Career Spotlight Series IV: Anisa Harrasy - Counter Hate and Extremism 'Think and Do' Tank
Updated: Sep 20
The Career Spotlight series aims to shine a light on people from a range of different academic backgrounds and career pathways beyond the less traditional ones to inform, inspire and empower others to explore their own interests and talents. I’m constantly inspired by so many people around me who have taken the leap, challenged the status quo and pursued their passion which in some instances is different to what they studied at university. So, I’m hoping I can share their own accounts and stories to help you on your journey. To find out more about what inspired this, check out the launch blog here.
The fourth guest featured on the Career Spotlight blog series is Anisa Harrasy, who works for the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), a global counter-extremism ‘think and do’ tank dedicated to powering solutions to counter hate, violence, polarisation and extremism. Her main focus is Sub-Saharan Africa and she works closely with youth, Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and government stakeholders to design and deliver solutions. Read on to learn more about why she chose to study International Relations and pursue a Masters in International Security, courses she recommends, why she chose to work in this field, what she does in her current role, challenges faced due to COVID-19 and her advice for students who want to pursue a similar career path.
Why did you choose to do a Bachelors in International Relations and do an MA in International Security at university and how did you find it?
Since I was old enough to remember, the 9/11 tragedy and the threat of terrorism globally have been a persistent topic, and I have always been motivated to understand why these individuals act the way they do. At university, I studied International Relations and got an MA in International Security, focusing specifically on the political efforts against hate and extremism as well as the local grassroots levels. University of Sussex offered various modules within my Masters and Undergraduate, this enabled me to tailor my expertise from the beginning. Although my curriculum had several modules, it lacked diversity in regional thematics.
Through these studies, my passion only grew and, fortunately, I have been lucky enough to find a job in this field that allows me to continue learning and seeking these answers.
What are other courses you took or you wish you would have taken that would also add value in your career?
In the multicultural and connected world we are today, I deem languages as a bridge between different cultures. I currently speak fluent English, Swahili and intermediate Arabic. As an addition to International relations, I took Arabic as a module, yet as it was basic Arabic, it was a helpful grammatical reminder yet did not aid me significantly. I wish at the time I took intermediate/advanced professional Arabic courses as this would be of significant value in my work today; as when researching extremists narratives, Islamists specifically use significant amounts of Arabic.
How did you find your way to where you are today?
I currently work at The Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), a counter hate and extremism ‘think and do’ tank. I am a project manager working in capacity building, research and policy engagement, and I specialise in multi-level engagement across Sub-Saharan Africa. In this capacity, I often work across multiple projects, supporting delivery across sectors and helping to coordinate and advance ISD’s work in the region by leading our Sub-Saharan Africa Cluster.
ISD’s work is always evidence-based, stemming from continuous research, and engages with stakeholders from top to bottom, working directly with community members and policymakers. ISD works with the community to generate local research and build the capacity of the community – including CSOs (Civil Service Organizations), community leaders and activists – to help mobilise locally-led solutions that will increase community resilience to hate and extremism.
ISD also works with governments, through capacity-building programmes that enhance their understanding of their community’s perceptions and needs and design programmes to meet them, as well as through direct policy recommendations for how best to address hate and extremism within their constituency.
Having studied modules to do with extremism, ISD publications were a go to for my dissertations for definitions and framing. Therefore, once I had completed my masters, I applied for a MENA internship position - which I was not accepted for due to my lack of formal arabic. A week later, I was emailed to go back in for another internship position focusing on Sub Saharan Africa, specifically East Africa, and I got the job. Since then I have progressed internally from intern to Sub Saharan Africa Project Manager.
What do you love most about your job?
By working on the ground in communities, I get the opportunity to see the human impact of my work. I am in daily communication with County/Municipal Governments and community leaders and can witness how all of the work we do – the training, resources, funds, research – have made a difference locally. I have gotten to be a part of changes in important policy and watch as communication networks have evolved between youth and governments, creating space for young people to be heard and included. I have been involved in dozens of youth-led projects and government initiatives for the community that have reached thousands of people in a real, meaningful way. I get to see those people and hear their stories and know that the work we are doing is making an impact.
To what degree did your parents’ impact or influence your choice?
Coming from an African – Arab household, traditional careers such as doctors, engineers and Lawyers were always favoured. Yet thankfully, my parents have always told me to do what makes me happy career-wise. This is a topic I have been deeply interested in; therefore, they were always supportive. If anything, my career choices have led to more conversations within my household about topics that weren’t openly discussed.
What’s the biggest challenge now facing that sector? How has COVID-19 impacted your role?
COVID-19 has seriously impacted the way in which we deliver our work. Yet this work is all the more important right now, because our research has shown that extremists across ideologies are taking advantage of the current pandemic and the shift in priorities within counties.
At this time, our efforts within local communities have moved online to conform with social distancing. Through online engagement and research, community leaders and youth will work to understand community perceptions, release critical thinking content to aid community resilience and educate communities on their constitutional rights through online campaigns.
What’s your advice for students or people considering taking that route or applying for that role?
As corny as it might sound, find what you're interested in and become an expert. This ranges from community perceptions, understanding individual paths to extremism, understanding the policy landscape in relation to hate, polarisation and extremism. Not only will you be researching what you're interested in, but this also helps shape you and your experience.
What’s your favourite travel destination?
Thankfully, due to the nature of our work, in-person meetings and training are the most effective to work (where it is possible to do so safely of course), Therefore, I travel quite a lot with work and get to spend time in a lot of amazing places. Yet, every year I try to take a minimum of two personal holidays. My favourite to date is Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. The culture, food and history were spectacular. My favourite highlight was the night street samba parties which brought everyone together.
What’s the most embarrassing situation you’ve had happen to you at work?
An embarrassing work moment is when I was convinced a youth activist group was called The Love Machine and referred to them as such for at least a day before they finally found the courage to correct me that they were, in fact, the Love Movement.
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