Name: Matthew Amha
Education: Bachelor of Journalism from Ryerson University
Years of Experience: 3 years
When you were a child, did you envision becoming what you are now?
I was the kind of kid that had high hopes for myself and dreamed big. I understood from an early age that I inherited a lot of luck because my parents came to Canada as immigrants, a country that is very different from the one they left. I also understood how high the stakes were for myself and tried to do the best I could. I was also hyper aware of the impediments – social, educational and the things I saw in my neighborhood daily – between me and everything I wanted to achieve. I’m not sure I could have envisioned things happening the way they did but there was definitely a version of where I am today that I saw for myself. I always thought I would be able to transcend the circumstances I was in. As a first generation Canadian, I learned early on how incredibly blessed I was to be able to inherit the kind of life I had. This is something I had to reckon with from an early age.
Can you please tell us about your journey? When did you first think to yourself, “I made it”?
I was a child born to two immigrants who came to Canada in the 80s because of war, displacement and famine back home. My parents were educated back home and came to a country where they had to work jobs they were overqualified for because their education was not recognized. I grew up in largely low-income and immigrant communities, which meant having to attend low income schools and finagle the system to figure out ways to get a better education. I had my set of failures when I was in middle school and high school. My teachers always said I was smart and capable but was “hanging out with the wrong people” or not using my time wisely and taking school seriously so I had a set of challenges around that. I had to take an extra year after high school because the standardized and institutionalized education system we had when I was in high school wasn’t working for me. I needed an extra year to figure things out. From there, I got into Ryerson.
Ryerson was a useful place for me to go, in part because the journalism industry is unfortunately reliant on connections and the circles you can penetrate. Had I not gone to Ryerson, I don’t think someone like myself would be able to get the kind of job I have now. In my senior year at Ryerson, I applied for the Joan Donaldson CBC News Scholarship. Students from journalism schools around the country are nominated and go through a rigorous interview process. I was one of 8 students selected for the scholarship. This was a great way for me to get my foot in the door. I was striving for this scholarship in my senior year, so I took steps like taking courses I knew I needed and interned at the CBC the previous fall. I credit my current position at CBC to receiving that scholarship and being able to translate the experience into jobs. I knew I was capable but it’s also about getting yourself in front of the right people and having the right people assess your work.
I think that “I made it” moments happen on a spectrum. When I was starting out in school, those moments happened more often. They become harder to find after a while. When I got my first big internship, job, or byline, I felt I had made it. But now, three years into my career, I don’t necessarily feel l have made it by any means. When I reflect on where I came from and the circumstances I was able to overcome, I get some perspective, but celebrating wins is something I think I might struggle with. When I do get a win, I often ask myself what’s next and don’t always take the opportunity to sit in the accomplishment. I try to remember how far I’ve come but also understand how much there still is to do.
Did you face any challenges on your journey to get where you are? Do you currently face any challenges?
Yes: attending underfunded schools as a kid, growing up with a crowd labeled “bad” and not taking the traditional route to this job. There were many challenges baked into my educational experience as a kid.
To be young and black in an industry operated by older white men and women is a challenge. The struggle extends beyond the fact that there is a clear lack of representation and into the types of ideas the industry makes room for. In my industry, there are a lot of conversations about diversity and inclusion. But I think the extent to which racism articulates itself via blindness in my industry is something people don’t really talk about. To be the one person in the room that doesn’t suffer from that same kind of blindness is a challenge. It gets impossible sometimes and exhausting to be the only black person in the room because you are technically the least powerful person in the room, but because there is no one else in the room that looks like you, you are exalted to a position of authority. You have no power but all the power at once and this is a tricky place to be – but that is unfortunately the role of the young black journalist today. The higher you get, the less of yourself you see. What other people perceive to be success leaves you thinking, I wish there were more people who look like me.
What skills do you believe a person needs to succeed in your profession?
What worked for me is having no fear or inhibitions (or at least not making them known) about my place and who I am. It’s important to believe in your heart that you are just as well-suited for the job or the industry. Be able to walk into a room full of people who don’t believe in you and give it your best shot. In my experience, even if you don’t feel comfortable at the time, it appears that survival is reliant on our ability to fake it until we have that sense of confidence. I would also say to have an authentic and genuine curiosity about the world. Finally, reject this notion that you are the remarkable black exception and never let others cast that on you. Understand that there are so many other people like you who are equally deserving of the spot you have and were able to reach by some combination of luck and ability. You are exceptional in some ways, but you are not better than anyone else and don’t let people adorn you with that. A lot of people in my position can fall into that and have this sense of entitlement adorned on them by their superior older white colleagues.
What advice would you give to others who aspire to be where you are?
To be able to dream without boundaries. Not to feel like you have to put guardrails on the way you imagine your life and reject restrictions others try to put on your life. Know that you already have most of what you need to be successful or an industry leader. Young black people who want to get into any of the industries we have in this country should know they have everything they need inside them. If you are young and curious and asking important questions, it’s about articulating your questions in an efficient way to help you get where you want to be. Understand the value of your genius and labor. There will be knowledge you need to acquire along the way and people you will have to impress, but don’t allow “gatekeepers” to make you feel like they can stand between you and what you want to achieve. You are worthy and can do everything you want to do.
I also recommend that people find their community or village. Find people who share similar experiences, who you can vent to, bounce ideas off, be comfortable around and have overcome similar barriers as you. Otherwise, it can get incredibly lonely having to be the only person doing a job with no community.
Can you please share one goal you achieved that you are extremely proud of?
As it relates to work, there is still a charm involved with seeing my work printed in national magazines like Maclean’s, or having my stories run on national broadcasts with the CBC. No matter how many times it happens, it feels good. Learning from former teachers or others that my work is being used as an educational resource for learning in schools or at workplaces is dope. Growing up as a young black first-generation kid in this country and looking up to titans in my industry that are now my colleagues is something that I am proud of. More than anything I achieve in my professional life, this feeling that I have done my best to make good on my parents’ sacrifice when they crossed an ocean to come to this country means a lot. That is the ultimate goal.