Good Sort: Marianne Elliot
I don’t think anyone ever said to me “Find the place where you thrive.” I always thought I had to find the place where I could have the most impact, do the most good. But, I’m learning, you have the most impact if you are thriving.
A writer, yoga teacher, human rights advocate, change-maker, storyteller, zen-peacekeeper and all-round good sort. Marianne’s career started in corporate law and she now masterfully juggles an assortment of do-good roles including spearheading ActionStation, co-running a do-good (and delicious!) business La Boca Loca, alongside supporting others to help transform themselves from the inside out. Here is her career story and words of wisdom…
On career paths:
When I was younger I was interested in being a writer, or journalist. I got nudged out of that because it wasn’t seen as being a stable career path. So, I went to law school and then worked for a couple of years at a law firm in Auckland – but I never really aspired to work in corporate law.
I got married when I was 20 and two years into working at the law firm my marriage broke down. I come from a rural Brethren family, so a marriage ending was a big deal, and quite traumatic for me. So in the wake of our separation, and in the throes of being in my first sort of major life-crisis, I went solo travelling for the best part of a year across Africa, Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
I was kind of coming to a zenith of my meltdown tour by the time I arrived in Jerusalem where I stayed with a Palestinian family in the old city. One weekend the grandfather asked if I wanted to go with him to visit family in the West Bank. We had to cross through Israeli checkpoints to get there. I watched this man, who was treated with so much love and respect by his own family, be yelled at by teenage soldiers and made to kneel on the side of the road at gunpoint. It was awful. The more time I spent with this family, the more I learned about the loss of their property, their lack of rights and limited freedom of movement. The whole experience opened my eyes.
Motivated by this, I came home to do a Masters in Human Rights law, which I never finished because I returned to the Gaza Strip. I went as a lawyer, to report on violations of international human rights laws, but quickly realised what I could best offer the human rights organisation I was working with was advocacy and communication – helping to tell these stories in a way the world couldn’t ignore them.
After a few years there I came back to NZ and had various roles. I worked at the Human Rights Commission, did a contract in East Timor, I then headed to Afghanistan for a few years where I worked for the United Nations. I came back and worked for Oxfam doing advocacy work, then eventually I left to write my book – “Zen Under Fire”.
On today’s work:
Now I work full time at ActionStation, plus help my partner Lucas run our restaurant and food business La Boca Loca, and try to fit teaching online yoga and writing around that!
I have a three-part theory of how change happens.
The first part is systems change, through legislation, policy and democratic processes. So that’s where ActionStation fits in.
The second part is building enterprises that are grounded in the values you believe in, and that’s what we are doing at La Boca Loca.
The third part is we transform ourselves from the inside out and that’s where my yoga work sits. I teach yoga online, largely because that’s what I wanted while I was doing humanitarian work. I wanted more than a DVD, I wanted a teacher who I could connect with, but from a UN compound in Afghanistan.
I chose ActionStation as a project to help get off the ground because I really think that over-concentration of power in the hands of a few is dangerous. Distribution of power through active, visible citizens and accessible, effective democratic processes is our best defence against abuse of power.
We re-launched ActionStation pretty much from scratch in July 2014. There turned out to be a huge appetite for this, and it has grown enormously. We went from zero members, and now we have more than 140,000 people who have taken some kind of action – signed a petition, shared something or sent an email – through ActionStation.
A lot of organisations, and even academics, that traditionally held power to account and did this kind of advocacy have found themselves more constrained – especially if they rely on government funding. So they need citizens to stand for them and signal support. There was a gap in the ways New Zealanders could do this, and we’re working to fill that gap.
On walking the talk in business:
Our restaurant La Boca Loca has an interesting place in my life. I would never have done it myself, it was very much what Lucas my partner wanted. I’m more of an introvert than an extrovert, so hospitality is quite challenging!
But it’s wonderful to be on the other side of the change model. A lot of my career has been focused on policy change, but the other side of the coin is doing business how you think it should be done. So on one side you lobby government to increase the minimum wage, and on the other side you put this into action and pay people what you think they should be paid. Boca is an opportunity for us to be involved in that kind of change and commit to building a world we want to live in, while still living a decent lives ourselves. Maybe not an extravagant life, but a rewarding life, with rosé wine in it!
What I have done consistently across all my jobs is use stories to advocate for change. In Gaza that might be the story of a child shot at a checkpoint, or the elderly man whose olive grove was ripped up. In Afghanistan, it was the story of a woman whose husband had raped her. I love honouring people’s personal experiences and fleshing out the human detail of it. Stories are harder to forget and much harder to ignore than numbers. So that’s been the core thread of my career.
For me right now, I feel a deep sense of urgency over some of the big issues. When you have a sense of urgency you don’t have to go looking for passion anywhere because urgency itself is a very strong motivating force to do everything you possibly can.
On career advice:
I don’t think anyone ever said to me “Find the place where you thrive.” I always thought I had to find the place where I can have the most impact, do the most good. But, I’m learning, you have the most impact if you are thriving.
To me that’s the magic space I talk about with a lot of young people who want to use their skill set to do the most good, but haven’t thought about where they thrive.
Do you thrive in an orderly structured environment? Or do you thrive in chaos? Some of us love start-up environments; I hate bureaucracy, I’m very comfortable with instability and not knowing what’s happening next week. For others that is terrifying, stressful and they would probably work well in a more structured, larger organisation. There are people who find the pace of things in non-profits very frustrating, but would be very happy in the rapid pace and environment of an ethical business that is being driven by customer demand.
On what’s next:
Hopefully a lot more storytelling. Storytelling is a great example of something I love doing and where I feel like I am thriving when I am doing it, so I am creating that job for myself at ActionStation.
And I have an idea for a memoir that needs a bit of work… I have about 10,000 words and I’d like to somehow find a day a week to work on that too!
Did you like this interview and want to hear more from Marianne? Check out her website for courses, resources on change-making and more at www.marianne-elliot.com.
You can also purchase Marianne’s book Zen Under Fire here (buying via Fishpond helps support Do Good Jobs operating costs too!).