You’re currently working for the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) as a UK co-ordinator. What does it entail?
As the only member of staff in a coalition of NGOs, I tend to do a bit of everything. I organise research, publications, meetings, parliamentary engagement, a social media presence, events and outreach – all with the aim of promoting ICAN’s international strategy to outlaw and ban nuclear weapons in the UK.
What do you do on a “typical work day”?
A lot of my work is online: social media, email correspondence... Earlier this year, I took over responsibility for tweeting for ICAN internationally as well as in the UK, so I need to keep up with activities organised by ICAN partner organisations in 90+ countries. I try to meet with existing partners and potential new ones on a regular basis and attend quite a lot of meetings – at other NGOs, sometimes in Parliament and at the Foreign Office. As a member of ICAN's international lobbying team, I was at the Oslo Conference on the Humanitarian Impacts of Nuclear Weapons in 2013, as well as participating in two NPT PrepComs and the First Committee at the United Nations.
How did you get to your current job?
After a longer-than intended career break to start a family, I was finding it difficult to get back into the NGO sector at the level I expected to be at. I decided to apply for positions, even if they were unpaid, if they seemed to offer some chance of development and opportunity. The job advert for ICAN UK Assistant looked interesting for this reason, and I was interviewed for the position. Following months of hard work and successful funding bids, the role was eventually expanded to Communications and Outreach Officer, then later to UK Co-ordinator.
Part of your job includes public speaking, a task many people dread. How do you prepare for it?
I try to consider who the audience is and tailor my message accordingly. For example, I spoke to an interfaith community group in South London, most of whom hadn't considered the issue of nuclear disarmament in any serious way, so I talked in more general terms about international relations and ethics and about why I personally care about this issue. For a recent BASIC/WMD Awareness debate on the security needs of the next generation, I went into more detail about ICAN's humanitarian and ban treaty approach and about the legal and treaty commitments Britain has made. Sometimes I just jot down some brief points, other times I end up reading something out word for word, which is helpful if there is a strict time limit so I know exactly how long I will be talking for. I can feel myself gaining in confidence each time I speak in public – it does seem to get easier!
What did you study at university and how is it helpful in your career?
I studied English literature, which has been helpful in teaching me to construct arguments and communicate in clear language, as well as analyse information and carry out research. I was able to learn about different periods in history through the words of people who lived through them – for example, the great 19th century British novelists show a window onto the massive changes which took place during and after the Industrial Revolution, and the social movements which emerged as a result. I did two terms of a postgraduate degree in Contemporary History and Politics (but when I was pregnant I found it too much to study and work). For one of these terms, we studied a different empire each week, starting with the ancient Greeks, which proved a surprisingly useful grounding in international relations.
You have spent most of your career so far in campaign-lead organisations. Why did you choose this route and what are the particular characteristics of it?
I have always been interested in how to achieve genuine positive change in society – how to improve the structures rather than just trying to deal with the symptoms. When I worked at Freedom From Torture, I was proud to be part of an organisation helping people who had suffered so much – but I found I was more interested in the prevention side of the work, raising awareness and trying to stop such terrible things happening to other people in the future. Growing up in a Jewish home and learning about the Holocaust, I always wondered why people didn't do more to prevent those catastrophic events – couldn't they see the warning signs, couldn't they have spoken out more before it was too late? I love working with ICAN because it has a clear and achievable aim to prevent humanitarian catastrophe, by eliminating nuclear weapons through a new global ban treaty. Successful campaigning organisations raise awareness of a problem and offer clear solutions to solve it.
What are the most and least rewarding aspects of your job?
Working towards a shared goal with genuinely inspirational people from all over the world is definitely the best aspect of my job. Being part of the ICAN 'family' means I have dynamic colleagues in places as diverse as Mexico, Zambia, Australia, Iran and Norway. When we have the chance to get together at international campaigners' meetings, I get a terrific buzz of energy and enthusiasm, and social media means we can keep in touch in between. By contrast, when I come back to the reality of UK government policy and its intransigent clinging to out-dated and lazy modes of thinking about the world, it can feel wearisome. I don't like feeling I have to apologise for my country, as I found myself doing at the Oslo Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, which the UK government refused to attend. Hopefully soon this will change and the UK will join the majority of the world's countries in renouncing weapons of mass destruction.
What advice would you give to somebody who would like to do a similar job?
Grab every opportunity that you come across and create new opportunities for yourself. Engage in activities and events around the issues you're interested in. For example, if you want to work for a particular major NGO, consider joining a local group and offer to take on responsibilities – don't just apply for formal internships at head office. Or find a smaller NGO working in the same field and see if you can create an opportunity for yourself there instead. There are some amazing opportunities out there for young people, if you know where to look, if you are already showing your passion and enthusiasm for the subject. For example, ICAN is hosting 90 young campaigners from across Europe for a four-day training in Berlin this September – which people might not have heard about if they weren't already involved on some level. Follow your interests and passions, and don't discount the 'transferable skills' you may have developed in other fields.
What are the key skills that make you good at what you do? How did you gain them?
I'd say my strengths are communications and outreach, both of which require strong people skills. I think of myself as a 'connecter' – bridging the expert with the person new to the subject, the diplomat with the grass-roots activist. I developed a variety of relevant skills in NGO jobs I have done – communications, advocacy, running workshops, public speaking, managing databases, producing publicity materials, editing and writing reports, organising events. But I also gained useful experience in more unexpected situations, eg. working in fringe theatres, where I learnt about marketing, event management, fundraising and generally running small not-for-profit organisations; or when I found myself organising and representing the parent body to the authorities after my son's school failed its Ofsted inspection. Doing the latter required me to put myself forward, be confident and tenacious – which are definitely useful attributes for campaigning!
Do you have a role model and, if so, who and why?
There are a lot of people I admire and who inspire me, but in terms of building a global campaign coalition to achieve a concrete aim, I would nominate Anna MacDonald as a role model. The Control Arms campaign that she has led with intelligence, determination and good humour for over 10 years is a dynamic, inclusive and genuinely global phenomenon resulting in a UN Arms Treaty, which is going to be ratified any day now by the first 50 countries.
Why would it be good to have more women working in your field? What difference would it make?
There are a lot of brilliant women working in disarmament NGOs, not just in ICAN; there are also some very progressive and brilliant men. Prompted by a recent UN disarmament meeting at which the 18 experts asked to speak were all men, despite there being plenty of qualified women who could have been asked, some of my male colleagues have recently signed a pledge not to appear on all-male panels. It matters that women have a seat at the table, that women have a voice – especially in the traditionally 'male' spheres of defence and security. Women and children are disproportionally hit by the effects of conflict, which is why it's vital that processes set up to tackle and prevent conflict involve genuine participation and consultation with women from civil society. At some of the UN conferences I have been at, it is surprising to hear a woman's voice address the room; women should definitely be better represented at government and diplomatic level.
Rebecca Sharkey - Co-ordinator of ICAN UK, pictured with Iranian ICAN campaigner Maral Hassanshahi at the Oslo civil society forum 2013
With Zambian ICAN campaigner Dr Robert Mtonga at the United Nations in New York
With the Mexican Ambassador in London in February 2014
Inspiring girls and young women to choose a career in foreign policy
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