June 30th 2015
Four years ago I made a plan. It’s a simple plan really, spanning approximately eight years. It goes like this:
Step 1. Get a B.A. in a subject (or subjects) that I am interested in. Make sure it is broad enough to accumulate general knowledge about the world and give me a sense of what options are out there.
Step 2. Take one or two years off after my degree. Spend those years traveling and being outdoors, while still making enough money to support myself. Don’t worry about pursuing a career, just do things that I won’t be able to do later in life (i.e. becoming a diving instructor or backpacking around South America). Also in this time figure out what I want to do with my life.
Step 3. With my new found wisdom and life experience decide on a subject that I want to pursue my Masters in. Have gotten good enough grades in my undergrad to get into a good school (hopefully somewhere abroad).
Step 4. Work on my next plan based on how this one turns out.
Pretty simple right? As someone who tends to live spontaneously this is as close to a finite plan as I could get while still keeping my options open. It provides comfort, but also flexibility. And as of right now – four years in – I’m right on track. I’ve successfully completed step one: I have a combined honours degree in Political Science and International Development Studies with a 3.6 GPA (not great, but not horrible).
I’ve now moved on to step 2: discovering life outside of school. In my two years off I always imagined myself climbing mountains or bumming around Europe. Never did I imagine having a job in my field, of all places. But as it turns out, the four years I just spent slaving away in the Killam Library have actually qualified me for something (go figure!). This internship presented itself before I’d even finished my exams, and my hunt for fall jobs has already come up with a plethora of options (although applying for them is another matter). I guess as a bright eyed and bushy tailed recent graduate I am a desirable candidate for NGO and non-profit work.
Of course I should be thrilled. Isn’t this what everyone wants, to get a job in the area they studied? Even if it’s only for the summer. But counter intuitively, in my plan the express purpose of my next two years is to NOT work in my field. I want to try all sorts of things before I have to settle into a ‘career’ or a ‘profession’ (what do those words even mean?). I’ve focused so intensively on political science and international development studies for the last four years that now I want something different. I want to get a certificate in photography, or be trained in Wilderness First Aid. I’m worried that it would be too easy to stick to what I’m qualified for and never get to try anything else.
It would be a different story if I felt that I’d found my calling – if I knew that the NGO world is for me and I never want to work in any other sector. But that’s not the case. True to form, as soon as my options start to narrow I freak out and open them up again. I’m much better at knowing what I don’t want to do than what I do. And the seven weeks I’ve spent working for Food Rights Alliance have been eye-opening to say the least.
Being here I’m getting firsthand experience in the NGO world. Every week our boss sends Jeremy and I to numerous meetings put on by various civil society organizations. There we listen to presentations and frantically take notes on taxation in the budget, seed policy, GMOs, land tenure rights, bilateral trade agreements, foreign direct investment, etc. Seven weeks in it now feels normal to put on nice clothes every day and carry my heavy briefcase to the office where I spend eight hours researching and writing, researching and writing. I’ve learned more about agriculture and food security being here than I knew in my whole life. On top of that, my co-workers are all young and smart and some of the hardest workers I’ve ever met. And my boss is an impressive woman who acts as much like our mother as she does our supervisor (last week on the way to a meeting she found out I’m vegetarian and gave me a lecture on getting enough iron). Basically, I scored.
But being here I’m also beginning to understand the reality of working for a non-profit. People don’t march into work every day holding banners and burning with a desire to change the world (don’t worry, I knew that before I came here). Instead it’s a lot of report writing and fundraising. Buzzwords like ‘capacity building’ and ‘behavioral change’ are applied to every situation. Every day is an uphill battle and at the end of it no one knows if progress has been made. And what is meant to be an hour long meeting can stretch out over two days (that might just be a Ugandan thing though. God I hope it’s just a Ugandan thing). I know that the NGO world isn’t perfect, but it’s disheartening to see how bogged down in rhetoric and procedures everyone is.
In contrast, I’m used to taking an experiential learning approach. I was raised by a facilitator who confidently marches into meetings carrying a briefcase full of balloons and gets all the men and women in suits laughing and participating. Most of my job experience is working with kids with chronic illnesses or from disadvantaged backgrounds – preparing programs and games to help them develop self-confidence and leadership skills. I know working for an NGO isn’t the same as working for a camp, but the principle of engaging people is the same, and that’s something I’m good at. I know how to get a group of people working towards a common goal, and I can do it without using projectors and spreadsheets. I guess it just took coming to Kampala to realize the value of skills I already have.
So is working for an NGO everything I dreamed of and more? Yes and no. I like the people, I’m interested in the issues, and it keeps me questioning what’s right and wrong and what I believe. But there is too much rhetoric and not enough of an experiential approach, both within the organization and in the work being done. Often meetings will end and there will be no clear tangible outcomes. You have to wade through the politics to get to the heart of the matter, and even then it isn’t clear what to do. The work being done here is very valuable and definitely has its place, but I’m just trying to figure out where I fit in it, if anywhere.
I’m not trying to say that I have all the answers – most likely I don’t have any of them. I’m just learning, and I only have seven weeks of experience under my belt. Furthermore, I know that not every NGO is the same, so I shouldn’t use this one example to characterize them all. But I am realizing where my strengths lie, and how they can fill the gaps in this type of work. I still have no idea whether the NGO world is where I’ll end up, but if it is at least I now know a bit more about what I’d be getting myself into.
For now, I’m just sticking with my plan and seeing where it takes me.