After working in the Netherlands for five years Sonja Spruit has been consulting internationally for more than fifteen years in urban planning and upgrading, social infrastructure projects, resettlement, and affordable housing that is energy-efficient. A common trait in her work is considerate pragmatism, with solutions that are resource-efficient, culturally sensitive and socially suitable.
Sonja, who is currently based in Cairo, Egypt, often helped integrate global new insights and developments in education within local educational contexts. The schools she designed while working as a project architect for Herman Herzberger (The Netherlands) received design awards and international attention and are still used, internationally, as examples of innovation in school design.
Her experience of working in 20 countries, across continents, has covered various aspects such as social safeguarding (vulnerable groups), gender aspects, and community-based participatory planning and design. She speaks with SheThePeople.TV on what makes her a “Global Girl” and how she overcomes the challenges that come her way.
How would you describe yourself?
As a driven human being, somebody who loves to work, explore and think. And who hopes to do this for a better world, forgetting ‘self’. In fact, I left architecture with a big ‘A’ not because I wanted to suddenly create small architecture, but because I found it too full of ‘self’ and itself, and too little serving. As a young adult, I had this great interest in the Middle Ages and the way in which talented people were able to devote their skills to greater causes and the greater glory of something outside of themselves.
You are an architect and an activist. How did you pick your career path?
That choice was quite accidental. And I still have the feeling I may do, or could have done, many other things. As a high school student I was filling in this career path questionnaire, put together by psychologists, to help young people make up their minds. According to the outcome my main interest lay in the ‘literary and spiritual’ field. But, I thought, what about the mathematics, physics and chemistry that I was taking exams in? It felt a pity to study something that could be entered without these subjects. So I threw ‘artistic’ together with ‘technical’ and ended up with architecture. The combined total points seemed to weigh up to what I would say is still the main passion in my life. My father was a gifted structural engineer, always enthusiastic about his work, and that may also have had to do with my choice.
You are “fearless” in your current position. Help us walk in your shoes and understand where you get the strength from.
As a young adult, I had this great interest in the Middle Ages and the way in which talented people were able to devote their skills to greater causes and the greater glory of something outside of themselves.
Strength, for me, is ‘endurance’. And the type of endurance that I needed, so far, came from the conviction that the thing I worked on was important. Important to get done, and too important to be given up on. External or personal circumstances sometimes can add to such resolve. During my last assignment, as a designer of schools in the Palestinian Territories, something occurred that cost me dearly on a personal level. I miscarried at 16 weeks in a perfectly healthy pregnancy, with cramps set off by a highly upsetting work-related letter that summarized my impossible working conditions. But the loss translated in extra strength, and the resolve to ‘at least not lose the other child’. That was one little primary school, a project that was very much needed in the local context, and the only project out of seven that had not yet been compromised and that I could fully vouch for as a school design specialist. To get the design accepted and correctly drawn out, and to midwife through the implementation, enforcing corrections of blatant mistakes in execution, required what at the time seemed Herculean force. I think I am quite tenacious by nature, but what had happened gave me exactly the type of superpower, and endurance, that was needed to pull it off.
Share some examples where you have made a difference in your country and community.
In my country, The Netherlands, hundreds of children are spending their school days in spaces that are beautiful, exciting, and wholesome. And at least 34 families live in houses that are not dull and that people can co-shape themselves. Due to my work in China, Vietnam, Ethiopia and Palestine, students and families there are also using schools and houses with such qualities. In other countries, I was asked to advise on housing policy and to co-shape (urban) development strategies. A follow up of this work could have increased access to affordable housing and created more liveable and holistic urban environments.
How do you manage self care? Do you believe in work-life balance or integration? What are some of the strategies you adopt?
I am very lucky to have a wonderful husband and child, and some very good friends. I like to consider many of my (historic) heroes my friends, even if we never could meet because of the incompatibility of place and time. I love the feeling to be part of history, and the history of humanity, and I see myself placed in it. The feeling of belonging in a bigger story, and be part of a group of likeminded individuals, who would understand and cheer from the sidelines (if they could be there), gives a lot of mental support. So yes, even if sometimes one seems a lonely actor, a crazy lone ‘lunatic’ going for this or that, if looking at the big picture, there is always a bigger story, and one is never truly alone in anything.
Do you consider yourself a “Global Girl”? Why?
I am very lucky to have a wonderful husband and child, and some very good friends. I like to consider many of my (historic) heroes my friends, even if we never could meet because of the incompatibility of place and time.
If I am very honest, ever since I wasa young girl and listened to the stories of my aunt who worked for many years in Africa and India, I hoped to one day be such a global girl, working ‘in the world’. Being Dutch by birth and ancestry, I am so glad I live in Cairo, and not in my original home town or country. When people ask me why, I notice that it makes utter sense for me. Why? Living in Cairo is like living in the center of the world! I do feel European. It is probably difficult to not feel connected to a particular culture, but I can feel at home anywhere where I connect to people, and where I feel that my presence makes sense.
What is the advice you would give your 16-year-old self?
Do not worry about your career choice, which seems so difficult now. Your passion will land you in an appropriate place, whichever choice you now will make. Life is unpredictable! And you’ll like it like that. So enjoy that you do not know yet where you will end up!. Most things you have no clue about yet. Just make sure to choose what appeals to you, to study what interests you, and to do well whatever you undertake.
What are the three values you think are most important for a global leader?
One: the will to serve the common good and the ability to forget about ‘self’. Two: to know what is important and be willing to go for that, even if that means having to overcome resistance, and working hard in circumstances that are not always appreciative. Three: generosity, the willingness to help.
What’s next for Sonja?
A recuperative reflective break!