Jessica Mayberry

Posted by on Nov 30, 2009 in Inspired by Dan

Don’t Speak the language, Don’t Know the Country: An American-for-Hire in India.

by Jessica Mayberry

Jessica Mayberry has worked as an associate producer in news and documentaries since graduating from college in 1999. She’s begun a nine month job with an Indian NGO making documentaries about the organization’s work. Discovering what skills she could bring to a developing country, and convincing Indian employers to take her on, was quite a challenge. But the challenges didn’t stop there.

August 30th, 2002

The laughter flowed as easily as the wine and many of the goodbyes were emotional, but two months later I’m still holed-up in my apartment, hoping to avoid friends who probably assume I’m fluent in Hindi, have completed my first documentary, and can whip up the perfect Chicken Biryani. First rule of planning a year working abroad: Don’t plan the farewell party until you’re almost out-the-door.

The reason for the delay was legitimate: Tensions between India and Pakistan had risen to such a level that the State Department had advised all Americans to avoid India until further notice, but it still felt bad having to explain to people that I hadn’t made the whole trip up to appear adventurous, or stockpile ‘good-bye’ cards.

But the extra time at home has allowed me an opportunity to chronicle the steps I’ve taken to get to India (fourteen days and counting) and, more importantly, to reexamine my reasons for going. I’m convinced this delay was the best thing that could have happened if only because I’m clearer about what I want from the next nine months.

In two weeks I’ll begin work with the Self-Employed Women’s Association, an organization dedicated to women’s rights based in the state of Gujurat. My six month planning process may provide pointers for others thinking of working for an NGO abroad. Before I committed to quitting my television job and looking for work abroad, I made sure I had good answers to two questions: (a) why go abroad, and (b) if i’m going, why work rather than travel?

I’ve always been too curious to believe my education ended with my college graduation, and I’ve long been fascinated by the attitudes towards work and life in other countries, especially India. I recognized that to understand India I would have to go to India, meet Indians, learn Hindi, discuss and understand Indian issues, touch and feel India, and yes, fortunately, eat some Indian food.
And choosing to work there–rather than travel– was a natural byproduct of this desire. What better way to establish a relationship with a country than to do what one does when establishing a relationship with another person? Put myself in a position of providing and being dependent. I’m putting myself out there for this country and hoping that we’ll fall for one another. If nothing else, I’ll know I tried to invest more than a plane ticket.

I’d worked in the media since college and knew that that was the area I could contribute most to. The hard part was leveraging that into a job in India. The lessons I learnt while trying to find a job in the NGO world are listed below. A few came pretty hard:

1. Research the development issues of the country. There are thousands of NGOs and you’ll need a system for narrowing the scope of your search. One way is to target organizations that address a particular need. Are you most passionate about the environment? Civil society? Women’s issues? Education? Health? Microcredit?

2. Decide if you’re doing this for yourself, the organization, or both. If you’re interested in working for an NGO, you probably believe in volunteerism and are willing to do menial work for a cause that matters to you. In my case, though, it was also very important that I use my television skills. I want to return to the States with a few Producer credits on my resume and be more employable than before I left. If you view your time abroad as a chance for professional, as well as personal growth, you and your employer should clarify your duties before you go. Since work habits are very different in other countries and since the NGO is probably not familiar with the ladder you want to climb back home, this is a delicate issue to address — especially with someone from another culture who’s probably never met you. I had lengthy e-mail discussions with three organizations before I found the right fit.

3. Think creatively about your skills. Corporate America doesn’t usually make the needs of the world’s poorest a top-priority, so you may never have had to think about your skills in the context of a developing country. But they are transferable. If my skills in packaging gory murder stories for Court TV are, so are yours in, say, marketing. If your field is accountancy, for example, ask a local not-for-profit about its business plan, or ask the organization you’re applying to for its annual report. Then think about how your Western skills could help them improve on it.

4. Network everywhere. I asked cabbies and waiters for advice, and every Indian friend of a friend. I discovered that Indian professionals in the West are often very well-connected back home, and are usually impressed and touched by interest in their country.

5. Work out your finances early. From my limited experience, only employees of Western institutions like the World Bank or Ford Foundation, or recipients of an academic grant, will get their airfare paid. I’m being paid enough to cover room and board–about $100 a month. That may seem like nothing, but I think securing a wage of some sort is important. If the NGO is invested in you too, they are more likely to keep you busy. FYI: The visas, insurance, and shots in my case have totaled more than $600 and I started saving more than a year in advance.

6. Perseverance–I repeat: It took me six months to find a position with SEWA. On the upside, though, this was nothing like the headache that the usual job search is. Discovering that my television skills could help impoverished Indian women has made me proud of my career choice and given me a new burst of energy. And many of the NGO folks you’ll be soliciting for work or contacts will amaze you. People who know there work is making a difference always do.
These are lessons I learnt in my effort to work with an NGO in India, and I didn’t even have to leave Manhattan. On September 1st, things will become significantly more difficult for me. I couldn’t be more excited.

Download the complete Jessica Mayberry Journals here