SGPIA Alumna Darya Shaikh Challenges Leaders to Create Positive Change

Published on January 29, 2015

Darya graduated from the The New School in 2012 with a concentration in conflict and security. Growing up in Brooklyn with a Muslim father and a Jewish mother, Darya’s interest in Middle East reconciliation efforts began early and led her to pursue a B.A. in Political Science and Middle Eastern Studies at the McGill University. Upon graduating from McGill Darya began work as the COO at the multinational PeaceWorks Foundation where she was involved with the OneVoice Movement, an international movement supporting a two-state solution. Her experiences at PeaceWork Foundation influenced her decision to attend The New School and deepened her appreciation for grassroots activism and civil society’s role in creating change.

Presently based in New York, Darya is the Director of US Engagement for Leaders’ Quest, an international cross-sector social enterprise that works with leaders to create a more equitable and sustainable world. To meet this objective Leaders’ Quest designs “Quests” to disrupt a person’s status quo and expose them to the world whether in their own backyard or across the globe.

What are your major responsibilities as Director of US Engagement at Leaders’ Quest?

My role has been to establish our US presence and think critically about those important domestic issues where Leaders’ Quest can play a catalytic role in moving the conversation forward.  Ultimately, that entails cultivating deep relationships with companies and organizations as well as the host organizations we feature on our Quests.  I work with an excellent team to design tailored Quests that address each organization’s unique needs.  In between our Quest programming, my focus is to steward and network our local community – ranging from grassroots organizations, community activists, social entrepreneurs and business leaders – in ways that enhance their capacity and impact.

How does your background influence this work?

I think my background and the experiences that have flowed out of it have been pivotal to my work in the Middle East and my work with Leaders’ Quest. I’ve learned the value of bringing my identity with me into all of my encounters. I have been fortunate that more often than not, who I am has enabled not only my connections with people but their connections with others.

Both my work and personal story has afforded me wonderful opportunities to learn about people in meaningful ways. One of my new partners, who works at McGraw-Hill Education, remarked at one of our meetings that she found my personal story and background ‘disruptive’ to her assumptions.  I took it as a huge compliment.  Our conversation flowed wonderfully between personal and professional.  I find that to often be the case.  Leaders’ Quest is about the reconciliation between who we are and what we do – recognizing that these are not two questions that can be answered independently of one another, rather they need to inform, guide and support the other.

What challenges do you face in your current position at Leader’s Quest?

The very welcomed challenge I am facing is identifying the salient domestic issues and conversations, tying them into the rapid and uncertain global context and assessing how Leaders’ Quest can have the deepest impact. We are somewhat new in the States, having done Quests here before but never with an established office in place.  We have the unique opportunity to think about who we want to be and how we want to engage in meaningful, equitable ways.

Did growing up in Brooklyn with a Muslim father and a Jewish mother encourage you to cultivate an attitude of co-existence early on?

I don’t remember ever explicitly talking about co-existence in our home. It was just an ever-present dynamic.  From the food, the music, the languages and the diversity of people in our home, I remember thinking it was just normal.  Growing up, I continually found myself surrounded by a colorful mixture of people.  To this day, it’s where I feel most comfortable because it is often incredibly honest.

Can you recount a memory from your childhood in which your background became particularly salient?

When I was about 18 years old, I was the summer camp counselor for a mixed group of Arab-Israeli, Jewish-Israeli and Bedouin teenagers.  I remember how taken they were to learn about my family background.  My own diversity seems to invite others to explore their identity and values. One of my fondest memories from that summer was in the days after the formal camp session closed.  Due to a series of cancelled flights, a group of 11 people – Jews, Arabs and Bedouins – ended up staying with my parents for two nights.  The summer camp experience had already opened the group up and really connected them.  With my childhood home as the backdrop, the vibrancy of the friendships and the sincerity of their bond were even more pronounced, especially in a home where coexistence and tolerance are part of the foundation.

Why did you decide to pursue your M.S. at The New School?

I joined OneVoice fresh out of university.  After almost 10 incredible years helping to establish and scale the organization, I suddenly found myself in the position of COO.  Many of the people in the organization were coming to me for answers. It was an incredibly rewarding and challenging position to be in.  I realized that I needed to return to a formal learning environment to enrich myself. I needed to create the space to actively learn, vocally ask questions and (safely) test out my assumptions about the world we live in.  The MS program at the New School was the perfect fit for what I was looking for.