Alumni of the Month: Talia Smith

taliaOne early October morning, I had the opportunity to virtually connect with Talia Smith, an Undercurrent alumni who is presently working with the UN in Indonesia! Oh, the wonders of modern technology, where you can be instantly connected to someone across the world -- and conduct interviews in your pyjamas! After being warned that the internet may cut out during our meeting, Talia told me about the recent change in government, where a new President had just been inaugurated the previous week. This had meant a lot of short-notice meetings regarding her project, so I was happy that she was able to squeeze the Undercurrent in! How did you find out about the Undercurrent back in the day? Through McGill’s IDS list-serv actually, which is where I completed my undergrad. I saw an email about submitting papers to the journal, so I started following the Undercurrent. When they announced they were hiring, I applied for a position! You were an associate editor with the Undercurrent, and then sat on the editorial board. Was there much of a difference between these positions? Both positions followed the review process of receiving papers, editing them and then returning them. The main difference was that the editorial board had the papers redistributed --after the editing cycle -- and the board would make the final call on which papers were to be accepted or rejected. During your undergrad, you spent a summer in D.C. working at the Global Environmental Facility, which is a part of the World Bank Group. How did working in the field, and this particular experience, shape your degree? I’m actually from Washington, DC, so this was going home for me! As it was an unpaid internship, it was great to be able to crash at home. This was my first professional experience in the field of development, and it definitely shaped my career. I had never worked in environmental policy, I had never been to a developing country. I thought I was interested in international development, but I wasn’t totally sure, so this was my first entry point -- and I totally fell in love. What sort of work did you do during this internship? I was working with the communications team, so I helped translate dense World Bank project documents into something comprehensible for the general public. In this, I was helping to answer questions such as: What are these projects actually doing? What are they achieving? How are they relatable? How do they fit into other streams of work at a more programatic level? I was also involved in event-planning, as the Global Environmental Facility invites universities, schools and organizations to come learn about these field programs. One of my biggest take-aways from this internship was that there are many different shades of working in development. This internship was at a very high-level policy institution, and helped me to see that I also needed to focus in on more ground-level field work. Did you travel after this internship or completing university? After receiving my BA, I started my Masters of Public Administration (MPA), which was specifically focused on field-level development practice. As part of this degree, I spent three months at a local think tank in Myanmar, and I fell in love with Southeast Asia. [At this point in the interview, I asked her if she had been anywhere else in Asia, completely forgetting the fact that she was in Indonesia presently! She graciously laughed once I realized my mistake (hey, it was early!).] You also spent a summer in Paris as an Economic Sector Intern to the US Mission to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development/the US Department of State. Tell us a little bit about that! This was also a position at a high-level policy institution. It was technically with the US State Department, but was working at the OECD. As OECD members, each state has a diplomatic mission to the OECD to represent each country’s interest there. The main function of the OECD is to produce economic and social policy reports on a range of issues, so I was focusing on their environmental, agricultural and development policy. The United States’ role is to make sure that each policy is in line with the US’ foreign policy, so it was very interesting to go from a multilateral perspective to a bilateral one, focusing on the interests of the US. You only completed your undergrad degree three years ago, yet you have had so many opportunities! What’s your secret? Most of my experiences have come about through networking. Speaking from my own experience, remotely applying for a job on a website doesn’t often get you the job. When I say networking, I don’t mean going to happy hours and giving out your business card. Rather, networking for me has meant taking advantage of the opportunities at your school. Go to conferences and lectures, ask questions and talk to people after theevent; people will remember you. Secondly, try and isolate a mentor in each specific field of interest. For example, if you’re at the bottom of a rung in an internship, you may feel like you won’t have opportunities and develop skills. However, identifying a mentor within the organization will help you grow leaps and bounds. At the Global Environmental Facility, I developed a relationship with my direct supervisor, who also had a career that I wanted to emulate. I asked to go to coffee with her from time to time, I asked her questions about her career. Today, she is a close friend, and has written me countless letters of recommendation. You are presently working as a Research Assistant for UNORCID (The United Nations Office for REDD+ Coordination in Indonesia). Tell us a little bit about UNORCID. UNORCID was created to support the Government of Indonesia's national REDD+ programme. REDD stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation and REDD+ further supports sustainable management of forests, conservation efforts and enhancement of forest carbon stocks. The Government of Norway has pledged $1 billion in performance-based payments to the Indonesian Government to strengthen their capacity to reduce carbon emissions from deforestation and to incentivize such reductions. Indonesia is one of the biggest emitters of carbon in the world (See Hansen et al. 2013). So while $1 billion is a substantial amount of money, there is also a lot of work to be done. Specifically, one of the biggest contributors to carbon emissions in Indonesia are forest and peatland fires. And this is an area I focus on at UNORCID. In particular, UNORCID is supporting government efforts to reduce these fires through improved anticipatory mechanisms and the development of a climate-based early warning system. What do you do on a normal day in this position? As I mentioned, I am supporting the development of a climate-based early warning system for fire prevention, one of the National REDD+ Agency’s key projects. So for this, I meet with key government and non-government stakeholders to discuss the project’s development process. I also support research on the institutional structures required to implement the early warning system. I travel to field sites of forest fires to better understand what is going on and to ensure that national level policies support field level observations. Overall, as the “coordination” in UNORCID would suggest, I help coordinate efforts amongst governments, donors and civil society concerning forest and peatland fires across Indonesia. To learn more about UNORCID, check out their website here (insert link to Read More