Signing-up for the March for Science

18056736_1325941194126810_7354717257702260811_nThe Earth Day 2017 celebration coincided with the March for Science yesterday. And marched we did, along with thousands others. The crowd was a far cry from the mediocre turn up on the Earth Day rally I witnessed five years ago (when a right-wing media-watch organization also swiped my photos).

I had tentative plans of attending because it fell on a Saturday, and my weekends are sacred. and I’ve done my fair share of rallies even way back as an undergrad. But after my roommate invited me to an impromptu sign-making workshop at Artomatic, I didn’t want my sign- and training in science- be easily discarded and just go to waste. So yesterday afternoon, under DC’s grey and rainy skies, armed with our signs, umbrellas, and rain coats, off my roommate, her mom, and I went to the march. We knew it would be a wet day and we were prepared for it, because, science!

I’m still recovering from the past days’ activities. There’s another march scheduled next Saturday called the People’s Climate Movement. I’m still unsure if I’ll go, but here I am already brainstorming ideas for a sign.

March for Science Capitol

Cherry Blossom Kite Festival 2017

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It’s that time of the year in Washington, D.C., when tree branches puff a pink cloud. It’s a special time of the year that signals spring- so special that a festival was created around the occasion- The Cherry Blossom Festival.

One of the activities lined up each year is the kite festival, which I wasn’t aware of, until my roommate/landlady told me about it a few days earlier. I usually just go to the Tidal Basin, and gush about the flowers for the rest of the year.

Back in late March, I attended a one-day workshop to learn the basics of smartphone filmmaking offered by Docs in Progress, a non-profit that promotes documentary filmmaking based in Silver Spring, Maryland. What better way to put my budding (no pun intended) filmmaking talent to good use by shooting a fun event like the kite festival held last Saturday. And here’s the result. It’s not worthy of an Oscar, but at least a like or retweet or two. Enjoy!

 

Reaping the rewards of my gig with the government

I chose to work in the government 12 years ago. Looking back, I’m glad I did.

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“What’s that?” There was a split-second pause in our conversation as a friend tried to make sense of my response. “Ah, government… right?” he said. I nodded in confirmation, and wished we’d change the topic of our conversation right away. I could sense his surprise at least, or cynicism at worst, after I told him I was leaving my job, my first one out of college and less than three months into it.

Its less-than-stellar reputation and the meager salary that came with it are common knowledge. I could almost read their thought bubbles, “Why?” or “Are you out of your mind?” Or perhaps the more pitiful “Sorry to hear that.” As friends and classmates got a good head start in their careers in private firms and non-profits, my decision to work for the government seemed like backtracking right after I started.

Anyone who has changed jobs has done it one way or another. It’s like cheating, only in a professional way. You take a day off or show up late for work for that job interview. I must have done the latter, and brought a change of clothes as I was careful not to drop any hints of my transgression. I wore a short-sleeved maroon button-up shirt and khakis, which was already dressy compared with my daily ensemble of jeans and T-shirt in my first job at a non-profit organization.

My first job wasn’t necessarily my first choice. All along, even before graduation, I had set my sight on working in the government. Not just any government office though. I applied to a few others but the development planning agency was at the top of my list. How does one development-plan? I didn’t quite fully comprehend then what the job entailed, but “development planning” sounded too important to pass up. It had the reputation of accepting only the best and the brightest. Of course, I wanted to be a part of it.

I asked for tips from two people who were then connected with the office. I made acquaintance with one via an online forum for cellphone enthusiasts, who eventually switched careers to become a tech writer. The other was an alumnus of my college who went to work there for a couple of years, and later on left to pursue graduate studies on a scholarship in Brussels. Those didn’t seem to be terrible career paths. With limited knowledge of the possible entry-level jobs I could apply to, I thought I could forge something similar for myself.

I sent in my job application in a month after I graduated, in April of 2004, and got a call from HR for a written test a month or two later. The three-hour test consisted of management questions (!), economic concepts, basic algebra, and two essays. And again, like many of job applications then (and until now), there was silence. This was in 2004, an election year, and every time the Commission on Election issues a hiring freeze in the government. This dragged on until November when I finally got called in for an interview.

The panel didn’t bring up the test results during the interview, thankfully. I still doubt I passed the economics part of the test after only taking a basic economics course in my undergrad. I must have winged it on the essay, which asked the role of “sustainable development” in national development, a concept drilled down to us in college. It was the trending development jargon, the “inclusive development” of mid-2000. The panel consisted of four chiefs, each heading the four divisions of the Agriculture Staff, and two hiring committee representatives. I can’t exactly remember their questions. All I remember is that everything went smoothly. It was jovial, almost informal- encouraging if not reassuring signs.

There were three other applicants that day. We were corralled in a waiting lounge with blue walls the size of a big cubicle, which felt like being inside the dead-end of a maze when one looked around while seated down. Like the other interviewees, I was whisked back to the maze after the panel interview and told to wait our turn before the one-on-one interview with the director.

He was portly and in his late forties. I saw him a little earlier walk in with a swagger, and assumed that must be him. We talked about an upland agriculture project, a topic I should have known well, and wished I had, especially because I spent one month doing our practicum with the implementers of that very same project.

He probably caught my bluff. After all, it’s a project he knows too well, because his office reviewed the technical aspects of the project before it got the go signal for funding by a multilateral bank- one of the core tasks of the job. He asked probing questions. But really, what does a barely-out-of-college 21 year-old know about development planning? Until now, and several local and international development organizations later, I’m still looking for that definitive answer.

Albeit late, I still went to work that day, or at least tried to, mostly asking myself: “Will I be sitting on the same chair for a while? What could I have said differently? What now? I remember asking a friend about an interview he had once for an admin job. Only with a little enthusiasm, he told me that he “said all the things they (the interviewers) wanted to hear.” I wish I could have said the same after my interview. I wasn’t new at all to the professional world, already with two months of work experience then under my belt.

A few weeks after the interview, I got an email asking me to submit documents to kickstart the hiring process, before assuming my government post. On the last workday of 2004 I became an “Economic Development Specialist.” I reveled in my job title. I’ll be doing development planning.

The Medium-Term Philippine Development Plan or MTPDP was our bible. Jeffrey Sachs lauded that version of the plan as “one of the best, if not the best, he has ever seen.” Those words would have looked nice in its dust jacket if ever it had one. The Plan was an infallible scripture cited in memos, quoted in government meetings, and subscribed to as our superior belief system during donor meetings. We deferred to its wisdom. At least for the next six years until a new leader is elected. The plan coincides with the term of the president, after which its contents are revised or recycled, or rendered irrelevant.

Some days we argued over the technical merits of Jatropha curcas as a source biofuel, other days we’re building capacity to mainstream sustainable development before we moved on to the mainstream climate change in local development. Yes, I learned its jargons. I met many technocrats, competent and controversial ones.

Those two and a half years must have been my busiest: reviewing projects, attending technical working groups, facilitating workshops. My blog that I started in 2003 was inactive during those years. It’s also the longest I’ve held down a job.

I observed that my senior colleagues, including those who have left, have a predictable career progression: work for a couple of years, go on study leave to study abroad, and return to government. Our office was notorious for its high churn rate. Those who didn’t opt for a study leave resigned from their post because they didn’t want to be bound to a service contract.

I usually went to work at 7:00 in the morning so I can leave at 4:00 in the afternoon. One day I stayed later than usual, making sure many of my colleagues have left for the day. I sent my then chief who concurrently worked as the officer-in-charge a Sametime message, asking her if she had a minute to speak. She said yes so I went to her office, sat down, and talked about my plans, which unfortunately no longer included them. She understood and respected my decision. I was one of those who didn’t want to be tethered to a service contract. After two and a half years, I left my job to study on a scholarship in Freiburg in Germany.

I became good friends with many of my colleagues, and still keep in touch with many of them. It’s a unique professional relationship I haven’t been able to replicate in my other jobs, for better or worse. We have bumped into each other in international conferences in South Africa, or worked together again a few years down the road at the United Nations or Asian Development Bank in Manila.

My stint with the government prepared me well in understanding its machinations. This appreciation comes in handy even up to this day. I’ve established lifelong friendships and a sturdy network. I’ve been shaping an interesting through the years. That second job provided me a mental model of the so-called bureaucracy, including its potential and foibles. After making a decision twelve years hence, when I thought I was making a backtrack, I didn’t know it would propel me forward.

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This is the second of a series of blog posts where I will write about my previous jobs. Read the first post here. If you have other suggestions, let me know in the comments section! Don’t forget to subscribe to my newsletter.

Adulting advice from a book author

Tips on how to get your act together from a writer who has been there and done that

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When I was in grade school, I envied my other classmates who were better off than my family. My brother and I studied in an exclusive school for boys in grade school, where many of my classmates came from well-off families. Our blue and white school uniform did not disguise the Game Boy and Nike Air Max other students brought to school. It was easy to be better off compared to our family. My parents only earned enough to meet our day-to-day needs. But there were even times they had to borrow and pool money to pay for our tuition so the school would allow us to take the quarterly periodic tests. I fantasized of being born into a different, well-off family (which reminds me of this meme). I imagined being chauffeured to and from school (we got our first family car when I was 23). During Christmas breaks, I also wanted to have travel plans, wore thick sweaters, and visit Disneyland. But the closest I got to my dreams was a visit to a local theme park with questionable safety standards and the cold AC of a shopping mall.

You’d think I would outgrow this feeling of envy as I got older, but my wants and wishes turned more elaborate yet more professional. My mom was a public school teacher, and I wished she had the right connections to set me up for any well-paying job. My father had left the country. What if they were doctors and lawyers, so choosing a career would have been as easy as taking over their practice? They let me take up a major in college that no one among us knew of the future career odds and options. I was an early version of a free-range kid out of necessity, because they didn’t have the means to put up that fence that could give me a sheltered life.

I didn’t have anyone to turn to, and neither knew the right questions much less have the gumption to ask. Unlike meals I’ve had with other families, eating on the dining table was an act of nutrition and not discussion.

When I went to grad school in my early 20’s, I realized all these fantasies and what-ifs were just that- unhealthy and irrelevant ruminations that stem from comparing my life with that of others. It’s a waste of time and energy, better harnessed for working with what my parents have been able to provide, and carving my own niche in life. We always had food on the table and a roof over my head. And I’m forever grateful for that. They’re easy for me to say now in hindsight. But who’s supposed to teach us these nuggets of wisdom when we’re young? From whom, and how can we learn them sooner rather than later?

Margaux Bergen in her first book “Navigating Life: Things I Wish My Mother Had Told Me” could be that person. She addresses these thorny life questions, and so much more. I met her in person during her book reading and signing last Tuesday at the Barnes & Noble in Brookland. She read excerpts from her book, which dishes out lessons on school, jobs, and relationships. The book is difficult to categorize given its breadth of topic. It’s self-help, parenting, career advice, and memoir all rolled into one. The book, written over a span of ten years, was originally addressed to her daughter when she went to college, which explains the crossover themes of the book, and the tender prose and intimate voice in which it is written.

I arrived early at the book event and got the chance to chat with the Margaux. We talked a bit about her book, our love for writing, and careers. I felt an affinity for her when I learned that at one point she also worked for the World Bank, where where I work now as a consultant. Showing motherly concern, she gave me unsolicited and simple advice on how to get a staff position.

I bought a copy of Margaux’s book that I picked up right off the display showcase beside her. I asked her to sign and address the book to a friend who has been asking me for career tips, and worrying about not finding a job once she finishes grad school next year. She comes from a humble background, has paved her own career path, and is now studying on a scholarship here in the US. Hopefully she benefits a lot from the book, beyond the advice I’ve been giving her born mainly out of my own experience and decisions, some of which have not necessarily been the best I have made. I plan to give it to her as a Christmas present, although I could use one for myself. I hope she won’t notice the creased spine and the broken-in look of its edges by the time she reads it.

My first job out of college

The first job holds a special place in every professional’s career.

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My ego took a blow right after finishing my undergrad back in 2004. I graduated at the top of my class at a top university and expected employers to come racing and tearing down my door with a contract, as if I were a first draft pick star athlete waiting for my multi-million dollar offer. But all I got after two months was a job I hustled to get via email, which I quit after working for two weeks without a contract. My boss was a lawyer by the way. I sent scores of job applications, worked my contacts, and got a couple of job interviews to various organizations: government agencies, NGOs, and an urban planning firm. The only thing they had in common were the rejections and unreturned email inquiries.

Six months later I managed to get a research assistant job for a UNDP-funded sustainable agriculture project, “Enhancing Capacities on Sustainable Agriculture for Poverty Reduction”. I got wind of the job posting from my university organization’s e-group, sent by an alumna who also happened to work for the NGO hosting the project. I was invited for an interview, and reported to work a week or two later.

My commute was more than an hour going to work in Quezon City north of Metro Manila (we lived in the south), which included taking a tricycle (like a tuk-tuk), bus, jeep, train, jeep, and another tricycle. Our office was located in the NGO hub of the country close to the University of the Philippines, not too far from what’s now a popular foodie destination. It took a half-hour longer to travel back home. It was also hotter and sweatier. But those didn’t matter. At last I was a productive part of society; I was employed.

As my title suggested, I was responsible for doing research on the sustainable agriculture in the Philippines. Our project helped train farmers to produce their own organic fertilizers, and eventually assist them shift to sustainable agriculture and link them to the national and even international market. It was challenging work not only because of the complexity of the sector, but more so as it was my first job and specialized in environmental planning, and not agriculture. It turned out to be the first of my many future jobs working on agriculture and agriculturists, from policy, markets, and later on directly with farmers.

When not doing online research, I tagged along with our project manager to attend meetings outside the office. We met with other NGOs to identify any common areas we can jointly work on, or complement each other’s activities. There were also the occasional donors’ meetings to report on progress and issues of our project, and writing news articles for our newsletter.

Perhaps the highlight of my stint with the NGO was flying down south, in Cotabato, where we organized a three-day training for farmers to help them shift to biodynamic farming. I remember eating a lean but just-as-good bacon, and visiting the demo-site where it came from- a pig pen that, believe it or not, doesn’t stink. On our last day I joined some farmers for a hike and took a dip at a hot spring.

I never got to see the end of the project, but surprisingly I found a publication about it online. I handed in my resignation letter after three months to work for the government. It was a short three-month gig. But it was my first job where I received my first salary. It was an exciting first taste of the real world, just like with life’s many firsts.

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This is the first of a series of blog posts where I will write about my previous jobs. If you have other suggestions, let me know in the comments section! Don’t forget to subscribe to my newsletter

Update: This blog post was featured in the online publication The Ascent.

Returning to live in Washington, D.C.

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The National Mall taken from the top of the steps of the Lincoln Memorial

I’m more than a month into juggling two jobs as a consultant, one at my old office doing some web and comms work, and another with the Climate Investment Funds on climate change and organizational learning. It’s amazing how things fell into place, how one lunch led to two coffee meetings, and then two contracts a couple of months later. I had an open plan when I came to the US- reconnect with family and friends, attend a writing workshop, and meet some old colleagues. If nothing came up in the work front, I was ready to pack and move on. But I only realized how much I missed the District as soon as I came back, and thought it would be nice to stay here for a while and find something to do.

“How long have you been in DC?” I often get asked when I reveal I’m not originally from the area, to which I have prepared a spiel of my DC 1.0 circa 20112013, and how I ended up again in the East Coast this time around. This bitemporal experience makes me appreciate this city all the more. I now look at the city with fresh eyes looking with delight at my old haunts, curiosity with new shops and buildings, and nostalgia with those that have closed down. Many of my fellow former JPAs have left, moving on to do their PhDs, or back home. People, just as with places, have come and gone.

Before I lived in Foggy Bottom steps from the World Bank and near the White House during DC 1.0, I’ve now moved farther to a friend’s house in the North East about half an hour’s commute downtown (that is, if the Metro is working- I’m looking at you, Red Line). But I get to work from home, or make that work from Brookland, where there are cafes and more dining options. I’ve established a daily routine: I wake up early and start working, walk to the hip neighborhood around 10 or 11 in the morning to grab an early lunch, spend the rest of the afternoon at a café at a bookstore, then try to be back home before it gets dark. Weekends are spent on more walking and exploring other nearby neighborhoods or towns.

I make it sound like I’ve got this adulting all sorted out. Yes and no, depending on how you define “sorted out”. My work is far from stable and cushy contrary to how others may perceive it. And that’s fine. With these social and professional changes also come personal ones, mostly on realizing what matters to me: going for long walks, exploring interesting neighborhoods, keeping in touch with family and friends, and defining and redefining personal values and lifestyles. Whereas I only used to treat Washington DC as the city where I lived to work, it has become a more meaningful place where I live to live.

Woah, that’s a lot of introspection. Something to get us back to reality: Donald Trump just got elected President of the United States of America.

Ready or not… Meeting up with Techfugees

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I’m now puttering about in Washington, DC. In the early mornings and late evenings I help out with the digital marketing of my cousin’s startup in Australia. In-between I spend some days seeing friends and former colleagues for meet-ups. And then there are also Meetups, which I’ve been doing an average of two a week, mostly tech-related ones.

The last one I attended last Thursday is called ‘Techfugees‘, a portmanteau of the words ‘technology’ and ‘refugees’. It was the first meeting of the group, and most definitely not the last one given everyone’s enthusiasm and commitment to their work in assisting refugees in or from conflict/post-conflict areas. About 20 participants (meetupers? meetlovers?) showed up, which wasn’t too shabby given there was thunderstorm earlier that afternoon. It fwas a good mix of non-profit and tech folks who are in one form or another working with the Syrian refugees here in the US. Their work range from providing digital literacy classes or developing an app for children to improve their psychosocial development, while others are looking for ways to communicate effectively via SMS.

I’m interested in the topic myself given my previous engagement in humanitarian work- not in a conflict zone, but still in an environment just as disrupted- in a post-disaster setting, when I worked on monitoring and evaluation (M&E) with the UN-FAO on its Typhoon Haiyan Emergency Response and Rehabilitation. I want to get a better grasp of how technology can facilitate aid in all its forms, be it providing food, water, shelter, and other emergency supplies, to improving refugees’ living conditions or expediting the movement of people.

It got me into thinking of the technology already available out there, or how it could have played a role in my previous work, with the affected people and emergency responders in mind. So I came up with the list below, roughly arranged according to what’s crucial as soon as a powerful earthquake jolts a city or a conflict erupts. The information below is by no means exhaustive, but I hope will be just as useful.

  1. Robots. They now exist in Japan as big and clunky life-savers. But soon they’ll be as small as cockroaches.
  2. Satellite phones. Communications are usually brought down intentionally or as collateral damage in emergency situations, that’s why satellite phones, or sat-phones, are a staple in many bigger organizations that can afford it. But I learned from experience there are also times when their signals can be jammed, like that time when some VIPs visited the project site I worked in.
  3. CB radios. In hindsight, it seems this more humble cousin of the sat-phone, wasn’t used that often except for communication by security teams, or at least that’s what I observed.
  4. Radio. Call it old-school, but AM radio was one way farmer-beneficiaries learned of seed and fertilizer distributions that were going to be held in their villages. And the other ways? Word-of-mouth and town-hall meetings.
  5. Firechat or GoTenna. Users of Firechat create a virtual mesh to allow mobile communication via bluetooth or wifi, even when there’s no cellphone network for some reason (see point 1). It has gained some modest traction in some cities in the Philippines, although I’m not sure why this app hasn’t gone mainstream given its potential especially in areas where communication gets cut-off (see point 2). Is it the lack of any admin rights to the conversation, or the sense of urgency to install the app? Let’s not wait for an emergency to happen before it catches on. I haven’t used GoTenna myself, which acts like a CB radio for texts, but the concept also looks promising.
  6. Data-gathering/surveyed instrument apps. I was envious of a university friend who also happened to be working on M&E in another international non-government organization (INGO). They used tablets and a data collection app for their surveys. It’s faster and eliminates one layer of data input, yet it still poses issues and challenges. Meanwhile, we conducted our surveys with ol’ trusty pens and papers.
  7. Drones. They have taken off (no pun attended) in the past years mostly for video recording. I can imagine it useful for visual monitoring and transporting medicines and other portable emergency supplies.
  8. IDs. I saw one beneficiary whip out an ID with a barcode given by an INGO, possibly for monitoring the benefits she has received from them. We couldn’t honor the ID because it’s not a government-issued one (but I did get envious again).
  9. Mobile cash transfers. Cash transfers are a popular intervention because it stimulates the local economy just right after a disaster situation. For a country which has a high mobile penetration such as the Philippines, there is an opposite trend in the use of mobile cash transfer versus other developing countries, say, Kenya. Despite my country’s inclination to mobile technology, it’s still largely a cash-based economy. I’ve seen endless lines outside banks and pawnshops which participate in cash transfer programs to dispense money on designated days of the week. Many factors impede the adoption of mobile cash transfers, a few of them include perceptions of trust on telcos, technological literacy, or dealing with lost cellphones (and numbers) that ars supposed to ‘receive’ the money.

Wish list

Here’s my list of technology- both hardware and software- that I hope would exist soon and could prove very useful in humanitarian response situations. Many are very feasible and within reach, and I won’t be surprised if they actually do exist already.

  1. Mobile communication kit. A cellphone that can be recharged via solar power would be ideal for communication to continue in the event of downed power lines. In the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, temporary mobile networks were up in less than a week, giving life to cellphones. and easing communication lines, until their batteries ran out.
  2. Slack for cluster coordination. One of the mechanisms established in emergency situations are so-called ‘clusters’- groups made up of different organizations working on the same areas such as WASH (water, sanitation and health), agriculture, housing, and other sectors. Email is still king when it comes to communicating to multiple people. But in conflict and disaster areas where urgency is the name of the game, Slack can fill that void for sending quick-fire messages that can’t wait, provided there’s internet connection.
  3. Emergency kit with tracker. In addition to supplies like food and water, emergency kits can be equipped with senors, which are triggered to track people (or at least, the kits) who could get buried alive inside collapsed houses or buildings in the event of bombings or earthquakes (as suggested by Julieane Camile Lacsina).

Use of technology in refugee situations has a huge potential, both as means to facilitate communication and coordination, or as a product itself that could save lives. Many of these technologies- be it hardware or software- are already out there. Personally, I’m looking for systems, platforms or norms/protocols that create additional value by taking advantage of existing yet fragmented tech to facilitate communication and coordination in post-conflict or disaster settings.

Do you have anything to add to the list? Let me know by leaving a comment or tweet me @jadz.