scotians. 

According to her press release for the organization, “ACORN’s Internet for All campaign was launched in 2013, pushing telecom companies to lower the cost of internet for low-income families to $10 to help bridge the Digital Divide.”

A year later, she was at it again, literally pounding the pavement in Spryfield in a tenant action to protest landlord MetCap Living’s housing conditions. 

“ACORN Nova Scotia continues an ongoing campaign to get landlords to provide healthy and suitable living for low-income Nova Scotians,” her statement to the press said. “MetCap Living has become notorious for low-quality housing and poor management. Many buildings are infested with bedbugs and in dire need of repairs.” 

She loved the work, but wanted to find a way to combine the social justice component with her first love, environmental sustainability. “I didn’t want to spend too long being employed without using my environmental experience,” she says. “So, I would always look for new roles.” 

When the job came up at EAC, she jumped at it. Marla MacLeod is glad she did. “Noreen is just so fantastic to work with,” she says. “She brings so many diverse and interesting fields to the work. I’ve gotten to see her both in space of curiosity and in developing a project. And I’ve also gotten to spend time with her in the advocacy world. She and I were the ones who got to go present to the Law Amendments Committee about the Nova Scotia government’s Environmental Goals and Climate Change Reduction Act last fall.” 

In a press release after the presentation, EAC gave the government its qualified support, noting several positive aspects of the legislation, including: a promise to phase out coal by 2030, an electric vehicle mandate, a commitment to protecting 20 per cent of the province’s land and water by 2030, and a focus on equity as a core principle. 

But promises are cheap. Mabiza has her eye on accountability and follow-through. 

“We need to ensure we’re not undermining our own progress by continuing with outdated industries, fossil fuel extraction, and unproven carbon capture technologies,” she says. “Missteps here will continue to increase our emissions and threaten our ecosystems. We’ll be watching for meaningful action and specifics on issues like offshore oil and gas, biomass burning, and open net-pen aquaculture … Consultations on the Sustainable Development Goals Act have shown us that Nova Scotians are ready to get to work on a rapid transition.” 

Firebrand, advocate, champion. Sure. But consensus builder? Sound-bite maker? That may be in the cards for Mabiza as she pilots Green Jobs For All and, in the process, assumes a bigger role for herself in Nova Scotia’s slowly evolving social, economic, and environmental landscape. 

“A year from now, if I were having this conversation with you, I would be hoping that I’d grown a network of folks who are concerned about these issues and are coming together to talk about them,” she says. “I’d be hoping that the immigrants, themselves, are in the conversation. In the long run, my hopes are that we all identify where the push needs to be. Where are the places that change needs to occur?” 

In other words, she’s taking another long walk through Halifax, even perhaps along its brisk, sometimes achingly beautiful, waterfront. She’s no longer a stranger in a strange land and she’ll keep walking, just as she did on that first outing six years ago.

Who knows where she’ll end up? But lost? No, not this time. 

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