Three years ago, I was sitting at home in my parents’ house, scouring freelance websites, in my early twenties and desperate.
My generation was largely unemployed or pursuing extra degrees we couldn’t really afford or retreating to alcohol or drugs to numb the reality that the ‘careers’ section of the paper was blank, that our scant networks offered no opportunities, and that endless resumes didn’t solicit so much as a rejection e-mail. I was a journalist at heart — I’d been consuming news and analysis about the media since I was twelve, and pumping out Microsoft Word op-eds since I was fifteen—but there was little demand for that where I lived, least of all for women.
I’d considered graduate studies, but couldn’t find anything worth the hefty loans I’d need. I briefly considered law school, then saw a deluge of articles warning of the imminent bursting of a lawyer bubble. I’d started the path to medical school, but (alongside the minor detail of loathing the work) saw local hospitals and clinics overrun with newly minted doctors who’d had the same idea.
Ultimately, I did the only thing I could and scratched freelancing jobs from the internet, cobbling a portfolio together piece by painful piece, in no way able to pay my own bills from it. In that year, there was one thing I could fully depend on. Scrolling for opportunities, I could rely on seeing a variation on the same refrain every day, for office jobs, freelance gigs and remote work alike.
Only open to US citizens.
Must be eligible to live and work in the United States.
We cannot currently recruit international writers.
Non-EU citizens need not apply.
Open to members of the EU.
Citizens of EU states only.
Occasionally, there would be exchange programs or one-off scholarships or prizes for students, women or specific regions. But even for correspondent positions or assignments in different parts of the world, these were dotted over an overall theme: International Voices Not Required.
At the same time, when media outlets started shuttering their foreign bureaus, editors lamented the overwhelming difficulty of finding talented journalists on location overseas. The paradox was frustrating, but not surprising. Not just as a journalist, but as a person, I’d learned I’d been bundled into a group that was not maliciously, but widely overlooked. My passport, like many others, melded me into a mass commonly referred to as ‘international’, an amorphous, exotic lump, only to be looked to on occasion, and only in relation to their countries’ uprising, coups, riots, poverty and political scandals.
The most striking lesson in Where I Stood came in 2010, when Jamaica’s capital found itself in trouble. A drug lord, Christopher Coke, was in control of a certain particularly dangerous part of the city (ironically dubbed Tivoli Gardens).
Tivoli had its own rules, and its inhabitants were fiercely loyal to Coke. In May of that year, he finally overstepped his boundaries and drew the ire of the United States, who demanded his extradition. When forces approached Tivoli, its civilian army mobilized and led to a three day standoff between the police, the military and Tivoli.
I was headed home from university that summer from overseas, from school to a part-time job. Simultaneously, my first long term relationship was ending, and any murmurs of unrest in Jamaica were drowned out by the overwhelming self-absorption that accompanies a young girl’s first heartbreak. Midway through the flight, while I was plugged into a tiny screen watching syndicated television and crying into complimentary tomato juice, Kingston exploded.
Five hours later, as we flew into the city’s airspace, I was surprised to see a helicopter hovering over the buildings, and smoke rising. Kingston was, quite literally, burning beneath us. It didn’t escape the attention of the other passengers. The question was stamped on all our faces: Are we really landing here?
Land we did, and we discovered that the city was on lockdown, certain roads barred. Overwhelmed staff struggled to answer people in baggage claim, stunned and asking how they could get home.
In the customs hall, the airport staff told any American and British citizens to come to a separate part of the hall, to discuss what could be done to keep them safe. The rest of us — Jamaicans or no — were left to our own devices.
At first, I clocked it as sheer racism, but in my panic to find a way home, didn’t dwell too much on it.
Later, I realized, the foreign airport staff may not have been outwardly prejudiced, but inwardly slotted the Americans and the British from a world apart, and citizens of cities like Kingston hardier, calmer, more capable — not for any intrinsic strength, but because we’d been born in the developing world. Given that what they had heard of us in the media was only ever conflict, it was natural that they'd think we’d be prepared for our city, at one point or another, to erupt in flames.
Two years later, thanks to a stroke of miraculous fortune in the form of a scholarship to Northwestern University, and allies in the Knight Lab, I was again at a computer, this time typing furiously not to freelance, but to try to squeeze from the internet a way to help other international journalists.
Four months down the line, I had pieced together a prototype for a digital global network for people like me, who had talent and experience, but had been dealt a losing hand geographically. There were existing platforms with similar motivations, but they had either failed to gain traction, weren’t geared towards the same purpose or were missing key functionalities to address the problems I knew existed. Six months after that, I received a tweet from an exceptionally bright and driven American and former journalist, living in Moscow, who had a similar mission and wanted to talk. A year later, we found ourselves allied and, along with three others, made up the small, but ferociously passionate team behind HackPack.press.
HackPack’s manifesto is straightforward: we believe storytelling is a powerful tool, we believe stories all over the world deserve to be told, we believe the best storytellers are the ones who know their stories, we believe there should be an easier way to find them, and we believe everyone with talent, drive, integrity and skills should have a fair shot at a career.
Research and trial and error have taught us that uncomplicated solutions are often the most effective. HackPack provides a simple, but powerful ecosystem: a journalist, videographer, photographer, editor, expert or PR representative submits a profile. Our team, as members of the media, hand-vet everyone who signs up. Once approved, you’re in a database where editors or others journalists can find you based on your location, your language, your beat, or your interests. We also comb the internet every day for grants, prizes and events, have an overall job board, and also deliver opportunities to you tailored to your occupation and interest based on what you’ve told us.
We know international payment can be a hassle, so we’ve implemented a system to take care of that. We know editors can assign stories, but don’t know all of them, so have a place for journalists to post their story ideas for perusal. We have a colleague feedback system to weed out anyone who makes a poor work partner.
HackPack is one platform, but one which works actively to connect the disconnected. We rely on the motivation of freelancers to sign up, and editors who see the value in international news, but we’ve been surprised at the reception we’ve gotten from both We’re approaching 7,000 registered users and have worked with places like ICFJ, Al Jazeera, VICE, BBC and NPR.
HackPack is a startup, and working for it comes with all the struggle of a fledgling business, travel and visas and lack of a guaranteed income included. Nonetheless, I was, and continue to be, remarkably lucky. That day at the airport, I lived in a neighborhood safe enough that the police would let a car through checkpoints to get there. When I couldn’t find a job, I had a family willing to let me stay in my childhood room and never mentioned that I still relied on them to eat and to pay the internet bills for the work I managed to find online. I had supportive friends nearby to counsel me when I was overcome with despair as the months without a steady paycheck crawled by. I had the benefit of an education that caught the eye of Northwestern, where I was one of two international students in my cohort, and then stumbled into a fellowship at a remarkable innovation lab with a Director who saw value in my idea, and me, and invested no small amount of effort into both.
I live with the knowledge that across the world, a young woman smarter than me, braver than me, who speaks multiple languages, will likely never see an editor offer to pay her a living wage for her work. I know that a photographer in South America producing vivid, stunning images of our disappearing rainforests will likely get lost in a sea of free portfolio websites. I know communities who have compelling stories we could learn from and relate to will be far more hesitant to open up to a foreign reporter than someone they know, and we are all poorer for it.
It is a reality that sits uncomfortably with me, and those I work with.
Fortunately, as I’ve grown older, the need for diverse voices has gained more recognition.
Scrutinizing your own beliefs and exploring outside your own communities goes against the instinct for familiarity and self-preservation. The desire to separate ‘us’ from ‘them’ is one that is deeply embedded, and reinforced daily, in one way or another. Many journalists are constantly working against this drive, although it is difficult to impress upon people the importance of doing so. It was a tenet I knew I lived by, but couldn’t articulate myself until, by accident, I saw Elif Shafak give a TED talk.
A Turkish writer, Shafak covered a remarkable range of subjects in nineteen short minutes, but one simple anecdote has stayed with me for years, an idea that wound up directing my career, and is the firm bone encasing HackPack’s spine.
Says Shafak: “One other thing women like my grandma do in Turkey is to cover mirrors with velvet or to hang them on the walls with their backs facing out. It’s an old Eastern tradition based on the knowledge that it’s not healthy for a human being to spend too much time staring at his own reflection.
Ironically, communities of the like-minded is one of the greatest dangers of today’s globalized world. And it’s happening everywhere, among liberals and conservatives, agnostics and believers, the rich and the poor, East and West alike. We tend to form clusters based on similarity, and then we produce stereotypes about other clusters of people.
In my opinion, one way of transcending these cultural ghettos is through the art of storytelling. Stories cannot demolish frontiers, but they can punch holes in our mental walls. And through those holes, we can get a glimpse of the other, and sometimes even like what we see.”
Cover photo by flickr user Christiano Sabbatini, licensed under Creative Commons