At the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, we seek to highlight those around the world who are working to promote gender equality and challenge the status quo. The people we interview occupy many different roles within NGOs, foreign policy, and charities, among many. Aside from their impressive careers, our interviewees are feminist actors with a wealth of advice (and book recommendations!).
Marissa Conway (MC): Hi Vix! Tell me - what inspired you to start coaching work?
Vix Anderton (VA): It’s been a bit of a slow burn. When I first started to think about moving into a career and what I wanted to be part of, coaching came up as something a little left field. I was considering the question, “what are the times I’ve felt most fulfilled?” For me, it was mentoring and coaching the young volunteers on my team in Bangladesh. The whole experience was amazing, but particularly when we’re working with these young people. It definitely felt like there’s a drive in me to serve people, to support people, explore different ways of doing that. I love the work that I do in organizations and international development side, but you find you are often quite far removed from the people you are actually helping. There’s something really powerful about one-to-one coaching. You’re really seeing the impact of your work together as someone’s life is changing which is just incredible.
I had this opportunity to join Zinc, which is a brand-new incubator/pre-incubator program where each cohort will have a social impact focus. Our mission was to transform the mental health of 650 million women and girls in the developed world. I started to toy with the idea of a coaching business as opposed to solely being a side project.
Unfortunately, that didn’t quite work out as I expected but The Practical Balance was the obvious next step for me. I want to be working to support women in times of distress and hardship, really helping women thrive as individuals, so that collectively we can take a sledgehammer to the system. The systemic barriers are all over the place. One of the biggest risk factors for poor mental health is poverty and inequality. The onus is on individuals to cure themselves, rather than placing emphasis on the social drivers of poor mental health. The core concept around The Practical Balance is how you help people live a balanced life, which for me means managing your physical energy but also your mental energy, creative energy, and social energy. Concepts like self-awareness, really getting to know yourself. Getting to know, what are the things that boost my energy? What are the things that drain me?
You spend time with some people and you come away feeling amazing; you just feel full of life and possibility. Then there are people that take more of your energy. Which is fine, but how are you fitting that around what else is going on in your life? If you become more aware of your energy, you can prepare yourself and recover.
Life is continually changing and we continually change. If you’ve really watched a ballet dancer or have done a balance posture in yoga, you can feel and see the muscles are constantly moving to keep that balance. So how do you do that and how do you do it in a way that feels fun, curious, playful and not another thing I have to beat myself up with?
MC: I know I feel better when I run, or when I’m gardening.
VA: Exactly! You know doctors are prescribing gardening now? It’s called social prescribing. Instead of prescribing, say antidepressants, they prescribe you social gardening. Being out in nature is really great for your mental health. Doing something physical is great for your mental health. Doing an activity with a group of people, great for your mental health. So there you go.
MC: Often I find myself adding “fun” things to the to-do list and if I don’t get it checked off that day, then I haven’t done well that day. I recognize this happening but I still beat myself up about it. For example: every morning I set my alarm at 6:00 so I can get up and do half an hour of yoga before I get in the shower. Every morning I hit snooze until about 6:20, get up, do five minutes of yoga and then get in the shower and I’m just like, why do I do that? Every morning. I think it’s so important to learn how to make it a nice part of your life and not just another task that you have to do. Because I think especially with activist work and challenging these systemic inequalities, it is so overwhelming. It is so overwhelming to think of it on a big scale and what actually can I do in one day. I tend to spiral sometimes in that.
VA: For me, it’s all about dreaming big and doing small. I’m all about like what’s the smallest thing I can do? I was reading about this guy recently who was talking about micro habits. He started his fitness habit with one press-up a day. There’s part of you that goes: one press-up isn’t very much. But it’s better than no press-ups. If you can do one, you can try to do three and then five. And then it starts to escalate. But also recognizing that one press-up is ok. One minute of yoga is better than no minutes of yoga. And then experimenting with what works. If getting up at six isn’t working for you then are you better off setting the alarm for twenty past six or setting the alarm and doing five minutes of yoga and being happy with that?
Or looking at it from the other end of the telescope. What are you doing at bedtime? Is the thing you need to change is actually going to bed half an hour earlier? If your bedtime routine was better, that would make your morning routine a million times better. Being able to experiment with that and go, “Hey, I’m going to try this for two weeks, I’m going to see what happens with no judgment, with no expectation.” Rather than thinking “I’m a terrible person because I didn’t do half an hour of yoga.” When someone else says that, it sounds ridiculous doesn’t it?
Sometimes we get so rigid with ourselves. And I think particularly where we are in this space where we are all trying to really move the needle on sexual exploitation, misogyny and all these horrific things that are happening. All of that massive stuff that we are trying to achieve in the world, it happens incrementally. You can have these incredible dreams about a world where no one is discriminated against on the basis of their sex or gender, which would be amazing. But actually, the way we can break down a set of gender stereotypes is taken up by small steps. The same goes with these kinds of routines and practices in your daily life.
What is the smallest thing I can do towards my goal today and can I be happy that I’ve done that? That’s a great day. If I have managed to do more than that, fantastic. And if I haven’t managed to do one small thing today, then looking at it critically and objectively, what stopped me from doing that?
I’ve actually not had a great couple of days. I overscheduled myself on Wednesday, deliberately, because I was like “Oh I’ve got meetings and I’ll do them all in one day so it won’t distract me from other work.” By the end of the day, I had just been talking to people and I was absolutely exhausted, which meant that yesterday, I didn’t get anything done. I was totally drained. Rather than thinking, “I should have done that and you’re trying to be a thought leader and you can’t even do that”, I reminded myself that I had tried an approach to scheduling my time. It didn’t work as I expected it to; it had consequences and I’m like, “fine”. Luckily I have the kind of lifestyle where if I didn’t have a particularly effective day then I can go home and work more. So how can I now maximize my rest time? This is the other thing that people do, right? You are not in a good space to work, you feel like you should work, so you are going to sit at your laptop and stare at it but not actually get any work done.
Derek Sivers talks about the hell yeah or no. If you’re going to do something, be all into it. Even if it’s only for twenty minutes and then go do something else. But don’t be doing one thing and wish you were doing another because you just won’t do either of them effectively.
MC: How has your work doing gender and conflict influenced this mentality or vice versa?
VA: It’s interesting; it’s hard to break it apart. When I started off the portfolio career, I very much saw all of these things at opposite ends of the spectrum. I had the proper security, operations, program management stuff I was good at, at one end, along with yoga and this lifestyle at the other end, which felt quite diametrically opposed.
I think what I’m starting to see now that I’m a year into this, seeing what’s getting traction and what’s working, is a triangle where there’s conflict-related work at one point, organizational-related work at another, and then there’s well-being and resilience. The thing about changing the lives of women and girls is the unifying thread through all of those so I can start to see how well-being and inclusive cultures are really aligned, and how inclusive cultures and gender and conflict work are aligned. What’s happening with Oxfam and UNICEF this year is a demonstration of that – you can be talking about all this great stuff in-country and programming without having your own house in order to start with. At best, you are doing everything with one hand tied behind your back. At worst, you end up with your staff directly exploiting the people that you are trying to help.
Finally, I’m starting to see how the work I’m doing on well-being could potentially support women in violent conflict-affected states, women who are fleeing those areas, women who have survived sexual violence. And in the UK, for women who have left abusive relationships. Not that I think some of these ideas of balance and doing five minutes of meditation in the morning is going to solve all of those women’s problems – not at all – but I hope what I’m offering can give them a little bit of support.
I remember being very struck by Elizabeth Gilbert. In the early part of Eat, Pray, Love, she talks about a friend of hers who was asked to do some counseling for women fleeing Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge in the 1990s. She was like, “How do I help these women? They have been through this horrific violence in Cambodia,” and then reflecting on how all these women wanted to talk about was, “I met this guy in the refugee camp and now I don’t know but he’s dating my cousin.” So human. Just because women have been through incredibly traumatic events, they’re still people. I think that some of the work I’m doing can still be relevant to that in ensuring that they get the other specialist support and things that they need.
I guess that’s more of an ambition of how I see these things feeding into each other. I have to remind myself sometimes that I’ve really not been doing this for very long. The well-being stuff, I was doing it – reading all of these books and going to yoga – because they all made me feel good. It’s only been recently that I’ve sort fallen into this field by mistake and now I want to be like, “Hey everybody, check this out! We should all be doing this!” Then helping people do that.
MC: Before I moved to London, I was working at a safe house for survivors of human trafficking in San Francisco. I kind of had the same epiphany. When I was going through the training – I started out as a volunteer and was then hired as a staff member – I was really uncomfortable with how survivors and victims of violence are perceived by those who are helping them recover. I was struck by how much the anti-trafficking community in the Bay Area in California really only saw these women through the lens of being a victim of “X”. There’s a huge white savior complex mixed in there as well. I remember that when I was actually interacting with the survivors, I had probably only two or three conversations over the course of two-and-a-half years about the trauma they went through and the rest of the conversations were about life. It is a disservice to paint women into these small boxes, as if they’re only defined by their trauma.
VA: That’s so true and see the same thing in mental health. We talk about someone being a product of “X” as opposed to that being a person who has survived. The language is shifting. Those labels are really powerful and there’s a really good TED talk by a psychology professor, Elyn Saks. She’s a college professor now, but she suffered psychotic episodes as a young woman. She felt like she lost her identity, as if she was this label, this diagnosis.
Touching on the feminist foreign policy aspect, I think this really plays out in the Women, Peace and Security agenda where we continue to predominantly talk about women as victims in conflict. We tend not to acknowledge their broader roles and the variety of roles, activism and action that they can have in a conflict. Look at the military for example. For the first time in its history, all of the UK military roles are going to be open to women. Some of the way this has been described by serving military officers is “it’s going to be great, we’re going to have all of these emotional intelligence skills coming to the force for the first time.”
MC: Because of course men are not emotionally intelligent.
VA: Right?! We are getting women in to do ‘women stuff’. It’s going to be great because the guys are going to have someone to talk to. So once again we get to be mothers.
MC: We get to take care of “broken” boys, our favorite job.
VA: Exactly. We can get female soldiers to talk to women in the community and female engagement. All these things are important but, once again, we are confining women to these little boxes and labels. Talking about female engagement, there’s been a lot of debate within the military community about whether we need to have female engagement teams and what are they for. I kind of point out that they’ve been doing male engagement for years. They’re like, “no we don’t.” We do - it’s called a patroo. Once again we are totally normalizing men’s experience as the default and then we have to label women’s experience as being something different. We’re seeing it already. You have soldiers and female soldiers, firefighters and female firefighters. It’s totally unnecessary.
MC: Last question before we wrap up. How would you define a feminist foreign policy?
VA: I believe a feminist foreign policy puts people at the center. So much of the way that foreign policy is being conducted – really since Westphalian states were born – has been with nations at the heart of it, what’s in the nation’s best interest. That kind of rolls down to what may be in people’s best interest but not necessarily and not for all people. Feminist foreign policy puts people at the center and therefore has to recognize that people have a multiplicity of identities and requires us to apply something like a gender lens to it to think about how our actions are impacting women in different ways overseas. How we are listening to women’s voices and recognizing all of the roles they play in the international sphere and the domestic sphere of the countries we’re working with.
There’s instantly something – and maybe this is my own prejudice coming to fold – about feminist foreign policy that for me implies that it’s not as aggressive. One of the ultimate aims I have with something like The Practical Balance is bringing feminine energy, feminine qualities back to fold and the way we live our lives at the moment. I don’t like the terms masculine/feminine but people will know what I mean so bear with me. The masculine energy of action – always wanting to do more, to push harder – at the expense of these archetypal feminine qualities: nurturing, restorative, care, support, and that they’re seen as lesser. I would like to see a world where people of all sexes and all genders are able to draw on those energies when they need to and to live in this balance. You literally cannot have one without the other and they need to be balance.
For me, foreign policy should be doing that as well. There are times where action and aggression are important but there are equally times that care and nurturing and support are important. The kind of debates at the moment suggesting we should be piling aid money into the military, like there is some kind of binary option, it’s so… I don’t even have words for how irate the idea makes me. This idea that it’s one or the other and that we can’t quantify where aid money goes, how effective the aid is and occasionally the aid gets badly spent. In the true spirit of The Practical Balance and experimentation, maybe it’s time to try something else and see what happens. That’s kind of what feminist foreign policy means to me.