Kala Ortwein

Develop a Passion — Then, Perhaps, Follow It

It’s almost convocation time — a time when new grads are left wondering whether they should follow their passion, their bliss. Or should you start by developing valuable skills that evolve into a passion for a specific field?

By Deb Cummings

"You've got to find what you love … the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking, and don't settle."

This is precisely what Steve Jobs told a graduating class at Stanford University in his commencement address in 2005. It’s not that this advice was particularly original — in fact, this inspirational mantra has been doled out to new grads since Richard Bolles’ classic, What Colour is Your Parachute?, became a bestseller in 1970.

What is a little more original, however, is when someone’s master’s thesis garners national media attention and then, despite the author’s intent to pursue other work, leads the person right back into her “passion project” — which, in this case, was a UCalgary thesis in communication studies.

Such is the story of Kala Ortwein, MA’16.

Growing up in a hard-scrabble town in the interior of B.C. was often tough enough for Ortwein, but add a visibly homeless father to your life and things are bound to become even more confusing and complicated. 

“My dad, who had alcohol and mental health issues, was sleeping in cupboards and in alleyways,” explains Ortwein, now the manager of internal and external communications for the Calgary Drop-In Centre. “I hate to admit it, but I would sometimes just walk by him and pretend I didn’t know him. Many people did.”

After high school, Ortwein high-tailed it to UBC Okanagan in Kelowna where she completed a BA in psychology in 2012 before heading to Calgary. A year later, her father died and his death gnawed at her, so much so that the backbone of her future master’s thesis at UCalgary was a qualitative study that examined the experiences of people like her — daughters of homeless men. Unsure how to locate others like her, Ortwein created hard-hitting, gritty black-and-white posters that attracted the attention of Mayor Naheed Nenshi, who retweeted her quest for female participants. The Calgary Herald paid attention to that tweet, turned it into a story that garnered national attention and, presto!, Ortwein had 23 responses. After narrowing the list down to 10 participants, Ortwein realized she wasn’t actually writing this thesis to honour her late father or any of the other participants’ dads anymore.

Kala Ortwein with her family

These women were confessing their guilt, their sorrow, their anger, their struggle…

Kala Ortwein, MA’16

Video Shoot for the Drop-In

“I went into this project thinking, 'I am going to solve poverty,'” she adds, shaking her head in naïve disbelief. “We were all going to talk about money and losing shoes and ridiculous notions like that and, of course, that’s not what people wanted to talk about. Not at all.

“After I interviewed the 10 women, I realized I was dealing with confessionals — these women were confessing their guilt, their sorrow, their anger, their struggle . . . and where they fit in. How do you be a ‘good’ daughter when your dad is an alleged vagrant, a hobo, a misfit . . . a homeless guy?”

It rapidly became clear the underlying question Ortwein would eventually answer in her 100-plus-page thesis would be, “How does a woman’s self-identity change in accordance with the various ways in which she perceives her father’s identity?”

“I soon discovered the perspective on homelessness that our stories were telling challenged the current perceptions of the so-called ‘unworthy poor,’” explains Ortwein, adding the Drop-In Centre’s fundraising project, Fueled by Kindness, of which Ortwein played a crucial part, also provided a fresh perspective on homeless people.

“In that campaign, we worked really hard at challenging the status quo,” says Ortwein, explaining that, in shooting the campaign’s videos, they abandoned the usual black-and-white images of people with “creviced faces, looking very sad.” Instead, they opted to “look at the courage it takes to come to a shelter.” Using Reuben and the Dark’s song, Heart in Two, as an engaging mechanism, “we shot three different storylines stressing what a person sacrifices to come to a shelter and we used the backs of their heads so we wouldn’t identify or exploit anyone.”

Telling stories based on an individual case that emphasizes how much someone controls their own lives “was a strategic shift in narrative,” says Ortwein, “and it worked.” They exceeded the campaign’s goal of $600,000 by 30 per cent, raising $800,000 in about six weeks.

Before Ortwein landed her “dream job” at the Drop-In Centre, she worked in various roles at UCalgary that had nothing to do with homelessness. At the time, Ortwein believed she had come to understand her father and had “healed,” but, very soon after, she found herself blogging about homelessness and then renting some office space, “because I just didn’t want to do this off the side of my other desk any longer.”

What’s telling, says a growing body of experts who debunk Jobs’ “follow your passion” trope, is that Ortwein set out to grow her skill set before she pursued her bliss. In fact, as much as she followed her passion, Ortwein asked of herself: what she could contribute to the world? To others?

That, say many career experts, is a far more durable blueprint for career success and life happiness. On that path, you may just develop the passion you are now trying to find, says Ortwein, who defines success as, “the moment your passion meets something you are skilled at. When you have an opportunity to work/exist in that space — that, to me, is what success is.”

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