Birgit Philipsen: Dialogue with the first woman regional vice president of ADRA
If there is any one person who can give a comprehensive description of what the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) does and how it works, as well as sharing the passion and purpose behind its calling to serve humanity, that person would be Birgit Philipsen. The first woman vice president of ADRA, Philipsen, a native of Denmark, is the director of the ADRA Africa Regional Office in Nairobi, Kenya. The office oversees ADRA work in some 35 countries–from Sierra Leone in the west to Ethiopia in the east.
Philipsen is not new to the relief organization. After attending college in Collonges, France, she taught high school in Norway for a short time. The call of ADRA was too loud to ignore, and so in 1991 Philipsen joined the staff of ADRA Denmark as a secretary. During this time, she and her husband raised their three daughters, and Philipsen learned everything from finances to logistics to program development. In 2000, she became ADRA’s Denmark’s country director, and was appointed to her present position in 2006.
Although more than 70 percent of her time last year was spent in grueling travel around Africa, Philipsen is enjoying her role in ADRA. She is uniquely equipped for the position. In addition to her passion and experience, Philipsen’s graduate work in development, through a program from Andrews University, has paid dividends. Philipsen wrote her Master’s thesis on post-traumatic stress disorder in development workers. Her research showed that development/relief workers, similar to soldiers, are exposed to high levels of stress and trauma by the very nature of their work in regions affected by war and poverty. In many cases, they face risks of rape, assault, and theft. Some suffer stress because they have no clear purpose or job description. She also discovered that training for what lies ahead prepares relief workers to meet such risks and enables them to return to “normal life.”
Philipsen grew up speaking Faroese, and is multilingual. She speaks English, Danish, Norwegian, French, German, and “quite a bit of Creole.” Currently she is learning Swahili.
When did you become interested in relief work?
In high school in Norway when I was 18. I saw a film about missionaries and all of a sudden I felt like God was calling me to go to Africa. I got some clear answers to prayer, and at 19, I went as a student missionary to Africa. I had actually planned to become a teacher in Norway, but instead I went to Sierra Leone where I spent one year. After getting married and working for ADRA in Denmark for several years, my family and I moved to Africa in 2006.
In your work, do you have opportunities to share your faith?
Yes, almost every day. Working in a donor setting provides contacts with government and embassy people–people who are highly educated and highly placed. I have found so many opportunities to talk about what ADRA and the Adventist Church are doing. And I have always made it a point to explain that ADRA is an agency of the church. Often my contacts say they don’t know a lot about the Adventist Church, and that leads me to many good conversations.
When we bring evaluators and journalists who know nothing about us to our projects, they become some of our greatest spokespersons. They’ve seen our programs and how we work, and they go away impressed.
There are a lot of relief and development agencies out there. What makes ADRA special?
Our connection with the church. I have worked very much in the donor world, with most of my experience in Denmark. We had quite a few evaluations and visits or consultants from the government and outside companies, and one thing I heard many times is that they were amazed at the commitment they saw. We are a faith-based organization. ADRA work is not just a job–it is a calling and a commitment, and you can sense it even among people of other faiths who work for us. They’re influenced by this Christian culture.
What are some ways you see ADRA supporting the mission of the Adventist Church?
Perhaps the most important one is ADRA’s encouragement of Adventists to reach out to people in need around them. Often church members, especially young people, have difficulty identifying with the church. Young people don’t always enjoy a lot of theology, but in ADRA they see a challenge, an identity; they see a serving church.
As a church we may have a tendency to want people to come to us. We invite them for meetings we think they should come to. ADRA is the opposite; it goes where people are. It is the outreach of the church, helping those in need.
I am glad we have Adventist institutions that provide us with trained people to ensure quality in ADRA work. That might be one of the reasons why ADRA succeeds in some places where other organizations don’t–we do have a lot of committed people who have been to our church’s educational and training institutions. They have a sense of mission, and they become effective workers.
What are some things people may not know about ADRA?
We all know that the church runs schools all over the world, but how many of us know that ADRA assists people who are not able to attend these institutions? We conduct adult literacy programs. We are involved in education for women, health education, HIV/AIDS awareness, and so on. We build classrooms and provide needed training for teachers. We help health care institutions by providing needed equipment, training in community health education, and preventive health care.
Toward the end of my work with ADRA Denmark we realized that in Africa it’s important to assist communities to develop their capacity to solve their problems. We worked toward not only providing education in a community but also combining education with health and food security so as to achieve the overall objective of community development. In Rwanda, for example, we had thousands of people join functional adult-learning programs, teaching people not only reading and writing, but also life skills. When you combine teaching life skills with literacy, people learn more efficiently and effectively.
In Uganda we have invested a lot in teacher training. That includes not only giving professional skills in classroom management but also providing motivation to retain teachers in rural schools. We have given these teachers housing and taught them skills to maintain those houses. We have trained parent-teacher associations so they could continue running the school after we left. With community involvement, we constructed 110 schools, trained 5,500 teachers, and established 80 parent-teacher associations.
What gives you the most satisfaction in your work?
To be able to work with people and to see how your work is really changing people’s lives for the better.
Disappointments and frustrations come along. How do you handle these challenges?
First, I know I am never alone. God is always there. I have often faced challenging situations in which I just had to say “God, you have to help me now.” He has never let me down. That is one of the secrets of being able to keep going even when the work is very demanding and you are constantly thrown into situations in which you really don’t know what to do.
Second, keep things in balance. For example, even when things are hectic, I make it a point not to compromise on Sabbath. Between work and worship, work and family, there needs to be a perspective of balance. To be honest, it’s not easy. When my children were young, it was a constant struggle to keep things steady, to be immersed in the work you love and care for the family you cherish. Having a demanding job can be enriching to one’s family life–there’s so much to share, in pictures and stories.
Third, learn from others. Around you are people who know how to have fun even when things are tough. There’s so much one can learn from others. After all, you are doing a job that God wants you to do.
If readers are interested in serving ADRA, how can they get involved?
Don’t think that by doing one type of education you will end up in ADRA. ADRA can use people with a variety of educational backgrounds. Very often the best people we have are those who have a college degree in the field that was of interest to them at that time, but take a graduate program in development. That gives a broad approach to education and particular skills in development.
How does one get to work for ADRA? Try to volunteer for a few months or a year and then you will know what it is to work with ADRA at the field level. You will also know people in ADRA, and you can see what is it you are really interested in doing in ADRA.
Kimberly Luste Maran is an assistant editor of the Adventist Review and Adventist World magazines (www.adventistreview.org and www.adventistworld.org).
Birgit Philipsen’s email address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
For work opportunities in ADRA visit http://jobs-adra.icims.com/adra_jobs/jobs/candidate/intro.jsp.