Community Organiser at Amnesty International
"I knew I wanted to do something that made some sort of positive impact in the world. There's so many ways you can do that and it's not just through a career in the third sector. You can work in all different sectors and be making the world a better place."
By Zara Ahmed, Intern
15th August 2017
A-Levels: Ethics, philosophy and religion. Theatre studies. Psychology.
Degree: Theology, University of Exeter
Master's: Human Rights, London School of Economics
Graduate scheme - Worthwhile
Community Action manager - Worthwhile
Trustee - Young Achievers Trust
Community Organiser for Students - Amnesty International UK
What made you decide to do a master's, and was it what you expected?
Human rights is an underlying foundation in lots of different social justice worlds, so that's why I chose to do it. Was it what I thought it was going to be? No, it wasn't. it was very disappointing, it cost me a lot of money, and it took a whole year of my life. I was hoping that it was going to be a really interesting, practical course. It didn’t turn out to be quite that. I'd been at work for a couple of years by that point, I found it difficult going from being actively working on issues that I cared about, to reading and thinking about them, but without any action. I'd be sitting in lectures and seminars and thinking about all these different human rights abuses, thinking "yeah, that's terrible, what are we going to do about it?". But when you're doing a master's, there's not really space for that. I don't regret doing the master's, but I do think I could have done something more practical.
At university when you're doing your undergraduate, everyone tells you that whatever industry you go in to is so competitive and that you have to have a master's. I came out of uni and applied straight away for one, then ended up deferring because I was enjoying my job. I kind of wish that I hadn't and that I'd stuck out work for four or five years. I think in that period of work, you learn so much about the working world, in terms of how an organisation is run and where your skills are. If I'd waited, I would have made a different decision on what master's worked for me best.
Can you tell me about the job and/or volunteering opportunities that you took up immediately after graduating?
Immediately after graduating, I got a place on a graduate scheme called Worthwhile. There's only a handful of graduate schemes that place graduates in to the third sector. I managed to land a place on their graduate scheme. However, straight out of graduation, I was working at Starbucks. I did that for a summer and then moved to Oxford and started on the scheme. The organisation that I was placed with on that scheme was Student Hubs. I was working at Oxford Brookes and Southampton Universities, supporting students at those unis to get involved in volunteering and run their own campaigns. They offered me a promotion at the end of the graduate scheme. I went from being a graduate with them to being their Community Action manager, so I managed all of their programmes. Alongside that, I got on to a trustee board of an organisation called the Young Achievers Trust, which was a completely youth-led organisation. They don't have any paid members of staff so the trustee board has a lot of say over the direction of the programmes. The Young Achievers Trust recognise talent and initiative, and skill and ability, among high-achieving young people. It was a brilliant way for me to gain quite high-level experiences early on. I ran all of their UK programmes when I was on their board. I did that for a year and a half or so straight after graduating, alongside my paid work.
At Student Hubs, you managed to work your way up from an entry-level position to a managerial role. Can you tell us about the successes and challenges that came with your progression?
I did the graduate scheme position where I was a Support Officer, then I did the Social Action Manager role, and then I did the International Development Manager role. In terms of successes, it was a brilliant first place to work. It was a small but growing team. At the time, everyone was under 30 and there was so much energy. We were dedicated to the work we were doing and there was lots of co-operation at all times. I worked with incredible colleagues and it was a really exciting place to be. They gave lots of opportunities to develop and learn. If you were really interested in something, you had the opportunity to get involved in the project and find out where your skills were. It was brilliant - I'll be forever grateful that that was my first job.
In terms of challenges, work-life balance was absolutely terrible. It's a massive problem in the sector as a whole. If you're in a smaller charity, it can be really bad. I worked all the time. Literally, all the time! You're constantly trying to work out where (the organisation) can save money. I still had a sense that I needed to gain more experience and I wasn't completely comfortable in my roles at all times, because sometimes I was managing massive projects, but it would be the first time that I had ever done it. So making sure I had more experienced staff around me and mentoring me was really, really important. They gave me a lot of advice and helped me through some stressful periods.
Following on from that, you went on to work as the Community Organiser for Students at Amnesty International UK. Can you tell us what a typical day looks like?
The role is designed to support Amnesty International's student activism, happening across the UK. A typical day will be responding to emails or messages on social media from student groups. So that could be answering questions, it could be running ideas past me, it could also be updating me on any campaigns or events they're running. The role could then be involved in campaign planning, so going along to different campaign meetings that are happening at Amnesty, and feeding in in terms of how I think young people are going to be engaged in a particular campaign, and how we can ensure we're offering the right materials and the right guidance for young people, for them to be involved to the best of their abilities. Sometimes it can be quite reactionary, so depending on what's happening in the world, we sometimes need to mobilise quite fast. So I'll be called in to a meeting about something that might have happened to someone in the world, and we need to come up with a response, and we need to disseminate that information to our student groups quite quickly. Usually there's an element of communication, so taking information that I've been passed from various different parts of the organisation and packaging that in a way that I can then send out en masse to our student activists, that can help guide their campaigning work. It's a very varied job, which is good.
It sounds like starting at a smaller organisation and working your way up really helped you get to where you are now at Amnesty.
Yes, it was a brilliant way of doing it. Everyone wants to go and work for Oxfam, or Save the Children, or even Amnesty. Actually, those organisations will give you experience, but it's a very limited experience. You'll go in - even if you manage to get in - and you'll do a very boring entry-level role. I think it's so much better for young people who are working out what they really want to do and what really fires them up to go and work for a much smaller organisation where you've got an opportunity to do a greater breadth of work. You get a taster of lots of different things, whereas I think if you walk in to a big organisation, you just don't get that.
Did you actively decide on a career in the third sector? Or was it something that developed as you took on your different roles?
I knew I wanted to do something that made some sort of positive impact in the world. There's so many ways you can do that and it's not just through a career in the third sector. You can work in all different sectors and be making the world a better place - I really believe that. I really wanted something that got me out in to the community and gave me lots of different experiences, so I tried to look for an entry-level role. They're very few and far between so I was lucky to fall upon the graduate scheme that I did. I got a place, but if I hadn't, I'm not quite sure what my trajectory would have been, career-wise. I think I probably fell in to the third sector, but knowing that I wanted to be roughly in this area, but not entirely sure how. Luckily, the stars aligned. Going forward, I'd like to try different organisations, but I don't think I'll ever leave doing social purpose work. It would be a drastic change if I did.
In your spare time, you're a trustee for a charity called Kickstart Ghana. How did you get involved with this charity and why is it so important to you?
I got involved with them when I was 18. I volunteered in Ghana and It was a hugely transformative experience for me. I stayed in touch with the people that were involved in Kickstart. Together, we went on a deep learning process in terms of what good international volunteering looks like. We rapidly became aware of some of the harms and issues around international volunteering. In that five-year period, the programmes have really changed and the whole organisation looks very different to how it did when I was 18. It's been an incredible organisation to be a part of and help guide. My expertise in international volunteering increased too. Ghana is just my favourite place in the world. It's a really tiny charity which is very embedded in the community in which we are situated in Ghana. It means we have a lot of flexibility and we can be completely led by that community, which is really important.
And finally, what advice would you have for anyone looking to start their professional careers?
Research. Do lots of reading and speaking to people and going to events. If something interests you, look in to it. Why does it interest you? I'm interested in a really broad range of things, and so choosing a job was really daunting, because I wanted to do everything. The more I looked into the areas that I was interested in, the more I saw similarities between them, which helped me to define actually what I'm really interested in. Trusteeships are another thing. I think it's really important to get young people on trustee boards. The charity sector is waking up to the fact that young people have a lot of skills and a lot of insight that they can bring which can really help charities engage with a younger audience. So even if you're not thinking about going in to the social justice sector, it's still a brilliant way to give back and gain new skills.
A lot of the time people are really stressed when they leave university, thinking that I have to get this ideal job and what are my next steps. I remember feeling utterly terrified when I was in my final year, before graduating, but actually, let me tell you a big secret - nobody knows what they're doing, at any point. I've been in my career for so long and I still don't know what my next step will be. You just need to be comfortable with that and take interesting opportunities when they come up. Know that nothing's permanent and you can always find something new. Have fun exploring what you want to do.
You can follow Ruth on Twitter @Ruth_STaylor.