PROJECT MANAGER | BROOKINGS INSTITUTION
You are a project manager for the Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement. What do you do there?
Over 33.3 million people are internally displaced from their homes due to conflict, in addition to millions from natural disasters and climate change-related impacts. Unlike refugees who cross an international border and benefit from an established system of international protection and assistance, internally displaced persons (IDPs) have no predictable structures of support. As the project manager, I manage the communications, outreach and administrative functions of the Project on Internal Displacement. The research and analysis we do isn’t produced in a vacuum so a large part of my role is planning public events, coordinating trainings on IDPs for government officials, editing reports, managing our Twitter account and handling media requests to connect our work with policymakers, the public and IDPs themselves.
While there are significantly more IDPs than refugees, getting sustained attention and resources for them is a major challenge. For example, one of the major issues I’ve been working on in terms of outreach is the Syrian crisis. In Syria there are 7.6 million internally displaced persons compared to 3.7 million Syrian refugees but most of the attention is on refugees. Here at Brookings (and in conjunction with the UN mandate on the human rights of internally displaced persons) we try to promote effective responses to the new and increasing levels and locations of displacement plus protracted crises – the average amount of time people worldwide are living in displacement is now 17 years.
The project is co-directed by Dr. Chaloka Beyani, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Person. What is it like working in partnership with the UN and how do you collaborate with them?
Since the founding of the mandate under then-Brookings senior fellow Francis Deng over 20 years ago, there has always been a close relationship with the UN mandate on internal displacement. It’s a unique, symbiotic relationship that connects UN agencies in Geneva and NYC, Brookings in DC and Dr. Chaloka Beyani at the London School of Economics (LSE). This partnership provides practical application for much of the analysis we do at Brookings through research for Special Rapporteur Beyani’s UN missions or training for government officials in applying the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. While I work in a small team in DC, the relationship to the UN provides a wider scope of reference and applicability while still maintaining the quality, independent analysis of Brookings.
At the same time you're studying for an MBA at the George Washington University School of Business. What is your degree like? Why did you choose it and would you recommend it?
Going to graduated school at night for the last two years has been a challenge but I will finish my MBA in May! My time at Brookings and in DC has shown me that there are many more careers and paths in foreign policy than just getting an MA or PhD and working at State, the UN or an academic institution. I focus on corporate social responsibility (CSR) and international business at GW, which has helped me view global issues and especially responses to human rights violations through a different lens. For example, I recently went on GW trip to Istanbul to learn more about emerging economies and was able to hear an interesting business perspective on the impact of the Syrian crisis on the Turkish economy. I think business is an important player and influencer in the international system so I would highly recommend an MBA, especially since there are few jobs nowadays that don’t benefit from someone understanding budgets, communications, contracts, etc. which an MBA prepares you for.
What are you planning to do after your MBA?
Eventually I’d like to pursue a career in CSR at a global firm. CSR can at times be more window dressing rather than a true commitment to integrating CSR principles into strategic planning, supply chains, HR and so on, but I think there is significant potential personally and professionally for me in this field.
A few years ago, you interned for Habitat for Humanity International– tell us about that.
As my friends and family know, hanging up pictures is about as 'handy' as I get, but interning at a Habitat for Humanity office that served the San Francisco Peninsula gave me great insight into how a major non-profit works on a day-to-day level at a local office and, in this case, literally builds communities and brings people together. I worked on the operations side rather than out on construction sites, which helped prepare me for the complex realities of fundraising for non-profits and understanding community relations, which have been helpful in my careers both at Stanford University and at Brookings.
Looking at your CV, it looks like you are torn between domestic and international affairs, often the case for many women with an interest in foreign policy. Do you feel you need to make a choice between the two or are you planning to combine them?
Yes, very true – I did international policy in undergrad, domestic policy work at Stanford University and now back to international policy with Brookings. I do think that within foreign policy there is a pressure to specialise and become an 'expert' on a specific region or policy idea. I’m hoping to maintain a focus on both domestic and foreign policy but it’s definitely an issue I’m trying to manage. As more of a generalist, one of the benefits of working at Brookings is that we are one of the few major think-tanks that does domestic and foreign policy so I can work on a report on climate change and people living in the Pacific Islands in the morning and then go down to a lunch event by other department on social mobility in the US.
You are also involved in Brookings Women Mentoring Network. Why is it important to you?
The Women’s Mentoring Network (WMN) is, hands-down, my favourite experience at Brookings. As your site shows, there are unique challenges facing women in the workforce. WMN is an employee-run organisation open to everyone at Brookings with financial and advisory support from the senior leadership. I’ve been on the steering committee for three years and it’s been an extremely rewarding experience to be a part of, from bringing in external professionals to give seminars on “executive presence” to hosting Padma Warrior (the CTO of Cisco Systems) to organising monthly lunches that provide an opportunity to discuss events in the news and workplace issues that specifically face women. It’s not just a group where we chat or vent about issues concerning us but an organisation that provides formal mentoring, volunteer opportunities, a female leaders speaking series and engagement at all levels. It’s a way to organise those conversations happening at water coolers everywhere into a supportive and more formal dialogue and actionable items. I’ve been honoured to be a part of this organisation and hope to continue by interest in women in the workforce throughout my career.
You did your BA in International Relations at Boston University. What was it like? Would you recommend it?
Boston definitely lives up to its reputation as a great college city. International Relations is a very popular major at BU and I would highly recommend it because at BU we had to pick a region and a topical focus so I was able to get the benefits of a large urban university and resources across the major but get to know students, professors and the subject matter in more depth (my specialties were Europe and Anthropology/Regional Politics). I started BU as an anthropology major actually but freshman year was in class watching a documentary about playing cricket in Papua New Guinea and thought that, while I enjoyed the classes from a personal perspective, I couldn’t imagine working on these sometimes extremely narrow topics for the next few years and transferred to International Relations. I say that as a reminder to those interested in foreign policy in college that a) you can change your mind and b) there are more paths than there might seem to still work on a subject matter you like.
Throughout your studies, you’ve spent times in universities abroad, even a semester at sea. Why this choice?
There are so few times in life where you have an opportunity to move to a different destination, have someone else take care of most of the logistics and it’s considered a completely legitimate and worthwhile use of your time. I did study abroad twice while in undergrad (Semester at Sea and Padua, Italy) and I’ve gone on two short-term study abroad programmes while in graduate school (Nantes, France and Istanbul, Turkey). Especially as an undergraduate I think study abroad provides an opportunity to learn about self-sufficiency and character that is gained by travelling abroad and needing to navigate unique experiences like how to get home when the rail workers strike in Venice, Italy or getting stuck in a political protest in Chennai, India. As a woman in particular it was a fascinating experience to see different cultural attitudes.
The opportunity to expand my worldview, put my studies into practice and get to know my classmates (especially since BU and GW are very large schools) all while getting credit was too good a chance to turn down! As an international relations major, a global understanding of the world was invaluable, particularly as a Europe concentration where I studied at L’Università degli Studi di Padova (a university where Galileo Galilei taught!), which brought an enhanced level of understanding when discussing Italian attitudes towards the European Union in class later back in Boston.
I also entered university as a sophomore and used my classes abroad to count for my major so I was able to take advantage of spending time abroad. As I’ve seen though with GW’s short term study abroad programmes, even a week away from home can bring life and career changing experiences.
The semester at sea sounds pretty cool. Tell us about it and what you gained from it.
Semester at Sea is often my 'fun fact' for icebreakers and cocktail parties because it is fairly unusual. At the time, the programme was run through the University of Virginia and it was actually a former Greek cruise ship built for the Mediterranean that circumnavigated the globe so class sometimes meant seeing quotes from the Odyssey in Greek on the walls while learning about Hinduism before landing in India and lifeboat drills before trying to get enough Wi-Fi to stream the US presidential election debates in the theatre. I travelled to the Bahamas, Brazil, Namibia, South Africa, India, Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia, China (including Hong Kong), Japan, Hawaii and Costa Rica over four months. While there certainly were some less glamorous realities of ship life, like stretches of over a week without going on land, the ability to learn about foreign policy from professors and then go into that country and see it in person was a unique experience. You can read about international trade or aid but navigating the Panama Canal with Maersk freighters next to you or watching cranes unload food aid in Walvis Bay, Namibia give me a context for the world I never could have received in just the classroom in the US.
What was your first job and what did you learn doing it you still use today?
This will hopefully be good news to all those readers in unpaid internships – my first post-college job was at Stanford University following an unpaid internship. I was an unpaid intern in the Office of Government and Community Relations at Stanford University where the first day I made it clear that I would make coffee, file papers, order supplies... and from there was given more and more responsibilities. After my unpaid internship for a summer, I got a paid full-time internship position there and eventually became the Government Relations Special Assistant where one of my primary tasks was conducting research and writing briefings on government topics ranging from stimulus funding for medical schools to water usage rights. Stanford does not have a DC office for its government relations so I got to see first-hand their local government relations (which as a landowner of over 8,000 acres in Silicon Valley was a major issue) and also their federal and state lobbying and all congressional and foreign dignitary visits like Chancellor Merkel and the Dalai Lama.
Especially as a young professional, I learned that you’re never 'too good' or 'too far above that pay-grade' for a task, especially in a non-profit where budgets are almost always tight. That being said, you should also look for opportunities to show your contributions and interests outside of lower level administrative tasks, which can be difficult especially for young women.
What are the most and least rewarding aspects of your career so far?
Working on humanitarian issues over the last few years has sometimes been a bit disheartening when I look at the scale of crises and suffering not just in places shown in the media like Syria but also Central African Republic, Yemen or islands like Kiribati that may soon cease to exist because of climate change. There are more people displaced from their homes now than since WWII, so there are days when it feels like a Sisyphean task. However, working for someone like Dr. Beth Ferris who is a leader in this field and doing my part to support her work, whether that means organising conferences for government officials to learn about writing laws on protecting people displaced or even responding to tweets in from field to provide resources, makes this a rewarding job. Our successes are measured in a new law on displacement in Chiapas, Mexico or translating the Guiding Principles into a dialect and hearing from IDPs after a typhoon about how they referenced it.
What are the key skills that make you good at what you do? How did you gain them?
I’m highly organised – list making, colour-coordinated calendar, sub-folders galore. I think that’s partly intrinsic but also because there is such a flood of information coming at us that having systems in place helps me sort through it, find it easily later and coordinate activities. I have numerous filters for example on my email to sort incoming messages and in some cases skip my inbox and before I leave at night I try to reduce my inbox to as close to zero as possible. This helps me manage my time, remain organised and be successful in this job.
What is the toughest lesson you have learnt?
You’re not going to be good at everything so play to your strengths. I have a sister who works in international development who can pick languages with ease from French to Xhosa but despite years of study I still struggle with Spanish and Italian. Since I know this though, I’ve been able to hire interns each year whose skills compliment instead of duplicate my own. Unfortunately, a related lesson that was tough to learn is that just having the qualifications doesn’t guarantee a job (Hilary Stauffer said something similar). Timing, flexibility and contacts are a huge part of the job search.
What has been your biggest challenge and how did you tackle it?
For the past two years, I’ve worked full time at the Brookings Institution, went to graduate school year-round and been an active member of the Gaelic Athletic Association (an Irish athletics and cultural organisation). Managing all these activities has been a major challenge, especially after spending a long day working on criminal violence in Central America and then having to sit in class for 2.5 hours on data analysis. Remaining organised and knowing when to ask for help has been key – I sit on the same floor as a number of economists so I’ve been utilising their presence for assistance in statistics and taking electives on human rights and business to integrate my professional and academic activities.
What achievements are you most proud of?
There is an image of Washington, DC as a hostile policy battleground but I’ve been extremely proud to work at the top-ranked think-tank in the world where I genuinely believe that we are a non-partisan organisation positively informing the policy debate in DC and abroad. For example, on issue like what the US policy in Gaza should be brings together in the same department a former Israeli ambassador, a former advisor to the Palestinian leadership and human rights expert to all have a civil and informed discussion.
Why the interest in foreign policy?
The world is so inter-connected today that I can’t imagine not having an interest in foreign policy, especially in a country like the US with its history of immigration and role in the international system. Beginning with an interest in Egyptology as a child, I’ve always been fascinated by other cultures and how history impacts current norms and policies of other countries. There’s always another view, idea or background to consider!
Do you have a role model and if so who and why?
This is a bit of a cliché but my mother is a role model. She works a different industry than me in Silicon Valley, but has taught me the importance of relationships, perseverance and hard work. All three female Secretary of States are an inspiration and continue to follow different but fascinating paths. Humanitarian workers (some of whom are found on this site) are another group of role models – the inner strength and character they display in the worst of circumstances from the Ebola response to Iraqi refugee camps is amazing and moving.
Leah Denman | Project Manager | Brookings Institution
Five years' experience
CV in brief