Social Architect Hijab Mitra

Buildings are more than bricks and mortar to socially conscious architect Hijab Mitra. Her architecture and design firm, Mistecture, takes on projects that provide a benefit to their community, focusing on large-scale housing and educational projects. Her first project after going solo was Marie Rose Place, an affordable housing project that serves single female immigrants, and provides refuge to women fleeing abusive relationships.

Mitra was born in India, studied in England, and settled in Canada in 2005. She works hard to create change in her adopted home of Winnipeg, and is also a mom of three (her daughter is age two, and her sons age five and seven). We wanted to find our more about how she manages work and motherhood.

Why did you start doing what you do?

I come from a Muslim family, but went to a convent school studying under sisters where I was always taught to care, share, and love. My parents also put me in the Girl Guides where it is all about serving community. I started out studying medicine, and always wanted to serve people. When I was at university, my professor said, “Look Hijab, I don’t think medicine is the right thing for you, why don’t you change to architecture where you can help change people’s lives?” I thought that sounded really nice, because I’d still get to work with people.

So I started out in architecture and specialized in zero energy buildings because I felt like being sustainable was the right thing to do. I joined a firm in England who worked in the affordable housing sector and really enjoyed that. Then I moved to Canada, and here in Winnipeg and worked at a firm where they looked at me as a sustainability specialist. I found myself getting cornered into the more technical side of things, rather than a place where I felt I was making a difference in people’s lives. I decided to set out on my own so that I could start doing that again.

What does this work bring to your life?

It is very gratifying. It has taught me how to give people an opportunity to succeed, and when I see successful projects providing jobs to people that don’t have jobs, and we are helping them rebuild their lives. I have the flexibility to choose what projects I want to dive into. I like helping people fulfill their purpose. For example, I work with social enterprises that help people who’ve never had a job before, and I have the ability to make these decisions when I have my own business. I’m fortunate to be able to have this job where I can serve other people in this way. I am a very emotional person, and it helps me create nice spaces for people and help their dreams comes true.

Why is this work important?

Architecture can change lives, it is so much more than making nice building for people, it can create community.

What do your kids think about what you do?

They all have very different perspectives about what I do. My oldest son thinks I build homes for people who don’t have homes. My second one thinks I’m a mailman, because I do a lot of community consultations through my process and go door to door dropping flyers, making my kids come with me because it is at evenings and weekends! My daughter just thinks I go to work.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give to other parents about working and living with purpose?

As working parents, we all feel guilty for not looking after our kids, but instead we need to find the tools that help us balance our lives. I love my work so much, and I’m a little selfish about it, because it opens my mind up to so many different things. I don’t spend as much time with my kids as I would like to sometimes, and I try not to feel guilty about it but of course sometimes I do. It is important that we don’t beat ourselves up about it.

I believe in having co-parents and people that help you, and I have no problem calling my mom in India and asking her to come help for a month, or getting my sister here to distract my kids. I also have people at work who’ll step in and help my kids when I’m busy. It is all about figuring out your coping mechanisms in order to maintain both sides of your life.

What do you think you have in common with other moms?

Being a mom is a job in itself, whether you’re a stay at home mom or one pursuing your career. We all love our kids exponentially and that’s the greatest joy that we can ever have.

What’s been hardest about what you do?

Working through pregnancy, miscarriage, and post-partum depression. I think that when women are pregnant, people do not look at them in the kindest way. People are also concerned that a woman who is pregnant can’t deliver on work, and I’ve had people cancel contracts with me when they found out that I was. They think if you’re pregnant you go on maternity leave, and I haven’t done that with any of my kids. Fortunately for me, all my kids were born on a Saturday and I’ve gone back to work on a Monday. People have perceptions of working mothers that make it so hard, but the joy of being a mother while still having a career makes it worth it.

I recently miscarried twins, and I lost one first, and then the other. I was in ER going through my D & C and I was still getting calls saying, “Where are you? How come you didn’t come to this meeting?” I want to keep my private life private, because it is my sadness, and it is really hard to work as a woman when you are pregnant, and really hard when you lose a baby. I went through post-partum depression and didn’t want anyone at work to know what I was going through because I’m supposed to be in control of the project. I’m pretty sure 95 percent of the people I was working with had no idea what I was going through, and I really didn’t know how to deal with post-partum as a working mom.

What other moms do you admire?

I admire all moms. We all showcase what sharing and caring and loving is all about, and doing that all the time is so hard. I used to be that woman who’d judge those parents on a flight with a crying child, thinking, “Oh my God, can they not control that child?” Then you have your own and realize that you are so helpless! You realize how hard this is, and that we are all trying our best every day.

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The Whole Family Happiness Project is a group of moms exploring our connection to our individual purpose, our family happiness, and the happiness of the world around us. Come join us on Facebook.

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