A day in the life of the incomparable Tina Sarellas
by Ililli Ahmed, Youth Editor
I am lucky enough to have had many remarkable mentors in my 17 years, and as of March 8th, I am beyond grateful to be able to add Tina Sarellas, the Royal Bank of Canada’s President of Ontario North & East region, to this growing list. Despite being the second place winner of the RBC National Black History Month Essay competition, I was shocked to hear from Anika Reza, a brilliant RBC employee, that her co-workers, including Tina Sarellas, had looked into my community engagement and Black Ottawa Scene articles and wanted to invite me to shadow Ms. Sarellas on International Women’s Day. Of course, I accepted, but not without hesitation: I feared that I would be tokenized and patronized, not only as a youth, but as a black person. On top of this, as someone who is adamant on the importance of intersectional feminism, I worried that the International Women’s Day celebrations I would be attending would focus solely on straight, able-bodied, cisgendered, white women. Although this was, in fact, a reality, I was pleasantly surprised with Tina’s adamance on making me an essential part of the March 8th activities.
Our day began bright and early at City Hall, attending Mayor Jim Watson’s Annual International Women’s Day Breakfast; as I suspected, I was one of very few black attendees, with around five other female visible minorities present. I immediately felt sick to my stomach, but didn’t tell Tina about my discomfort, assuming that she had not noticed the overwhelming whiteness of the room. With this, I must commend Tina for her successful efforts at making me feel included: as we networked, Ms. Sarellas made sure that I was an integral part of each and every conversation, and always highlighted my status as the 2nd place winner of the National RBC BHM scholarship, along with other personal achievements. Yet, despite Tina’s best efforts, I found myself being ignored by many of the people I was introduced to, some even going as far as talking over me in order to speak with Tina. Thankfully, perceiving this, she would always find a way to re-integrate me into the conversation in a polite and diplomatic way. Later on, as the breakfast, attendees filed into the Councillor debate room to hear from the High Commissioners of Germany, England and France: Tina outwardly supported my criticism of their un-intersectional discussion, giving me the confidence to question the High Commissioners use of inter-sectionality in their feminist initiatives. Leaving the event, Ms. Sarellas and I had a quick debrief, taking place within the ten minute drive from City Hall to the Ottawa RBC office, which was filled with such honesty, empathy and authenticity, that I had forgone my previous discomfort and anger. Knowing that Tina listened to and validated my feelings of exclusion and youth tokenization made me excited to continue shadowing her.
At the RBC office, I was able to attend and participate in an incredible “Diversity Dialogues” mentoring session between Tina and RBC employee Ruba Marar, surrounding the importance of inter-sectional feminism, male ally-ship and ways that the Royal Bank of Canada can improve on its constructive approaches to realizing inclusive gender parity. Here, I was also able to share my insight on the Women’s Day breakfast, thanks to the safe space that Tina had established following our morning event. Near lunchtime, Tina, Anika and their RBC colleague Erika and I headed to the esteemed Rideau Club, where Tina would be hosting an intimate luncheon to continue these important conversations. The beautiful setting, delicious food and poignant conversations made for lovely experiences, and I am very honoured to have heard from and spoken to so many formidable RBC employees.
As the day came to a close, Tina and I took the time to reflect. Now, Ms. Sarellas says that I taught her a lot throughout the shadowing but I’m sure that I learned much more from her. Tina Sarellas conducts herself–as both a leader and a person– in a way that exudes confidence, empathy, understanding and perceptiveness. These qualities not only resonated with me, but by using them, Tina was able to give me some much needed advice concerning the importance of constructive anger. I am someone who is very passionate about my endeavours, and she helped me realize that anger and passion are great things to have, but in order to put them to good use, I must acknowledge them and use them to educate. According to Ms. Sarellas, this can mean responding to something that angers you when you are feeling more level-headed, and can also be done by initiating wider conversations that subtly highlight the inherent biases of those you are communicating with.
All in all, I am in awe of RBC’s President of Ontario North & East region Tina Sarellas and her many, many skills, but I am equally amazed by the Royal Bank of Canada’s sincere dedication to inclusion, cultural appreciation and diversity. The many stories that Tina shared with me, such as her attending Iftar suppers with Muslim employees, and her wonderful colleagues that I met and spoke to throughout the day are proof of RBC’s hands-on approach to creating healthier work environments in their establishments though slow, steady strides in the right direction. Yes, discomfort will ensue as cultures shift, but according to Tina, this is necessary in order to make lasting change. I am humbled to have had the amazing experience of shadowing Ms. Tina Sarellas, and I cannot wait to be a part of other outstanding RBC initiatives.
About the writer
Ililli Ahmed is a 12th grade student who loves to listen to Frank Ocean, write articles and opinion pieces and watch “The Get Down.” In the past, she’s written for Radio-Canada, and is the youth editor for ‘Black Ottawa Scene.’ Ililli is also co-president of many clubs, such as her school’s Intersectional Feminism and Black History Month Club. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.