Program helps community builder find her focus

Photo by Dan Toulgoet

When you’re multitalented, it can be difficult to choose one pursuit. But when you also identify as neurodivergent, finding a focus becomes particularly challenging. For Vancouver’s Sonya Littlejohn, who was recently diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), participating in the Community Capacity Building Certificate (CCB) program has given her a deeper understanding of herself and what she can achieve.

“My struggle has been trying so many things at once,” says Sonya. “I’m always exploring and experimenting with different things, but it’s not sustainable.”

As a writer, multidisciplinary artist, educator and community builder, Sonya has worn several hats personally and professionally. She’s worked in teaching, arts programming, and anti-racism consulting. An established poet with a gift for spoken-word performance, she’s also developed poetry programs for Vancouver Poetry House, as well as her own workshops on writing and artistic expression.

“I was always finding that the work I was doing in community was really draining and emotionally labour intensive,” she says. “That had a lot to do with me not knowing how to spread myself out and how to reserve myself.”

The CCB program helped Sonya define what she’s passionate about and truly committed to continuing. With ADHD, she points out, she may never be able to devote herself completely to a single pursuit. “But right now,” she says, “I have the capacity I didn’t have before to set a few goals and keep sight of when they could actually be completed. I’m completing things now, so that’s my focus.”

Through the program, she learned how to create a grant proposal, and she’s currently working on one to support a book about her ancestry and its roots in Canada, England and Bermuda. “I’ve been writing since I was eight years old,” she says. “I know I have a book in me. Having it published is the dream.”

Aside from enabling Sonya to establish her goals, the program taught her healthy ways to self-reflect and accept feedback. A feature of ADHD known as rejection sensitive dysphoria can make any criticism feel like a painful personal attack, explains Sonya. “But now I have this new, friendly armour,” she says. “I’ve learned how to frame feedback as constructive instead of shaming.”

She also gained effective ways to communicate and interact with others, particularly when it comes to navigating conflict. Discovering that all her classmates were grappling with issues was reassuring, she says, and made it easy for them to forge close bonds.

“Everyone seemed to be suffering organizer burnout,” she says. “They were losing their confidence in their strategies or in their collaborators, but we were able to show each other so many different ways of looking at things—that it’s okay to walk away from something and it doesn’t mean giving up on your team or community. It can be about making room for something new.”

Since completing the program, Sonya has continued to stay in touch with as many classmates as she can. “We’re like siblings now,” she smiles. “I love them so much.”

She has equally kind words for the program’s facilitators who provided support and connected her to new opportunities. Thanks to their recommendations, she now teaches a course in SFU’s Leadership Essentials Certificate program for new and aspiring leaders. They also put her in touch with the non-profit A.R.C CommUNITY, where she now works with children in an outdoor farm program where they build literacy skills, explore nature, and create a variety of arts and crafts.

From new friends to a new focus, the program has changed her life for the better in many ways, reflects Sonya. “Sometimes I feel like I’ve won the lottery,” she laughs.

By Kim Mah