Written by Sorina Antonescu
It began with a simple idea – that on International Women’s Day we would celebrate the women of the world and all their incredible achievements. When it came to choosing our hero, we didn’t look far.
Hyejoung Yang was right here, steering our Good Neighbours UK team out of the murky waters of start-ups and onto solid ground. Little did she expect that as Good Neighbours set camp in the UK, her team would have to navigate through a series of lockdowns brought on by a global pandemic which wiped away lives, livelihoods, businesses and any sense of work-life balance for parents with home-schooling responsibilities.
So, I decided to interview my boss. I wanted to get to know the woman behind the responsibility-laden role of Director of Good Neighbours UK. Reluctant at first and possibly wondering how is this the best use of her time and mine, my boss agreed to the interview.
I began by asking Hyejoung to tell me a little bit about herself.
I am Hyejoung Yang, Director of Good Neighbours UK. I was born in Incheon, South Korea where the biggest international airport is. If you visit South Korea, your flight will land in my hometown area before you go to Seoul (Or Gangnam).
What did you do before you came to the UK?
I worked for UNESCO APECIU as a Programme Assistance Officer supporting educational projects in the Asia-Pacific area. Later, I joined Good Neighbours International as an aid worker because I wanted to work at the grassroots level, on bigger projects with real input from the communities we served. It has been already 10 years now. I managed many international development projects in Asia and Africa. I always wanted to handle the projects from the ground-up, where I would get to know the communities I worked with and together create a positive and lasting impact.
I was so used to working on desk-based project management and the activist in me would take every opportunity to work in the field whenever opportunity allowed. So, I volunteered to the overseas field team but I had to postpone my dream for a few years because of my two pregnancies.
How do you combine two pregnancies with international development work?
Pregnancy and caring for babies were a totally new world for me and a big opportunity to learn about this new life and also myself. Frankly speaking, being a mom gave me new perspectives, a novel way of looking at the world. When my babies grew a little, my dream to work in the field came back. Thankfully, my husband was supportive of my dream to go back into the field and that’s how my family and I ended up living in Indonesia.
How did you adjust to Indonesia and your new role?
Indonesia was very different from my country, especially the climate. It doesn’t usually go below 30-35 degrees Celsius through the whole year and my body was busy adjusting to the new climate. It was easy to get bitten by mosquitoes and went down with Dengue fever several times which I never experienced until then. My daughters too struggled at first with the heat and it was challenging to see them sick. It felt like a high price to pay for my work. But we also enjoyed trying new foods and delicious tropical fruit we’d not tasted before. We made some incredible friends along the way and I was happy to be a part of the team who helped reduce world poverty, even if by a fraction. I managed 14 projects, most of which were rural community development projects. I went on field monitoring trips often over the four islands (Sumatra, Java, Sulawesi, and East Nusa Tenggara) of Indonesia. Working with people on the ground gave me the insights and learning I could not see on paper. That’s not to say that working at the Good Neighbours Partnership centre didn’t have its own rewards and I monitored projects for Mongolia, the Philippines, Thailand, Ethiopia, and Kenya. But working from afar wasn’t quite the same thing as field work.
What inspired you to become involved in development and charity work?
One of my mum’s leg is disabled and except her leg, she is an ambitious and smart woman. She was the people’s spokesperson in her town and we always joked she would’ve made an excellent lawyer. But she had to give up many things in her life to fight with people’s prejudice and discrimination, to persuade people to see her as a full human being rather than just her disability. Being witness to her dynamic life, experiencing some of that discrimination, even though I was young, I think I made my mind up to try and change the world into a more friendly place for the underprivileged. Also, through the various social volunteering roles I took on during university including acting as UNDP MDG (Millennium Development Goals) campaigner, I was shocked how many people around the world are still deprived of their basic human rights, children included. I had to try and do something however small the difference.
We were now midway through the interview and I wanted to know how my boss transitioned from being a driven professional attending online global conferences one moment and sliding into motherhood and family life the next – during three UK lockdowns.
Lockdown is a terrible experience and did not look forward to it. As the Director of a start-up charity, it was painful to keep moving office equipment to and fro whenever the government regulations changed. But good teamwork is dreamwork and I am thankful for the enthusiasm and consistent progress my team made during the three lockdowns.
For the work-life balance, I am not sure I am doing it right. My husband is a key worker and my kids keep asking me to do this and that during work hours. It frustrates me when I can’t fully concentrate on either. Sometimes I need to catch up my work early in the morning or late at night. I help my girls with their Google Classroom work in the evening and weekends.
My girls are Y1 and Y3. Y1 has some activities but they are not supposed to do the home schooling by themselves. They do need adult guidance. We watch BBC Bitesize even around dinner time. Still, the quality of home schooling cannot match the teacher’s collective classroom quality. All of us are looking forward to going back to school.
A lot of women feel that caring responsibilities have fallen predominantly on them during lockdown and many professional women have expressed burnout, stress and feeling overwhelmed by the demands of work and motherhood – how have you coped?
Totally understand this and I’m not sure what the solution is. All I can do let time pass and ride this out however best I can. I try to include my girls in whatever I am doing but not sure they think it is enough. They grow up so fast and this is as much time as I will ever get with them before they start shaping their own lives later on. But my husband who is a key worker and I also want to provide for them and do our bit to be productive and contribute to society. This too requires some level of commitment.
Me and my husband also argued a lot though we try and be mindful of the other’s burnout and be respectful. We talk things through and try to give each other space to recharge and do our own thing.
Between the two of you, how do you manage house chores?
My husband is helping a lot. He is quite handy in the kitchen and picks up the cleaning chores on weekends when I’m busy with the girls or work. When I have virtual meetings and he’s around, he takes charge of the girls and picks up household tasks. But in my perspective – and this could be down to men and women’s brains being somehow wired differently when it comes to housework- I want the things done earlier and quicker. But he has his own pace and giving it his best– we both are. It’s a challenging situation for everyone, I think.
What is your advice for other professional women who juggle great responsibilities at work with household duties?
In the school chat rooms, I see others mums facing similar difficulties. I think I have this Super Mum syndrome too but sometimes talking with my kids and being honest with them is helping. I try to manage expectation on what I can do for them and what I cannot during these lockdowns and they understand. It helps setting boundaries and ask their help to understand and support me when I’m not able to help them. During the first lockdown, my kids routinely popped up in online meetings and didn’t realise I was working. By the third lockdown, they know mummy’s in a meeting and they don’t interrupt as often.
Cooking meals three times a day was another hurdle I had to find solutions to. Korean cuisine is healthy but time consuming so it was challenging to prepare meals three time a day and juggle everything in between. So, I managed expectations for me as well and tried to diversify the meals to include quick sandwiches for lunch or simpler recipes.
Do you have any hobbies and did they help you with lockdown?
I like playing instruments such as piano, drums, ukulele. More like intermediate level but it is good fun. I learned piano as a young child and drums in my university club. Ukulele, me and my kids started to learn together during the lockdown on YouTube. We also baked, tidied up, played games. We got creative. If ever I have a free minute, I try to do some yoga to relax.
We were getting to the end of the interview and I wanted to ask Hyejoung how Good Neighbours came to set camp in the UK. Even though it’s well known globally and has UN consultative status, it’s still the new kid on the block in the UK.
We want to be a local force for good, an asset for communities here in the UK and also support our international neighbours. Small local groups and charities often fall short of the resources they need to deliver vital services in their communities. Whether it’s project management expertise, fundraising experience, better organising, getting charity status, or CRM guidance, GNUK has the ability to draw from 30 years’ worth of international experience and resources to help in very pragmatic ways. We wouldn’t be here if there wasn’t a real demand for this kind of support. Even if you’re good at fundraising as an organisation, you still need a strategic direction to improve your service and grow. Our mission is simple – we want to empower people and transform communities.
Why was GNUK set up in York and not say, London for example? What was the reasoning behind this decision?
Since I moved to York, I heard the expression ‘northern powerhouse’ a lot. We tried to search for an alternative to London. This part of the country has a lot going on and we see it’s potential and that of the people who live here. We want to be a source for local employment and local growth and halt some of the brain-drain to London. Plus, York is the first Human Rights City in the UK and has also declared a climate emergency. It aligns with our values as an organisation and there is a lot of need and deprivation both within and outside of York which we hope to address in collaboration with other local charities and groups who understand their communities best.
How do you feel GNUK stands out from other UK NGOs?
We’re a non-western NGO who just set camp in a western country. Usually, it’s the other way around. Our values as an organisation are grounded in a deep respect for others and we bring the same work ethic that turned South Korea from a recipient country in serious need of international aid after WW2, to one that is now the 12th economy in the world and a major donor country.
Also, Good Neighbours originated in the Korean grassroots movement and it was the leading civil society organisation to give a real voice to ordinary people and advocate for child protection systems in Korea. Sponsoring a child is not for everyone but for the kids and families who benefited from this kind of assistance, it made a real difference for them. Of course, that’s only one aspect. We specialise in supporting communities become self-resilient through income-generating activities and social enterprises to break their dependency on aid alone or state-conditioned support when that is an option.
I think the pandemic made everything a lot worse; more people here in the UK and elsewhere in the world struggle to put food on the table and child poverty is not acceptable. Together with local partners we can start addressing this is a sustainable way. Structural poverty is real and I don’t believe it’s the case that people are not working hard enough to break from it, often there are factors outside of people’s individual reach. Which is where Good Neighbours UK can help.