Mentoring. It’s something I’ve been doing as long as I’ve been working – both informally (supporting, encouraging more junior colleagues) and formally (with NPR’s Next Generation Radio projects and Monash University’s International Development graduate students). It’s incredibly rewarding but it can also be incredibly challenging and emotionally moving. It reminds me of who I was when I began my profession and who I’d like to be now, even after having been at it for over 25 years and counting.
I had the great fortune of having two incredible, forthright and kickass mentors during my years as a journalist. Perhaps the greatest lesson they offered was the need to be forthcoming and genuine with the person you are mentoring, to admit to your own strengths and weaknesses, to not need to come up with a neat answer to every question or dilemma, and to even share your own pain if it might benefit the person you’re working with.
This semester I’m mentoring a student at Monash. We usually catch up every couple of weeks and talk about what we’ve each been working on as well as the COVID situation in our respective countries and how that’s affecting our work and our lives. Then we get down to business. My mentee usually kicks it off with a question that will lead to a deeper development-related discussion. Today’s question was: “What is the perception of development versus the reality of development?”
Wow. Such a massive question and I wasn’t sure where to begin. So, I started babbling about development literacy and the need for that – for more understanding of why development is important, of what our tax dollars are used for, of why it’s important there is peace in South Sudan, Syria or name your country. Because for better or worse we are all connected. The global village is a reality. If COVID-19 has done nothing else, it has proven that.
But then I stalled out. As I answered the question with one part of my brain, another was coming up with a different answer. I knew what I’d say if I was giving a lecture on this topic (and I did say these things): development is a business; every aid or development dollar has an agenda no matter the donor; development is political even if we like to think it’s not. Really, development, whether we like it or not, has become much more politicized than many of us care to admit.
Yet, my own personal experiences, with some significant emotion attached, were swirling around and wanted to be given voice to as well. Sensing my conflict, my mentee gently pushed and suggested I think about the question as it pertains to my own work: media development.
So as I mentioned the fact that every aid dollar has an agenda and such, I realized to make it clear I had to make myself vulnerable – something that sometimes happens when mentoring. Because you have to share how you yourself learned, grew and survived to tell the story.
And so it came out. A key experience in my life doing media development work was being indicted and ultimately convicted along with 42 other NGO workers for democracy work we were trying to do in Egypt in 2011. I was sentenced in abstentia to five years hard labor in an Egyptian prison in what was an effort by that government, through the use of a corrupt and venal judicial system, to intimidate and damage journalists and others involved in promoting civil society after the Egyptian revolution.
Fortunately, I was not in Egypt and thus not incarcerated but the Egyptians used Interpol to attempt to harass and harm myself and my colleagues. For nearly 10 years our lives were disrupted and I could not travel or work abroad without the threat of extradition and imprisonment hanging over my head (Interpol had issued a diffusion once they were told they couldn’t issue a red notice calling for my and several colleagues’ arrest). Even my husband’s career in the State Department was negatively impacted; he ended up resigning his position. The harm to my professional life and the stress of this experience was severe but dwarfed by what happened to my local colleagues who have never been able to return home to their families, blackballed by local media, and in many cases their assets were frozen and essentially exiled to live in a foreign country. Ultimately, 8 years later, our sentences were vacated but the damage was done.
So, I explained this to my mentee as I sucked back the tears welling in my eyes while watching her try to hide her surprise and all the while wishing we were on audio only. I explained that aid had become so politicized that aid workers have become targets in numerous countries and I used my own story to illustrate this.
This was painful and not at all typical of the mentoring sessions I usually have. My experience with the court case had shattered many of my assumptions and challenged a core idealism I had carried with me throughout my career to that point. And yet I still work in media development and take tremendous pride and joy in doing so. I am still honored to be asked to serve as a mentor and feel I have something to offer. I still believe that what I do can make a difference, that the lives I touch do matter, and that the work I do is important. And so, I continue to mentor, to share and hopefully to encourage. So maybe, to hell with idealism. But to hell with those who would try and take it away from those of us who give a damn as well. Because I may be wounded but I’m still kicking.