Quoting Emma Watson, meeting Alicia Keys and passing up Beyoncé for a cheeseburger

“I do not want the fear of failure to stop me from doing what I really care about” – that’s it. My favourite quote from Emma Watson, who has been dominating my twitter and Facebook feeds since the launch event for UN Women’s #HeForShe campaign at the UN Headquarters on Saturday (20th September) night.

I woke up on Sunday morning to a plethora of inspirational quotes and videos from the event and all the spokespeople, who had come together to call for men and boys all over to the world to raise their voices to make gender equality a human right. It’s a powerful campaign, eloquently and passionately delivered by the new UN Women Good Will Ambassador Emma Watson. Soaking up the atmosphere through the digital sphere, whilst rubbing sleep from my eyes on the Sunday morning felt rather bitter sweet. It’s the kind of thing I would’ve longed to be a part of, frustrated to be reading about it post event. Imagine the atmosphere in the room! The reason I’m studying a MA in Human Rights and attended an internship at UN Women is because I believe in, and wish to be a part of, real change.

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Real change doesn’t only take place, or is initiated by, a large global event featuring super star speakers such as the lovely Miss Watson and Kiefer Sutherland. The first and most fundamental place for change is in your heart and mind. For me, I felt an incredible pride as my twitter feed danced and sung with the words, images and declarations from that night because even though my time at UN Women was brief, I know how hard they all would’ve worked to make the success of that night look as effortless as it did. And for a short time, I was part of that very talented team.

At the heart of UN week has been the #SocialGoodSummit – a two day conference examining the impact of technology and new media on social good initiatives around the world. All this UN activity has made me a bit nostalgic for New York and all it’s energy and possibility.

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It was only my second weekend in the city and my wide open weekends scared me more than the new job at the UN, so through a friend I had made who lived in the city I volunteered at an exhibition on the Sunday. The exhibition was by Kara Walker and it was called ‘A Subtlety’. It was held in Brooklyn’s legendary Domino sugar factory, which was due to be demolished when the exhibition closed on the 6th July.

The information available at the exhibition was purposefully minimal. I knew that the centre piece was a giant female sphinx, made out of white sugar. The friend that encouraged me to go tried to capture in words what this model was like and how it made her feel but she couldn’t, which only served to intrigue me further.

On that day I was still very new to the city. I was nervous travelling around on my own, but I didn’t want fear to stand in my way of exploring. So with the safety net of my new friend, who happened to be a New Yorker, I picked up a city bike, strapped on my borrowed cycle helmet and headed to my voluntary shift just over the Williamsburg Bridge.

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Before the exhibition opened we were given chance to look around. I’d seen pictures. I understood that the concept, which was related to slavery, the sugar trade and consumer consumption, however I wasn’t prepared for coming face to face with her.

She was magnificent. She was proud, strong, defiant. I couldn’t stop looking at her.

All around her were slave children, built using brown sugar that was decaying in the heat. The air was so sweet you could feel it moisten your skin, making your own fingers sticky to the touch. Brown sugar lined the walls, the remnants of the old factory clinging to the last of its life.

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As I swept the residue of white sugar that was coming away from her, the curator came running in speaking urgently into her walkie. Alicia Keys and her family were arriving any moment for a private tour with Kara (the artist) before it opened. Slightly self conscious of my frizzy hair, ill fitted white volunteer t-shirt and glaring lack of knowledge of the work I stood back.

I watched as she walked in. Even from a distance she looked beautiful but it was the distinct shrill of a child’s laughter that struck me the most. I’d been two weeks away from my children and their absence was as solid a thing as their presence is. My heart lifted at this beautiful sound – a child bursting with energy and a parent playfully but firmly telling them to be quiet.

I was stood round the back of the sphinx with several other volunteers. Alicia and her family walked by us and asked a few questions. Her eyes were light and her boy, Egypt, was pulling on her arm. I crouched down and talked to him, asking him about his favourite toy and we compared our super hero power of choice.

Within 30 minutes they were gone and the large queue that had been melting in the summer heat outside began to filter through. Despite the numbers the room remained hushed as each person embraced the same sense of awe I had when I first saw her.

Four hours later my feet hurt, I was dehydrated, hungry and ready to get back on my bike. I’d come a long way that day and not just over the Williamsburg Bridge.

As we were getting ready to leave we were told Beyoncé and Jay Z were on their way. My friend asked me if I wanted to wait to meet them but I wanted a cold beer and a cheeseburger more.

Besides I’d already met a celebrity that day. She didn’t have a name, but she was strong, proud and she’d helped get me up over that bridge so I could experience the sheer joy of coming down the other side.

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

That’s a question I got asked recently. And then again, a couple of weeks later fear came up in conversation. I was doing my presentation as part of my placement assessment for my MA. My course leader, who is ridiculously wise, intelligent and insightful, told me that I needed to slow down and stop being so afraid. It shook me, this statement, but as the colour faded from my cheeks I felt relieved.

I realised it was something I wanted to talk about and let go of.

Those that follow this blog will know that I spent June and July in New York doing an internship for UN Women. New York and I didn’t get on at first, but eventually she drew me in (by the scruff of the neck). I worked hard, missed my family, made some great friends and learnt to value what I have over what (I thought) I wanted.

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Becoming a student later on in life brings with it different pressures. Covering the cost, taking time away from work and family to study and the perpetual reaching for something that isn’t quite yours yet all take their toll.

In my case the fear is that I won’t succeed. That all this reaching will give me nothing more than a deep ache in my arm, an empty bank account and several (more) grey hairs.

I revere women entrepreneurs and feminists the way Heat magazine does <insert name of popular reality TV based celebrity>. These women are my champions, along with the incredible stories of strength, resolve and passion that I read in blogs, on news items and in books. 

I’ve admired their resilience and fearlessness and have wished I could emulate them.

Then I went to New York, and it wasn’t what I expected. I loved the work but I never felt fearless. What I have felt, on reflection, is empowered. 

Fear can be debilitating. It stops us in our tracks. We want to wait for it to pass until we act, for the ground underneath us to feel more secure. 

Those that are brave and take leaps of faith don’t do so because they’re not afraid. It’s because they are. 

 

 

 

 

So you went to New York. Now what? 

I’ve been asking myself that question for the last six months. New York was to be a pivotal point in my career. It was meant to create opportunities and lay a path for me back to the Big Apple or Geneva, which I’d walk with my eye firmly on that corner office with a view to match the shiny rank I’d reach with determination and hard work.

I’d discover that I actually like wearing shirts and pencil skirts. My wardrobe would be less distressed and disheveled and more Devil Wears Prada. Rather than pad in quietly in converse my heels would indicate my imminent arrival. 

Why did I want those things? Because I’m ambitious and without dressing it up in that way I really wasn’t sure what it would look like. So I uninformed my ambition. I gave it a label, a direction and a cause.

It was a cause that so many wonderful friends and family members supported. Propelling me along with words of encouragement and physically helping me get there by donating some of their hard earned money to my dreams. This is the thing that I was most moved by and now that I’m not on that path in those heels, it’s something I feel guilty about.

Truthfully we don’t know how different lives are going to look on us until we try them on. I’ve said this many times, with a slightly defensive tone, but New York didn’t give me what I thought it would. I wasn’t dazzlingly successful there but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a success. 

Since coming back that success has manifested itself in different ways. I’ve been working at a charity, with amazing colleagues and I’m more confident in who I am and what my strengths are, but also in what I’m not prepared to compromise on. I cherish flexibility and the ability to embrace opportunities in order to mould my daily working life around the things that I’m most passionate about, which includes being with my children. 

These have been gradual realisations that I’m steadily leaping in-between with a significant amount of fear. Recently I visited my MA course leader, who has become a mentor and a friend. She often sees more in me than I do in myself and has quietly, stoically championed me from the very first time I emailed her asking to join her course, despite not having an undergraduate degree. 

You see I have all these things that New York has left me with, mostly connections, stories, an enhanced sense of self, empowerment and of challenging my gender role. It’s left me with a huge heart that has been both broken and massively touched by people along the way.

So I’m going to write it all down. In a book. The book will be part of an academic series on Human Rights but it will be more story telling than academia.

And I’m going to need your help. If you were one of the people that donated to my just giving page I want to interview you. Very simply to find out why you did it and what you thought. You can be detailed, vague, emotional  or detached, as long as you’re honest.

If you got in touch with me after reading my Guardian blog on being an intern then let’s connect again. What made you take those minutes out of your day to reach out to me? 

We share a common humanity and New York showed me the very best of it. It’s time to acknowledge that and, above all, say thank you. 

 

First week at UN Women and getting perpetually kicked by New York

I’ve been in New York for a week now and as with all firsts, today is pretty tough. It’s my first weekend here and even though I’ve just started to get into a groove at work the weekend has thrown me back a few feet. Two wide open, long days with no company, friends or family.

So let’s rewind to my first day at the UN. I had worked out my route the day before and arranged to meet my boss outside of the building. The United Nations is an impressive place. Flags from all over the world fly out front and beyond the intense security is a wall of glass, surrounded by white concrete. I sat there watching people from all over the world stream in waving their passes and I walked that fine line between excited and terrified.

An an hour later when the human traffic had started to wane I called my boss who told me I’d been waiting in the wrong place. My office wasn’t within the wall of glass, it was in another building further down the street affectionately referred to as the Superman building as it’s where, yes you guessed it, that Superman film was shot.

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Within just moments of getting through the doors I was ushered into the weekly updated meeting with the whole of UN Women. I’d been awake since 2am (still on UK time) so did my best to look alert. All around me voices spoke up about the work being done on gender equality. They talked events, conferences, speakers, policies and legalities. They dissected the distressing news from India, as well as countless other initiatives they were working with local governments on. When you read the news it can be easy to think that nothing is being done but that room vibrated with passion, commitment and direction.

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UN Women is like any other office. I have a desk, a computer, a phone and there are notices up in the kitchen reminding you to wash cups and throw old food away. But there’s also a shared belief in gender equality and women’s rights that is at the core of every tweet, video, image or piece of copy put up on the website or out to press.

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It takes a few days to set up my computer and email so I spend a lot of time shadowing the web editor and reviewing the content. Amidst this I’m grappling with being in a new country, in an uncomfortable room struggling to sleep and dealing with the emotional impact of being without my family, which spills down my face in tears on my very first day and each day after that.

The UN Women communications team is a group of highly educated and intelligent women. They each speak several languages fluently, can write code to build websites, are social media experts or professional videographers. It’s more than a little intimidating and I find myself shrinking inside my skin, playing down my accomplishments and skills and quietly murmuring something about understanding very basic French when asked about my language skills.

The UN Women web page is in three core language, English, French and Spanish. The editor is fluent in all three (and four other languages, y’know just for fun) and translates and edits across the entire site. She tells me I’ll be editing in French and German, as well as learning how to read and write HTML code. I have my doubts at this stage but sure enough, by Friday I’ve posted content in all three languages and edited code.

The mental capacity of working in this way is exhausting, added to the long days, walk in, heat, lack of sleep and daily heartache of missing my family and by the time I get back to my room I’m wiped.

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By Thursday I’ve started chatting to a couple of colleagues and gathered the courage to ask one out for a drink. Her name is Greta, she’s a social media intern and a similar age to me. She lives in New York with her husband. We start off at a rooftop bar and upon the lift opening we’re told there’s a waiting list to stand on the patio. I’m about to say thank you and turn away when Greta hands me a cocktail menu. At $15 each they’re a little out of my price range but before I can say anything there’s a drink in my hand and the tab has been paid. We do end up with a spot on the patio after sneaking past the hosts and I think this is my first view of New York that I really like.

We leave shortly after for an Irish pub, where the barman is free with his measures of rum and finish off with dinner at a cheap Vietnamise place. Home by 9:30pm I go to bed for the first time since I got here with a smile on my face.

The weekend is fast approaching and with it I know two long days on my own. I’ve tried to make plans but Saturday arrives and without the distraction of work my homesickness and loneliness claim my morning. I do manage a walk to Times Square, Grand Central and the library in the afternoon but slowly the heat and my heavy heart chase me back to the room I have to call home for the next six weeks.

I’m so glad that I’m getting the opportunity to work at UN Women. It’s an inspiring team to be a part of and I’m determined to do well and discover a professional path that I never could’ve dreamt was feasible for me. However it remains very hard to be here on my own. New York and I aren’t exactly on friendly terms, to be frank she’s kicking my ass. Maybe we’re not meant to get on, we just don’t suit each other. But I hope, sooner rather than later, she’ll ease up on me a bit and I may even start to like her.

 

Experiencing upper class and an ache I just can’t get rid of….

I knew that the day I flew to New York would be a difficult day. I had been dreading saying goodbye to my children at the coach station. We spent the entire day together on the Friday and my emotions were already brimming. Both my boys were utterly lovely, drawing me pictures and cards and giving me full control over the DVD selection. They seemed excited for me and not too phased at the duration we were about to spend apart. I, on the other hand, was and am still an absolute mess.

I got a nice surprise when I checked in online for my flight – Virgin had upgraded me to Upper Class. I was not expecting this, I considered the complimentary flight kind enough but, for a moment, this opportunity to see how the other half live stifles my heartache.

After sobbing on the coach for the full journey from Bristol to Heathrow I felt I had some serious maintenance to do on my face before even approaching the upper class desk. This notion was new to me, I’ve never got ready or dressed up for a flight before. Flights should be spent in as comfortable clothes as possible and wearing nominal make up so it doesn’t smudge if you happen to fall asleep crookedly whilst resting your cheek on your coat/jumper/scarf.

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So I spent a fair chunk of time trying to drag my eyeliner over my swollen lids and remove the redness from my nose with foundation (I’m not an attractive crier). The first gift upper class gave me was no queue. You have your own dedicated airport security, which means you are in, out and done in a fraction of the time. The options remaining to you as you breeze through into departures are excess shopping or visiting the upper class lounge. Heading off on an internship means I have no money so I go straight to the lounge.

Even the stairway is decadent. All red strip lighting and glass. There are several smiling faces dressed in red to greet you, they welcome me in apparently not realising that I don’t belong there. I do a quick sweep of the room as I’m given the layout. There’s a deli bar, restaurant, lounge area, hairdressers and spa. There’s also a top floor cocktail bar that’s dedicated to making grey goose martinis. Everything is complimentary and announcements for the boarding of flights will be made in due course.

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I loiter, unsure of where to sit or what to do with myself. I change my chosen spot twice until I settle in a corner booth with not too close a proximity to my neighbour so I may silently sob in peace.

I choose pasta in truffle oil for lunch (mainly because truffle oil sounds expensive and something I’d never usually have), a glass of white wine and an orange juice. The food is delicious and I wish I was in a better place so I could really enjoy it.

But I’ve just left my family for a full six weeks and six days and my heart is breaking. I knew it would happen but the waves of pain just keep on coming until there’s very little left of that shakily applied eye liner. I move to the lounge area and pull out a book. Distraction is the key here so I start reading, curl up and order a pot of tea.

Upper class passengers are given priority boarding, so when my flight is called I go straight to the gate and within minutes I’m on the plane. I’ve never been in upper class before and I find myself presented with a chair, foot rest and a large number of buttons. I’d like some sort of initiation but think perhaps you’re not supposed to draw attention to the fact that you just don’t do this kind of thing all the time, so I sit down. I’m grateful for the extra comfort. I like putting my legs up so I’m appreciative of the space. I’m also appreciative of the seclusion between each seat. It’s a very anti social way to fly (discounting the cocktail bar of course) but that suits me fine as the tears keep coming and I couldn’t cope with anyone asking me why.

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It’s by far the most comfortable flight I’ve ever had. It’s not just the seats that are upgraded, the dinner is served in courses and on plates! There are table cloths and little salt and peppers in the shape of miniature silver aeroplanes. Wine is poured from the bottle and the service is incredible.

I wrap myself in the duvet (not blanket), and prop up the pillow (an actual pillow, not like half of one) and select films that aren’t too harrowing so as not to add to my already sombre mood and whenever the tears come I attempt to drown them out with a book.

As wonderful a treat as it was, and as grateful as I am for the opportunity to fly that way it made the absence of my family even harder to bear. I would’ve loved to have shared it with them, to see their faces when they saw the seats or explored the lounge. Because sharing these things with the people you love is what elevates them to a magical place. As a parent I cherish my children’s reactions over mine and I realise that mine are considerably muted without them.

I’m in New York now. I’m currently sat on my single bed in my little room on West 34th Street. The intense heartache remains. In truth, at this moment, I don’t know if I can do this. I don’t know if I can bear this ache until I get to see them again.

Distractions work, temporarily. I hope to meet some people who can help shift me out of my own head and heart long enough to actually start enjoying and embracing this opportunity because at the moment, I’d much rather be seeing it through my children’s eyes than my own.

 

Passport and visa in hand, having mammoth fun in London and fundraising gig

I’m here. I’m in the final stretch. I fly to New York on Saturday. On Friday last week I went to pick up my passport and visa from a sorting office in London after failing to pay extra for delivery to my home. At the time I thought I was being frugal, however I ended up paying over five times as much travelling back to London to pick them up and it was worth every penny.

My youngest son, Kai, had an inservice day so came with me to London via National Express. In order to make the most of the day I decided to take him to the Natural History museum to see the Ice Age exhibition after we’d collected my visa. In total that day we travelled for over seven hours, queued for 30 mins and ended up only spending around 40 mins in the museum, but I enjoyed every second.

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Because I know my trip is imminent, and with it the brief separation from my children, I am soaking up every inch of them. I’m calmer with them, more patient and more present when they’re telling me about their days or sharing their thoughts on the ultimate super power. It’s a good way to be, to treat each moment with them as precious, and I become aware that it shouldn’t take an impending absence to do this.

At the delivery office we met a jet setting pug called Harvey, who lived in LA and had just arrived. She only had twelve hours to find her London legs before she was back in the baggage hold to go to New York. My son loves animals so immediate started rolling round on the floor trying to encourage the weary jet-lagged dog to play. The owner warned us she was very tired but Kai persisted and eventually got her jumping up and her tail wagging with a new found energy.

On the tube Kai likes to stand without holding onto anything, treating it as a game to see if he can catch himself on time when the train slows down for each stop. He giggles in delight and I’m completely swept up in his unrelenting joy. At the exhibition we run around pretending to be woolly mammoths. We don’t spend time reading the information, we miss out on all the education and instead spending time in our own imaginations, interpreting everything we see as another part of our game.

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Within the hour we’re back out in the sunshine. We have ample time before our coach home but we head back to Victoria anyway, stopping in a bar for lunch where when I asked Kai what he wants he says, ‘mini cheeseburgers’ and is beside himself with excitement when he finds them actually on the menu.

I don’t remember what we talked about but our conversation flowed. By the time we got on the coach back I was starting to flag, the gentleman sitting in front of me was an invader-of-personal-space in that he reclined his seat to the maximum capacity so that the top of it was inches away from my nose and I was unable to sit straight. I shifted my body towards Kai, who looked at me and asked if I wanted to swap seats with him. Yes, at just six years old my son had more manners in his little finger than the gentleman in front so I turned my face to look at him and my discomfort gave away to an immense pride.

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On the Saturday was the fundraising event I had organised. For the past two months I’ve been badgering people on Facebook to attend and buy tickets over and over again. Even I was getting fed up with myself. It wasn’t as busy as I’d hoped, but as the night crept on the financial stress started to melt away and instead of looking at the room as half empty, I saw it as half full. All the entertainers had given up their time for free. They’d travelled to the venue, perhaps got baby sitters and they were up there doing something they enjoyed.

Getting to this point has been really tough. I know that when I say goodbye to my children on Saturday my heart is going to break, but I also know that they will be absolutely fine and, maybe, one day, they can be as proud of me as I am of them.