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Interview – Tiana Tozer, Monitoring and Evaluation Manager, Mercy Corps Sudan

Tiana Tozer

Tiana Tozer is currently Mercy Corps’ Monitoring and Evaluation Manager in Sudan, she is also an elite athlete and a wheelchair user. She came to Mercy Corps after an accomplished first career in the private sector. I spoke to her about her career, how she got her first job in relief and development, and the challenges facing people with disabilities in the international relief and development world.

Nick: What made you first want to work in the international relief and development field?

Tiana: Oh I’ve wanted to work internationally since I was 16 and lived in France. I planned on joining the Peace Corps and having an international career, but my car crash at 20 changed that. I was run over by a car, and had to have 35 reconstructive surgeries. At this point I use a wheelchair but I can walk short distances. It became very important for me to have health insurance, so my career became defined by health insurance. First of all I found that as a person with a disability it was almost impossible to have a company even look at me for an international position, even though I speak fluent French, have a working use of Spanish and have lived overseas and traveled extensively. I had more or less forgotten about my overseas dream, but in 1997 I went to Bosnia on a goodwill tour teaching veterans of the war there how to play wheelchair basketball and that re-kindled my desire to work internationally. I had trained all my life for this an international career – everything I did in school, studying languages and political science, my Masters’s degree in international relations from the University of Illinois, but I got sidetracked with the car crash and health insurance. So in 1997 I started applying for a lot of positions that I had the qualifications for except for the overseas experience piece. I did this off and on for the next ten years, and in 2007 when I turned 39 I thought “this is it, if I don’t do it now I’m never going to make it” so I pulled out all the stops and Mercy Corps was the only organization who even said ‘maybe’ to me. I must have sent thousands of resumes – I applied to the UN numerous times for positions I was well qualified for and just never heard anything back. Ever.

Nick: So do you think you just got lucky at finding someone who was interested at Mercy Corps, or was there something you were doing differently?

Tiana: One of the things about the international circuit is it really is a tight-knit community, and they really think that you absolutely have to have international experience to be able to do this job. I have to say I really disagree with that. There are a lot of talented people out there and we’re missing opportunities to put really talented professionals into the field by requiring these huge amounts of overseas experience. So what I did was to begin networking, and Mercy Corps was an obvious target because I was in Portland (where Mercy Corps has its international headquarters). I worked every connection that I could think of and I actually had a fairly unusual skill set that they happened to be looking for (the people with disabilities skill set combined with program management). I became the manager for a program focusing on disability in Iraq; I also took on the gender program. It turned out to be short-lived though because they changed the focus of the funding so that the disability program went away, so I moved into a monitoring and evaluation role in Basra. I did some training and some operations management, but really I wanted to move to Africa, and when the Monitoring and Evaluation Manager position in Sudan came open I applied for it and got the job.

Nick: The Bosnia trip was obviously a huge influence on you – can you tell me more about that and how you lined that up?

Tiana: Well it was just a nine-day trip to teach veterans of the Bosnian war how to play wheelchair basketball. I played wheelchair basketball for the USA in the Paralympics in 1992 and 1996 and this trip to Bosnia was in 1997. I had retired in 1996 and so I was one of the few top-level players at the time who was not in the middle of the season and I was selected to go on this trip to raise awareness about land mines and people with disabilities. International Medical Corps, the UN, and the NATO military who were on the ground there had set it up. I guess for once in my life I was in the right place at the right time.

Nick: What is your advice for people switching careers to international work overseas?

Tiana: I’ve just finished reading ‘Half the Sky’, and one of the things that came to my attention through that is that there are a lot of organizations out there who, if you can pay your airfare to get to the location, will be able to use you as a volunteer for one or two months, and I think that volunteering for an international agency can be a great way to get your foot in the door. If you’re thinking about this as a career change it will give you an idea of the kind of conditions you are dealing with. One of the things that really frightens NGOs when they look at some candidates is that some of these positions are really hardship posts – they are not glamorous at all. Sometimes when they hire people without the ‘NGO experience’ they risk losing them after a couple of months. For example I was just in Agok, which is in the middle of Abyei in Southern Sudan – there was no air conditioning, I was living in a tent, it’s a malarial area, between 2 and 4 in the afternoon it’s really hard to concentrate because the heat was so bad, you can work in the office where the flies are less or you can work outside where the flies are worse, the food is sludge – there are five types, you might get two different types at lunch and maybe two more at dinner, on top of this as you walk from the kitchen to the area where people eat there are all these hawks waiting to attack you and try to take your food! If you want to change careers, I think you have to be flexible and I think you have to give it at least a year. If you’re coming from the corporate world you need to realize you will have to take a pay-cut as well (unless you work for the UN).

Nick: There are a lot of opportunities out there that are being sold as volunteer opportunities that look a little bit more like tourism to me – what do you think about how those look on people’s resumes?

Tiana: Well one opportunity is to volunteer in a headquarters office, but you’re right that you have to evaluate a volunteer opportunity carefully. There are two really big issues for career switchers – number one is salary – NGOs think they can’t afford you, and second they worry that when you get to the field you’re going to run screaming because conditions are really not glamorous, in fact they can be really horrific. I think those are the two biggest reasons why NGOs shy away from people who are mid-career.

Nick: Can you talk a little bit about the experience of having a physical disability in the NGO world?

Tiana: To be honest, very few international NGOs hire people with disabilities. I think the UN and USAID talk a lot about it, but I’ve met very few people with disabilities in the field. The most progressive is probably Handicap International. For me, I reached the point where I started stripping my resume of everything that I thought would make someone think I was disabled. I think when someone sees ‘wheelchair basketball’ they think immediately “oh she’s in a wheelchair – she can’t go to Iraq” but even if that were true, in reality plenty of people who play wheelchair basketball can walk. For example I have an old team-mate and coach – we worked on a Sports For Life program and one of the University of Illinois athletes traveled to Gaza on an internship to help with the program. She is a double amputee, but her amputations are below the knee, so she walks with two prosthetics which meant she got on fine in Gaza. My advice is that if you’re really concerned about hiring someone with a disability, bring them in for an interview – I’m not going to apply for a job that I can’t do or try to go to a place I can’t function.

I think it’s more about attitude than actual disability. I know some people who are paraplegic who would do a bang-up job in Sudan – you need to be flexible, willing to talk about the issue and to ask for what you need. The best advice I can give to people with disabilities who want to work in this field is to start meeting people face-to-face. For me when people meet me they stop thinking of me as ‘disabled’. It takes getting over that hurdle of “oh – she plays wheelchair basketball but she walks”, or “she’s a double amputee but that doesn’t mean she can’t get around”.

I think part of the problem is right now in the States there is a 70% unemployment rate among people with disabilities – I think that employers are hesitant to hire them because they think they will have to pay a lot more money for people with disabilities, both in terms of health care and adaptations, but truth is that most accommodations costs less then $500. When I was going for an interview with a major US sportswear company I was the only person who got flown to their headquarters for a face-to-face interview. Later I found out that the reason why was that the person who was hiring had had a really bad experience with a former colleague who had a disability (the story was this woman with the disability was really angry and bitter apparently) he wanted to meet me personally to find out what my personality was like. Of course that was illegal, but it just comes from prejudice or lack of knowledge or exposure. When I went to Bosnia the National Guard and the Lieutenant Colonel in charge of our trip was talking to a Major from the Greek contingent and she said, “Isn’t it great that these wheelchair athletes are coming to Bosnia?” the Major said no, he thought it was really sad – well, he felt sorry for us for about 30 minutes, but after that he didn’t even really think about us as disabled! After you’ve met people with disabilities who are very mobile and motivated and fun to be around it can completely change the way you think about us.

Nick: Maybe you can talk about your role as a kind of ambassador for people with disabilities in places that don’t have an equivalent of the ADA?

Tiana: I think in Iraq I was hugely successful in teaching 35 young people with disabilities how to be advocates for themselves – we trained these teams in how to educate people and engage with government – within five months they had reached out to 6,000 people. After working with Mercy Corps the group of five in Sulimaniyah went out on their own and got funding to do outreach to all the schools in Sulimaniyah. Educating children is where you can really start to change attitudes. All my little cousins (who now aren’t so little) feel perfectly comfortable with people with disabilities because they grew up with me and it just seems normal to them.

For me it’s very difficult for people to tell that I am disabled unless I’m sitting in my wheelchair, or it’s been a really long day, or I have really short pants on most people probably wouldn’t notice. I don’t roll down the street in Sudan in a wheelchair – even though I use it part-time, everything here is so inaccessible that I don’t use it much. One thing that I would like to say to potential employers is that there are a lot of people out there who may, on their resume look ‘disabled’ but are well suited to the position that they are applying for.

In Sudan it’s really not my role, but as M&E Manager I have insisted that we count people with disabilities, that we acknowledge that it’s a problem, and that we identify beneficiaries who have disabilities. The UN, USAID, all of these large groups are never really going to address poverty if they don’t start addressing disability issues – these people really are the poorest of the poor.

Nick: What other tips would you have for people trying to find their way into this line of work?

Tiana: When I turned 39 I thought “well I either have to go international now or I’m never going to” so I just really put my mind to it and made it a goal. I started networking with everybody that I knew and told them that I was committed to doing this, I applied for all sorts of jobs that I thought that I was qualified for, I asked people I knew to introduce me to other people who they knew. Determination is a big part of it. People say to me all the time that I have a lot of determination. When I was a student I had just finished college and I was making a commercial against drinking and driving and in one shot I had to roll my wheelchair up a really steep ramp. Now I’m considered an elite wheelchair athlete (or at least I was in my glory days!) but it took me 42 attempts to make the shot. 42. When I said I wanted to be on the US Paralympic team a friend from a news station involved in the commercial said she didn’t think I was going to make it, but you have to write down your goals and you pursue them with passion and don’t ever give up. Tenacity and hard work will serve you far better than talent or a huge long resume.

We spend a lot of our lives being told by other people what we can and can’t do. I try to tell young people “don’t ever let someone else place limits on your abilities.” You are going to place enough limits on yourself without letting other people tell you what you are and are not capable of.” Even today I get people who say “gosh Tiana when you said you were going to work internationally I thought it was never going to happen”. You really have to believe in yourself. When I look at a lot of the most successful people in the world I don’t think they’re the ones who don’t fail, they’re the ones who just never give up.

Once you get your first job in this business you just have to be really flexible. You have to be able to laugh, and deal really well with uncertainty. Grants come and go, positions change, you need to be willing to go anywhere – my first post was Iraq, and there are people who are not willing to go to places like that, but I was. If you are only willing to go to places like Kenya or Thailand, those are plum countries – it’s much easier to get your first job if you’re willing to go somewhere no one else wants to go.

Nick: So what’s next for you?

Tiana: Well actually I’ve just finished writing my memoir – the motivation for it was reading all of these books about disability with titles like ‘triumph of human spirt’ which made me want to gag, as though there is something glorious or noble about being disabled, and I just wanted to point out that I’m no different to anyone else. Everyone has a disability of some kind, mine just happens to be visible. I have all the same issues as anyone else, I have a mortgage, I have a job, being disabled is not the biggest thing in my life. I just wanted to write a very straightforward account of what it’s like to go through a life-changing event and come out ok on the other side.

Someday I want to go home to Portland, but right now Mercy Corps only sends me to the nice places, Iraq and Sudan, which means that Afghanistan will probably be next!


You can watch a 2008 interview with Tiana on KATU News here.

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