From aspiring solicitor to... Human Rights advocate!

How I Got Here: Paul Olubayo's Career Journey

Welcome to ‘How I Got Here’: a content series brought to you by Vamos Insights. We will be featuring inspiring students and young professionals across a broad range of industries, who will each share their career journey and provide insightful advice to help you navigate the big wide world of work. 

Introducing our guest, Paul Olubayo!

Hey Paul, thank you for joining us today! Please go ahead and introduce yourself, your current role, and your interests.

My name is Paul Olubayo. In my current role I am an independent modern slavery advocate for the charity Hope for Justice, which is an international anti-slavery organization. We work to end the practice of modern day slavery, and human exploitation in all its forms. Prior to that, I graduated with a Master's degree in Human Rights from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota in 2020. And prior to that, I graduated with an LLB Law degree from the University of Keele in 2018. As for passions and hobbies, I'm a big reader and a writer. Now that I’ve finished education, I actually have time to read for leisure so I try and read a lot. And I write a lot: I write blogs, both in terms of what I'm working on human rights wise, then also about my other interests whether it be sports or music.

Why did you choose to study Law for your undergrad degree and then do a Master’s in Human Rights? Were the reasons linked to your career aspirations at the time?

Yeah, great question. I chose my undergraduate degree because I was under the belief that I wanted to be a lawyer. I think there's a lot of law students who watch big TV shows like Suits that depict this glamorous legal lifestyle and think “I want to do THAT”… but then they do that first tort law lecture. So I really wanted to be a solicitor, but about halfway through my second year, I had a change of heart and realized that working in the legal sector as a practicing solicitor or a barrister wasn't necessarily what I wanted to do. I wanted to do something that allowed me to help people more directly, outside of the remit of the legal profession.

During the first semester of my second year, I did a study abroad program at San Diego State University. One of the classes I took was a political science class called ‘Human Rights: A Global Perspective’. This was important to me because it was the first time I had ever been taught or studied human rights concepts outside the framework of the law. Learning about human rights outside of a strictly legal lens opened up that field immensely for me. When I began looking at different career options, I knew I wanted to do something in human rights – I just didn't know what that was, if it didn't mean being a human rights lawyer. And so I started looking for a Master's degree which would allow me to get a deeper understanding of the practicalities of the field, how it actually works, what human rights advocacy looks like and how it's done. I very literally stumbled via Google Search upon the Master’s of Human rights degree at the University of Minnesota. At the time it was probably one of the only Master’s of Human Rights degrees in both the United States and the United Kingdom, that wasn't based in a law school. You could do a Master's degree in Human Rights Law, but to just be doing a Master’s in Human Rights, was a very alien concept at the time. There are a lot of different institutions now that I know about since then that have started up their own Master’s in Human Rights programs, but at the time the University of Minnesota was really the only one and so that was where I wanted to get a foundational grounding of what a career in this field might look like.

That’s really interesting – I never really thought about that distinction between the legal and non-legal aspects of Human Rights. How did you find the Master’s? Did it provide the insight that you were looking for?

Absolutely! The Master’s experience was amazing in the sense that it provided insight into the human rights field from day one – before we even had a class. Here's why I say that: on our induction day, the dean of the school was giving a speech to all the new incoming students of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. So this included not just students doing the Master’s in Human Rights but also others in the same school like the Master’s of Public Policy, or the Master’s in Urban Regional Development. On the induction day we were invited for breakfast and I happened to be on a table with three other people who turned out to be Master’s in Human Rights students. One person said that he was a documentary filmmaker, but he's come to do a Master's in Human Rights, which didn't make sense in my head. But then he said, “I document and make films about human rights violations, and the organizations that fight those violations. I use my skills of videography and filmmaking to tell that story in order to help get the word out.” We go around the table again, and there's someone else who's a journalist, she had been a journalist in Myanmar (Burma) reporting on the Rohingya genocide. She spoke about what she did as a journalist, and how she doesn't just see herself as a journalist, but as a human rights journalist, because all she cares about is the human rights violations and making sure that true stories are told. And so going around the table and hearing people from such different professions say, “This is what I do, this is what I've done, and now I’m here to do this Master's degree in Human Rights” made me realize that human rights is everything. It’s just about how you use the skills that you have in applying human rights into your work. I was able to learn that from the very first day that I walked into the university. And so the days that followed were about me finding out where my skills lie in relation to the career paths that I can choose within this field.

I like the distinction you make between having skills and then applying your skills in a particular way within an industry. Could you tell us a bit more about how your career aspirations have changed during your time at uni?

I think the biggest way that my aspirations changed is that I went into my undergrad job-driven in the sense that I went in saying, “I want to be a lawyer. I want to be a solicitor.” So there was a job title that I was aspiring to. But now I have come out of my Master’s with the mentality of, “I want to be in a role which allows me to positively affect people's lives.” And so there's no job title for that – it could be so many different things. And so even in conversations I have with friends and family, my brother says to me, “You know, at some point, you're probably going to end up teaching.” And I say, “Probably not, I can't imagine myself being a teacher.” But then again if you're a teacher and you teach from your heart, you are positively affecting people's lives. So that is a role that I could end up doing. There are people who say, “Paul, I see you running for public office one day.” I used to say, “There’s absolutely no way!” But it is possible to run for public office in order to positively affect people's lives. For me, my biggest change is that I stopped aspiring to a specific job title, like to be able to say, “Paul Olubayo, Attorney at Law.” Now I aspire to be able to say, “Paul Olubayo, I work to the betterment of the public good.” And whatever that looks like, is where I go. So that’s the biggest change I saw in uni.

What are the key skills that are sought after in your industry or your particular role? How did you develop these skills?

In my current role, I work as an independent modern slavery advocate. I deal with clients directly, and they have a direct line of contact to me. They don't necessarily speak English, so I'm often the only person that they speak to who will make sure that they have an interpreter. Whereas if they're speaking to their local council, the NHS or the benefits department, those departments aren't necessarily going to help them in their native language. And so I not only provide them support, but I also bear the brunt of their frustrations a lot of the time. The only way to learn how to deal with that is to face it through experience. One of the things I really don't like about the human rights professional sector, is the bevy of unpaid internships which exist. The industry is criminally underfunded; most organizations, whether huge or small, work either on donations or fundraising. So they're always looking for young people, typically students who potentially want to get into the field, to come in and hone their skills by volunteering at the organization for a period of time.

During my undergrad, I volunteered at Sanctus St. Mark’s, a charity that deals with refugees and asylum seekers within the Stoke-on-Trent area. They run on donations and on Wednesday mornings out of a church. Most of the volunteers at the time were retired churchgoers who would give up their Wednesday mornings to help. This experience was like an internship, as it involved direct client contact and provided me with a set of skills. Then when I went to the United States to do my Master’s, I came across an organization called The Advocates for Human Rights. Their Refugee and Immigration team did the exact same thing that Sanctus St. Mark’s did. So I now had the skills to come in and say, “Oh, I've done this work, I would love to come and do it for your organization on an unpaid internship.” But now fast forward to finishing the Master's, looking for jobs. And I see this role that says you need to have experience working directly with vulnerable communities, I'm like, “I literally have four years of experience doing this – you can't turn me down!” Unfortunately, a lot of work experience in the human rights sector is unpaid. But it is beneficial, because you'll learn so much, you'll be put in a position where you'll be doing things that feel so outside of your remit, but you're developing all these new skills. I'm someone who would prefer to be doing blog writing or research, but volunteering and doing these internships taught me to be vocal, to be able to strike up conversations in order to build a rapport instantaneously with someone. And so those are new skills that now allow me to look at other areas within the human rights field that as potential career prospects. So I think that you develop the key skills, unfortunately, by doing the tedious work of unpaid internships. And it’s not easy because not a lot of people have the luxury to be able to take an unpaid internship or do a role voluntarily.

Finally, what advice would you give to students who have similar interests as you? Any recommended resources or opportunities?

My biggest piece of advice is to develop an eclectic skillset. If you’re great at speaking to people on an interpersonal level, try to develop yourself so you’re great at speaking to people more broadly, like doing public speaking. If you're a researcher, really hone your research skills –  can you conduct your own studies, rather than just reading other people's research? Can you do qualitative and quantitative research? Human rights at a professional level is a skills based field. It’s an amalgamation of so many different skills and people bring their expertise from so many different fields. If you look at the heads of most international human rights organizations, maybe they were professors, maybe they were lawyers, some might have been career politicians, some were social workers. If you look at my current organization Hope for Justice, our CEO was an opera singer before he started an international anti-slavery organization.

I would also recommend that when you find your skills and you understand what it is that you’re passionate about within the human rights field, try to find one area and focus on it. One thing about this field is that most of the people are so well intentioned and they care so deeply about the human condition. But you can only do so much. The worst thing you can do is burn yourself out. So try and find your niche area of expertise, even if it’s just for a season. You can say, “I’m going to invest all my energy into this big issue for the next four or five years to see if we can make progress. And then I want to transition into doing something else.” When you do this, you will be able to learn about the movers and shakers in that field on whatever level you aspire to work on, whether it be international, national or local. Research relevant organizations, follow them on social media, find out what they do and who to connect with. I hate networking. It’s one of the reasons why I couldn’t do the law profession. But in my personal opinion, human rights professionals are much nicer and more easily approachable than legal professionals, so reach out to people and contact people, especially if you’re interested in what they’re working on. Just ask them, “Where can I learn more about this issue?” In this profession more than most, it’s all about sharing the knowledge, because that’s the only way we’re going to progress.

That’s great advice. Is there anything that you’re working on that you’d like to share? Plug yourself!

I do a lot of writing, so I’ve compiled all of my work onto my linktree, @Paul_Olubayo. One of the recent things I’ve been involved in is a research project with six of my peers from the Master’s of Human Rights program at the University of Minnesota. We’ve been documenting the experiences of peaceful protesters during the Minneapolis uprisings following the murder of George Floyd. We’ve just recently published two blog posts relating to that project, which you can find on my linktree. In the coming months, we’ll hopefully publish a full report later this year to paint a picture of what it was like for people.

Then hopefully within the month of March, I will be launching a human rights based podcast called ‘Paul Olubayo presents: The Conversation’ (a working title). I’ll be speaking with different actors within the field in each episode come and share their expertise. I’ve got people from different intersectionalities and nationalities dealing with a range of issues who will help the masses understand what’s going on. One of the guests that I’ve had on is a journalist in Lebanon, which got a lot of attention following the explosion in Beirut over six months ago. But many people would have fallen off regarding what’s happening right now, whereas there are still people on the ground who have been left to deal with it. So I’m trying to bring these stories back to light and keep them in the public attention as much as I possibly can. So that will be coming soon.

Awesome! Thank you so much for sharing your career journey with us.

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