Episode 4: An Interview with Cynthia Enloe (September 2018)
This month’s podcast features an interview with the incredible Cynthia Enloe, a feminist writer, theorist, and professor at Clark University, Massachusetts. We talked about the best writing advice she’s ever gotten, how to start writing something that will be meaningful and interesting, and how to combat imposter syndrome when it comes to your writing.
Annika Erickson-Pearson: Hello, dear listeners, and welcome to the September 2018 episode of the Women in Foreign Policy podcast. My name is Annika and I am one of your hosts for this monthly exploration of the brilliant work of, you guessed it, women in foreign policy. Each month we bring you conversations and thoughts around specific themes in the field. This month we are exploring authors in foreign policy.
Instead of our typical episode exploring the voices of many women, today we are focusing in on one. And friends, it’s a big one. We are thrilled to share a conversation between my co-host, Ashley, and Cynthia Enloe.
Cynthia Enloe is a Research Professor in the Department of International Development, Community, and Environment, affiliations with Women’s and Gender Studies and Political Science, all at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. She’s a prolific author and thinker in foreign policy, penning 15 books. Yep. That’s 15 books. If you haven’t heard or read Cynthia, you’re going to want to stick around.
I could go on for ages, but that’s enough from me… without further ado, Cynthia Enloe.
Cynthia Enloe: Hi Ashley. My name is Cynthia Enloe. I’m so glad to be talking with you. I’m a professor at Clark University, up here in Massachusetts. I write and give lectures and teach, and I work especially on the gendering of militarism. That’s probably the most consistent thing I’ve done over numbers of years, but I also have a wider lens and look at how women, men, masculinities, and femininities shape not only foreign policy, but how various countries experience foreign policy.
Ashley Pratt: Great. So that’s a really nice encapsulation of your decades-long career. I’m sure you’ve been asked to do that so many times you’ve perfected that pitch…
Cynthia: Never! Because you’re always changing your idea of what you’re doing, you know?
Ashley: Yeah, that’s fair. So this month’s theme is about authors and the variety of ways that people work in foreign policy, especially in publishing. So we wanted to ask you some process-centric questions, as well as some broader theoretical questions. To begin, what is writing like for you? What does your writing process look like, either getting the idea to start a book and getting that rolling, or once you are writing a book, what does that look like for you?
Cynthia: Well, it’s funny. I was just thinking about that because I’m about to do a talk in Britain, in Wales. I usually speak only from notes. If you’ve ever seen me on YouTube, I don’t like to just read lectures. I like to stand up and engage with the audience, so I just have a few scattered notes -- I’ve thought about them a lot, but I try not to read them. But this talk that I have to do in November in Wales actually they’ve asked if I would both create an article that they could print, and give the talk. They probably presumed it would be the same thing, but I never read -- I don’t like that lack of interaction with the audience. So I now am starting to write what will be the written version of this talk.
I love openings. I’m interested in other people’s openings. I love people who can write a good first sentence, a good first paragraph. I always think the first paragraph should be really short. Sometimes for me it’s one word, sometimes it’s one sentence. Occasionally it’s two sentences. And so for this upcoming paper/talk for Wales, I’ve just gotten my opening. Though when I’ve got my opening it doesn’t mean I’ve got the whole article worked out in my head, because you never know where you’re going to go, you really don’t. But I have found a tone. And I know what I want the reader to immediately be surprised at.
So, I’ll just give you a hint. Agatha Christie as a young twenty-two year-old worked as a World War I nurse. Not on the front lines in France, but in her hometown in England. And this sounds so ghastly, but one of her first jobs was to take amputated legs and arms from British soldiers who had been operated on upstairs down to hospital furnace. It’s just ghastly. When you think about Agatha Christie, you never think ‘ghastly’. You think ‘clever’, ‘entertaining’, ‘holds your interest and you never figure out who did it until the end because she’s so clever’. People only know the photograph of her in her older middle age where she looks quite dowdy, really. And that’s true of a lot of famous women, we only have their photographs taken in the later years. Just think of the photographs you’ve seen of Susan B. Anthony, the suffragist. What did they look like when they were engaging in those early experiences? Since we don’t visualize them in the 20’s, we don’t wonder how those early wartime experiences affect their later outlook on life.
So for me, the opening is what engages the reader. You don’t want to write something that’s boring to you! I knew a bit about Agatha Christie -- I’m actually pretty interested in her -- but I thought she only learned about poison, something that runs through all of her mysteries, later. And people who have studied her work describe her as having served as a pharmacist’s assistant in World War I, and she was, it was her second job. But her first job during the war was working with these really gruesome surgical operations on severely wounded soldiers coming back from the front.
So the second thing about writing… I think about writing a lot, by the way, because I’m a teacher. And you, and probably all of your listeners, can probably remember when you were a student, and which things that you were assigned to read held your interest. And I think they have to look good on the page. A lot of very experienced readers and comfortable readers (readers reading in their own first language, as well as readers who learned to read early on) can take on long paragraphs. But that’s not true of most readers. I know it sounds weird, but I think of white space. I like readers to be able to pause, to be able to read a three sentence paragraph and then to stop and think, “Huh, do I agree with that? Is that where this is going?” White space allows a reader to pause and to think their own thoughts.
I’ve looked over my earlier work to my current work, and I think my paragraphs have gotten shorter. And I think it’s partly because we are now, all of us and not just “young people” -- I hate that condescension -- on our smartphones all the time. We’re reading text messages all the time. People really read a lot, but they don’t read long Jane Austen paragraphs as much as they once did. I don’t think it’s dumbing down, I think it’s: make sure you don’t stuff even two thoughts in the same paragraph. Make sure that you don’t hide your second thought in the midst of having just introduced your first thought. Every distinct thought deserves its own paragraph, because when you are a reader you breathe between the author’s thoughts. Or you should!
And I definitely think about the last paragraph. One of the things I really try to avoid is a last paragraph that’s ho hum, or that has lost all its energy. And that’s oftentimes what last paragraphs are like. They are, “I’ve run out of steam and want to go out for a cappuccino. Oh my god I’ve got to say something at the end... Okay.” And it’s a sort of wrapping up. But the wrapping up is oftentimes done in a way that is listless. It doesn’t have any edge to it. Whereas I want a last paragraph that has energy, and pushes me (and hopefully anyone who happens to read my stuff) forward. Either because it’s got a puzzle at the end, a challenge at the end, a risk at the end… something that says, “Okay, you’ve just finished this bit of reading, of writing. Now what?”
So every part of anything one writes has to have its own particular energy. And one has to always think of diverse readers, and not think that oneself is the model of the reader.
Ashley: I think that’s really important. And something that we’ve been trying to focus on as we’ve been building this podcast. We’ve only actually been producing a podcast for a few months now, and something we really took to heart when we first started was the idea that not everyone who is listening is like us. So it’s really heartening to hear you say that in terms of your writing as well.
Cynthia: Yeah, I think writing is in conversation with diverse readers. I’m always surprised at who ends up reading some of my stuff; you can’t imagine everybody. But you can certainly imagine two people, different kinds of people, some of whom are reading it on the metro, some are reading on the Tube, some are reading it as they’re looking at a thousand other things and multi-tasking, and some are reading it in their third language.
Ashley: So as you talk about your writing process and the way you are thinking about the page, is there anyone that you read or have looked to and thought, “That’s someone who I want to emulate. That’s someone who has an influence on my writing”? Do you have anyone like that?
Cynthia: I have a lot of different kinds of writers that I read. I’m a New York Times addict. I was going to say a long-time reader, but it’s a little more intense than that. All sections: the arts section, the science section, the sports sections, the opinions, and especially the news articles. And I always look at the reporter’s name. If it’s Maggie Haberman, who covers the White House for the Times, I know I’m reading Maggie Haberman. If it’s Eric Schmitt, who covers the Department of Defense, I know I’m reading Eric Schmitt. I try to realize I’m reading an actual journalist. I appreciate really good journalism.
What I don’t like is flippancy. I’m not a dour person, but I don’t like people who are just too clever for words, or who take for granted that the reader of the news article already knows what you’re writing about.
I also read The New Yorker, and I’ve read it since I was in high school, thanks to my parents. That was during the golden era of magazines, and I sometimes now try to think back and list all of the magazines my parents subscribed to and which day of the week they’d come. The New Yorker has very good writers. Rebecca Mead, who covers culture. David Remnick, who covers, particularly, Russian affairs and is now the editor-in-chief. I read a lot of New Yorker writers. And I think as a group, probably The New York Times writers and The New Yorker writers are different and their styles are different, but they have probably over time influenced me the most.
I also read a lot of books. I read a lot of books by people for whom it’s their first book, people writing for other academics. I’m also a reviewer so I read a lot of things in draft form. And I try to encourage writers who don’t already do it to include real people’s voices, which are totally missing in foreign policy articles -- you would never know that there are humans on the planet. So I read a lot of things in other people’s drafts and try to encourage them to not only think better in terms of the research that they are doing, but also to write better.
For example, recently, I read What the Eyes Don’t See, by the fabulous researcher and pediatrician in Flint, Michigan who first collected the very systematic, scientific health data on lead in the Flint’s city water due to the (really, criminal) negligence of public officials locally and at the state level. Her name is Mona Hanna-Attisha. Her book is so good. I want everyone to read this book. It’s writing about how the scientific method can make one publicly responsible and politically persuasive. How do you do science so that people who do not want to hear you -- they do not want to hear that the Flint water has been so neglected in its management that it is poisoning Flint children, mainly African-American children, with high levels of lead -- how do you do scientific research so that the people who don’t want to hear you will have to be persuaded? And that the people, mostly African-American families in Flint, who knew something was wrong with the water, will understand your research and be confirmed and validated when before they were dismissed as “hysterical.”
And her writing is so good because she mixes her Iraqi family’s own story of courage, their own story of making it in different cultures, with her own experience of being a public health scientistic cum pediatrician. What the Eyes Don’t See by Mona Hanna-Attisha. If I could require a book for everyone’s reading and conversation -- you know how cities read books now? -- that’s the one I’d suggest.
Ashley: Everything about that sounds so necessary right now. Especially since we live in an atmosphere where the very idea of a fact is something that we can put up for debate, the instruction in the way to make your facts more concretely understandable is crucial. I’m going to go get that book this afternoon.
Cynthia: Absolutely. And it has enormous implications for people trying to do foreign policy journalism, foreign policy advocacy, and foreign policy making because it’s about credibility. It’s about persuasion. It’s about responsibility. It’s about accountability. So if you think of the debates over ‘has the Assad regime in Syria used chemical weapons’, and think about who (mostly the Russian government) dismisses that… how do you do research on the ground to back up what seems at first glance to be credible evidence?
The other foreign policy scene right now where there is that question about truth, is the Saudi use of American weapons to bomb civilians in Yemen. Designing research so that it is deemed credible also has foreign policy implications for the whole debate about attacking, challenging, or rolling back climate change. So What the Eyes Don’t See is a book for people involved in foreign policy as well as public health.
Ashley: I think you’re completely right. It might behoove us in the social sciences to put more emphasis on that rigor, and that outward-facing perspective. One would say, “I’m not going to just share this paper with my fellow academics. If I want impactful research, then I need to be able to share it convincingly with anyone on the street.” Academia gets accused of being an ivory tower a lot and that probably contributes to it quite a bit.
Cynthia: When you think about how important it was in the question “did the Saddam Hussein regime have nuclear weapons?”, and how the Swedish-led inspection team’s findings were dismissed, it’s not just a matter of hammering home an argument, it’s about collecting data. And one of the things that Mona Hanna-Attisha shows is that you’ve got do it right. Which means you have to work collaboratively. You’ve got to take the step that’s going to take you another four days, even when you don’t want to take four days because it feels so urgent. So it’s also not about patience in the sense of a relaxed attitude towards the collection of credible information. It’s urgent patience. Impatient patience.
Ashley: I like the idea that we have to distinguish how we’re sitting and waiting, and why we’re sitting and waiting. So something that I’ve wondered, and this may be a personal question, something that maybe more women will struggle with when they are sitting down to write a book, is: how do you know that your voice is valuable? How do you know that what you have to contribute is something that’s going to add to the canon? And how do you do you argue back against all the voices in your head of people telling you that what you’ve got to say is something that’s already been said?
Cynthia: A couple of things. The first is that humility is always good. So, don’t ever give up humility. You’re trying to say something, not because you or I are so wise, but because what we have found is so valuable. Which is really a sense of, “I’ve got to write this because hearing how women who work in Jordan as domestic workers are experiencing migration, and the loss of their passports (which are held by their employers) is so important.” And that’s really a different way to approach to being a writer. You don’t have to constantly say to yourself, “I know I’m important. I know my voice is an important voice. I know that I’m smarter than other people.” That really can paralyze you. You might be smarter than most people, but the way to get into writing an op-ed piece, a letter to the newspaper, giving a podcast, writing a blog, or writing something longer like a book, is to think “People have to know this. They have to know what it was like being a Bangladeshi garment worker when the Rana Plaza collapsed.” That’s not me saying, “I’m so wise.” That’s saying, “Who else is listening to these Bangladeshi women garment workers? I have to make their voices heard.” And that’s a very different fuel to writing.
It’s not “I have something important to say.” It’s “I have found something that people need to know.”
Ashley: And so, following on, once you’re in a phase where you are showing your draft to someone, be it an editor or a friend, how do you determine what is valid and constructive criticism, and what is just creative differences or criticism in bad faith?
Cynthia: Well, there’s always that. Sometimes the person you give the draft to just doesn’t get it. This is particularly disheartening. If it’s a friend, you can say, “Did I not make that clear? That’s not why I am writing this book. That’s not what I want readers to get.” And then your good friend will say, “Oh gosh, you haven’t really made that clear. You led me down a path where I started assuming this book was about X. I had no idea this book was really about L.” So that’s a great conversation to have with a good friend reader.
With a lot of books, especially, but also with articles, the editor you first send it to sends it out to blind reviewers. I’ve done a lot of blind reviewing, and I’m on several journal boards where we talk about the politics of blind reviewing. And we’ve tried really hard to get our own act in shape so that we write our reviews so that they are encouraging. That doesn’t mean you write a review saying, “This is the best article ever. Let’s publish it as is.” But rather, whatever response you have to the written material you’ve received, you give it in a way that the author doesn’t lose heart. So there’s a politics to being a good reviewer. And we, on a number of journals, talk about the politics of being a fair, respectful, but also encouraging reviewer.
You the author don’t choose your reviewers, and editors are constantly looking for reviewers. I can’t tell you how hard it is to be an editor and constantly look for reviewers. And sometimes the reviewer is just the wrong one, meaning the reviewer has never thought about this, for instance, doesn’t like ethnographies, or can’t stand the qualitative character of your writing, whatever it is. And then when you see that, you can talk to your editor about it. (Omit: And) One of the questions to think about immediately is, “Didn’t I make it clear?”
So to take the reviewers’ criticism and realize, “Oh my gosh, I assumed that. I shouldn’t have assumed that. I should have really spelled it out. Here’s what I’m up to. Here is why my findings are credible. Even though I’m using alternative methodology, here’s why my findings are reliable.” Think to yourself: I just have to be a lot more explicit than I realized I had to be, or I have to be a lot more up front than I’ve realized about the pitfalls of doing this kind of work in the way I’ve done it.”
For example, you might tell your readers: I’ve been in a refugee camp. I was always under surveillance when I did these interviews. That is questionable, because the person being interviewed is always aware that they are being watched. Even though I found out some really interesting things, I’ve got to let you, the reader, know that this was a risk. Read what I have written, consequently, with a couple of grains of salt.
So being honest, being explicit, really taking seriously the criticisms when they require you to be more upfront is good. But don’t be disheartened.
The hardest thing about being a teacher is making comments on students’ papers. I can’t tell you -- all of us who teach say it’s the most exhausting thing we do as teachers. One of the most discouraging moments is when you hand back the papers, with all of your efforts in the margins of trying to be useful and helpful, and you see the student -- who could be of any age, by the way -- you see the person who is receiving your comments grimace, fold the paper up, and put it as deep in their knapsack as they can so they will never ever have to look at your handwriting again. It’s just painful for the person who has done that marginal writing.
So here’s what I started to do in class, and it made me a better commenter. I said, “Take out a piece of paper. Put in your own handwriting at the top, ‘Strategies for my Future Writing’.” And this is now going to be, for the student, their own strategic reminders to themselves. The teacher will never see it. So in your own words, as a student, you sit there (and I’d literally close the classroom door), and say, “Everyone’s going to, for 15 minutes, translate any comments I made, including ‘be sure to keep doing this,’ into your own handwriting as your own strategic point-by-point to-do list. And then you never have to look at my handwriting again.” Now it’s just in the form of notes to self: Be sure and always cite this. Be sure to always to do X. And thereafter the students are only looking at their own notes to self, which is much less painful.
Ashley: So I guess following up on that, when you have your own notes to self, when you have that advice that you have transcribed from other people in your life, what does that look like for you? What are the notes that you have taken over the course of decades writing?
Cynthia: Yes, and decades of being reviewed! Mine is: “Do not make sweeping statements.” It’s very tempting. It makes you sound like a wise person, but find a way to make more specific conclusions, say, or more analytical arguments that are specific and interesting without being sweeping. Sweeping generalizations are (1) much harder for the reader or listener to act on, and (2) they are open to a critical reviewer saying “Who can trust this person? This is clearly not true in Myanmar. It may be true in Sweden, but not in Myanmar.” So it doesn’t mean that one can’t make generalizations, but they’ve got to be very carefully specified in what they are saying. I think that’s one of the most important things.
The other one is: “Be sure to triple check your sources.” You triple check your sources not to provide yourself with armor. A lot of people think that footnotes and citations and sources are a kind of bulletproof armor: “I’ll armor myself with these and then nobody can discredit me.” They aren’t. You are specific and careful about your sources so that the reader who becomes really interested in the poisoning of children in Flint can follow up on it. So you do sources that energize your readers, not to protect yourself.
Ashley: I really like thinking about it that way. Especially if you grow up writing in academia, it’s always sourcing to avoid plagiarizing. You cite your sources so that it’s not an ethics violation. But thinking about it as a way to give your reader a tool to develop the knowledge you present is so much more useful in terms of not just motivating you to do it, but actually making it meaningful
Cynthia: And keeping you connected with your readers, not just your reviewers.
Ashley: That’s a good point. So as a last question, I know that when you spend a lot of time reading and writing and spend any time on the Internet, you see all of these lists of writing advice. I am wondering if you have any piece of advice that really ticks you off, and you wish that people would quit telling young writers to do.
Cynthia: I don’t know. Two common things are said, and both of them really have authentic weight, but they have to be heard carefully. The first is the common advice: “Write what you know about.” Well, that’s really important, especially for fiction writers. But it’s also true that one has to stretch oneself, and write what you’ve learned about, but was new to you and still feels rather uncomfortable to you when you are writing about it. Bring the reader along with you, and sometimes if you can, give a first-person confession of how uncomfortable this made you, or how confusing it was because you had never been in a remote village before. Or you never really understood the politics of men’s and women’s divisions of labor around an agricultural effort, and so you were really uncomfortable and really confused. And so you stretch yourself into an area you don’t know about, but you’re honest about how you made wrong assumptions, and about how you had to learn to unmake those assumptions. And for readers, it brings them along too! So they don’t think you always knew this and they the reader are just stupid, (Omit: like) implying your arrogant surprise, “Didn’t you know this about the growing of apricots in Afghanistan?” So that’s one thing. Write what you’ve learned about, and give the reader a sense that you, too, are a learner. That’s very encouraging.
The second common bit of advice is: “Write in your own voice.” Most of us have several voices. And I think “Write in your own voice” doesn’t take into account that you or I the writer are just not the most important person in something we write. I just am not. I hopefully am the carrier of information and insight that I have gained, but it’s almost always from other people. I really am wary of this notion that to write authentically, one has to put oneself as the author in the center. I think we can be candid where it’s useful, in the notes or text, or you can use the first person which is oftentimes good. But as the author, certainly in foreign policy impact, making, revisions, and errors, I am just not the most important person here.
Ashley: I think writing, since it is so solitary an activity can often lead to forgetting exactly what kind of relationship you have with the people who will be interacting with the writing. So decentering yourself is really crucial.
Cynthia: Yes, it doesn’t mean that you never write in the first person. It doesn’t mean that you don’t spell out in the notes or prefaces… For that reason, I find that reading prefaces of books is one of the most important things a new, would-be writer can do. Read authors’ prefaces. And look at all the people they thank. Writing, sitting at the computer or with a yellow notepad may make you feel like only you are holding the pen or only your fingers are touching the keyboard, but in fact, look at all of the people it took to write this. I also wouldn’t over-do the image of the “writer as the solitary hero.”
Ashley: Thank you so much for your time. I’ve really enjoyed talking to you! You have so much advice and wisdom, it’s fantastic!
Cynthia: It’s just plain old experience. Onward we go, right?
Annika: Right. Wow. What a conversation. It’s me, Annika, again. I just want to say another huge thank you to Cynthia for sharing her time and talent with us. If you want more Cynthia, remember that she’s written 15 books for you to dive into. We hope you enjoy!
Women in Foreign Policy is on Twitter @womeninFP. If you are looking to connect with myself or Ashley, we’re also both on twitter at @Ashley_e_Pratt and @annikaep.
We would love to know what you think of the episodes. Are there women you’d like to suggest we do an interview with? We’d love to hear from you. Are you a woman working in foreign policy that thinks your job or your research is super interesting? We probably do too! We’d love to speak to you about it.
Finally, if you like the work we’re doing, please consider supporting us via PayPal at lmgoulet or on Patreon at Women in Foreign Policy. Thank you so much for listening, and we’ll see you next month when we spend some time discussing US politics with brilliant women in advance of the November election.
See you next month! Bye!
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License
Episode 3: Working with refugees (August 2018)
This month’s theme is refugees. In this episode, hosts Ashley and Annika hear from interviews with Fahrinisa Fatima Oswald, Bathoul Ahmed, Salma Karmi-Ayyoub, and Amanda Weyler about their work. We discuss misconceptions about the refugee crisis, caring for yourself while working in traumatic environments, and much more.
All the interviews you hear today are available in full on the Women in Foreign Policy website. A transcript of this episode is also available at http://www.womeninforeignpolicy.org/listen-to-our-podcast/.
If you’d like to support the work of WiFP, please consider donating at Paypal via www.paypal.me/lmgoulet or becoming a patron on Patreon at www.patreon.com/womeninforeignpolicy.
Find your hosts on Twitter at @ashley_e_pratt and @annikaep!
Cheery Monday Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License
Episode 3: Working with refugees transcript (August 2018)
Annika: Welcome to the second episode of Women in Foreign Policy! This is a monthly podcast where we (your hosts, myself and Ashley) tackle a different topic in the foreign policy world and hear from different women. Last month we talked about innovators and trailblazing women in the foreign policy field, and we just want to say thanks! Thank you so much for the warm response and welcome into the podcasting world.
Ashley: Yeah, we heard from a lot of people who were all very kind and said very lovely things about last month’s episode and so we’re so excited to be doing this again this month. This month we’re talking about careers in conflict zones and working with refugees. We’ve got a lot of fantastic interviews, but before we get started, we wanted to make clear that Annika and I are speaking from a place of enormous privilege -- neither of us have ever been refugees or worked in conflict zones, so we are also really looking forward to learning from what these women have to share.
Annika: Yeah, last month we did a lot of talking, and this month, I’m really excited to be doing more listening. There’s power in perspective, and we’re so grateful that these women have taken the time to share theirs with us. Without further ado, let’s hear some introductions:
Fahrinisa Fatima Oswald: My name is Fahrinisa Campana and I am a multi-media journalist originally from New York City. I am now based in Athens, Greece, and I’ve been here more or less since October 2015. I mostly focus on immigration, gender, and human rights issues. Being in Greece is a really great place for me because I can cover all of those, the refugee crisis and also to just cover these issues in other regions close to Greece.
Annika: Our next guest is Bathoul Ahmed. She’s worked in a number of different positions with the UNHCR, the United Nations’ Refugee Agency and is currently a humanitarian worker.
Bathoul Ahmed: I guess if you want to put a label on it then I guess you could say that I’m an aid worker, a humanitarian worker… Initially I was a communications officer for the UNHCR, that was my official title.
Annika: She’s worked in a number of different positions both with the media and on the ground. We’ll also hear from Salma Karmi-Ayyoub, a barrister who works on Palestinian human rights issues.
Salma Karmi-Ayyoub: Right now I’m focusing almost exclusively on looking at strategic litigation and other kinds of legal advocacy connected to the Palestinian human rights issue, which I do mainly through my consultancy I have with a Palestinian human rights NGO called Al Haq, but I also do some things independently.
Ashley: And, as with last month’s episode, we have one great interview that we unfortunately do not have audio for. At the time of our interview, Amanda Weyler was a Public Information and Reporting Officer for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in South Sudan. She now works for the same office, but focuses on emergency preparedness and works in Geneva.
So, when we sat down to start planning this episode, we wondered: what makes you want to do work with refugees or in conflict zones? What draws a person to that career?
Bathoul: I always knew that I wanted to go into the humanitarian field in one way or another. My family and I were refugees from Sierra Leone, and we moved from there to the UK in 2000, which is when we applied for asylum. I was a refugee, so I’ve always had an interest in these issues. When I was at secondary school in the UK, there was a refugee day centre next to my house. There was a program in my school that encouraged young people to volunteer at this center. And because I speak Arabic, it was useful at the time, because there were lots of Iraqi refugees coming into the country at the time. I would volunteer there at lunch breaks and after school; I knew then that I had a passion for this sort of work...I knew that I wanted to study stuff along these lines so that I could get into this field somehow.
Salma: I guess somewhere in the back of my mind, before I started law school, I thought I would love to do strategic litigation work, but I didn’t have it clear in my mind what that meant. I just thought it would be great to do cases that have a political angle, something on the Palestinian cause that’s close to my heart, or other issues related to social justice. There was no real obvious way to do that, so I just went through the steps that one goes through, but then by completely coincidence a job opportunity came up at Al Haq, one of the few organisations in Palestine with an accountability project, which is basically a strategic litigation program. The idea was to look into ways to bring litigation, mainly in foreign jurisdictions, against different sorts of actors involved in violating Palestinian human rights. I jumped on that, when I saw it, it was one of those things that I wouldn’t have known that was what I was looking for, but when I saw it I thought “oh my god, amazing,” I applied and I got it.
Ashley : We live lives of staggering privilege, for the most part. I am only familiar with refugee camps from news coverage and more-or-less abstract classroom discussion. I don’t know much about the realities these women face in their work. We wanted to hear from them about what people don’t know about refugees. What assumptions do they want to correct?
Bathoul: The media is never objective and is often sensationalist. No one seems to have an interest in relaying the truth. I am more familiar with Western media and, what is apparent to me, is that the level of deliberate misinformation around the refugee issue is unprecedented. Refugees are portrayed as good for nothing, useless people coming to feed off the welfare system. This is categorically false. I have met people from all walks of life who just happen to be in this label that you consider 'refugees' because they were forced out of their country by whatever circumstances. I have not met a single refugee that has said to me “I wanted to leave my country.” Not one person.
I have worked with refugees since 2011. Nobody – whether it was the Iraqis who were displaced or the Syrian refugees in Lebanon or Jordan or the ones that I met in Lesbos – I have never met one person who wanted to leave their home. Why would we assume that they did? Why can’t we think of them the way we think of ourselves? Would you want to pack your entire life into a plastic bag and risk your life? If you had any other choice you would not do that. It’s the lack of choice, it’s complete desperation!
When I was in Lesbos, I met some people who had lost family members along the way. Some had drowned and some were separated at some stage in their journey. People just wait in the hope to hear some kind of news or hope that their family will turn up, or they wait for the bodies of their children to wash up on the beaches so they can bury them and carry on. Tell me – who wants to do this? Who wants to put themselves in this situation, unless they felt this was their only chance of surviving. These people obviously feel like this is their only chance to survive in some way. What really upsets me is that none of the reality of the situation is actually portrayed in the media. Sometimes, I don’t even want to read the news because it’s not true.
A lot of these people have sold everything they own to get on that boat and make it to somewhere safer for their children. They’ve literally sold everything. If they had land, they sold it. If they had a house, they sold it. The journey is very expensive – its about €1,200 per person to get on that little dingy boat. That’s why you see a lot of single men, but you know, the media, the way that they portray these single men, “oh look at all these single men from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan coming, they’re going to be terrorists, they’re going to be ISIS coming… They’re coming to these European countries, they’re going to make a mess,” then you’re like - wait a minute, question yourself. Why is it only a single man on his own leaving Afghanistan to come? It’s because the rest of his family couldn’t afford to come so they sold everything to send this one person so he can help his family.
So then you speak to these men, you have grown men crying, saying “I’ve left my wife, I’ve left my kid, because we couldn’t afford for all of us to come,” or, “my family saved to pay for me to come because the Taliban would take me.” I would sit with these people day in and day out in their tents and these unfinished buildings, you know, I could sit there for hours, and it would be like I’m having a conversation with my friends or with my family. I saw no difference. And it was really important to me to try to show the human beings behind these numbers. Often we forget that.
When you say ‘refugees’ - I know you need a term to label this group of people who are on the move, but these refugees are people. Refugee is just a label.
Fahrinisa: I think the biggest thing that I’ve come to see is that we have this mistaken idea that all refugees are victims. It’s been really detrimental to think like this because when you treat someone like a victim, they begin to act like a victim. You’ve removed their power. Something as simple as deciding what you are going to eat, well, when you live in one of these camps or the hot spots, you have to queue every day three times a day for about for three hours to get whatever food they hand out to you, and often it’s inedible. These people don’t even have the opportunity to decide anything for themselves. What to wear, even. They get clothes handed out to them as donations, they can’t even choose what they want to wear. We have this idea that they’re so desperate that they don’t care what they wear, but actually if you ask some women, they really do care. I’ve had lots of female refugees ask me if I can pick up a mascara for them, or a bronzer, or something like this and your first thought is, “Why do you care about bronzer if you live in a refugee camp?” And I’m guilty of that too, but then the more time you spend with these individuals, you realize that of course they care about these things, because life does continue. That’s also why they continue to have babies. Some people are very critical about refugees living in camps having babies, but it’s like, they’ve been in these camps for three years and they have no idea when they’re getting out, what did you expect them to do? Life goes on and you make the best of what you have. I would say that us thinking that they are all these helpless victims of war and atrocities is really actually detrimental. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to empathize or sympathize with them, it mean that you’re going to treat them in a different way, and then they end up treating themselves as a victim and so you take away their power and they become disempowered and they cycle goes around and around. What I have seen as the best approach to dealing with refugees that are in a location for a long time is to empower them. Whether that’s by teaching them a language, English, Greek, whatever it is, wherever they live; teaching them skills, or giving them back confidence as well. Showing them that they are capable of doing things, and taking care of themselves, and making decisions for themselves - and actually there are several programs here in Athens that help empower especially female refugees and it’s been really successful.
Annika: That reflection is so powerful and is a message that we really need to hear more often. This work is so often informed by experience. It’s always hard to know what you are getting into before you arrive. There’s so much we don’t understand, and often taking jobs, particularly in the field, can be somewhat of a leap of faith. We wanted to know: What is one thing you wish you’d known before you started working in this field? Amanda told us, “If you work in the public sector you always have to ask yourself if what you are doing is useful for the people that you are there to serve. That sounds straightforward, but it can be extremely hard to see if you are making a difference in a complex setting, like a civil war or a fragile country. I find that being aware of what smarter people than me have thought about power, international politics, development and justice has helped me understand the UN’s work better, and be clearer about my own role in it.
My first job was with the UN in the Central African Republic, where I was the Special Assistant to the head of the UN’s development and humanitarian work in the country. Most of what I know about working I learnt there, especially what it means, concretely, to be good at your job. I learned to be proactive, to hold myself to high standards, to have the backs of my teammates, to be open to new ideas, and that it’s possible to have a great time in the office. It was a great school.”
Ashley: I know from experience how important it can be to have the kind of office environment that’s supportive and that’s healthy and that lets you get what you need out of it. I am super committed to self-care, in all the forms it can take. Especially in careers where the line between professional and private life can be blurred, like it can be when you’re working in the field, how do we take care of ourselves? How do you maintain a balance so that you still have the energy left to do your work?
Salma: In a bizarre way, I think dealing with those issues through the prism of being a lawyer is a coping mechanism. I think here I’m much more distant from all of it. When I was working in Palestine, it was often upsetting. You’d go and speak to victims who had just had people killed, or had their homes demolished, and you would be reading these testimonies full of the most horrendous stuff. Often when I’m engrossed in that, it is fairly horrible, but what I find quite helpful is to be looking at everything with the forensic eye of a lawyer. It gives you quite a lot of distance, and you don’t get so engrossed in it, you don’t get emotionally attached, because you can’t - you have to have your professional hat on.
A certain amount of resilience is definitely useful, I think it’s very important to have good people skills, actually, which is something people don’t focus on at all, that it’s necessary because you need to be adaptable enough to deal with different sorts of people in different situations, you need to be able to adapt to the culture you’re in, to talk to colleagues who are on the same professional level as you and also speak to victims in the field who are uneducated. And I think you need a good grasp of politics, it’s really important. If you’re going to work abroad in the human rights environment, it’s really important to read up on politics and read up on the place you’re in and really understand what it’s all about and to be sensitive to that.
Fahrinisa: Umm, I am still figuring this out. I can’t say that I’ve found one particular thing that works for me. I have gone to see a therapist regularly for many months. I realized that the way that I manifest second-hand trauma and stress and the heaviness of the work that I do is in my body as physical pain, so over the past several months I’ve had to see a chiropractor and osteopath on a weekly basis because I have just been destroying my body physically from the emotional trauma that I’m carrying - which is secondhand trauma, it’s not really my own trauma, so I want to make that distinction. On the one hand, I used to feel like, these are not my stories, this is not my reality, I don’t deserve to be upset or in pain from what I’ve heard from all these people over all these years. But I had to go back and reassess my thinking on that because it’s not accurate anymore - of course it’s not my reality, but these are horrible stories. I needed to recognize that having people put their awful experiences on me was affecting me to a certain extent. Once I recognized that I could begin to address it. I think that through therapy, through physical therapy, I’ve begun to be able to manage the stress that I carry from my work and not spiral down into panic attacks when I hear or see something that triggers a memory from an interview, for example, that I’ve done.
I have to have some way to take care of myself when that’s happening and I didn’t know how at first. Over the months and the years I’ve begun to see that even something so simple as deep-breathing really, really helps. It also really helps me to think about all the things that I’m grateful for and thankful for, so that kind of puts a more positive spin on the things that I’m listening to and thinking about and recreating for the people to read. But I also think that it’s really important to have a strong group of supporters around you, whether that’s your family, your friends, or your colleagues - whoever it is, it’s really important to be able to have them, to be able to call someone up and tell them, “Hey, I’m having trouble right now because of x y or z,” or “hey, do you have a minute to talk, I just wanted to hash something out with you,” or even to ask advice, sometimes I call colleagues who have been in this profession for far longer than I have and I ask them, “How did you deal with this, when someone told you that they witnessed their whole family being killed in front of their eyes” - in great detail. Because they don’t just say my family died, they tell you exactly how. So you begin to be able to picture these things. They stay with you. For a long time I was having nightmares about other people’s stories. I had to fix that. I don’t want to say that certain journalists are weaker or stronger than others. It’s just the way that we take in these stories and process them. I just realized that I’m going to experience the emotional impact of this work in a very different way than my colleagues will, and that’s ok as long as I find a way to deal with it. If I can’t take care of myself, if I’m unable to do my job because of the emotional impact on myself, I am of no use to anyone. Why am I doing this if I can’t handle it? It’s really about finding a way to deal with everything you have to take in on the job. The longer I’m in this professional the better methods I’ll have, but right now it’s a combination of having a solid group of friends I can depend on, a therapist, and doing physical therapy.
Ashley: Amanda said, “The most rewarding part is to get to live in so many fascinating places and meet so many interesting people. Every time I feel tired of my current job in Juba, I go down to one of the camps for internally displaced people to write a story about the people living there, and it instantly makes the work feel meaningful. The least rewarding aspect is to be far from my family, and that moving to a new country every two years can create a sense of being rootless.”
Each woman we interviewed had a different approach, which I think is crucial. Self-care only works if it works for you. No two people are the same, and so no two people replenish their store of energy in the exact same way. You have to experiment a little to figure out what works and what works when. We had a lot of candid responses about the challenges you might face emotionally and what it does to your mental health to work in this field.
Annika: Another one of the challenges they might deal with is gender. Particularly in conflict zones, we’re wondering how it’s possible to balance being a woman in a conflict zone with gendered expectations of behavior and job?
Fahrinisa: For the most part when I am working with refugees, i am genderless, I am sexless. So I am, again, kind of immune to expectations from these different cultures about how I should act. I have had certain people from Afghanistan, for example, they’ve asked me are you scared as a woman to be living here without your family? Or are you sad that you’re not married yet and don’t have kids? It’s actually funny, I’ve had a lot more pity from women, from female refugees. I feel sometimes that they pity me more than anything else because I am here living alone, essentially without my family, I am unmarried, I don’t have kids, and I’m turning 34 this year, and to them it’s crazy. They actually feel sorry for me. That’s a funny thing that I run into a lot. As I start to talk more and more to these women I tell them, “No, it’s actually great, I have all of this freedom.” And they’ll kind of come around and be like, “Oh yeah, that’s true.” Because for them, they go from their father’s house and their father is their master to their husband’s house where their husband is their master. There’s no in between and there’s not a lot of freedom, so when they see that I’m here and alive still, they can then take a step back and say, you know, “You’re lucky, we’re lucky, everyone’s lucky.” Or, on the other hand, “Nobody’s lucky.” That’s something i’ve run into quite often from female refugees, particularly from the Middle East, North Africa, and Afghanistan.
Annika: As we’ve heard throughout this episode, this work is… well, a lot. We’ve talked about self-care, but I have to imagine that the work is also rewarding too. We wondered about stories or experiences that were affirming to this work.
Fahrinisa: I am currently doing five different stories and all of them are pretty heavy stories. I am trying to do everything that I can not to get weighed down by it. I’m doing a story on an Iranian political refugee here who is a survivor of torture. He spent 4 years in prison, they kept him in the dark for 4 years so his eyes were severely damaged, and they beat and tortured him a lot, so he has back problems, shoulder problems, you name it. When I started this story, I was really scared about how it would make me feel, would I be able to handle it? Would I do this story justice? But every time I meet with this guy, I leave the interview so uplifted. What I realize is this is why I do it, it’s for these stories of resilience, perseverance, and survival. You hear and see the worst of humanity in the stories they tell about their torture or their abuse or the civil war in Syria. You hear the worst, but then the person who is sitting in front of you is a physical testament to the strength of human beings. So you also see what it looks like to survive and to be the best of humanity as well.
So this Iranian guy has gotten to the point now - it’s been four years since he was released from prison. He’s been in Greece for two years, and is going through a very holistic program of therapy. He has gotten to the point where, I saw him three days ago, he retold a story of when he was in prison being tortured, and he laughed so much about now but couldn’t have laughed about it when it was happening to him. I was witnessing what it means to be able to heal and to move on with your life. In a very selfish way, it made me stronger, and made me more hopeful. But I have to hope that when I retell his story, it has the same effect on those who read the story. For him, I’ve asked him so many times now, “Are you sure it’s okay to use your full name? Are you sure it’s ok to show your face?” I don’t want to put him in any more danger than he already is. And he said, “No, I’m sure, I want me story out there, I want people to read my story, I want people to know what’s happening and you are the one that is going to make this happen for me.” That’s what he’s getting out of it as well. When someone tells me that, then I remember - this is also why I’m in it. To be able to have this type of effect on the person whose story I’m telling, but also on the people who will read these stories.
Ashley: So, after listening to all of that, if you still feel like this is something you want to commit your life and your career to, you’re probably wondering, “How do I start this career path? What organizations can I get involved with? What degree or maybe even multiple degrees should I get?” We talked to these women about how they started in this field in the hope of providing you some answers.
Bathoul: I studied Human Geography for my undergraduate degree, and I focused on population movements, demographics, migration and so on. I did it at Queen Mary University of London. I was never really sure what I wanted to go into. I then went on to do an MSc in Violence, Conflict, and Development Studies at SOAS in London.
After my masters, I wasn’t sure what to do, I applied for an internship with UNHCR in 2011. I got the internship in Lebanon, in the resettlement unit.
Ashley: and Amanda added, “I was extremely lucky to get my first job in the UN. I had just finished my undergraduate degree in International Relations and was studying German in Berlin when I heard that the head of the UN in the Central African Republic was looking for a Special Assistant. I wrote him an email, he offered me an interview, and a few weeks later I was on a plane. It’s an unusual way to get into the organisation, and I am very grateful that he was prepared to take a chance on a completely untested graduate with very little experience. Once you are in the UN, you have to organise your own career, which can be difficult. I’ve been lucky enough to meet colleagues in different jobs who have helped me move on to new posts. But it is one of the difficult parts of this kind of career, especially if you have a partner who is in the same field and you want to move together.”
Annika: Beyond the specifics of their own career paths, we also wondered what more general advice these women would give.
Salma: It’s so haphazard. I remember being so frustrated, hearing people say this to me, and thinking “there must be a path,” but there isn’t a path. Now I really understand what they mean - I honest to God haven’t got a clue what I’m doing day-to-day or what the next phase of life is, so I can’t pretend it’s all so controlled and so directed. The only thing I would say, the thing I’m glad I did, is try, if possible, to develop a skill set in something or other, something you’re interested in. If possible, have a discipline, such as law, academia, or engineering, that you can lend to what you’re interested in. Have a general skill set that you can then apply to the thing you’re interested in. In my experience, it’s safer, more secure, and more rewarding to have a profession behind you, which you can bring to the area of work you want to pursue. Otherwise it’s too nebulous.
Annika: Amanda told us, “My main piece of advice is to choose your boss carefully to ensure you will be working for someone you like and respect, and then to not be afraid to work really hard to make your team shine. I would also advise getting skills that will make you useful to future employers: learn a couple of languages; become really good at Excel or at building websites; teach yourself how to make beautiful infographics or become an expert in a specific country or topic. Every team needs people with practical skills, and they are surprisingly hard to find. The toughest lesson I have learnt is that no matter how hard you try, your work won’t necessarily have a lasting impact because the problems facing the world’s poorest and most fragile countries are so enormous.
Ashley: Honestly I could listen to these women talk about their careers for the rest of the day. I think it’s utterly fascinating what they do, and it’s the kind of career that takes a certain sort of person because what you do is you go to these places that are so different from what home feels like for you and you do your best and give all that you can possibly give and you have to be this endless well of mental and emotional strength for people to draw on. And then sometimes you don’t even get to see any results from that. I can’t imagine how difficult that has to be, to go to work and come home and live at work in a lot of ways, and then not get out of it what you were hoping to get out of it, not just in a business sense, like, “oh darn, the investment didn’t make back as much as we wanted,” but in a really profound “people are living and dying based on how successful we are” kind of way.
Annika: I think there’s also a tremendous amount of sensitivity with this work that is to be commended. Both for the folks who are coming in to do the work and for the communities that are supporting them that they’re working in. You’re really coming in and doing an enormous amount of emotional labor to empathize, to try to understand, and to know that you’re not the one coming in with all of the answers but that you’re really there to listen and to help foster and facilitate solutions and greater peace. There’s a tremendous amount of emotional labor and to be honest, courage, that goes into that on both sides.
Ashley: Something that’s come up a lot between you and I ask we put together this episode is the idea of working in refugee zones and conflict zones and not being a white savior, or a first world savior. Trying to an empathetic impulse, if not a purely altruistic one, balancing that with the legacy of colonialism and the legacy of imperialism that often creates these refugee crises or these conflict zones that we then try and fix, again, and I think that's a really hard balance to strike and I don’t think there’s an easy answer to whatever that question is. But I also think that it’s something we do need to keep interrogating as we talk about refugee zones and we talk about development, conflict zones, and conflict resolution.
Annika: Exactly, it’s a conversation that needs to continue happening, and so we’re really looking forward to hearing what all of you, as listeners, have to say. We want this to be a conversation, so come talk to us on the internet. We’ll be back at the end of September with episode 3, but in the meantime, we’re on Twitter at @WomeninFP, and my personal Twitter is @annikaep.
Ashley: Yeah, we absolutely want to hear back from you about what you thought about this episode, what you think about the podcast in general, what you’d like to hear in upcoming episodes, so give us a shout! I’m @Ashley_e_Pratt. If you like the work we’re doing, please consider supporting us via PayPal at lmgoulet or on Patreon at Women in Foreign Policy.
Annika: See you next month!
Ashley & Annika: Bye!
Episode 2: Exclusive interview with Fidelis Muia, director of programs at Refushe (August 2018)
In this special episode, Annika conducts an exclusive interview with Fidelis Muia, director of programs at RefuSHE, a Kenya-based organization that works with refugee women and children to holistically address their specific needs and give them the tools necessary to support themselves, begin to heal from their trauma, and regain agency in their lives.
This interview transcript is available here http://www.womeninforeignpolicy.org/advocacy-ngos/fidelis-muia-director-programs-refushe
Episode 1: The trailblazers (July 2018)
In our first episode, hosts Ashley and Annika discuss trailblazing, innovative women in the foreign policy field. We hear from interviews with Marissa Conway, Bonnie Chiu, Shireen Santosham, and Diana Nassar about their work, and we discuss what it means to be an innovator.
All the interviews you hear today are available in full on the Women in Foreign Policy website. A transcript of this episode is available below.
Episode 1: The trailblazers (July 2018) transcript
Ashley Pratt: Hi and welcome to the first episode of the Women in Foreign Policy! We’re super excited to welcome you to this episode and to this podcast, and we’re going to come to you once a month with interviews, ideas, career inspiration. Each episode will be roughly based around a theme, and we’re going to have discussions with women in foreign policy, and commentary from me and Annika.
Annika Erickson-Pearson: Hello! Before we start this month’s discussion, though, we thought we’d take a minute to introduce ourselves. My name is Annika. This summer I’m living in Washington, DC working at a nuclear non-proliferation foundation before I head to Geneva, Switzerland to do my master’s in international affairs in the fall. I have a bike named Mike, and I am trying to get better at cooking.
Ashley: And I’m Ashley. I recently received my master’s degree in international relations from King’s College London. I also live in Washington, D.C. I write exclusively with fountain pens and I love anything elderflower-flavored.
Annika: I love it. So, what is Women in Foreign Policy? I think Ashley hit the nail on the head. We’ll be bringing interviews and wisdom from women who work in the foreign policy field. The whole idea behind this site, which started in 2014 was to provide inspiration and career advice to young women looking to come into this field.
And this first episode that we’re doing today, welcome, is around innovation: women who are working in the field, particularly as innovators and trailblazers. And honestly it feels really natural to be doing a first episode of a podcast about innovation. I think a lot of what we’re doing here today, making this podcast, is innovating on the older idea of WomeninForeignPolicy.org and turning a print form into a podcast form coming to you sonically in your ears.
And I think that really gets at the idea of what innovation is. So, a lot of times we think that innovation is that a new idea had to fall from the sky and then we brought it into the world. But the reality is that innovation can be so much more. It can be taking an old idea and creating anew, it can be bridging connections in the world that we had never thought to make -- biomimickry being a great example: taking inspiration from the animal and plant kingdoms and allowing that to inform our problem solving.
So today we’re going to be talking with women about their thoughts on innovation. But before we do that, do you have anything you want to add about innovation?
Ashley: Yeah! We talked, to a certain extent, before we started recording and before we even sat down to write the outline for this podcast about how this form of innovation was particularly unique because there is a teamwork aspect to it. And we found that we were having an easier time, or if not easier than at least a more pleasant time with this process, just because we had each other both to rely on when our own skill sets or experience failed, but also to hold each other accountable.
Annika: Yeah, that’s true. So, over the course of this episode we’re going to explore the concept a bit more, speaking with trailblazing women across a variety of fields. Women in Foreign Policy previously interviewed Bonnie Chiu, Marissa Conway, Shireen Santosham, and Diana Nassar, who we’ll let introduce themselves.
Our first guest is Marissa Conway. She’s based in London and is the co-founder and UK Director of the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, a research and advocacy organization whose mission is to promote people-centered policy.
Marissa Conway: Feminist Foreign Policy initially sprung out of the master’s dissertation that I wrote a couple of months ago.
Diana Nassar: I’m Diana. I’m 27 years old in a month. I work as a product manager at an e-commerce company. I’m based in Amman, Jordan, and I’m also a 2016 Tech Women Fellow.
Annika: And, because all processes have hiccups, we have the transcript from an amazing interview with Bonnie Chiu but no corresponding audio. We didn’t want to lose out on the wisdom she shared, so we’ll be reading her thoughts to you as we continue through the episode, but to start her out with an introduction: Bonnie started Lensational, an organization designed to equip underprivileged, marginalised women in developing countries with cameras and photography training. She says photography is a universal language that transcends cultural barriers.
And finally, Shireen Santosham is Chief Innovation Officer for the Office of the Mayor of the City of San Jose, California, Sam Liccardo.
Ashley: So, to begin, we wanted to frame this concept from a number of different angles, and immediately began to wonder… how do you know if an idea is innovative? Marissa had an interesting response.
Marissa Conway: I focused on a feminist analysis of the Iran Nuclear Deal and looked at masculinity within US defense intelligence and how that shapes foreign policy around national security issues. I tried to write a more tangible, action-oriented conclusion to my dissertation: what can we do? How can we shift this? How we can interrupt foreign policy? These questions became the theoretical foundation for the Feminist Foreign Policy website, which focuses on questioning power and hierarchies, and re-envisioning structure and the status quo of foreign policy.
Annika: I love this concept of interruption. I think that interruption these days is a total buzzword, but I really am curious myself in my career as I explore the work that I do is how do we interrupt foreign policy? Particularly, how do we interrupt over-bloated and/or systemically oppressive structures that prevent innovation, and a flow of ideas, a flow of problem-solving? Obviously, in my mind, there’s a lesson here in looking at the way things are and asking - is this the only way this can be done? Does it have to look like this? I think that gets at some of the work Marissa is doing.
Ashley: Speaking of systemic oppression, we are talking about women. We are talking about women in a traditionally male-dominated field. So another thing that we were wondering is, how is your life as a foreign policy innovator different than a comparable man? How is your innovation different than it would be if you were a man? Would you have been innovating if you were a man, or would you have just stuck to the status quo that benefited you? And I think that we got some interesting answers.
Diana: A big part of working in STEM is to keep pushing boundaries, because it's a very competitive place to work in and it is true that it’s a very sexist kind of place to be working in. You have to prove yourself, as a female you have to prove yourself sometimes doubly, sometimes even more because you're the only female in the meeting room and you have to make it work for you. You have to be a very powerful woman, but you also have to be very resilient about things that you face and to never give up.
It saddens me on a personal level, because I know so many girls from my class are now married and are not using the skills that they acquired. It can be a personal decision for them, and that’s totally fine, but sometimes I feel that it's more society than the individual deciding, it's what society forces them to do. Most of the time girls, especially in my community, feel like they have to choose between their work and their personal life, their family commitments and everything around that. This is something that I like about technology, with technology you can always find a solution. You can work from home, you can be a contractor, you can do lots of things if you have these skills. I believe that the main problem here is that girls aren't exposed enough to the opportunities out there. They don't know that that's even an option. I talk to them and they just think that they have to go from 8am to 5pm, and that is not feasible for them. We need to raise awareness about remote work opportunities and to support women by having better working conditions, especially in the technology sector. [Women] are an untouched resource. We cannot deny this.
Just keep remembering that the more power you gain in this sector, the more responsibility you have to your fellow women. Just keep these issues in your mind and keep speaking up about them. Keep suggesting internship opportunities in your company, keep talking about including more women in your department, keep doing it. I really try to do this all the time, and I try to bring more female interns to my company because I believe that this is actually an issue. And the more power I have to solve it, the more I try to actually solve it.
Ashley: So, Diana basically advocates for exposing young women to more opportunities, and exposing all women to opportunities to work flexibly and to work in a way that best fits their goals, and that doesn’t always mean their career goals, and I think that’s something that’s really important, that you can want to be innovative and that you can also want to go home at 3 PM to pick up your kids. And we can’t shut out women who need that kind of support. There are women who have incredible things to offer the foreign policy community, or the STEM community, who don’t have a 9 to 5 sort of life.
Annika: Yeah, it’s so true. The burden is really placed on women to advocate for themselves and I think that’s where really leaning into the support structures of being in a community of women for those of us who are lucky to work with other women or in close proximity to other women, to really rely on one another and band together. You and I already talked about the benefits of teamwork in making this podcast, and I think it can benefit us in so many other ways.
I know Bonnie Chiu said something about that too -- she said, “There’s only so much that one person can do, no matter how brilliant or talented. So you need to build a team, collaborate with other organisations. It shouldn’t be focused on you; it should focus on the cause or the purpose. It takes a movement to really change the world.”
Ashley: Absolutely. Teamwork is great. But then are the times when we do fail, and sometimes we might fail because we weren’t working as a team. And no one sees that.
Annika: Yeah, I was actually just thinking about how I wish that we’d had more information about times these women have failed… I know that there have certainly been times in my life when because I failed to collaborate, I burned out. Or because I failed to collaborate, I maybe didn’t advance as far as I would have. Yeah, I’m definitely bummed we don’t have those stories of failure from the women we interviewed because it’s helpful. It’s easy to miss out on lessons when we don’t actually talk about failure.
Ashley: I think people really avoid talking about their failures because we consider it shameful or embarrassing to have made an earnest attempt at something and then not succeeded. We are a culture of being super cool about everything and it’s not cool to have wanted something, and especially wanted it desperately, and not gotten it.
Annika: Yeah. To have tried and failed is so embarrassing. And we’re so obsessed with keeping an image of ourselves as having a great career, and a great life, and I’m so happy! Where is the space to process failure? Where is the space to process those lessons? I think failure happens and it happens to all of us.
Ashley: I think the question is how do you stay motivated when terrible things are happening all around you and the beautiful plan you crafted is collapsing? This was another moment when I was so deeply spoken to by what Bonnie said in her interview. She said to focus on your purpose. “The other key thing is to understand your purpose, as it can be quite tiring to do so much and work so hard. Knowing your purpose will make things easier. It might be daunting when someone says find your purpose. Some people are luckier; their purpose is obvious to them.”
Annika: Yeah… purpose is not always obvious. I think we need support and resources and people around us to help point us in the right direction. I agree that purpose is our north star, but I don’t want to alienate any listeners to this show who might not know exactly what that is. I know that we hope that Women in Foreign Policy a great resource for more career inspiration and for advice and helping folks find their purpose, but I also know that Shireen had some great recommendations when it comes to resources or alternative paths that aren’t well-publicized.
Shireen Santosham: I’ve always done joint degrees, so I did an undergraduate degree in Business [at the Wharton School at The University of Pennsylvania] and a degree in International Relations at the [University of Pennsylvania] College, and then I did something similar in grad school when I went to [Harvard] Kennedy School and [Harvard] Business School. This kind of cross training has been really impactful on my career path. I found power in that intersection [between these subjects]. Because few people in the world have those cross-training skills… To have cross training allows you to really look at problems from multiple perspectives, and come up with solutions differently. It also allows you to speak the different languages of different sectors. You're not bound by speaking only in business language or the language of politics. You can actually think about both of them and connect with people in both sectors - which I think becomes more important as you get more senior in your career.
Annika: I love this advice so much. When you have different angles and experience to draw from, it helps you keep moving. Today, more than ever the world is nuanced. Economic decisions have security implications. Development strategies affect diplomatic relations. For listeners who plan to spend their careers in this sector, I think it’s wise to create a strong, comprehensive baseline understanding of many disciplines just like she argues.
Ashley: And I think that the other thing that I want to take a moment to talk about is not feeling trapped if you wake up one day and realize, “Oh no. My background or degree is in something I don’t want to do.”
Some people may know this about me: my undergraduate degree is in theater. I have a Bachelor of Arts in theater and trained as a stage manager. And when you say that to someone at a conference, or to a professor, or to a colleague at a happy hour, they look at you like you are bananas. They look at you like you have wandered off of the moon and into their classroom. “What are you doing here? And how did you get here? And why are you at the same prestigious school that I’m at because I have a degree in political science.”
Annika: I love the people the people who say, “Yeah my undergraduate degree was playing the tuba.” And I say, “Welcome. Yes! You belong here. Correct Hybrid sectors.”
Ashley: That’s the thing! They do belong there. I am a better foreign policy practitioner, not “just as good as”, but better because of the background I have. What I trained as a stage manager, and what that gave me the opportunity to do was to practice high-stakes decision making and creative thinking in a space where no one dies if I get it wrong. Yes, it feels really important in that moment that if the door knob falls off, no one in the audience notices, but in the long term… it doesn’t affect geopolitics. So I get to have the practice of making those decisions before I get to make them at the UN.
Annika: Isn’t that innovation is? Circling back to where we started, it’s this idea of taking one idea or one practice or one discipline and connecting it to another. I’ve never thought that I’ve been a straightforward “creative” person. I don’t often have new ideas, like what do I write an article about, etc.? I’m much better at building bridges and drawing connections. And so I think what you’ve done taking your skills from theater and drawing them into the work that you do now is actually really innovative.
Here’s to having long careers in this field. So for those of us who still have years to go, as you and I do, we wondered: what’s one piece of advice you’d share for people looking to innovate and shape the future of foreign policy?
Marissa: I think because foreign policy is such an elite institution, it can seem very difficult to break into. Personally, it's the career path I want to pursue and I didn't really know where to start. I hope FFP opens the door for other people who are interested too but might think it’s not possible because they don't have the right connections or the right background. But if foreign policy is going to be relevant and progressive and significant, then it needs new voices and fresh ideas. Easier said than done, of course. But what ultimately drives this project, from a feminist perspective and speaking for myself, I'm simply tired of women being subjugated and not taken seriously in politics.
Diana: I remind myself everyday to never lose hope. The moment we lose hope and stop believing in ourselves, this is all going to be done. I believe that we need to keep doing what we're doing and to keep setting an example. Each one can make a difference. And if we all believe in ourselves and do the small difference that we can, then all of us as a nation can do something. I know this is really really hard, but let’s not lose hope and let’s keep believing in ourselves.
Shireen: Be persistent, and be willing to experiment a little. My career path hasn’t been a straight line. You have to take certain calculated risks. At different points in my career, people have said: “You sure you want to leave? You’re on this great path, why would you change?” I think you have to trust yourself and take those risks.
Ashley: Bonnie Chiu told us to avoid comparing yourself with others, which is something I have to remind myself of literally daily. Bonnie said, “When I was young I never thought I would be an entrepreneur. As a young girl, I remember being quite daunted by the stories of wonderful women. I thought it was too out of my league. Be inspired by other women who have done great things, but don’t compare yourself to them. Everyone has a different own path to create change. Other people’s stories can teach us lessons, but don’t feel intimidated. If we are too intimidated we won’t take action. Don’t feel scared. Just do it.”
I identify with that so strongly. A lot of my failures come not from trying and not succeeding, but from losing motivation before I even try. I struggle with spending too much time watching other people succeed without experiencing any of the failures or setbacks that certainly preceded their highly publicized success. It’s on Facebook, it’s on LinkedIn That leads to me losing motivation, and potentially robs the world of innovative contributions I could have made. That kind of comparison can be so toxic, and I think especially in the early stages of a career in this industry, it’s so easy to slip into.
Annika: I think the key in what you said there is that it would rob the world of the innovative contributions you could have made. Which is to say that, there are innovation contributions within you! And there are innovative contributions within me, and honestly I’m prepared to say, within every person listening to this show. Innovation is so much more than Silicon Valley, it’s so much more than what’s flashy and new and fits conveniently into an application on your phone. I think what I’ve learned from these women today is that innovation starts with an idea and a sense that something could be different in the world. It doesn’t serve us, particularly as women, to play small and to doubt our contributions.
Ashley: You’re right, I think it’s vital that we make mental and conversational and social space for innovations that are, for lack of a better word, innovative - that don’t come from a conventional place or a white man in a turtleneck. We have to dream radically bigger to address the kinds of problems that you and I and our generation of foreign policy practitioners will be faced with.
We will be the standard-bearers of this field. The more power you gain in foreign policy, the more responsible you are for shaping the future of the sector. And that’s not just a pithy thing that I’m saying. Literally modern foreign policy practitioners are shaping the future that you and I are inheriting to deal with.
Annika: Absolutely. And it really comes from a place of standing in and understanding our own capacity, our own potential, and not doubting that. And then, really supporting one another in what we do - not thinking that we have to go the distance on our own.
Ashley: We had a conversation earlier about women supporting other women in the workplace and female colleagues coming through for you when you need that support. But I think we also need to emphasize that this can’t be a solution that only women pursue. The men in my office are just as responsible for building a better world as I am.
Annika: Phew. I think we just made our first podcast! Look at us. So that’s it. That’s this month’s episode. We’ll be back at the end of August with episode 2, but in the meantime, please come talk to us on the internet. We’re on twitter at @womeninFP, and my personal twitter is @annikaep.
Ashley: Yeah, we really do want to know what you’d like to hear on these episodes, so I’m @Ashley_e_Pratt. If you like the work we’re doing, please consider supporting us via PayPal at lmgoulet (spell) or on Patreon at Women in Foreign Policy.
Annika: See you next month! Bye!