I follow the International Committee of the Red Cross on Twitter and they twitted this earlier today:
@ICRC: Our role as a “neutral intermediary” is at the heart of #humanitarian action. Our director of operations explains: [link]
The main part of their micro-post, “neutral intermediary” is at the heart of #humanitarian action, particularly resonated with me for several reasons, that I want to attempt to articulate in this post of what I did at one point as a hobby and how, in a way, some choices, people and events led me back to it.
My years with the French Red Cross
In my late teenage years I enrolled at the French Red Cross and during several years –until I started university– I participated in social, medical, training, fund-raising and first aid actions. It occupied my weekends, almost all my holiday time and several week evenings. I was very committed. I came to the Red Cross spurred by my twin brother who had recently become involved. It sounded useful and fun.
It was indeed useful and fun. Even sorting clothes was fun. It was daunting; several piles of garments and shoes, tall as dunes, dumped in the vast depot next to the offices, that we had to plough through during hours. But at the end of the day (that is, late at night) we felt we had accomplished a useful action. Clothes and shoes, categorised and packed, were ready to be picked and handed off somewhere else. My friends and I would find a bar open till late for coffee and drinks, sometimes a game of cards, but mostly bonding.
I met all kinds of people, from all walks of life, most of them interesting, some of them inspiring –students like me, nurses, police officers, business people, house wives, etc. I learned to give first aid, to operate a radio, to drive an ambulance (in particular to park it), to lead a team of first-aid workers, to cook for a crowd, to identify priorities, and to put things into perspective. I saw, heard, and experienced things that made me fully aware how lucky I was, and what a fine life mine was.
I don’t know if I was particularly gifted or actually good at it (I felt I was good), but my satisfaction was such that I wanted to make this my job. There even was a school I thought I might attend, Bioforce, which “specialises in ‘support functions’ (logistics, project coordination, administration and finance, human resources…) and in the field of water supply and sanitation.”
I didn’t attend that school. I went to a local university instead, embarking on a different path. A few years later I looked for a job. I was a temp for a while. I worked as a clerk in a British law firm, although I tried very hard to wiggle out of this, as soon as I saw the place and realised the work conditions were going to be terrible. I passed the one interview I so wanted to fail. Thankfully it was a short mission.
Discovering the world of a Research Lab
I got my next job by luck. A friend of mine, whom I had met while studying in Edinburgh, let me know she knew someone whose mother worked with someone who needed a temp for a semester. Two actually. And my friend was on the market too, so it was perfect for the two of us. We both interviewed on the same day. We had been pre-assigned a position but after interviewing they changed their mind and swapped. She joined the administrative and legal department at INRIA Sophia Antipolis, I joined a research project as administrative aid.
My years of volunteering and charity work were far behind me. The researchers I met were committed and inspiring people. Most wore shoes but many didn’t. Most people appeared to not see the people around them, absorbed as they were. All had pens in the breast pocket of their shirt, or the pocket of their shorts. Most carried laptops. There were whiteboards everywhere and I had no idea what the colourful scribblings and equations meant.
In that INRIA research project, I learned to type on a qwerty keyboard, to use e-mail on exmh, to print from a unix terminal, to get geek humour. I also learned LateX. Just for fun. When the end of my mission was near I wrote a fictitious humorous report, in LateX, featuring some of the people that crowded our floor. A thirty or so page report that I gave to the two project managers and a researcher I was particularly fond of. In exchange (not really), I was congratulated by the Director of the institute, and the project managers each gave me the bestest recommendation letters ever. I was on the dole for five months afterwards. My great letters, for all the power that I thought they wielded, didn’t get me my next job.
Joining the W3C
Lucky again, someone who knew me was asked to tell me that the World Wide Web Consortium needed an administrative aid and that I should apply. The W3C was hosted at INRIA Sophia Antipolis and oddly enough people there seemed to remember me and speak highly of me! I interviewed and was hired. That was 14 years ago.
What we do at W3C is basically convening the people who make the Web and the people who consume the Web, around a neutral table. The staff (there are between 60 and 70 of us, mostly technical, located throughout the world) is involved to help the Web stakeholders converge. From that collaboration, web standards are born, refined, and perfected.
At W3C, I met the most incredible colleagues and co-workers, the most inspiring people, the most dedicated folks, bright, clever, helpful, friendly, reliable and supportive. Working with them, doing our job, doing *this* job, is fulfilling and gratifying.
It’s been a while so I have learned so much that it is difficult to synthesise. The one easy thing that comes to mind is NOT that I learned HTML or CSS (however, some of that I did learn), it is that I learnt to pack lightly, pragmatically and efficiently for trips abroad. We used to travel a lot. We still travel but not as much. I visited a big city for the first time during a W3C trip to a WWW conference. It was in Toronto. Then Boston, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Hawaii, Western Europe, Montreal, etc. I now pack in twenty minutes and travel with my purse, one carry-on and a laptop bag. For short trips, the carry-on is a small backpack.
I can say that I have learned various jobs within our organisation. I started as administrative aid, and as such I organised meetings, ordered stationary, managed hirings and interns, I wrote internal policies, then managed the local office. I joined the Communications team and wore several hats. From secretary of the Advisory Board, translation community monitor, blog master, to Community Manager. I gather the press clippings, I send transition announcements to our Members when a technology progresses from one state to another, ultimately reaching that of Standard. I write to our Web site, which I occasionally break so I sweat a bit and eventually fix it. I do other internal comm things too.
A couple years ago I had a skills assessment. I was at a point in time I wanted to focus on what I was good at, and what it was that I was skilled for. The exercise was interesting and useful. I was told my area of interest revolves around humanitarian activities and care giving. And that I have more than one string to my bow. No surprise, really, but it was reinforcement that I was in my field.
My job is a passion. It may not be the humanitarian field action I dreamt of as a young woman, but many in our trade liken our job to humanitarian work. And indeed, we are a “neutral intermediary” at the heart of making free and open Web standards.