Profile with Alana Lajoie-O'Malley

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Alana Lajoie-O’Malley (Manitoba & Linacre 2007) is the Director of the Campus Sustainability Office at the University of Winnipeg. She is also a yoga practitioner and teacher. Alana has worked as a researcher in the departments of History and Physics and as a Teaching Assistant in the department of Politics at the University of Winnipeg. Alana holds a BSc in Physics and a BA(Hons.) entitled Science as a Catalyst for Social Change from the University of Winnipeg, a program she designed combining the study of History, Physics and Politics. She also holds a Master’s in South Asian Studies from Oxford University, where she focused her studies on Sanskrit, the history and philosophy of yoga, and the history of mathematical astronomy in India.

Rhodes Project: What is your favorite thing to do in Winnipeg?

Alana Lajoie-O’Malley: I bought a house not quite two years ago, and I spent most of the spring building a garden area for vegetable gardening. So I’m spending my season trying to grow a big vegetable garden in my yard.

Rhodes Project: Can you tell me about a favorite childhood memory?

Alana Lajoie-O’Malley: I grew up spending a lot of time in the Whiteshell, which is an area of lakes in south-eastern Manitoba, close to the Ontario border. I have these memories from every year of going on boat rides on the lake at dusk. There is something about being out on a lake at dusk when the water is really calm. Everything is still. I remember these moments when everything felt right—on the water, in a boat, at dusk, with eagles flying around, and the whole bit. It was always a really great feeling.

Rhodes Project: Who are some of your favorite authors?

Alana Lajoie-O’Malley: I really love Daniel Ladinsky’s translations of sacred poetry. He’s published a couple different editions. One is of poetry by Hafiz and another is of sacred poetry from around the world. I suspect he takes a lot of liberties with his translations, but they end up being so beautiful and inspiring. I just love them. The other author that I really love is Robert Calasso. He wrote Ka: The Stories of the Mind and Gods of India, which is a retelling of all kinds of very old Indian stories. He’s done a similar book around Greek mythology that I haven’t read yet. His writing is so poetic. It is such a rich retelling of stories that are not always accessible to people because they’re written in languages that most people don’t read, so they are really beautiful in that way as well.

Rhodes Project: What has been one of the highlights of your time at the University of Winnipeg?

Alana Lajoie-O’Malley: This is a funny question because I’ve been at the University of Winnipeg since I was 15 years old, and now I’m 30. Other than the gap to be at Oxford and an exchange trip with Canada World Youth, I’ve basically been here for 15 years. I finished high school at the University of Winnipeg. I did my undergraduate degrees at the University of Winnipeg. I worked for the University of Winnipeg before going to Oxford, and then I ended up with a job at the University of Winnipeg within a week of coming home to visit my family for Christmas, thinking I wasn’t staying. So when I try to think of a defining experience at the UW, I come up with so many. I have a very deep – some might even call it irrational – connection with this place.  

However, I’ll choose one. In 2003, I was involved in creating a student group to engage the University’s administration in establishing a campus sustainability initiative. We spent a couple years trying to figure out how to make that happen. When it did happen (only in part from our efforts), I ended up sitting on the task force that drafted the first sustainability policies on campus. Then, I ended up working in the President’s office on issues related to sustainability, and now I’m running the Campus Sustainability Office. So it’s kind of neat because that has been a thread for me at the University of Winnipeg for basically a decade. It was great to be engaged in the project at a number of different levels. First it was as a student, being kind of annoying and cranky that something didn’t exist, and then it was getting to a point where they start paying me to be annoying.

Rhodes Project: What inspired you to do your Master’s in South Asian Studies?

Alana Lajoie-O’Malley: Two things. When I first came back to Winnipeg I thought I was going to be doing full-time yoga instruction. I’ve been a pretty serious yoga practitioner since my first trip to India in 2001. I started teaching yoga just before going to Oxford. One of the motivations for me of getting a degree in South Asian Studies was the opportunity to study Sanskrit alongside the history and philosophy of yoga. A lot of people think of yoga only as exercise. While yoga postures are indeed very good for your body, yoga is fundamentally a practice about cultivating the mind, intellect, and emotions so that we get increasingly better at being in right relationship with everything around us. 

It also turned out that South Asian Studies had a really good linkage to my previous academic work, which was looking at the intersection between politics and science. I looked at the history of science and different emerging political theories. It turned out that Christopher Minkowski, who was my thesis advisor at Oxford, was doing academic research on the history of mathematical astronomy in India. So it was kind of a lucky linkage that I was able to continue on a similar vein in terms of looking at the history of science, particularly in sciences that are related to physics, while also pursuing my interest in yoga.   

Rhodes Project:  Tell me a little bit about the work you are doing now.

Alana Lajoie-O’Malley: I am the director of the Campus Sustainability Office at the University of Winnipeg. Basically, my job is to lead the process that aims to drive sustainability into the core business of the institution. That is everything from using less energy and producing less waste to looking at the way we handle our governance and financial system to try to take better account for our environmental impact. It also includes helping with the development of academic resources, and everything in between.

The thing that I find most exciting about being here – and it comes from the fact that I started along this path as a student – is when I get to work with students who have new sustainability ideas. Say they want to build a community garden or bike shop, or they want to start some kind of interdisciplinary academic program to connect with the City of Winnipeg. They can come to me and propose the idea, and I can help them make it happen. I really love getting to be inspired by students and getting to be a mentor for students who want to make their community a better place. They take their role as citizens at the University very seriously and want to engage with it. I am really passionate about people taking ownership of their communities. Hearing students’ ideas and being able to support them in realizing their goals is why I wake up in the morning.

Rhodes Project: Who are some of your mentors?  

Alana Lajoie-O’Malley: I was actually in a meeting yesterday with two of my mentors. That is the interesting thing about now working at the institution I studied at. I had a high school teacher by the name of Lloyd Kornelson who is now working in all sorts of weird and confusing capacities at the University of Winnipeg. He is inspiring to me because he is really passionate about education. Another man named Mark Burch is a global expert in voluntary simplicity. He actually held my position just before I did.  I call both of them pretty frequently to ask for advice because I hope to be like them when I grow up. In a couple weeks, Mark and I are going to be co-teaching a morning session for a class that Lloyd is running on Human Rights. So I’ve ended up in this situation where I’m able to collaborate with some of my mentors, which is really neat.

One of my other mentors is my yoga teacher, Jonathan Austman.  I’ve been studying with him since about 2005. Every time I think I have something in life totally figured out he finds a way to bring me back down to earth.  I don’t know what else to say - his teaching and mentorship just have a huge impact on where I put my energy and time.

Then one of my mentors from afar – I’ve only met her once but I look to her writing a lot when I’m doing my work– goes by the name of Leith Sharp. She has done some really inspiring writing about what it takes to actually change institutions. When you work on environmental issues, it tends to get really depressing, especially in Canada right now. What I find really inspiring about her work is that she looks at the idea of how you can make change smoother and less cumbersome. She writes that it’s not change that people are afraid of. We often think that people don’t like change, but that’s not actually true. The thing that people fear is the uncertainty that we associate with change. She puts a lot of energy into exploring how we deal with that. I’ve only met her once, but I think about her when I’m trying to figure out how to change either the University or policies anywhere else. A huge part of what I do is to try to change the way things are.  

Rhodes Project: Is there anything that consistently frustrates you in life?

Alana Lajoie-O’Malley: Frustrating may be a little bit of an understatement. Heartbreaking might be more accurate. I think just given the nature of the work that I do, I’m heartbroken every day that the privileged of our species are busily destroying the planet. Those of us with privilege are too concerned about trying to protect our unsustainable lifestyles to actually do what it would take to make the planetary transition to living justly within our ecological means. We just can’t seem to want to get there. It’s incredibly heartbreaking to me to be trying to deal with this every day. I feel frustrated with our emotional inability to be realistic about what has to happen to really deal with this problem.

Rhodes Project: If you could travel anywhere in the world right now, where would you go and why?

Alana Lajoie-O’Malley: I would go to Mysore in south-western India in the state of Karnataka because that is where I go to study Sanskrit and do yoga.

Rhodes Project: What do you do to relax?

Alana Lajoie-O’Malley: I really love to cook. I actually learned to cook on my first trip to India. I was living with a family and got to learn how to make Indian food just by hanging out with my host mother and sister. I had never cooked a lot when I was a teenager because our household wasn’t big into doing fancy meals. I actually ended up being better at making Indian food and other kinds of Asian food than making food from my own background. Now I love to cook and play with spices.

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