Mahasin’s Winding Path
I met Mahasin Aleem over a decade ago and the conversation quickly turned to the pressure to achieve. This was the start of a series of conversations that eventually led to her obtaining her Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS). Mahasin, 43, lives in Northern California and is a Senior Community Library Manager for the Contra Costa County Library.
*Photo Credit :Rasheed Photography
In two-three sentences how would you describe what you do most days/weeks?
I lead a team of dedicated library workers who strive to bring exceptional public library services to a diverse community. As the manager of two facilities, this includes managing partnerships, fostering collaborations, facility maintenance, scheduling, developing programs that respond to community needs, and collection management, as well as supporting staff in their professional goals.
What did you want to be when you were eight?
I wanted to be a scientist and wanted to cure cancer. My father’s mother died from cancer, and I didn’t want other families to experience what mine had. A few years later, I had changed paths and wanted a career as an attorney after learning more about the role of lawyers in the civil rights movement and participating in a class project during which I got to play the role of an attorney (I was inspired by watching My Cousin Vinny in class!).
What did you learn about work that you learned from your family?
I learned so much from them. My mother, Nimat Abuwi, demonstrated in small and big ways what it means to have integrity. She modeled excellent customer service and how to treat others with compassion, dignity, and kindness.
My mom helped to get me my first job at Krispy Kreme Doughnuts in Savannah, GA on Skidaway Road where she worked as a supervisor on the night shift. I worked on the weekends on the day shift, but when I had the opportunity to work with her on occasion, she stressed the importance of taking initiative and problem-solving on the job (“Take your pants out your pockets and find something to do!” she told 16-year-old me.) These lessons have stayed with me.
My father, Omar Abuwi, who was born in 1937 in Waynesboro, GA, grew up during segregation, under the weight and terror of Jim Crow. He served in the United States Navy for almost two decades and retired after many years of working for the United States Postal Service. Early and frequent experiences with racism and injustice made a profound impact on him and how he saw the world. He taught me that as an African American I would need to work twice as hard to get ahead. “You’ll need to wake up early in the morning,” was a frequent refrain. Anything other than excellence and doing my best was not acceptable.
His older brother, William Toby, Jr, helped to raise my father and rose to the heights of the federal government in the 1980s, later attended Harvard for graduate school, and was very much our family patriarch. He encouraged me to get the best education that I could and to always remember where we as a family came from and to never be ashamed of our humble origins.
What professional experiences/employers had the greatest impact on you?
There have been so many that had an impact! I am the sum of all my experiences, even the ones I didn’t enjoy. My first job at Krispy Kreme set the foundation for the customer service skills that I use daily as the manager in public libraries. I learned how to work with different types of people and developed the emotional intelligence needed for working daily with the public. In high school, as part of an internship program I participated in during my senior year, I interned in two Congressional offices and took a workplace ethics course which taught me the importance of demonstrating integrity in even the smallest of matters.
In college, I obtained a summer internship at the White House in the West Wing, which demystified so much about the world for me and gave me a sense of confidence. After college, I worked at Barnes and Noble for a bit; I learned how much I really like working with books and continued to refine my customer service skills!
There were also a few positions along the way after college that forced me to be honest with myself about how I learn, work best, and helped me to clarify my values for myself, as well as helping me to acknowledge my worth and abilities.
Working in private industry for a bit taught me that I was meant to have a career that focused on the public good.
Teaching for a few years clarified the importance of boundaries and work-life balance and working at non-profits taught me the importance of working at an organization whose mission I believe in.
Before beginning my current role in late 2022, I worked at the Oakland Public Library in Oakland, CA. At Oakland Public Library I found great mentors in the form of stellar colleagues and supervisors who invested in me in small and big ways and allowed me the space to come into my own professionally. I was allowed the opportunity to explore topics of interest to me and to pursue training for skills that I wanted to develop. Co-leading the department’s racial equity team really helped me to understand the complexities of leadership and challenges of systemic change. My years at OPL are some of the fondest for me in my professional journey and prepared me well for the current position I have.
What is something about your career journey that people might not expect?
People are frequently surprised to learn that I took a few years off from work after college to study Arabic and live in Damascus, Syria. Living abroad, traveling in the region, and studying another language was transformative; it taught me the importance of cultural humility before I was familiar with the term.
Why did you pivot?
I was working at a non-profit supporting their development and administrative efforts and was still trying to decide if I should go to law school. I was managing the grief of losing my mother, moving across the country away from a community I loved, and raising children without a strong network. While performing routine administrative duties, I quickly realized that the nonprofit needed to update and improve their use of the customer relationship management software. I convinced the Executive Director to let me lead an overhaul of their use of the product and coordinated the migration of data from an old instance to a new one that I designed, teaching myself how to use the software along the way.
As I worked to develop data entry rules, create documentation, and write a training manual for staff, I got in touch with work that brought me joy: organizing information, solving complex problems, and sharing knowledge with others. For months, I had been waking up each day feeling anxious and unmoored. After a thorough self-examination of my values as part of a career coaching program, I realized that I must have a very strong connection with the mission of the work that I do, and that work must be in service of the public good and needed to include direct service in support of families and children.
I originally thought that I might start an organization with a mission of supporting first-generation college students and their parents or caregivers who could benefit from support navigating educational options for their children - but my desire for stability and need for a predictable income (student loans!) led me to pivot to public librarianship and am so glad that I did.
I love libraries - and have since visited the Bull Street Library in Savannah, GA, as a child - and being a public servant.
What skills were portable from what you had been doing previously and what was brand new to you?
Customer service, writing, and training experiences and skills have been particularly helpful for my work as a public library worker. Learning how to successfully facilitate meetings, lead teams, implement new technology, and manage projects and organizational change are skills that I have developed since becoming a librarian.
What were the most important lessons you’ve picked up along the way?
Trust is earned and isn’t transferable. Be kind to everyone. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. When you make a mistake, admit to it, share what you’ve learned, and how you’ll account for that in the future. Ask questions when something is unclear, chances are others are confused as well. Greet everyone in the organization. Let people know what you’re interested in; they will remember and may give you an opportunity later. Embrace empathy. Invest in others. Never forget your why. Show appreciation for others early and often. Be your authentic self and don’t apologize for who you are.
What would you say to others who are doubting their ability to make a change in their career/vocation?
You must first take an honest inventory of who you are. Get clear with yourself about what excites you and what you dislike. Get clear what your values and skills are. Acknowledge your strengths. Identify the areas where you have an opportunity to improve and grow and invest in your development. While doing this, don’t forget to rest and take care of yourself in real ways.
Where did you get the confidence and support to make such a change?
My husband’s support was pivotal. You also offered a lot of great advice. My circle of sister-friends are wonderful and challenge me and encourage me to be the best version of myself. Taking the opportunity to do a full accounting of my professional experiences over the years helped me to realize that I was capable and equipped to find a career that would utilize my talents, serve others how I want to, and define success according to my own values.
What was the hardest thing you had to overcome in your professional life?
The confidence to choose a path that was different than the one I had long envisioned for myself and that was different than what I thought I was supposed to do.
Because I had demonstrated an aptitude for learning and academics from an early age, my family made it clear that they had high expectations for me. I wasn’t given a blueprint of what my future should look like, but the expectation that I would “do great things” was there.
Attending an Ivy League university for college was not something I had been groomed for or initially planned for, but once I was there, I felt immense pressure to succeed at a very high level. I had a window into worlds of wealth and privilege and access that I didn’t know existed and it skewed my thinking about what my future should hold.
I internalized the mistaken belief that anything less than graduate school at an Ivy League school would be a failure and that I needed a “high prestige” career such as a lawyer or doctor to be successful and honor the sacrifices and struggles that my ancestors had experienced.
These were false ideas; they were paralyzing and limiting beliefs that caused me to close off opportunities and frankly, be miserable.
I had to intentionally interrogate how I had arrived at these beliefs, make a cognitive shift, and craft a new definition for success for myself rooted and connected to my most sacred values. I am so glad that I did.
What, if anything, are you hoping happens next in your professional life?
I look forward to continuing to develop and advocate for equitable, culturally responsive, inclusive, welcoming library services, and collections in public libraries for years to come and would be honored to lead a library system one day.
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