I met Miranda Bryant when we were wayward, wild young reporters living on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. We reveled in the wacky Kinetic Sculpture Races, quaffed microbrews before even Seattleites became hip to them, and had our series of ill-advised, catastrophic romances with unsuitable suitors.
I became committed: To a dog, first, then a series of office jobs, real estate, and finally, a child. Miranda’s commitments became strong as well, but they weren’t to herself and her own small orbit. They were to helping those in desperate need. Her travels took her all around the world, beginning with a Peace Corps stint in Kazakstan. She showed up where God gave up.
I thought that aid work would eventually wear her down and she’d return to some kind of cushy NGO headquarters job. But no.
She’s currently featured in a collection of essays from humanitarian workers, Chasing Misery. The book is a way we civilians, no matter how well traveled we are, can get even a small glimpse of the minds of those who have given up so much for so many.
I recently caught up with Miranda from her current home in Yangon, Burma to find out more about how she turned out so big-hearted after her major swerve.
You’ve had so many harrowing experiences. I can’t ever get out that image of you being served a sheep’s head in Kazakhstan as the guest of honor when you first started the Peace Corps. What makes a small-town reporter with a cute apartment want to give it all up and see so much misery first-hand?
I loved my life. I had an interesting job; quirky friends, and a lovely apartment. I fed my creative soul through photography and poetry. Yet I no longer felt challenged. I had always dreamed of being a Peace Corps volunteer in a remote African village where I knew each child and dog by name. I started talking to others about this dream. A fair number said, “I always wanted to do that. Now I have a partner, children, pets and a mortgage so I can’t go. You should do it while you can!” So, I jumped off the cliff and got my first passport at the age of 33. I thought I would eventually return to being a reporter (my Peace Corps experience would be nothing more than a repeated story about that sheep’s head). However, life threw me a Swerve. Much to my horror, I discovered I wanted to work overseas full time, but I wasn’t sure in what capacity, nor how to get there. I flopped around for a year and a half after my Peace Corps term before pursuing a master’s degree in international public health. Since 2007, I have been working abroad.
How has your career in NGOs changed you?
At risk of sounding cliché, I feel like a citizen of the world more than of a certain country (I feel at home everywhere and nowhere). I am more aware of the issues that affect people of differing cultures and backgrounds. I have learned that we all want the same thing: good health, good education, an ability to provide for ourselves, and respect. A woman washing her laundry by hand at the river with her baby on her back wants this. A man in a suit with an $800 smart phone wants this.
What would you advise others who want to change their careers to make a difference? Where should they start?
My father has always said to me, “Follow your dreams.” For many of us, sorting out what that dream is becomes the most challenging aspect. When I did not know what type of master’s degree to pursue, I talked to a lot of people – from friends to professionals that I cold-called. I asked questions. I listened. And then I checked in with my gut.
Do you ever regret not taking the well-traveled path?
What else should people know about you and the people who are doing the front-line work of creating peace and healthy communities around the world, one precious body at a time?
I am often held up as a saint or a do-gooder. I see myself instead as a professional who has educated herself in order to pursue a career that suits my interests and sense of adventure. I earn money (and sometimes a fair chunk). I am not a saint. I simply work overseas in areas where marginalized and poor people need help.To purchase a copy of Chasing Misery, you can buy the paperback here and the Kindle edition here.