Freelance Writer and Strategic Communications Consultant
What did you study and how did it help shape your career in communications?
I attended Hofstra University and decided I wanted to become a reporter, so I studied Journalism and Communications. I was a newspaper reporter for about nine years, covering a wide range of issues, from fires and robberies to immigration and local politics. I also have an international background: I grew up in the former Yugoslavia before moving to Canada and eventually the US. My fascination with international affairs, human rights, and foreign policy stems from my first-hand experience learning about how the former Yugoslavia broke up through multiple civil wars.
After working in Journalism, I looked for jobs more connected with advocacy, instead of having to write pieces that stated both sides of the story. I knew one side was right and I wanted to do what I could to make a difference. I ended up going to Graduate school at The New School to study International Affairs. That opened the door to working in communications for non-profits and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) related to human rights and international affairs.
You are self-employed today but you have worked with several important organizations. Why did you choose this path? What are the advantages and inconveniences?
I decided to leave full-time in-house work after my daughter was born. I found that human rights organizations are great for advocating on behalf of marginalized people, but they don’t necessarily provide employees the flexibility and time they need to take care of their personal lives and their families. I was lucky to already have a Master’s degree and more than a decade of professional experience, which allowed me to work for myself. Thanks to former colleagues, I was referred to a number of projects and jobs that led to additional opportunities. I was also lucky to have previously had a journalism career, which helped me get communications jobs while doing some freelance writing on the side.
The advantages are that I get to work with all kinds of organizations. For example, earlier this year I worked on a writing project for the Interparliamentary Union, and currently I’m working on media relations with the Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict and I get to write stories about philanthropy for the Carnegie Corporation of New York. As someone who gets bored easily and likes to try different things, the main advantage of freelancing and consulting in communications is that the organizations I work for and the type of work vary. I like the flexibility of remote work, but there are times I miss being in an office with colleagues. I particularly miss bouncing off ideas with other human rights advocates and experts.
You’ve received 12 awards. What did they bring to your professional career? Did they help you find projects or promote yourself?
I received the awards for my reporting work from the state chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. I also received a special achievement award for immigration coverage and the Greek Cultural Fellowship from the Internews organization that allowed me to go to Greece to cover the aftermath of the 2004 Olympics. While in college, I also got an award from New York Women in Communications. The awards did help me, as I was working in a very competitive field. They helped me gain the confidence that I needed as a young journalist. Some awards led to travel, such as the fellowship in Greece. Others led to financial or networking benefits like the New York Women in Communications fellowship.
I don’t necessarily mention the awards when I am looking for work, but they definitely gave me confidence and helped shape my journalism career. I learned English as a second language and I am a first-generation immigrant, so for me the confidence I gained was huge. The fact that I had a successful career in journalism before working in communications with non-profits and NGOs gave me a unique perspective that is valuable for everything I am doing today.
Going back to the beginning of your career, have you noticed any progress or change in your field regarding gender equity?
I think there is definitely more awareness about getting women’s stories out there. Whether it is having female journalists’ by-lines included in major media outlets, or giving female policymakers and experts opportunities to comment in the media, we are finally reaching a point where people realize that women need a seat at the table and their voices need to be heard, including through op-ed pages, on panels, and at debate tables.
Throughout my 15 year-career, from working in journalism to non-profit communications, I have seen significant changes. In recent years, organizations have started to realize that they were not adequately including women’s voices, even though we make up half the population. This is finally starting to happen. Also, there are more organizations that are working to promote inclusivity. Women In Foreign Policy is one of them. In the US, there are organizations such as The OpEd Project, which helps women publish opinion articles in national and local outlets, Foreign Policy Interrupted, which works to include more female voices on foreign policy in the media, and Gender Avenger, which works to ensure women are represented in public dialogue. I have seen great progress, but we still have a long way to go.
Did you receive your feminist call at a particular moment in your life or have you always been a feminist?
That’s interesting because I am not sure I can pin-point it. I have definitely felt stronger about feminism as I got older and made progress in my career, and as I learned more about the injustices women experience. The more injustices I see, the stronger I feel about being a feminist. To me, it goes along with the way women’s voices are not included when they should be. The reason I can’t pin-point a specific moment is because I have always been conscious about these injustices, but I can say that it’s linked with the fact that I come from the former Yugoslavia. The country fell into pieces, and similar to any conflict, women and children were among those who suffered most. I started to pay attention to the different ways the media was reporting on conflicts, for example, what local outlets in my country were saying and what international outlets like the BBC and CNN were saying. All those things solidified my interest in gender equality, foreign policy, and human rights, which are often interconnected.
What is the one thing you wish you’d known when you started your career and what advice would you give to a young woman trying to build her career in foreign policy?
To take more risks. I am not a huge risk-taker by nature. Looking back, I had opportunities to travel more, but I often felt I was unprepared, too young, or lacking experience. I learned that in life you are not prepared for most things, so you have to grab those opportunities. I wish I could have done that more often.
I recommend going out of your country. Consider internships abroad or doing a gap year after high school or college - it is worth taking advantage of those opportunities or finding a way to make them happen. I was always concerned with how I would pay my bills but there a lot of opportunities for young people to do this during winter breaks, in between high school and college, and even after school to gain incredibly valuable experiences. Women need to become better at taking risks. Often, men have the confidence to apply for jobs and take risks, but young women might be more hesitant.
Where do you see yourself in the next five years?
At the moment, I am happy with freelancing and consulting. It allows me to take on new opportunities and interesting projects, and to spend time with my daughter while she is young. I am not sure whether I will go back to an in-house full-time job or if I will continue freelancing and consulting. I will probably take it day-by-day and year-by-year, but I hope I won’t reach a point where I feel too comfortable. It is always good to be challenged and I hope that I will continue growing and learning, whether that means getting involved in human rights issues or familiarizing myself with a particular geographic region. This range of possibilities reflects the exciting thing about foreign policy: it’s endless. Foreign policy involves the whole world and while I have focused on certain areas in the past, such as immigration, I want to venture into new areas.
You are a communicator, but you also have knowledge and experience in international affairs. Have you ever thought about drafting the ideas instead of being the one delivering the message?
That’s true, I work with many lawyers and experts in the field of foreign policy, but I am always the person behind the scenes. I am used to it as a communicator, but there have been times when I thought, “I have a Masters in International Affairs, I should be writing this as well.” I have been thinking about it more often lately, I don’t know if it was becoming a mother or going on my own as a freelancer that has changed my attitude towards it in recent years.
Coupled with that, there is an awful anti-immigrant climate in the US. This encouraged me to write some personal pieces about being an immigrant and coming from the former Yugoslavia, or about being a working mother. I have published some pieces and I am working on a few more. I consider the experiences that I want to share and talk about, and where I can use my personal voice. Writing helped me fulfill my need to express myself. At the same time, I gain a lot of satisfaction in helping other people share their stories. There are many foreign policy experts who are not necessarily good at writing those thoughts down, but I like to help them get their ideas out in the world.
Do you sense a common effort and shared responsibility when working with other experts in the field?
It is different now that I work on my own. Some clients trust me as their communications specialist. They let me manage everything from drafting a report to the overall communications strategy around it, to publication and media pitching, and a whole range of other things. However, there are organizations that are more hesitant, that are not sure how to rely on communication staffers, and sometimes don’t understand what it is we do. It can be frustrating, but I try to take them through the process, to explain why I am doing things the way I am, and even try to get them excited about it. Communication doesn’t have to be something they dread and fear. I try to convince them that they can benefit from having their names in their favorite publications or to go on TV and discuss what they are passionate about. I try to work with people in a way that makes them appreciate the value of communications, and gets them excited about what we can achieve together.