“In Conversation with …” is a special feature where John Monahan, the Warden of Hart House, chats with colleagues about their personal stories and their perspectives on working at U of T’s legendary centre for engaging students through the arts, dialogue and wellness.

In this edition, John talks with Lena Yusim, the Warden’s Office Project Coordinator. She discusses the various roles she has had at Hart House over the last three years, what she is most looking forward to about post-pandemic life at the House, and much more.

John and Lena

JM: Lena, thank you so much for agreeing to talk with me this morning.

LY: I am happy to be here!

JM: Let’s start with some basics. How long have you been at Hart House?

LY: I started in August 2019.

JM: Oh my gosh. Almost three years already! Has time flown while you've been having fun?

LY: I feel like I've been here forever in a way. I started right after I finished my Master’s degree in 2019, before COVID, so coming in every day and getting to be in the building was an exciting part of working here. And then when we moved to online, I feel like I started a whole new kind of experience of working here. And now that we're back in hybrid, it's another new experience.

JM: In the best possible way, it does seem like you've been here forever. You just belong here.

LY: Aw, that's so nice.

JM: Maybe it's because we've been through the COVID trenches together. I mean, I've really appreciated the opportunity to work closely with you on some of these COVID-related issues and challenges.

LY: Thank you, John, I did to. When I started, I was working under the three Senior Directors, which is a great way to become integrated into a place like Hart House because you get to see what's going on in so many different areas of the House. It was my mission to learn as much as I possibly could about Hart House and that was such a good way to get acquainted.

JM: You almost had no choice, right? 

LY: Yes, it's kind of the same way with learning about how to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic ‒ we didn't have a choice. And so every day, it's finding out as much information as you can and then figuring out how to move forward with that information.

JM: For the benefit of people who don't know, walk us through your time at Hart House after you started working with the three Senior Directors in August of 2019.

LY: I had been here for six months, and still felt quite new when the pandemic started. That's when my role began to shift. I stepped in to support the Staff Relations and Professional Development Office with staff training initiatives related to all the new public health regulations that were being introduced. So that was my first taste of business continuity planning and responding to the changing realities of the pandemic.

After that, I started working closely with Jen (Newcombe, Director of Strategic Initiatives), and organizational assessment was one of my first portfolios with her.

John and Lena, in person

JM: I think, if I recall, there was a bidding war and Jen won.

So now your official title is Project Coordinator in the Strategic Initiatives unit that reports to me. Tell us about some of the things you've been involved in since you joined Strategic Initiatives.

LY: Well, as you know, my portfolio is vast, but it’s the Warden's Office, so anything could happen. That's what keeps it exciting. 

On any given day, I'll either be working on organizational assessment, gathering and packaging information that tells the story about what Hart House is doing and how people are interacting with us. Or I'll be working on dialogue program planning, producing podcasts and working with you on the Changemakers dialogue series and now the Hart House Global Commons as well. Or I could be creating a presentation or report on strategic planning and business planning or moving the needle on various projects for the House’s accessibility working group that I support.

JM: Let's go back to the pandemic because you have continued to be at the centre for Hart House of interpreting rules and guidelines that the University has either received from various public health authorities or developed itself. You’ve had to read those, interpret them with me and help to apply them to the many different phases and functions of Hart House. Tell us a little bit about what that experience has been like for you.

LY: I have a distinct memory. It was last summer when I learned I was going to be assuming this responsibility to become the House’s point of contact for all of the information we were getting from these different sources. I remember, at first, just panicking because this seemed like one of the bigger responsibilities that I'd have because now we're talking about people's health and safety. It took a lot of practice and a lot of getting familiar with health and safety language, which was something so new to me.

JM: The position also required you to build strong working relationships with health and safety experts at the University, which is something that you've done very effectively.

LY: It was taking a step back and realizing that it wasn't my responsibility to have all of the answers. The biggest job was actually knowing which questions to ask, of whom to ask them and what to do with the information we got back because it could become overwhelming. We had to constantly navigate the scenario with the goal of being as open as possible for students and providing resources and services and programming. So there wasn't an opportunity to stop and try to come up with a grand scheme. It was all happening in real time.

JM: Your role has really been a variation of what you’ve said to me in the past about the reason you wanted to work in post-secondary: to provide valuable information and promote access to data and services for students. And really, that's what your job has been during COVID: to gather information, interpret and analyze it, reorganize it for different audiences and purposes, disseminate it to those who are counting on it. And let’s not forget that there are 13 distinct functional areas of the House, many of them subject to very specific public safety rules and guidelines. I mean, when you look back on it, you should be exhausted.

LY: I was the right person for the job because when I started here, I was working in such a broad role that I had a bit of familiarity with each functional area. As I said before, knowing which questions to ask and where to direct them was such a major part of it, so that foundational knowledge about what happens at Hart House really helped me.

JM: Well, if I haven't said thank you before or enough, thank you for stepping into that role and doing it so well. We've all benefited from it. And hopefully most of those responsibilities are starting to lift as we are entering a different phase of the pandemic, maybe even approaching the end of it in the near future. Wouldn't that be wonderful?

LY: Absolutely. Bring it on.

JM: As the smoke begins to clear from the last two years, what are you most looking forward to at Hart House?

LY: When I first came into the building, long before the pandemic, there was always something happening. I was inspired by that energy. It is nice to witness that again – to walk the halls and hear piano playing in one room and see a meeting of students going on in another room and lunch service happening at the Gallery Grill. I'm excited to be around that energy again, and also to contribute to it in whatever way I can.

I am also very much looking forward to seeing a production at Hart House Theatre.

JM: Okay, Lena, here’s my last question: knowing what you know now, do you have any advice for undergrads?

LY: Get out there and show up for yourself and get involved. There are so many opportunities to get involved on campus and to meet people. Don't limit yourself to what you already know, because there are so many opportunities to expand your understanding of the world.

JM: I think that's great advice, Lena, for anybody and especially for students.

LY: Thank you so much. I'm truly honored to have been part of this conversation.

JM: Thank you, Lena. You're the best.