Padilla DE+I Collective: Q&A With Writer and International Relations Specialist Joan Erakit

The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis two years ago raised awareness of the urgent need for greater diversity, equity and inclusion (DE+I) initiatives. These calls were particularly strong within the communications field, and while Padilla had begun its DE+I program in earnest in 2019, the George Floyd tragedy, which happened only a few miles from Padilla’s headquarters, compelled us to accelerate our efforts. 

Padilla established a Diversity + Inclusion Council to ensure we are being intentional in creating a more diverse work environment. The Council – with guidance from Senior Leadership – focuses on the following key areas: Recruitment, Training, Retention and Content, which includes content we develop for ourselves and our clients. DE+I client counsel is part of work we provide within our Corporate Advisory Group – and specifically, the Social Impact team.

To supplement Padilla’s internal expertise, we assembled the DE+I Collective comprised of external advisors to help ensure an inclusive and culturally appropriate approach to public relations and communications for our agency and clients. Throughout the year, we will be profiling Collective members to shine a light on their expertise, experiences and the immense value they bring to Padilla. 

Joan Erakit is a Kenyan-born, American writer and business professional. With a background in media, culture, and international relations, Joan has previously worked as a United Nations Correspondent for Inter Press Service covering reproductive health and rights, education, and humanitarian response.

While writing her column for La Voce Di New York entitled An American Girl in Italy, she created a three-part social innovation project focused on Storytelling to promote inclusivity and education called Open Borders, now RELATE — a digital media company using storytelling as an advocacy tool. Joan also consults with international organizations and businesses in order to create robust cultural understanding and dialogue.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I’m a 36-year-old global woman born in Kenya and raised between Tanzania, South Africa, and Swaziland. I moved to the United States at the age of 13 with my family and have lived in Minnesota since then. After university, I moved to Washington DC to intern at National Geographic and since then, I’ve built a career as a writer, international relations specialist and in community development across the US and Europe. I currently split my time between my home in St. Paul MN, New York City, and Turin, Italy. It’s tiring, but my love for culture and learning knows no bounds.

Why did you join the Collective?

I really wanted to sit at the table, in hopes that my experiences, my life story, and my ideas could be useful to Padilla and its network.  The more representation in all aspects of the creative decision-making, the better – and that’s why I’m here.

Can you share an example of a piece/project that you’re most proud of and why?

 When I first moved to Italy, I was trying to figure out how to contribute to the city and to society in a meaningful way.  I started a social impact project focused on using storytelling to help share individual experiences of migrants and refugees – this being at a particular pinnacle of the crisis in Europe.  It was incredibly difficult to undertake – from dealing with language barriers to racism, sexism, and all-around apathy from the community for which we intended to do this work.  However, working closely with the men and women who’ve risked their lives to come to Europe and essentially start over was extraordinary.  I’m forever proud of the work we did, the relationships that were built, and the opportunity to learn from others, in Italy.

Can you share an experience from your travels that illustrates your passion for why you do what you do?

The most exciting experience of my life has been traveling and working with the United Nations in the field.  In 2014 I joined a media mission to help capture stories around maternal health.  For a month, I spent time in Burundi, Madagascar, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone (during the Ebola outbreak nonetheless), Niger, Haiti, and Laos. The experience was a life and work I had manifested for myself — traveling with an international organization to help people in the farthest places of the earth share their stories.  The information and stories I collected were then brought back to help the private sector and governments better plan for the needs of those in unreachable places.  It truly felt good to do the kind of work that had a huge impact on the everyday lives of people.

Promoting inclusivity and education is at the heart of your work as a writer and essayist. What keeps you up at night? What inspires you?

I love this question. I stay up at night thinking about human connection.  How do we truly connect with each other in this multi-faceted world?  What kinds of communications, campaigns, and conversations move the needle forward and accelerate change?  Storytelling is a powerful tool and I’m always learning, studying, speaking, and planning on ways to do it better.  The world will inevitably evolve, so the way we communicate must evolve too.

You mentioned that you split your time between MN, NYC and Italy. What do those places and communities mean to you?

St. Paul Minnesota will always be my first home and still is  — the place that groomed me to be the woman that I am now and to do the global work that I believe in.  New York City is the place where I honed my talent and began working on a global playing field.  Without New York, I know that my relationship with the UN would never have been built.  The diversity and inclusion a city like NY provides are unmatched, and I’m glad I was able to bring that Minnesota sauce to the table if you will.  Turin is my second home and I’m so glad that I made that risky decision almost 5 years later to try it out.  Turin has allowed me a space to really look at what it means to live in a connected, multicultural world.  Racism and discrimination still happen here but in myriads of colors and experiences far different than that in the US.  Being a part of both communities allowed me to bring a unique global perspective to this work and I am incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to do so.  

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