From Cuba to Philadelphia to Cebu: Reflections on Advox and the GV Family

GVer Marianna Breytman, Elaine Diaz, Ivan Sigal, Ellery Biddle and Firuzeh Shokooh Valle meet in Cambridge, MA in 2015.

GVers Marianna Breytman, Elaine Diaz, Ivan Sigal, Ellery Biddle and Firuzeh Shokooh Valle meet in Cambridge, MA in 2015.

Dear GVers,

When Georgia told the community this spring that I was to become the new director of Advox, a few of you wrote back saying “I thought Ellery already was the director…?” This is a reasonable question! Not long after Hisham left last June, we decided to we would need to some to think about how to move forward as a project.

For the remainder of the year, I took on some key areas of responsibility that could not be put on hold – campaign work, security training and protocols, grant writing, and administrative coordination with Ivan and Georgia. Towards the end of the year, they asked me if I wanted to become the Advox director.

I had to chew on this for a while. At first, I was reluctant. I love being an editor and didn’t want to spend less time on this type of work. And I was concerned about my nationality – so much of GV’s mission is about counterbalancing the overrepresentation of the voices and stories of people from industrialized western nations in media. I’m bilingual and I’ve lived in three different countries over the course of my life, and I think I'm an open-minded, compassionate person. But there’s no getting around the fact that I’m from the US.

Sometime between December and January, my thinking on this changed. A few things happened. On December 17, President Obama announced his intention to rekindle relations with Cuba. The announcement, aside from being exciting on many practical levels, seemed like proof that the impossible is possible, especially for my little family within GV.

Elaine Díaz and I both joined GV in 2010. Although we'd met in Havana in 2009, we did not become friends until our editor and dear friend Firuzeh Shokooh Valle convinced us both to start writing for GV. The Cuba team was born, and we became a special trio of friends and colleague forming a little Cuba-Puerto Rico-US triangle.

This year, the triangle came together. Elaine came to the US for a journalism fellowship at Harvard, and suddenly she, Firuzeh, and I were all living in the same city. This was hard to believe after years of crappy Internet connections and long periods without communication. It was a dream come true.

Since she could not return home to Cuba for the holidays, I invited Elaine to spend Christmas with my family in Philadelphia. Although she had never met my parents, when Elaine arrived at the house, it felt very normal, as if we’d been doing this for years. By the end of the week, my mom started referring to Elaine as my sister, a particularly endearing term since neither Elaine nor I have brothers or sisters.

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Christmas Eve dinner with my parents and Elaine in Philadelphia, 2015. We wear the crowns as a silly tradition, adopted from some British friends.

And then, just a week after Christmas, I again saw proof of just how much life can take you by surprise in a single day. My mom, who at 61 is about as healthy and energetic as they come, was diagnosed with a very serious form of cancer. I spent several days speaking with doctors, accompanying my parents to medical tests, and imagining what it would be like to lose my mother

A few weeks later, I found myself with many of you in at the Summit Cebu. Reuniting with old friends, meeting new ones, discussing editorial strategies and planning new projects for Advox. It was a beautiful blend of work and life, with passion on all sides. One night we organized an Advox dinner at Handuraw, the pizza restaurant up the road from Harold's Hotel. A large group of GVers turned up, and soon people began asking me how we should handle ordering food and drinks for everyone. I might be a decent editor, but I have no special expertise in ordering food for large groups of people! In short order, Nwach and Juan Tadeo stood up and volunteered to take the reigns. They counted heads (28 of us in total), tabulated food and drink quantities, and negotiated orders and seating with the restaurant staff. Soon, we were all sitting, eating, and talking about all kinds of things — even our actual work. Arzu, Filip, Nwach and I hatched a plan for the jailed bloggers statement. Najem and I discussed the next Arab Bloggers meeting. Ndesanjo and I had our first long talk.

On this evening and many others during the Summit, I had long rooftop chats about GV, work, school, life, family. I can’t even count how many of you told me I could rely on you for whatever I needed in the months ahead, as I faced this difficult period with my mom. More than ever, I could see how even from thousands of miles away, we can support each other.

I’ve carried all of this with me since the Summit. We all know that GV is a community, an organization, and a family. GV is personal. And part of what makes our work so rich is that we value this – we honor and celebrate the fact that we’re human.

Advox dinner, Cebu 2015. Photo by Jeremy Clarke.

Advox dinner, Cebu 2015. Photo by Jeremy Clarke.

Back in Boston, looking once again at the question of Advox leadership, I started thinking in a different way. Was I the perfect person for the job? No. But as we sometimes say here, “don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” I was a strong community member with a lot to offer, a lot of experience working on Internet policy and activism, and a lot to learn. I also realized that in taking on the role of director, I would need to do it in a way that is sustainable, and one that would allow me to dedicate time to family and friends and the other things that make me happy in life. Being director would not mean that I needed to make all things happen, but rather that I needed to create the conditions of possibility for our community to achieve its goals and make its voice heard.

I realize that the story of Tadeo and Nwach managing our pizza dinner may sound a bit silly, but it kept coming to mind as a lovely example of the kind of dynamics I want Advox to maintain. I want our team to be one where people can assume leadership in an organic way, where they can play to their strengths while developing new knowledge and skills along the way. More than anything, I see this as the role I want to have. I don't want to be the voice of Advox — what I want is to support the voices of our community and help us define and achieve our shared advocacy goals.

I feel lucky that I’m coming into this with a project like Advox, which has always been less structured and more fluid than other parts of GV. We are part of a rapidly evolving ecosystem of people and organizations that want to protect the rights of Internet users all over the world, but we are still in the early stages of figuring out how to do this. Being flexible, communicating frequently, and striving to understand how we can best work together and support each other as advocates and – and as people – seems essential to the task.

If I’ve learned anything in these past few months it’s that change and transition are natural, even if they are sometimes difficult. They keep us flexible, open-minded, and ready to handle challenges as they come. These are good skills for life — and good skills for GV.

3 comments

  • “These are good skills for life — and good skills for GV” sums it all :) <3

  • I remember the pizza night and our roof top conversations. This past Summit was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had and this phrase you used is the reason why: “We all know that GV is a community, an organization, and a family. GV is personal”
    I am really happy you took the Director job.

  • Dear Ellery:
    I had not read this post and I am pleased in the highest degree your wise decision to take on the challenge in all its dimensions with the leadership that characterizes you. Great way to take your new position that you had assumed in fact professionally and humanely.
    I identify with you to concluding the last paragraph:
    “If I’ve learned anything in these past few months it’s that change and transition are natural, even if they are sometimes difficult. They keep us flexible, open-minded, and ready to handle challenges as they come. These are good skills for life — and good skills for GV.”
    A warm hug,
    lully from Colombia

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