What does having a social impact career look like to you? That’s what we wanted to find out in our “Day in the Life of…” series. In this series, we profile people with exciting social impact careers from all over the world. This week, we hit up Rory Burke, HR Director of the Berlin-based organization Skateistan. Rory is currently living in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he's helping to build up their newest project.
Tell us about yourself.
I am originally from Denver, Colorado and began my role with Skateistan upon completion of my Masters Degree in International Development. I focused much of my writing on exploring different sport for development programs and how sports can present a great way to engage youth, especially in areas where traditional educational opportunities are lacking. I also had quite a lot of experience in sports coaching as well, so I feel pretty lucky to be able blend the two areas of my life which I am most passionate about into a career working with Skateistan, which is an organization that uses skateboarding as way to connect youth with educational and leadership opportunities in Afghanistan, Cambodia, and South Africa.
I started working for Skateistan as a Volunteer in 2012 at our project in Phnom Penh and have been able to work at all of our project sites (Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif, Phnom Penh, and Johannesburg) serving as the organizations HR Director. I also get some time in our Berlin Headquarters, which is always fun and helps to recharge a bit after spending most of my time at our different project sites. Our HQ in Berlin serves as hub for our international staff and where we do a lot of the admin work to keep the projects rolling and we have a great team there which makes it always great to visit.
My role as Skateistan's HR Director is pretty rad. I get to meet and interact with all levels of our staff at each project site, which helps me get a good idea of how the projects are progressing and also get a better insight into issues that come up along the way. Currently I am at our newest project in Johannesburg, South Africa, which began earlier this year. Here we are working on a few keys areas including developing relationships within the local community, which is often based around youth outreach. Additionally we have a lot of work ahead getting our facility plans finalized before we begin constructing our newest skatepark and education center over the next few months.
Where I am busiest is building a team here that will provide the base for our project to continue to grow once we move from the current focus of outreach sessions into having our own facility where the students can attend. It has been interesting so far, using previous experience at other projects to help craft a strategy that has worked for us and then completely change it up and adapt it to what makes sense here. I have been doing a lot of learning on the fly.
What does a "normal" work day look like for you?
Honestly the first thing I usually do every morning is check my emails once I have hit the snooze button a few times. Since we have projects operating in different time zones, there is usually plenty of stuff in my inbox to begin to sort through as soon as the day gets rolling. This also goes for weekends too, since we also have different work weeks across each project, the weekend is never fully off.
At all the Skateistan project sites the international staff usually lives together, so after getting up and ready we usually head to the office to get started. Once we get into the office, depending on the day we break off into the different work areas and start on the tasks at hand.
My role is a bit more international in scope and spread across all our project sites, so I usually have a few Skype calls each day to get caught up and help out where I can remotely. The hardest part of the day is making sure I can divide my time to take care of what longer term projects I am currently working on and what the immediate needs are on the ground. In Johannesburg, I have been working quite closely with our team here of local and international staff. Together, we have been helping to get the basics of the project set up here with the goal of using all of our different backgrounds and experiences to create a strong foundation for Skateistan's newest project.
Any advice for people considering a similar career?
I think one of the most important pieces of advice, which has helped me along the way with my work, came from a professor I had in graduate school, who had spent over 20 years working in the field. He stressed to us to remember that when working in new environments you need to play by the local rules and be ready for just about anything. The quicker you are at adapting what you are used to from back home into a new context, the better you can achieve success on the ground."
This has helped me tremendously to get through some tough situations while working for Skateistan.
On top of that there are a few other suggestions I have below for people looking to move into similar areas of work:
-Don't be afraid of taking intern/volunteer work when starting out to get your foot in the door somewhere you think you might want to work. Since this field is usually short on funding, some of the best opportunities come from what you can make out of an internship or volunteer opportunity.
-Be open to opportunities outside of your comfort zone and willing to go just about anywhere. If you want to get into development, most of the jobs are going to be found in the field and not behind a desk somewhere comfortable.
- When looking to transition into the non-profit or development field, make sure you try and focus on openings, which meet previous experience. Having a background in marketing and then applying for a position that is focused on education probably won't get you many interviews. But with many organizations there are a lot of opportunities within different departments, so look for openings where your skills best match what they need.
Thank you, Rory!
Want to join Skateistan and be part of the exciting work that they do? Find out how you can become a volunteer in Berlin or at one of their project locations around the world!
Photos courtesy of Skateistan.
Image 2 - Photo credit: Mark Straw
Image 5 - Photo Credit: Mark Straw
Image 11 - Photo Credit: Ken Jerrad