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Comfortable with the uncomfortable

Author: Cezara Grama

I am the ultimate obsessive planner.

I've been making lists and plans my whole life in order to avoid stepping out of my comfort zone. Over one and a half years, I worked with over 500 high school students from Romania and Moldova who had the courage to speak publicly. They speak about things that are important to them and their communities, they speak about the need to have sexual education in schools, they speak about bullying, mental health. They realize that they are not powerless. I think we got to the point where we have to learn to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. It was 2017 and I was in America, in a fellowship in which I was trying to learn how grassroots movements form.

I spent one month in Chicago at an organization that works with young people from vulnerable communities, and they try to support them to make their voices heard in regard to the problems that are important for their communities. Problems such as: organized crime, drugs, violence, systemic discrimination, lack of access to healthcare services, to social housing. So, lots of complicated things. I went with them to many schools in Chicago during that period, and I saw the way they worked, I saw the way they talked to teachers, how they worked with the youth. I learned many things, and my point of view changed a lot on what I was doing at home, during similar programs.

Maybe, out of all the things I experienced, during the month I spent with them in Chicago, there was one reply that stuck with me a lot, and that I had heard from one of the teachers I had the occasion to work with in Chicago. We were getting ready for a workshop with a new class in high school, a class with which the organization hadn't worked with before, in which we were going to discuss, and find out their opinion about subjects that were important to them in their communities, but also about politics, politicians, and, in general, the problems their community was facing, and American society in the year 2017, meaning that a lot of subjects were polarizing.

The workshop was opened by the teacher who told his pupils the following: Today, we will be talking about subjects that often cause conflict, that make us feel uncomfortable, but I think we got to the point where we have to learn to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. Or, in English: Let’s get comfortable with the uncomfortable! For me, this thing was like a click. And, as a sort of proof, that's what I am talking about today. And it made me ask myself: I wonder how comfortable am I with the uncomfortable? And how often do I step out of my comfort zone in the things I do? In order to be able to answer this question, allow me to tell you some things about myself: My name is Cezara, and I am the ultimate obsessive planner. In order words, I'm Monica from Friends. I've been making lists and plans my whole life wishing to make my life predictable, and in order to avoid stepping out of my comfort zone. Because uncertainty makes me, and has always made me, extremely anxious. It made me automatically think in that voice Cristina was talking about. I would ask myself: If I step out of my comfort zone, what if it won't be perfect? What if I fail? What if I make a mistake? What if someone will be able to tell that I shouldn't actually be here? And it's not something I've only done then. I've been doing it since forever. In 2014, I had just finished Law School, when I was admitted to Leaders for Justice, 5th generation. And I was completely lost. In the sense that I was asking myself obsessively what I was doing with my life, and what career to choose.

I still remember that, during one of the LfJ sessions, about the theory of change, and I know that Mihai is here, I took part voluntarily in an experiment, in which I was trying to find out what changes I'd need to make, and what steps I'd need to follow in order to find out what career path I should follow. And my classmates were asking me nicely. They'd ask questions, so that I could get closer and closer to a satisfying answer. And my answer to all their questions was: I don't know! To their despair, as you can imagine. Actually, I understood a lot later that my mind was fighting with the idea that the answer is beyond my comfort zone. I was trying to contain everything in a series of very strict limits I had drawn, I would actually start to build walls around me, and I would completely miss all the opportunities that came.

The moment I accepted that, actually, there's a pattern I'd created for myself about what I should do, what fits my interests, only then did I begin truly embracing opportunities, and trying to be happier. Through the Leaders for Justice program, I met those wonderful people once again who had very unusual career paths, and who gave me the courage to think about the fact that maybe the pattern I'd created, and in which I was trying to fit somehow and to force my limits, doesn't actually fit me. I have a degree in Law.

So, I probably thought that I would become a lawyer, but, even though I'd gone in that direction, it wasn't right and I didn't feel like it was the place I should be in. In 2014, after finishing the Leaders for Justice program, I started working with an NGO, Expert Forum, where I am today, and my career is in Law, but it's about a lot of things. Because I added things I was afraid of admitting I needed to the profile of a law graduate. Activism, elections, civic education, workshops for the youth, public policy and lots and lots of other things. I learned about myself that, even though I can't always be certain that the choices I make will take me where I want to go, the experience in itself is worth it, and that I always learn something from the things I finally choose to do. And these things may seem cliché to you, but I'm honestly asking you: When you were teenagers, did you know all these things? I, for one, did not. And I realized from the teenagers I work with in my job today that they don't know either.

Because teenagers need safe spaces, where they can learn, make mistakes, try things out, and get better through all these experiences. Unfortunately, however, there aren't that many spaces like that. Because of this need, the Let’s talk about you(th)! program was born. It is a public speaking competition for high school students. It's a platform for teenagers and about teenagers. In April 2020, during the lockdown, among the teachers I had been working with for years, high school teachers, you could sense frustration because they'd completely lost the connection to their students who had started to isolate themselves more and more because of the fact that they were at home, and no longer had contact with anyone. Through the Let’s talk about you(th)! program, over one and a half years, I worked with over 500 high school students from Romania and Moldova who had the courage to do one of the scariest, let's say, activities for a human being: public speaking. And not about anything.

They speak about things that are important to them and their communities, they speak about the need to have sexual education in schools, they speak about bullying, mental health, and also about domestic violence, harassment, climate change, all these subjects that are actually not only important to them, but also to all of us. For a three-minute speech, because that's all they have: three minutes, they make a tremendous effort to understand the problem they have really chosen. They look for credible sources in order to use them to talk about the problem informally and, first and foremost, they discover different perspectives, perspectives they hadn't thought about up to that point. They develop empathy and good will towards others. They learn about the duties of local and central authorities, and they understand who should actually solve their problem. Who has the duty to solve the problem. But I think that what's most important is to challenge them to think about realistic solutions; solutions that they, as citizens, can apply in order to solve the problem. This means having solutions beyond: It should be done. Someone should do it. What can they do? And that's exactly where the discomfort appears for them.

Because, as you can probably tell, they are disappointed to find out that there aren't any magical solutions to solve tomorrow's complex issues, that they aren't almighty, but, also, that no one is, even though there may be people who try to trick them into thinking that they can solve the issue just like that. And maybe, even though they get frustrated, they also realize that they are not powerless. And that the small changes that they can make, that are under their control, actually help this community, their community, become better for us all and for them with every step they take. Take Ioana, for example. Ioana is 16, she lives in a small town in Romania, and, in her speech, she talked about the need to have dedicated spaces where teenagers can spend their time. She found out during our workshops what duties the local authorities have, what the mayor does, what the local council does, and how she, as a citizen, can get involved, in decisions taken at a local level. After the competition was over, she decided to go further, and turn this idea into reality.

She went to the local council's meetings, along with a few classmates and she had support of some awesome teachers. This year, she received the support of town hall to build the first cinema in their city.

Similarly, Mihai who is a pupil I've worked with during the competition was very courageous during his speech about violence and sexual abuse against children and teenagers. And he talked about the need for sexual education with lots of responsibility, in a way that would bother many politicians. Just as Andreea was telling us earlier today, about the need to understand where the limits are.

They have to identify the limit after which a certain behavior is already a problem. All these things are extremely courageous and important, and, during this program, me and my colleagues, let's say, the adults in the experiment, learned from them that maybe the most important thing we can do is support them, and encourage them to speak about all these things, and offer them experiences through which we can take steps forwards together towards a world that remains imperfect, but that is more balanced.

And, most of all, we learned to be uncomfortable too and to talk about these very sensitive topics with some teenagers, and, when we didn't know the answer to a question, to be honest and to say: I don't know, but maybe we can find the answers together! About me... You should know that stepping out of the comfort zone gives me anxiety: I still make lists, I haven't given it up, but I learned to leave some space for the unexpected things in my life. For this reason, I decided to dye my hair pink.

And, finally, I'd like to launch a challenge for you. Have you thought about the wonderful changes you could make in your communities, if only you dared to step out of your comfort zone? Thank you!


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