IABC member Obinna Okwelume is a true storyteller in every sense of the word. An accomplished communicator who has worked in three continents, he holds a doctorate, writes plays and short stories, and produces content that makes a difference in the lives of Canadians.
Read on to learn about Obinna’s journey in the field and his POV on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), internal comms, and how fellow newcomers to Canada can find success.
1. Tell me more about your position as a strategic communications specialist at Canadian Blood Services?
I work on varied files and projects, but two of my key files are stem cells and DEI. Stem cells is one of the four areas where we undertake a broad range of activities at Canadian Blood Services. Every year, hundreds of patients in Canada from diverse ancestral backgrounds require a donor for a life-saving stem cell transplant. More than 75% of them rely on strangers to help save their lives. And so, the work we do to help patients find a match is very important. I write stories about patients and donors to encourage Canadians to join the national Stem Cell Registry. Patients like Diane from Calgary and Elsa from Peterborough are living full lives today thanks to stem cell donors. I’ve also written a story about a researcher who is discovering new stem cell therapies (a great local example).
Also, because of the changing demographics in Canada, we’re constantly encouraging donors from diverse backgrounds to donate blood and plasma, and register to become organ and tissue donors, as well as stem cell donors. This is where my DEI file comes into play. The DEI file is very important to me, and it’s a priority for our organization. For us, it’s not just about making diversity, equity and inclusion a part of our workplace culture, but we’re trying to make sure that this permeates everything we do as “Canada’s Lifeline”.
2. DEI has been a major topic this year and one that comms professionals continue to grapple with. What do you wish people realized about DEI or would do differently?
DEI is still a complex area to work in, for anybody. The fact is we’re all still learning, and no one has all the answers. For those of us in communications, it can mean trying to unlearn certain language and use more inclusive terms (e.g. around gender). I always tell colleagues that even though I’m Black, I still have a lot to learn being new in Canada. For instance, I have a lot to learn about the Indigenous peoples and other diverse groups in this country.
3. You came to Canada a few years ago and have established a successful career. Any advice you would share with newcomers who want to work in communications?
Keep an eye on current events and keep up with what’s trending. Read a lot. Pay attention to detail as much as possible. There’s always something new to learn.
4. One of the themes IABC Ottawa is exploring this month is internal communications. What’s your #1 tip for internal comms?
Always check the pulse of employees to know how they’re feeling. Communications shouldn’t be a one-way thing. Ask employees if they like what they’re reading, are they finding the content informative? Take their feedback and re-adjust as needed.
5. In your experience, what do organizations often get wrong when it comes to communications?
Approval processes can be a challenge. Sometimes organizations struggle to be agile and move at the pace of communications. I think it’s a balance – it’s important to land on the right message, but it’s also important to respond quickly, as stakeholders expect.
6. After working from home for several months, while caring for four (!) kids under your roof, what’s your advice for parents to unwind and achieve balance through the pandemic?
Take short breaks and go for walks outside if it’s not very cold. Get rest when you can, even if it’s just shutting your eyes for five minutes. I relax by spending time with family, watching documentaries, doing creative writing, keeping up with international relations and politics, and reading novels. I enjoy reading books by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe – all Nigerian writers.
7. If you could choose one person to have dinner with, who would it be and why?
This would make my wife jealous, but I have to say it. Justin Trudeau. I’m a huge fan. I like that he is a family man and I like his policies – they are friendly, especially for immigrants.
8. Why did you join IABC and what do you value most from your membership?
I joined through my employer, Canadian Blood Services. The most important thing to me is having a community, a network of colleagues. I really enjoy reading the materials and emails I receive from IABC. IABC helps me keep up with communications trends and I am learning a lot.
9. What’s the one skill people have always relied on you for, throughout your career?
Are you inspired by Obinna’s story? Share similar interests? Drop him a line on LinkedIn.