Advocacy demands passion — and the rewards can be big
There are jobs for young people interested in advocacy, they don’t necessarily pay very much, it can be a long slog, but in the end the personal satisfaction from helping others who are less fortunate can be enormous.
That was one of the messages that Robert Mahoney, deputy executive director of The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), gave recently to students around the world in a unique online discussion hosted by News-Decoder and organized by Global Online Academy (GOA).
Mahoney and Sean Maguire, a director at the UK-based Plan International NGO, were the two featured speakers during GOA’s global Catalyst Conference, which brought together more than 300 students from 60 schools to spark change in local communities.
Both Mahoney and Maguire worked as foreign correspondents before shifting into not-for-profit advocacy, Maguire to promote the rights of girls around the world and Mahoney to protect free speech and journalists’ safety.
Mahoney, who is from Wales and now is based in New York, said he started out in journalism because it allowed him to travel and to tell interesting people’s stories. He traveled the globe with Reuters, covering stories as varied as the discovery of the world’s biggest cave on Borneo in Southeast Asia and a “particularly nasty” war in West Africa’s Liberia.
“In advocacy, you go that extra step.”
During the webinar that was broadcast to students in 10 countries, Mahoney said some of the key skills he learned as a journalist — how to report and how get people to trust him so they would tell him what was on their mind — are transferable into advocacy.
But while a journalist’s work typically stops when the story is published, “in advocacy, you go that extra step,” Mahoney said. “You take that information, and with that you work to bring about change.”
Asked about the rewards of his job, Mahoney cited a blogger in Mauritania who had been sentenced to death for blasphemy but who recently was spared death after the CPJ and other rights groups pressed the government to lift the sentence.
“Imprisoned journalists come to us when they get out of jail and say, ‘I’m so glad that you kept my case up because I thought when I was in jail that everybody had forgotten about me. I thought the world didn’t care about me.'”
Mahoney recalled Pakistani soldiers and demonstrators once briefly halting a violent street skirmish to allow him to cross the street — the kind of respect that was commonly accorded journalists in the past, but no longer.
“One of the reasons that an organization like CPJ is so needed now is that journalists no longer have that kind of slightly protected, outside observer status,” Mahoney said. “They are actually targeted deliberately because they are journalists.”
“This has to be your passion.”
Mahoney lamented crackdowns on the press in Turkey, Russia, China and Egypt, and said even the new U.S. administration had shown signs of backing away from America’s traditional strong support for freedom of speech around the world.
Asked what skills are needed in advocacy, Mahoney cited the ability to bring authoritative research to bear on issues. A variety of academic degrees including law, politics and even science can prepare young people for careers in advocacy.
“The most important thing is you have to be committed. This has to be your passion. If you want to earn money, don’t go into advocacy because the entry-level jobs in these NGOs are pretty poorly paid. The people who go and do this do it because that’s what they care about.”
But, he said, there are jobs, and the rewards can be big even if there is not instant gratification.
“Human rights work is a very slow burn. It can take many years to get a result, but when you get it, you really feel like you’ve really done something to contribute to right or wrong, get someone out of jail, just make someone’s life better by what you’ve been able to do.”