Many years ago, I met a young man who said that he wished he worked for a non-profit so he could empower many people. I told him that he did not need to work for a charity organization to do good. Many people do good things for the community while they are working for corporations.
In this article, I write about Tegan Smyth. Tegan, the Grassroots Future CEO, is a Finance and Legal professional who came to Hong Kong in 2014. Despite her full-time job, she set up her organization to meet the needs of the refugee community.
In the interview, Tegan shares what motivated her to start her organization, her journey, and a couple pieces of advice to those aspiring to start charity organizations.
What motivated you to create Table of Two Cities, which later evolved to Grassroots Future?
In 2014, when I moved back to Hong Kong for work, I did some volunteering with PILnet. They wanted to do some event series to connect NGOs and people interested in volunteering, so we kicked off a drinks event series where we invited different charities to speak every month.
At one stage we invited several different refugee organizations to share their work. I had done my legal training in Australia at a firm which gave pro bono advice to refugees and new migrants, so I was already interested in the topic. I then recognized the gap between traditional charity organizations' service and the needs of refugee communities. I also noticed how people addressed the refugee community in Hong Kong in the mainstream media. A year later, I decided to start Table of Two Cities to help change the narrative and empower the refugee community. That was my starting point.
What do you do at the Table of Two Cities and what changes do you see it bringing to the community?
We started by recording people's stories and recipes and publishing them on our website. We always got people’s agreement about what parts of the story they wanted to share. We believed that this was crucial.
With time, we got more volunteers and more people involved in our events. Also, more people from the refugee community were approaching us and sharing their needs and aspirations. Over time, it evolved from acting out people's inner narratives and finding ways to a call to action. With anything that we published, we wanted to find resources for the community.
For instance, we fundraised for kids' textbooks because the government did not subsidize them. We also started incubating and helping people with projects, such as making clothes, different arts and crafts, and poetry, and finding ways to make these projects sustainable.
What impacts have you brought to the community and to the refugee community five years later?
I believe we can make refugees more visible in the community. I also think we have managed to change the single story of the refugees, as many now know the talents and aspirations that the refugee community has. I also believe that refugee organizations such as Refugee Union have more traction than before. I wouldn't say that this is due entirely to us. It probably has to do with many other people as well.
Organizations like the Refugee Union are critical in this ecosystem because it is a refugee-led initiative which helps the community. I also noticed a lot more interest from the general public to engage with refugee initiatives.
What is your plan for Grassroots Future?
We just started and got our incorporation in November of last year. The first thing we are trying to do is build a well-being program. Everyone has been negatively affected by COVID-19. The refugee community is no exception.
We are trying to build several activities that people can engage in. We started some mindfulness in yoga classes, and we're building up a couple of other yoga and breathwork practices. We are also trying to deal with people's inner self and their mental health. When you're isolated and don't have freedom of movement, it can be stifling.
In the future, we want to look at Learning for Life. So, we're trying to build some education programs that are more tailored to people's interests rather than trying to have a one-size-fits-all approach.
We know that people already have their ideas of what they would like to do and what they're interested in. People would approach me and say that they wanted to learn how to sew, write poetry, make a film, etc. Therefore, I am trying to create something to cater to their interests.
Right now we're working on well-being, but we’re hoping to roll out our education program from the middle of the year.
How do you juggle office charity and your personal life?
It is a struggle, but the fact that I can work from home has made things more flexible. I can work on Grassroots Future during my lunch hour or at night. I can also call on my amazing volunteers to help me.
It's good to delegate and also have different people lead the various parts of the organization. That gives me peace of mind because I don't have to always be there for everything.
My partner is also very supportive. Having people you trust around you, helping you and having a shared vision, helps because it doesn't feel like you're carrying everything.
What is the life lesson you’ve learned in these five years of working with refugee communities? And what advice can you give to people who would like to do something good for the community but don't know where to start?
My life lesson is basic. It's one that I live by: However long you are on the planet, you want to leave it a little better than you found it. I felt that something had to be done and I'm glad to be part of a movement. It's not just me; it's many people.
This is a movement of like-minded people—people who are all trying to work toward it, whether they're refugees themselves or people interested in helping this community.
My philosophy is to give your time, support, and skills to causes even in your wider community because charity isn't necessarily in another country. It can be, but charity also starts at home. It's important to care for those around you in the community.
For people who want to start their initiatives, I'd advise that you take your time. I sat down with the Refugee Union for a long time and learned from community leaders what they needed and how we could help rather than going in with my proposal without being receptive
It's also essential to surround yourself with people who will support you—people you want to work with and who are also open to learning new things all the time.
What can the community do to support your NGO?
People can get in touch with us on social media. We have a monthly call to action, which we post on our social media platforms. People can look each month and see what they would be interested in helping with, and so forth. If you like to visit our Facebook page, please click here.