The Irishwoman 'putting a human face on the work of the UN'

Grace Barrett works as a TV producer for the United Nations in New York

Grace Barret (fourth from left) with her team at UN Video in New York. Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (in centre).

Grace Barret (fourth from left) with her team at UN Video in New York. Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (in centre).

 

Working Abroad Q&A: Each week, Irish Times Abroad meets an Irish person working in an interesting job overseas. This week, Grace Barrett, originally from Dublin, who lives in New York, shares her experience of working as a TV producer for the United Nations.

When did you leave Ireland?

I left Ireland in the spring of 2009. I’m endlessly curious about other places and cultures, and I felt New York, a diverse city of immigrants, offered many opportunities to work in creative fields. I was fortunate to be a dual Irish/US citizen since birth, so America was always an option, and I decided to take the leap.

Did you study in Ireland? Where?

I studied in UCD, obtaining a BA in English and Philosophy, and an MA in Modern English Literature. While teaching in China the year before I started my MA, my mind opened to the possibility of further experiences living abroad.

Have you done any training or studying in New York?

Yes - in video editing and camerawork at New York University, and I also took several courses at the Downtown Community Television Center. Editing software and camera technology is modernising all the time, so keeping up with these developments has become vital in the industry. The profile of writers and producers has changed a lot in recent years, especially in digital video production as the expectation is not only to write and direct but also to master skills in filming and editing. I used to consider this something I had to do to get the jobs I wanted, with my true interests more firmly fixed on the writing and development side, but I loved filming and editing as creative endeavours in themselves.

To create your own films from start to finish is empowering. However, I still think writing, filming and editing are separate professions that should be honoured as such, given the depth of expertise they demand. Also, you can gain a lot more in creative collaboration with a DP and an Editor when they add their own styles to the mix.

Tell us about your career there?

It all kicked off when I met a film director at the Tribeca film festival soon after arriving in New York. He put me in touch with the company that had produced his latest film. I interned with them for six months, mostly on the development side, doing script treatments and optioning rights to films. After that, I interned in the Television Features Section at the United Nations, now named UN Video, my current place of work for the last six years. To finance the internships, I worked evenings and weekends, alongside aspiring models and actors and other interns of all descriptions.

The UN has complex eligibility criteria for staff positions, so for a year I worked in the Department of Peacekeeping Operations editing diplomatic correspondence such as code cables (a fascinating experience, largely classified!) until a contract with UN Video came up.

What does your day-to-day work involve?

For the most part I’m based at UN Headquarters in New York, with some travel internationally on filming assignments. I work in the main Secretariat building by the East River in midtown Manhattan. The building’s architecture is an interesting story in itself, but in addition to the multinational team of leading architects who designed it, our own Irish architect Kevin Roche apprenticed there when he worked at the UN planning offices in 1949.

There really isn’t an average day - my work can involve researching and planning documentary projects or filming and editing shorter videos for our online audiences, where interviews can be conducted at HQ. Many of our programmes are produced in the six official languages of the UN, so the day-to-day can involve collaboration with our language teams on translation of scripts and subtitling. Our mandate is to put a human face on the work of the UN. Much as I value working at HQ in a unique type of international family setting, there is nothing that compares with directly meeting beneficiaries.

Last summer, I had the opportunity to cover the situation of displacement and famine in northeast Nigeria. My videographer and I travelled to Maiduguri in Borno State, essentially the epicentre of Boko Haram, and met with many Nigerians living in temporary shelters, unable to return to their homes and farms due to the insurgency. The focus of our film was Ayesha, a young widow with eight children whose husband had been murdered by Boko Haram. Hers was not an unusual story across the camps. However, despite the uncertainty of their futures, she remained absolutely determined to ensure her children would be educated. When you meet people like that, the small stuff fades away. We probably only spent an hour or two at most with her that day due to the security limitations, but I think about her and her children all the time. I’ve never encountered an example of human strength and endurance quite like hers.

What is it like living in New York?

In a word, addictive. Because of the opportunities, because of the access to so many goings-on on your doorstep, because of the diversity. It’s a walking city, so it feels much more European than other American cities, and is as close to Ireland as it is possible to be from that side of the Atlantic. But you need to exercise more vigilance in balancing your lifestyle there, as the endless whirl of activity is seductive. 

I think the Irish fit in anywhere, but certainly in New York there’s a long history of emigrants to the city and a buzzing diaspora. There’s an active network of Irish people working in the UN, as well as social activities and events set up by the Permanent Mission of Ireland to the UN and the Irish Consulate.

Do you think working abroad has offered you greater opportunities?

I would have to say yes. Needless to say there’s not a UN compound in Ireland, and New York is also a hub for all kinds of filmmaking and digital media, be it in film companies, TV networks, or online media agencies. Having said that, Ireland has a long, strong tradition of filmmaking, and I’m hearing about new ventures there all the time.

What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career abroad?

Whether short term or long term, experiencing life in a different country will help give you a much clearer idea, I believe, of what kind of lifestyle you want to lead ultimately. If Ireland really is home, an instinct to return will catch up with you sooner or later. One thing it might be helpful to bear in mind is how your professional experience will translate back to employment in Ireland if you plan to return there. I’ve no regrets I boarded that plane. Even if in the future I come back to Ireland, I’ve had experiences living abroad I’ll always remember. So go for it.

What is it like living there in terms of accommodation, transport, social life and so on? What are the costs like?

Rents and real estate prices are well known to be ridiculous in New York. But regrettably, so are those in Dublin, without there being a comparable lifestyle, job opportunities, or salaries to remotely justify them. It’s an unfortunate kind of arithmetic that many emigrants are faced with when thinking of returning - weighing the pros and cons of being overseas away from family, versus the perils of the property bubble back home.

Where do you see your future?

I enjoy documentary filmmaking and also enjoy writing fiction. Be it with the UN or elsewhere, I hope to continue telling stories.

Do you speak other languages?

French, some Spanish and wobbly Mandarin Chinese. Half of my interview for my current job was conducted in French, as we produced a French-language TV series at that time. Luckily, I work in a unique environment where those languages, and many others, are spoken around me daily, and I have the opportunity to practice. There is a certain delicacy that you adopt when working with people from many different cultures. If I were to fully employ Irish sarcasm and slagging in the workplace, which is par for the course in Dublin, I’d probably cause major offence!

Is there anything you miss about living and working in Ireland?

My family and friends, greatly. I think I’ve learned that emigration is not an answer to a question, rather an unsolvable conundrum that you just accept. I left behind me a full life in Dublin, and my visits back there never seem long enough. But there are trade-offs on both sides.

Despite living in New York for nine years, I don’t feel that I’ve necessarily chosen it over Ireland. It’s more that, for now at least, I’ve accepted the duality of life lived on both sides of the Atlantic.

If you work in an interesting career overseas and would like to share your experience with Irish Times Abroad, email abroad@irishtimes.com with a little information about you and what you do.

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