Inspiration, Interviews, Learning

Authentic Conversation with Alexandra Ştef – Part I

24/11/2015
imagine blog alex

Part I. On Romanian social projects that matter, and one of her hardest life moments.

Romanian-born, at 8 years old she followed her parents to Venezuela where they went on to live for 14 years. She holds a Master in Political Science and International Affairs from University College London and after graduating she decided to make a shift in her life, put off the dream of an international career and pursue meaningful work in Romania. At 27, she moved back to native Bucharest where she founded an online magazine where people contribute with vulnerable and real life stories, called Hey Mărie!. She contributes to organizations supporting grassroots civic engagement and hopes to foster change in local communities in and outside Bucharest. 

R: Alex, one of the things that I admire the most about you is the courage to show up and be yourself, by admitting frankly your flaws and your strengths. As a matter of fact, you created an online platform that encompasses authentic stories and invites humans to make their voices heard. Among this, you have a young and creative spirit that gets involved in lots of projects, sometimes in 4-5 projects at the same time. So I would like to hear and share your story and how you perceive life.

The first question that I am going to ask you is: Who is Alexandra?

A: That’s a tough one, of course. Alexandra is a very curious individual who wants to use whatever skills she has to help causes she deeply believes in. She’s a person who is now convinced that her professional and life projects will always have to do with like-minded communities of people.

I see myself as a facilitator rather than a protagonist. I’m a person for whom authenticity has always been important, but now this is important to the point that it is how I filter the projects that I get involved in, the people I work with and the type of content that I put out in the world. So I’m curious, open and have a huge trust in people, in the capacity of groups to actually come together and work together.

What did you do in the last couple of years?

The last couple of years have been of exploration and I think hopefully they are coming to a conclusion at this point. I intentionally stood away from formal jobs with long-term contracts. I did a lot of volunteering because I felt that was an easy way to discover organizations I would have liked to work with, but I didn’t want to make a commitment that was a year or two years long. I had the privilege to be able to survive without a salary, I live with my father, so there are certain financial sacrifices that I’ve made, but these were calculated in a way.

So what I did was that I volunteered at two different organizations focused on local communities in Bucharest. One works with vulnerable children from a majority Roma ghetto by offering an alternative education programme at two local schools and the other works with citizens who organize around specific challenges they have in their neighborhoods by providing community-organizing resources to fight abuse, such as illegal building on green public spaces. I also got involved in projects that came up through conversations with friends, so things that were very spontaneous in nature and through with I felt I could learn something new. The thing that I am most passionate about learning is how to build communities that are both localised and online, which is the exercise that I still do with Hey Mărie!.

I’ve also worked with Edgeryders – a great example of the power of online networks to connect the disconnected – which is a global platform for activists and change-makers who are seeking to change their communities in a hands-on, almost experimental way. I’m currently working on a project engaging citizens living in some of Bucharest’s so-called ”dormitory neighbourhoods” in public debates about their needs for cultural activities close to where they live.

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So the last couple of years were of exploration of what really interests me. I realized that I need to see the impact that my work has. I could have went on to pursue work in an international organization, which is the road that many of my colleagues took after graduating, yet that was too abstract for me. Even working at the level of policy-making is too abstract – there’s too much jargon being thrown around, a lot of things that seem like empty words and processes that are not transparent, if not outright corrupt. We don’t really see whom they are affecting, so I decided that I needed to do something that I could see the results of. Also, because I am not a patient person (and this is one of the challenges that I have), I want to see that what I do has an immediate impact of some sorts. It doesn’t have to be on a grand scale, but some perceivable impact.

What is your plan with regards to Hey Mărie!?

My plan is to make it much easier to sustain and much more decentralized than it is right now, so I want to make it function as if I was out of the picture. It started as a place where we would gather content from contributors, edit and publish it. The role of Hey Mărie! was more as a facilitator of a conversation that people were afraid of having – conversations about what it means to experience a quarter-life crisis and anxieties about your career, relationships, body image, confidence, success. All these big topics of what it means to become an adult and the challenges that we face when we come to the realization that maybe we are reaching 30 and we still don’t feel like real adults. I’ll reach 30 by the end of the year and it’s starting to be defining in the way that I present myself and the way I am telling my own story.

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So with Hey Mărie! the idea is to have a flexible team of editors and content creators and also to maintain the model of a space that is user-generated and user-driven. In parallel, we want to do more “șezători” (untranslatable; social gatherings in an intimate setting customary in rural Romania). These are events where we meet and talk about those same topics we discuss online, but now face-to-face and in a smaller group of people where trust and empathy can emerge. The purpose is to get a sense that it’s okay to talk about the challenges you have and to discover that people sitting next to you might have the same questions. The reasoning is that it can be liberating and constructive to talk about the difficulties of life.

The way I look at life is as if it was a road that sometimes leads to the deepest valleys, sometimes to the highest peaks and other times it’s all about gentle strolls. What is one of the deepest valleys that you have touched?

Wow. I mean, there are several… I had a depression for a few months. I was 23 and it was really odd because my life seemed okay. The reason why I talk about that one and not a recent one is because during these last two years of exploration I’ve had moments of deep valleys but I knew they were part of the process. I choose to talk about the depression at 23 because it made a shift. I realized that I wanted something meaningful, not something that looked good or was proper according to social standards.

At 23 I had a job, a comfortable life, a boyfriend, I had most of the boxes ticked for a stable life and yet I felt I was wasting myself. I felt like a parasite. My father got really concerned and he suggested I should take a break to travel the world, take a sabbatical. I was like, “No, no, no, I need to do something meaningful with my life. I’m not doing that now and I need to find meaning.” The conclusion to that was that I would do a Master, which I managed to do the following year.

I think it was a valley for me because that was when I realized that you make your life and every choice that you make sets the ground for what comes next. The choices that I wanted to make were choices that, even if they made life a bit more complicated or less secure, I would rather keep exploring. I decided to keep questioning and keep changing the things that I do instead of staying in a place that might be comfortable but which felt like a dead-end. At 23 I felt like I had reached a dead-end.

How did it feel to be there?

Well, I lost a bunch of weight, I couldn’t eat… I did something that was very unnatural to me, which is I shut myself inside my house. I didn’t go out at all, I only got out to run in the nearby park. I had a boyfriend whom I didn’t see for two months, I didn’t speak to anyone. I worked from home, it was a coincidence that I could stay at home a lot. I couldn’t sleep, I just drank a lot of coffee and decided that I really wanted to do a Master. I wrote application letters when it was already too late – it was May and school would start in September. I had zero chances but I still worked on it. I entered this obsessive mode where all that mattered in my life was that I got into this Master’s programme at a very specific university, London School of Economics.

I felt as if it was a matter of life and death. Of course it wasn’t, but in my mind it was like saving my soul in that moment, and I was very radical. I usually don’t do it, I am a pretty sociable person, so shutting myself away was a survival mechanism. I haven’t had that experience again so that was my deepest fall, a moment when I also realized that since my mother had passed away I’d never really processed that loss. I felt very alone, but in a good way: “This is who you are – a complete individual that can make whatever choice they want to make. Do it. Do it now. It’s already late. You are 23.” I don’t feel like that anymore. Now I am more relaxed but back then I was very harsh with myself.

Part II of the conversation.

Read here the story of Authentic Conversations Project.

Photo credits 1, 2, 3.

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1 Comment

  • Reply Authentic Conversation with Alexandra Ştef – Part II – Roxana Drăguș 24/11/2015 at 14:38

    […] The first part of the conversation can be read here. […]

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