Meet the Back Office: Ine Stessens

Posted on 06-06-2018

As a young woman should I not have been busy doing more pleasant things? It’s the ’90s, somewhere in Antwerp. At home I had just announced the title of my thesis and my mother expressed concerns that she had been feeling for some time. One year earlier I had just come back from a trip to Topusko, a little town that was previously known for its spas but now served other purposes. The war in Yugoslavia had long been front-page news and I felt – most probably mainly because of the proximity – obliged to ‘do something’. And so in the summer of ‘96 I helped set up summer camps for refugee children in Krajina in Croatia. It was a deeply touching experience and I absolutely wanted to dedicate my thesis to it, but in my field of study (psychology) no-one wanted to hear about it.

A Carefree Childhood

I had all the correct cards, right from the start: born in this fine country, in a warm family and at a fantastic time. Pure luck, of course, not a bit of it earned. I did well at school, had a handful of friends and for years fluttered carefree between home, school and hobbies. And I did this within a radius of barely five kilometres.
I didn’t shine at anything in particular, but I enjoyed and especially enjoyed a lot of: ballet, youth clubs, athletics, handball, volleyball, windsurfing, horse-riding, and theatres. A carefree childhood. Life was naturally easy and for a long time I had little idea that it could be any different.
Of course bad things happened too, sometimes close to home, but in that carefree period what was most striking was the televised coverage of the famine in Ethiopia. Via Bob Geldhof and Band Aid, the charity industry slid into our schools too and suddenly I felt compelled to wash cars in order to collect money. It probably didn’t bring in any more than 100 francs (perhaps I even thought that I could make a difference with that) but mainly I appeared to have lost a few blinkers.

After Ethiopia, The Troubles in Northern Ireland appeared on my radar. And not much later Iraq too, with a war that was broadcast live, straight into our living room. I followed these conflicts closely and made somewhat pathetic scrapbooks about them.
In the meantime, I had become a teenager, still enjoyed life but had seen enough of the Bloso sports camps. From now on I would sign up every summer for a volunteer camp. I left, whistling, for dangerous places such as Belfast and Cairo. I worked there with street kids not much younger than myself and came up against my enormous naivety. A good lesson.

Time to get serious

In’93 I started in Leuven in the Faculty of Psychology. During my studies I switched over to criminology. I enjoyed student life and the long summers were ideal for going out. But again Leuven was small and sheltered. And so for my last year I left for exotic Sheffield (UK). Sheffield was in many ways an eye opener.

So for example the openness and assertiveness of my fellow students and teachers amazed me. A severe contrast with what I was used to in the Catholic University of Leuven. Later, in the US, I was even more surprised by (and secretly also admired) so much youthful arrogance and belief in one’s own capabilities. In Sheffield I finally wrote the thesis that I wanted: ‘Rape and Sexual Aggression during Armed Conflict.’  An analysis of the great wars and some more recent conflicts such as Yugoslavia and Rwanda. My mother was not wrong, it was a terrible subject. It was human responsibility more than academic curiosity that drew me to this subject. Scrapbooks finished. Time for serious work.
After criminology I went on to study International Relations and round about the turn of the century, I left for America where I was accepted in Notre Dame for a year in Peace Studies. I was well on track. 

But love threw a spanner in the works and I returned early from the US. Love didn’t last and my job in the Ministry of Justice didn’t work out either. After that everything went a bit wrong: I moved to Honduras for a year (helping in the ViaVia Café and Hotel) and on my return landed among the nursing students. That was, mmm …, a sidestep. I didn’t feel at home in the studies but I reined in the unsettled child in me and after the course I immersed myself in the stability of the pharmaceutical industry.

From the heart, but also with the head

In the beginning I had what I wanted: interesting job, pleasant colleagues and, yes, good conditions. But after 7 years it was over. I started to get itchy feet. I was homesick for my earlier interests and passions. I took parental leave and applied for positions in the non-profit sector – first of all selectively, and finally very widely. The transition appeared more difficult than expected. There was no-one waiting for me: ‘I did not speak the jargon,’ ‘had no experience in the sector’, or ‘they were afraid that my choice would be short-lived’. I didn’t get anywhere was immediately rejected at the administrative stage and didn’t even get one interview.

Therefore I picked up the thread again as a clinical researcher, albeit part-time, so that one day a week I could do what I really felt like. And so it came about that five years ago I started as a volunteer in the Mobile School office. However this did not give me the peace of mind I was hoping for. On the contrary it made it painfully obvious that I was not on the right professional path. After about another three years, I finally threw in the towel. I thanked the pharmaceutical world, embraced unemployment and would become a full-time job applicant. That was the plan in any case, because before I had updated my CV there was an unexpected opportunity with StreetwiZe.


Now, two years later, I thank my lucky stars every day. It really feels like coming home here. The hybrid nature of our organisation matches perfectly with who I am: from my heart and my head.
You can find me in the wings of StreetwiZe. In my back office, with my two requisites (a telephone and a computer) I plan the StreetwiZe training courses and sprinkle logistic magic around. I kick our database system a little bit and here I can channel my neurosis (to make lists of everything).
In addition to my comfortable back office chair, I also have a fantastic chair at home for reading. But what I love the most is to be continually on the move: biking or running, in the woods or mountains. And, yes, I also talk to our pets from time to time. The ideal profile, therefore, to support the StreetwiZe story.

 

My favourite Street Skill? Positive focus. It is the beginning of so much more. So simple and yet at the same time also so difficult. It is easy to list the negatives when we have a whole lot of difficulties on our shoulders. I also catch myself doing this many times. It’s a shame, of course, because it’s mostly in my own hands. Work in progress!

 

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