Woman Of Substance: Vanessa Ellingham
Posted on July 1, 2016
Human rights journalist, magazine editor and social storyteller Vanessa Ellingham seems to regularly be mistaken for someone else.
It’s something which has beset her for the past five years, since “Jasmine Cooper” first got glasses.
“Jasmine Cooper” is one of the characters on New Zealand’s most famous soap opera, ‘Shortland Street‘. It seems Vanessa and the actress who plays the troubled teenager share eerily similar features: honey-brown hair, perfectly-manicured bobs and cat’s eye glasses, framing heart-shaped faces and delicate smiles.
Both call New Zealand home. And as I discover soon after meeting Vanessa at a writers group in Berlin (where she now lives), it’s a case of mistaken identity the 25 year-old is wont to write about in hilarious, excruciating detail.
Even recently a hapless Mac user mistook Vanessa as one of the faces of Apple’s newly-minted Twitter Support Team, reaching out to her in 140-characters-or-less.
As the saying goes, ‘you can run but you can’t hide’ – especially not on Twitter. “It’s happening again!” tweeted Vanessa, in bemused desperation, finally conceding, “[I] just have one of those faces, I suppose”.
Be that as that as it may, there’s nothing generic about this “digital native”, whip-smart storyteller. While Vanessa’s default setting might appear shy and self-deprecating – upholding the stereotype of her “nerdy” doppelgangers – it’s cosmetic only. Get Vanessa onto something she believes in and you get to the heart of her: an articulate woman of substance with an ardour to rival the flow of her homeland’s mighty Waikato River.
Upping stumps from Aotearoa almost four years ago, she’s not only turned into a world traveler (making her a bit exotic back home), she’s also sought out social enterprises that make a difference. At Give Something Back To Berlin Vanessa works as the organisation’s blog editor, helping to tell the stories of the many refugees currently seeking asylum in Berlin.
Founded by Swedish journalist Annamaria Olsson, the enterprise endeavours to connect more “privileged” immigrants (ie those in Berlin by choice) with those more “vulnerable” in the community, such as the ever-growing, diaspora of displaced peoples arriving in Germany, the country bearing the brunt of the EU’s “great migration crisis”. They do this via projects, programs and partnerships, the emphasis being on creating support, opportunity and community.
It seems fitting that the organisation’s HQ is in a converted church in Neukölln, one of the most open, culturally diverse and thriving neighbourhoods in Berlin. With meditation spaces, meeting rooms, workshop areas, a new communal kitchen and a beautiful rooftop garden (complete with modular veggie patches and fruit plots), it’s staffed with expats and locals alike.
Not only do they care, they actually do something to help. They take action.
It may not be very “Jasmine Cooper” of her, but you won’t find Vanessa Ellingham making a big deal about it…
Circus Folk: A New Zealander in Berlin: could you please give us a snapshot of your journey to becoming a “Wahlberliner”, including a picture of where you are from in New Zealand?
Vanessa Ellingham: I’ve lived in Berlin now for just about three years. I never intended to live in Germany (I learned French at school, and when I left New Zealand I was headed for Denmark.) But I ended up here, and I’m so happy in Berlin I might never leave!
My partner, Andreas, is Danish, and we lived together in Copenhagen for a year before we came to Berlin. It wasn’t really working out there for me (job-wise, culture-wise), so we made a list of other places we could see ourselves living and whittled them down until we settled on Berlin.
We picked this city for its multiculturalism, arts scene, affordability and acceptance of difference, but most of that was based on what we’d heard from others. It turned out to be a very good choice for us.
I come from Wellington, once dubbed the “coolest little capital in the world” by Lonely Planet. It’s a tiny city known for its café culture and arts scene. New Zealand as a whole is pretty multicultural and that’s what I’d missed in Denmark.
Funny how I gravitated towards a new place with a spirit a bit like the one I left back at home…
CF: And you also have Maori heritage: could you please give us some details about your family background? And what it means to you, to have that heritage in your identity?
VE: My mother’s father was Maori, which makes us part-Maori. In New Zealand we say, “you’re as Maori as you feel”, and I probably feel more Maori the longer I live away from home.
I wasn’t raised with a lot of Maori culture or customs, but after my granddad died when I was a kid my family made an effort to learn more about that part of ourselves and that’s a journey we’re still on today.
To me being Maori is about being spiritually connected to your ancestral land. And it’s about being inclusive – we talk about the idea of whanau, something bigger than a family, more like a community of people who hold each other dear and support one another.
CF: Please tell us more about your work here in Berlin?
VF: I’m a freelance writer and editor. I cover a range of different roles.
Last year I edited an anthology for Slow Travel Berlin to celebrate their fifth anniversary. Slow Travel Berlin is an English-language city guide slowed down, with hidden places, not-so-familiar faces and long-form stories coming out of Berlin.
I serve as an editor and feature writer for FairPlanet.org, an online magazine about human rights and the environment. There I mostly write about migration and issues affecting indigenous peoples.
CF: And your role working with refugees at the organisation “Give Something Back To Berlin”?
VE: I work part-time editing and managing the Give Something Back to Berlin blog. It’s a work in progress: right now we interview members of our community, and produce general news about our organisation, but in the future we hope to have more writing about migration, politics and local issues affecting Berlin’s newcomers – that’s our audience.
GSBTB started three years ago as an answer to Berlin’s anti-gentrification discourse. We don’t claim to ‘fix’ the problem of gentrification, but serve as an opportunity for new Berliners to contribute to the city through volunteering, shirking that stereotype of hipsters who only came to town to party, make art and push up the cost of living here.
The volunteer work was targeted at the expat crowd, volunteering with elderly folk, in after-school care programs, that sort of thing, but we also became networked with the refugee rights movement at Oranienplatz, organising a weekly cooking event in the park and English classes for refugees.
When the number of refugees arriving in the city increased by what felt like a bajillion last summer, we were well positioned to show the city how it’s done: that ‘integrating’ people doesn’t have to mean a one-directional aid exchange, but providing spaces for them to come and forge genuine friendships with like-minded people, and also have the opportunity to contribute to the city themselves.
I wouldn’t be doing justice to my colleagues if I didn’t mention that we recently won an international award for this work. In April we won the top prize at the Intercultural Innovation Award from UNAOC and BMW Group. It felt like the whole world could suddenly hear what we had to say about migration – it’s been a wild ride!
CF: What have you learned from working in this environment?
VE: The biggest lesson I’ve learned from my time spent getting to know some of the refugees in our community, is something that I already knew but I’m being reminded of every day: that refugees are just like everyone else.
As a newcomer to the city myself, I have so much in common with these people: working out how to find a flat in Berlin, struggling to learn German, enjoying a good döner, missing loved ones back home…
Because I didn’t come up with the concept myself, I think I’m allowed to say that this is the real genius of GSBTB’s concept: it’s migrants supporting migrants.
A lot of people in the GSBTB community with refugee backgrounds are now volunteering themselves. Integration can be so much more than a one-way exchange. I think we’re proving that everyone has something valuable to offer.
CF: Just over one million refugees entered Germany last year, over a 12-moth period. What is your personal take on the refugee situation in German right now – especially in Berlin: what needs to happen? What are particular the challenges they are facing here, and is any ‘good’ coming out of the situation?
VE: Wooooo boy, how to answer that without taking five hours – and [without] getting really, really mad?!
The biggest challenge seems to be bureaucracy. My friends with refugee status all wait months and months for very small steps forward: whether that’s getting legal refugee status, getting help to find somewhere to live, getting into German class, or getting permission for family members back home to come and join them here. It’s painfully slow, and we know it’s because of the huge number of people who all came at once. But it would be wrong to say Germany hadn’t been warned that this would happen one day. Human rights authorities had been pointing to the potential for bigger migration movements for years.
I disagree with some of the housing plans for refugees. It may seem like a dreamy idea for refugees to be housed on the auspicious grounds of the former Tempelhof Airport, but mass accommodation – like the 7000 spaces planned at Tempelhof – isn’t healthy for anyone. It’s isolated, prison-like living, a breeding ground for mental illness, and human rights groups have condemned the conditions. As if these people haven’t already been through enough!
And those are just some of the issues affecting people in Berlin: what about all the people left behind when Europe closed its borders and said it was ‘full’? That’s never going to be the answer to this problem: it doesn’t stop wars, it doesn’t stop people dying in the Mediterranean, and in the end it won’t stop people arriving in Europe.
What good is coming out of the situation? I think many people who didn’t know much about the issues facing refugees have taken an interest for the first time, and that’s good news. I think refugees have been humanised in the media in a way they weren’t before, and that’s galvanised the German public.
It’s been a trying time for Germany’s politicians and services, but we’ve also seen droves of people turn out to volunteer who normally might not have. That’s a society I want to be part of.
CF: You call yourself a “digital native who doesn’t believe that print is dead”: what do you mean by that?
VE: I work mostly in the digital space but I’m a lover of old-fashioned print. The feel and smell of a new book or magazine simply cannot be replicated in digital media.
A few years ago some media people were saying “print is dead” but instead we’ve seen a resurgence of print media as coveted items to be treasured. You can see the same with radio and podcasts. Instead of dying out, print has been elevated.
[One of my favourite things to do] to relax is to sit on my balcony in the sun and read a magazine (I’ve always got a pile of at least five that I’m hoping to make it through one day). When it’s cold I like to have a bath and listen to a podcast. Ooh, there goes that traditional media again!
CF: What is the most “unusual” writing job you’ve ever done – and most rewarding? And what is it that you love about writing – and freelancing?
VE: My most unusual job was my first job out of uni: I was the editor of a fishing magazine for six months while the regular guy spent some time overseas. The job came with a boat, which was totally wasted on me. I didn’t know a thing about fishing and I couldn’t drive a car, let alone a boat.
My most rewarding job is the one I have now at Give Something Back to Berlin. I don’t just get to be the editor of a blog where we tell really important stories about awesome people doing great things, but we also have a community that takes the time to read our stories and engage with us. I love it.
I love storytelling in general. I think I just picked writing because you have more time to craft the story. I also have a really nasally voice, so writing stops that getting in my way! As a freelancer I spend a lot more time doing financial stuff than I’d expected. Invoicing clients, or just staring at my budget with a look of terror. It’s hard yakka. The thing about being able to work in your pyjamas is true, however. And sometimes that just saves my day…
CF: You’ve travelled quite a bit; what has travelling taught – or given – you? There must be some things you miss about not being ‘home’…
VE: In New Zealand we talk about something called The Big OE – “The Big Overseas Experience”. For many Kiwi youth it’s considered a rite of passage, and most of my loved ones expected I would move overseas one day – they just might have expected I would’ve moved back by now.
I think I’ve learned that I can feel at home in really unexpected places. That it’s okay to call more than one place ‘home’.
I really missed how friendly Kiwis are to strangers, but when I went home for a visit I had to remember how that works: that every supermarket checkout operator will want to know how my day’s going, and then ask at least three follow-up questions, so I’d better have an answer ready. That’s just customer service back home, but Berlin has trained me out of that.
I love the beaches. I love how muggy it is. I love how people call out a thank you to the bus driver when they get off the bus. It’s awesome.
As for Berlin, I love the diversity of arts, culture and people. I love being able to ride my tricycle around my Kiez and these days I even see some people I know. I feel at home here now, too.
I do get homesick for the people I love. Sometimes I’d give anything for a hug from my mum. Preferably with a mince and cheese pie to eat afterwards.
[I miss] food and people. But mostly people.
CF: Do you have any long-term you dreams or ambitions for your writing and storytelling?
VE: I’d love to make and run a magazine one day. I know exactly what it would look like and what would be in it – I would’ve done it by now but it’s really expensive.
I think I’ll always be telling stories and it’s the minority voices that interest me. I’m lucky to already be doing what I really care about but there is plenty of room for my writing to develop, and my editing skills too. I’ve got my eye on some bigger publications I’d love to work for. It might take a lifetime!
CF: Please complete this sentence: “In five years Time Vanessa Ellingham will be…”
VE: Thirty! Oh my God. (Just kidding!). I think I’ll still be in Berlin. I really hope I would’ve gotten my German to a fluent level by then because I’d really like to get back on my Maori language journey and reconnect with that part of myself. I am sure I will still be telling stories…