You are the Senior Officer for outreach and communication at Mama Cash. What does that entail?
Mama Cash is a fund for feminist activism. We support women, girls and trans people around the world who courageously organise themselves to fight for their human rights. As head of the comms team I try to bring their voices and stories to a wider audience. Since joining the organisation in 2013, my projects have included a sold-out 'artivism' festival, an online solidarity campaign that became trending topic on Twitter and a content partnership with The Guardian.
You used to be a press officer, first for the Dutch Minister for Foreign Trade and then for the Minister for European Affairs. What were your responsibilities and what did you like or dislike about this job?
Early on in my career I had the opportunity to work closely with two ministers, supporting their contact with the media. I got a lot of energy from being so close to the political fire and seeing my day’s work reflected in the newspaper the next morning.
Why did you decide to move from government to Fairfood International?
As a young woman working in an environment dominated by middle-aged, white, male diplomats I was often torn between feeling proud and feeling tired. Tired of struggling against all of the unspoken norms and expectations that can put such an extra burden on (young) women in the workplace. After a while I decided that I didn’t want to waste any more energy on that. At Fairfood International I had the opportunity to work with young, smart, dedicated, international, likeminded crowd of people. We had a dingy office and a lot to learn, but for the first time I could combine challenging and interesting work with colleagues I could relate to – and go to the pub with after a long day at the office!
Can you talk about what you were doing at Fairfood International, first as their spokesperson and then as director business development?
As spokesperson I spoke and wrote about sustainability, the responsibilities we have as consumers and producers at our end of the value chain in the West for the effects of our choices on people at the other end of the value chain in the Global South. We designed advocacy campaigns to put pressure on food companies to change their ways. When I was promoted to the position of director of business development I continued having the same conversations but with (institutional) donors. It was also my first management position. It was great to help shape our organisation as we were developing from a volunteer initiative to a professional organisation.
You have worked both for the government/governmental organisations and NGOs. What are the key differences?
Both are so varied: both government and NGO jobs could have you sitting at a desk in Brussels or working with local community leaders in The Philippines. I’ve done and enjoyed both. The reason I’m choosing to work in the NGO world for now is that I feel more at home on the more activist side of the spectrum.
How did you become interested in international affairs?
You know that saying “It’s a small world”? That’s nonsense! The world is huge! And so diverse! I’ve always been fascinated by that. And it’s really freaking hard to all get along and get ahead. To include everyone. Ultimately that goal and that challenge is what drives me. My fellowship with Humanity In Action showed me that making those universal ideals and ambitions a reality starts with the ‘woman in the mirror’. International affairs aren’t about the ‘Other’, someone distant and foreign, international affairs are about you relate to one another.
Why did you decide to make international affairs your career?
I play the piano and, when I was younger, I thought about becoming a professional musician. But I missed the bigger picture. For me personally, I felt I had more to contribute to the world by getting involved with social justice work. I still love playing the piano though and I’m grateful that there are musicians out there who bring beauty into our lives.
You studied Political Science and also have an executive master in International Relations and Management. How are they useful to your career?
I’m grateful that I learned to analyse and to write. Not a day goes by that I don’t do at least one or the other. In hindsight, I think I may have learned most from the philosophy courses I took. That’s a real workout for the brain!
What was your first job and what did you learn from it that you still use now?
When I was 15 I started working in a gift-shop. Now, 17 years later, the manager and I are still good friends. You don’t have to be best friends with all of your colleagues, but finding a work environment where you can be yourself is a great gift in life.
What advice would you give to a woman who wants to do a similar job to yours?
Figure out what your strengths are. Is it public speaking? Is it expertise on a specific topic? Is it your network? Then figure out what else you think you need. Experience in the field? Another language? Learning how to manage a budget? Take it from there. You will be rooted in your strength and focused about your growth.
What are the most and least rewarding aspects of your career?
I am fortunate to spend my working life at the service of others. When my colleagues and I get it right, we enable women, girls and trans people to improve their own lives and the lives of the people their community. It is a great gift to be a part of that. Of course, what can be disappointing is that you don’t necessarily see direct impact of everything you do. When I work hard on writing a proposal, it’s not like at the end of the day that changes someone’s life right away. Our work in the feminist movement is about creating structural systemic change, rather than direct service delivery. That means the change we help create is lasting and meaningful, but not quite as direct and tangible as other types of work.
What are the key skills that make you good at what you do? How did you gain them?
Attention to detail is important, but it is critical not be inhibited by perfectionism. I always take care to keep my eye on the bigger picture. I think that helps me and my team to get stuff done. It was music that taught me about the discipline and courage needed to do that. A song is not worth a dime if it’s not sung, so sing! Even if it’s not perfect, sing! Then you can get feedback, learn and do it better the next time around.
What is the toughest lesson you have learnt?
Trust your gut. To be honest, before I could learn to trust my gut, I had to learn to feel it in the first place. At some point I was involved in a stressful reorganisation and I found myself hyperventilating. That was my body telling me to stop what I was doing. Now I try to be more in tune with the signals my body gives me about what/who gives energy and what/who drains it.
What has been your biggest challenge and how did you tackle it?
I spent a few months at the University of Abomey-Calavi in Benin (West Africa) doing research as a volunteer. The idea was to have an interdisciplinary and intercultural team of about ten people, Africans and Europeans, look into the opportunities for creating ecotourism in Benin. I have always felt diversity is truly valuable, but this more than we could handle. We were all so different in terms of our educational backgrounds, language, culture, you name it. We had a hard time understanding each other, let alone doing scientific research together! That was frustrating because we had all come wanting to contribute to this research. I had to redefine my objectives. I realised that the most value was actually going to come precisely from learning about each other. I had to accept that the process as well as the outcome were going to be completely different from what I had had in mind and see the value in that.
What achievements are you most proud of?
My daughter was born this year. She is pure joy and light. Combining motherhood with a career is a challenge, but I feel like I’m on the right track. How? That’s whole other interview ;)
Do you have a role model and if so who and why?
They are courageous and creative women, girls and trans people who have been the beating heart of the feminist movement – feminist activists such as the judges and lawyers in Afghanistan who are providing women with access to legal advice and representation (Justice For All Organization); the young domestic workers who fight exploitation and abuse in Tanzania (WoteSawa); sex workers in Thailand who show us that they deserve to be respected rather than “saved” (Empower); women in Serbia who challenge restrictive ideas about women with disabilities through art and performance (Iz Kruga Vojvodina). These women also remind me that true leadership or being a role model is not about you as an individual, it is about helping the collective to move forward.
Emma Herman - Senior Officer for Communications and Outreach at Mama Cash Fund for Women
14 years' experience
CV in brief
Studied Political Science at the University of Amsterdam | International Relations and Management at Amsterdam School of International Relations
Previously worked at Fairfood International | Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Netherlands | Ministerie van Economische Zaken | Council of the European Union | Ministry of Economic Affairs, DG Foreign Economic Relations | European Commission, DG Justice, Freedom and Security | Transnational AIDS/STI Prevention Amongst Migrant Prostitutes in Europe Project | Demos USA
Find her online @EmmaHerman
Inspiring girls and young women to choose a career in foreign policy
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