The fourth 'Woman of Influence' I have invited to be in this series is Mercedes Giovinazzo who is based in Barcelona. She is an activist, a woman of principle and resilience, and an authentic leader. She has also achieved something remarkable in the arts and culture, which is to raise a family as well as having a successful career, both with equal dedication. Most of us grew up believing we could have it all, but realised that the battle for that was still to be won, but we take our inspiration and energy from women like Mercedes who show us that with some luck foresight and fierce multi-tasking, it is possible. I've asked her to share with us some personal insights, so I hope you enjoy what she has to say as much as I do.
Where are you from? Please, tell us a bit about your childhood?
The first is not an easy question! It might sound strange but sometimes I am not sure of where I come from. I have a mixed family background which at times has implied a certain sense of non-belonging or rather of belonging to different places, all of which feel like home.
My father, who died several years ago, was Italian and my mother, who was born in Mexico but grew up in the United States, comes from a family of Spanish Republicans who left Spain in 1939 after the Civil War. They settled in Mexico – the only country in the world which opened its borders to welcome the Spanish Republicans. For them, and for all of us, the country's generosity meant the possibility of a new beginning.
I was born in Sicily and spent my childhood in Italy and Spain with a short stay in the U.S. where I attended the seventh grade. At home we spoke several languages, and I have memories from the time I was quite small, of family gatherings where Italian, Spanish, English, Catalan and French were all used.
From my mother's family I learned that life is a day-by-day adventure and what is important are the principles and ideals you stand by, no matter what the consequences might be. And, above all, the belief that there is always hope in spite of how difficult one's situation might be. From my father I learned that strong local roots are just as important.
When did you realise that you were creative? How did it manifest itself?
I have never really considered myself 'creative' and I very much admire people who have a clear distinctive creative streak. However, if by creative you mean someone who is curious, hard-working and not afraid to take up challenge, then yes, I'm creative with a quite determined side. Many times I have gone to bed thinking why I had told my boss that I would hand in an assignment when I just had no clue as to where to start? Now I still often ask myself how I will ever solve a given problem! Indeed, I sometimes have to think very hard before understanding where the solution to an issue or a problem will eventually come from. Most of the time, the answer has been simply hard work and a process by trial and error. But once a decision has been taken there is no turning back, and I have a very strong sense of responsibility to deliver the results.
When did you decide on your career direction?
It just happened. I studied Archaeology at the University in Rome, studies that deeply shaped my way of thinking and, since Archaeology is possibly the most scientific and technical in the Humanities, it gave me a strong mental structure and analytical capacity.
After I graduated I had to decide whether I was going to pursue an academic career but I finally decided against it. At the time, I was offered my first 'real' job in a private company which specialised in the organisation of conferences and events. I had worked for them throughout my university years as a hostess to earn some pocket-money and they offered me a post as assistant to the company's CEO and founder. It was my first direct contact with an entrepreneur, a woman who, with a couple of associates, had set up what at the time was the biggest company in the sector. Only women worked there. I learned a lot from her and acquired a taste for management and organisation. It was a decisive experience for me and from there I went to France to study management. It was the beginning of my professional activity.
Tell us what direction that was. And of course, say something about where you are working now.
I have always worked in managerial posts, both in inter-governmental and non-governmental organisations, with teams both small and big, with higher or lower budgets. Possibly the main common element has been that I have always worked in international settings. I am now working for a small private not-for-profit organisation and my work is mostly dedicated to finding sources of funding and supervising the activities programme. Since we are living in a rapidly changing context I feel that my main responsibility lies in helping the organisation adapt to the on-going trends, while maintaining its mission and focus.
I also dedicate quite a lot of my time to a more 'political' activity which I think is fundamental today. Advocating for the recognition of the role that arts and culture play in society is clearly a necessity, but it is also a major challenge to advocate for its recognition as a fundamental element of human development which should be recognised at all levels of policy-making. I consider that the cultural sector is much too fragmented and that it should finally unify its voice as one of the major players in society.
Tell us about three things you have achieved in your work that have been important to you and why.
I think I have managed to be fully engaged both in my profession but also as a mother and I am very proud of this, albeit the compromises and hard work that doing these two jobs implies. I think that there is still a long way to go towards achieving full gender equality but it is a worthwhile endeavor for women to want to work and progress in their professions and in their personal life.
My work so far has been a fulfilling and interesting experience and I have managed quite well the process of adapting to diverse environments where learning the codes rapidly is very important. Looking back I think that, very simply put, I just achieved what I either set out or was asked to do which, in the end, is what gives me a sense of satisfaction in my every day work.
Tell us about something in your work that has gone wrong and what you learned from it.
Many things have gone wrong! The biggest disappointment comes from having invested a lot in human resource development only to realise, most of the time, life moves on for everybody and not always in the direction that one would have wished for. I have learned that one can solely rely only on oneself and on very, very few other people. I have learned that one has to set clear limits to one's commitment and personal involvement in professional life but that this does not have to limit one's enthusiasm. Development can be achieved only through this enthusiasm. All this comes from a belief that what I do makes some sense to me and to others, but also because I like and enjoy doing what I do.
Tell us if you have any causes or campaigns or areas of the profession that you are committed to improving.
Yes, there are. I strongly believe that professionals in the cultural sector unfortunately do not have the political commitment which is required today. They tend to shy away from civil responsibility, most of the time thinking that just because they work in the cultural sector they can: a) accept to earn less than in other sectors, the idea being that one works in this field because one loves it or is very rich and b) request recognition because society owes it to them. I think neither of these is true. Work is work and every job exists for a social reason. I also believe that there is a political civil conscience that each and every one of us has both the right and the duty to take upon oneself in order to be a fully committed citizen.
Tell us where you work and why you are committed to international working.
I work at Interarts, a private NGO that specializes in cultural cooperation and I also chair the Executive Committee of Culture Action Europe, a lobby organisation for the cultural sector in Europe. If there is one thing that I know it is that I could not work in any environment or organisation that does not have a clear international remit. It is, without a doubt, the aspect that interests me most in my work. Why? Partly it stems from my personal background and interests, but I also believe that betterment comes from understanding that our personal development is constant, especially if we accept engaging ourselves with what is different. Tolerance is necessary to both understand one's own self and others. To cooperate means, etymologically, doing things together towards a shared aim and to my understanding there is no better word to explain the process by which society can progress.
Tell us about a persistent issue in your profession that needs fixing.
Jobs like ours are just that, jobs, and they need to be socially recognised for what they are - an element in what makes the world go round. If it is true that there is a low level of recognition for jobs in the cultural sector, it is mainly our own fault. We still accept the leitmotif that these are jobs people undertake because they are either rich or passionate, or both, about what they do. I think that this is an important and basic misunderstanding.
Tell us about something you would still like to achieve in your career.
Good question, but I really don't know. I imagine there are still many things pending, but at this point, I would like to take the organisation that I work for one step further in its development. I also feel the need for a political commitment and meaning in whatever I undertake.
I want to hear more.
Well, I think that a phase in my personal life, as a mother, is changing. As regards my professional life I'm committed to internationalism, but I'm not yet sure what lies ahead. I've never been overtly driven by power, if that were the case I could have stayed in a previous role, but I have always been driven by the need to keep fresh and to learn. To me getting bored is the worst thing that can happen in my work, I've always tried to be involved in things that make sense and where I think my skills can make a difference, as it were, putting myself in the service of something. For example, it has been five years since I took the Chair of Culture Action Europe and I don't push myself into the lime-light but I think I have made a difference. Also I like an adventure, so the sense of risk and challenge and taking responsibility for pushing towards a meaningful goal is important to me. I'm pretty sure that in the next few years there will be new horizons.
What is the one piece of advice you would give to young people considering a creative/cultural policy career?
That work is work, anywhere you go, and that one has to try to do one's job in the best possible way. I would also underline that working in the cultural sector implies no privilege on its own; it is only hard work, and a bit of luck that makes us move forward. Also, that we never really stop learning and that learning is part of the process that enables us to gain the experience which we can put at the service of others.
I would also tell them to never be afraid of what they undertake as long as they do it honestly and with commitment.