Toota Nihal Hassanien, program manager for CivicAction’s Emerging Leaders Network, took part in the "How to Reach Your Potential" initiative, an interview series featuring leaders who inspire Alex Rascanu and whose insights can help you reach your potential.
Toota Nihal Hassanien is currently the Program Manager for CivicAction's Emerging Leaders Network. Combining her unique skills of project management, facilitation and her lived experiences, Toota works to support diverse leaders cultivate their potential and to create meaningful community impact.
Prior to this role, Toota had the privilege of working alongside youth and youth workers with the Success Beyond Limits Education Program - a program focused on hyper investing in youth educational attainment within the vibrant Jane & Finch Community. Within this role, Toota engaged in program delivery, fundraising and strategic planning to ensure the organizations' sustainability.
A York University alumna, Toota has an Honours Bachelor Degree in Psychology and a post-graduate degree in Human Resource Management. Continuously building on her passion for human-centered design and approaches to solving complex challenges, Toota is an active facilitator who enjoys learning with diverse individuals to build a region that works for us all. Her greatest motivation is her siblings, nieces and nephews who are constant reminders of the genius that lies within each of us.
Alex: What is your life’s purpose?
Toota: What a difficult question. At this point in my journey, I believe that my purpose is to be of service. I mean this in many ways: I’m in the service of others, always working to make our reality better, more equitable and supporting others whenever I can in my own capacity, and being of the service to myself, always looking for ways to improve and better my outlook, my strengths, my talents.
Alex: What are the three things you’re most passionate about?
Toota: To me, something that you're passionate about is something that you invest in consistently.
I am deeply passionate about writing. I write when I'm overwhelmed, overjoyed, when I feel hurt, when I’m sad, if I need to reflect, and when I'm proud. When I put pen to paper, it creates this beautiful opportunity to make sense of all the blessings happening around me, while creating something timeless.
I'm passionate about my family. I have a very large family - I'm one of 8 kids, and have a handful of nieces and nephews. Over the years, I've come to realize that they are the greatest gift I've been given. We laugh together, grow together, and support one another. I learn so much just through watching them grow.
I am also passionate about learning. There is nothing more fulfilling then trying a new activity, learning a new skill, learning from the experiences of others, or reading a book and having your mind blown. One of my goals is to learn something new every day. In order to do this, you have to be open to it and be present.
Alex: How do you stay healthy? What’s your main health-related goal?
Toota: Physical health is so important to success (whatever you're definition of success)! It's also connected to mental health. While I do my best to stay active (I've recently been trying my luck with a few dance classes - haven't fallen yet!) I place great emphasis on my mental health, and do my best to check in with myself occasionally. What does that mean exactly? I'm someone who naturally gets really anxious. Knowing this about myself, it's taken a bit of time for me to find ways to cope, but I don't just want to cope. I want to thrive. One method is saying what I'm grateful for on prayer beads.
Alex: How do you build wealth? What’s your main financial goal?
Toota: As a racialized immigrant woman, I have come to learn that the barriers to accessing wealth look very different for me and are heightened for certain communities. In understanding this, I think one of the main ways I am working to accumulate wealth is to better understand the system in which I operate. Being financially literate within this economy is a strength I hope to continue to build on in order to reach my financial goals.
With that said, incremental, small changes are key to reaching lofty goals. When I think of my long term financial goals, it can be quite overwhelming. However, setting small attainable goals in short time frames that will feed into a larger goal, is how I work to build wealth.
Alex: How do you balance work and family life?
Toota: I don’t think you can ever strike a perfect balance between the two because at different times, the amount you give to each will shift depending on what you need and where you are in your journey. However, I do my best to write out my priorities on a weekly basis (both work and personal) and then be very intentional and selective about where I give my time. This means scheduling in work and play, and being fully present when I’m doing one or the other. It sounds very silly to say that you have to schedule in family time, but life can be distracting at times, and I’ve noticed that if I don’t hold myself accountable I can neglect one or the other.
Alex: How do you enjoy spending time with family and friends?
Toota: Talking with friends and family. As cliché as this may sound, I am blessed to be surrounded by family and friends who are of diverse backgrounds, have had powerful life experiences and stories, are brilliant and talented. Being surrounded by such greatness is a blessing, and I do my best to learn from each of them in anyway I can. Dialogue is a great way to learn, build and grow with each other. Whether its through a book club, or vision board planning sessions, or just having a low key dinner, engaging in dialogue with each other is my favourite way to spend time with those I cherish.
Alex: What has been the most fulfilling role you’ve ever had, or the most fulfilling project you’ve been involved with so far?
Toota: Similar to when you’re picking your life partner, I’ve always been told that your career should have similar criteria. Does it make you a better person, are you passionate about it, are you always growing, will it help you fulfill your life’s purpose? Thankfully, many of the roles I’ve had so far allowed me to answer “yes” to all those questions.
This being said, one of the most fulfilling and formative roles I’ve had was my first job right out of university. I worked with a hyper local, high impact youth program in Toronto’s Jane and Finch area for 3 years as a programming coordinator and developed/supported their human resources practices in my last year of working there. The work was transformative, my colleagues have become life-long friends, and the youth I worked alongside taught me just as much if not more than I shared with them. Working in a community that was not only underserved but often stigmatized, taught me a great deal about identity, what it means to be a black woman doing work that directly affects my own community, and the meaning of impact. This work was so fulfilling because both the approach and focus was so closely tied to my values and I was surrounded by people that allowed me to bring my full self to work. I built great confidence in my strengths and my ability to lead authentically through this work, and also saw the impact of our work on a daily basis through engaging with the youth.
Alex: What’s one career planning lesson that has made a significant difference in your life?
Toota: When I’m part of impactful initiatives, to show up with my best self. I’ve been privileged to be involved in a few conversations, or “tables” that impact the equity of our city. As a rising leader, I spent a lot of time doubting if my voice was really being heard or if others could benefit from my perspective. Over time, and through learning from those I admire, I began to see the unique combination of my lived experiences as my greatest asset and, instead of questioning my presence in a room, started to fully own it. This means asking questions that I may feel apprehensive to raise, sharing my opinion, doing my research beforehand, connecting conversations I’m part of to topical and meaningful conversations taking place locally and even globally, and absorbing knowledge from everyone in the room (not only the loudest voices). It means being fully present and willing to contribute meaningfully.
I’ve also learned that, as you progress in your career journey taking others along with you is so important. We often become wrapped up in our own careers, and forget that leadership is about creating space and opportunities for others. If you’re invited to sit on a committee, or attend an event, or speak on a panel think to yourself: who do I know that could benefit from this engagement and engage them?
Alex: What would you like your legacy to be?
Toota: This is definitely a question I am still working through. Legacy is so closely tied to leadership and, over time, I’ve come to realize that if I want to be an intentional leader this is a question I need to be able to answer.
I know that I want my legacy to be positively and deeply impact my community, and my family (that currently span two continents - Africa and North America). Of course, I want to support my current and future family to have generational wealth and sustainability, but for now I want my legacy to be felt through my character. There is this beautiful Rumi quote that says “You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean in a drop”. If I can support others to realize this, to see their greatness and then deliver on it, that is a legacy I want to create.
Alex: Toota, thank you so much for taking part in this interview! Your openness and insights are much appreciated!
Did you find one or more of Toota's thoughts helpful? Are there any ideas or resources that came to mind as you read the interview?
Please share your thoughts and feedback in the comments section below, and consider sharing the interview with a friend via social media or email.
Also, consider checking out the How to Reach Your Potential interviews with Trina Boos, Hamza Khan, James Tjan, Vlad Rascanu, Drew Dudley, Alexandru Holicov, Andrew Mizzoni, Christa Dickenson, Louise Adongo, Sarah Chaudhery, Jake Nicolle, Andy McIlwain, Busola Akin-Olawore, Rebecca Laramée, Richard Obede, Bailey Parnell, Cerys Cook, Blake Snow and Sean Cooper. Thank you.
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