Kajsa Övergaard (right) at the 40th Anniversary Conference in Bangkok

Looking with fresh eyes: What trainees have brought to Right Livelihood over the years

News 27.07.2023

Kajsa Övergaard is one of Right Livelihood’s most senior colleagues, who has been with the organisation for 15 years. As the coordinator of our traineeship programme, she has seen many young colleagues going through our offices.

This little-known aspect of our work at Right Livelihood is that we have provided exceptional educational opportunities for many young people at the start of their careers. These short-term colleagues have, in some cases, left long-term learnings for us. In other cases, their brief time at Right Livelihood has brought life-changing experiences for them.

Let’s learn more from Övergaard about what trainees have brought to us!

Right Livelihood: Since when and why has Right Livelihood hired trainees?

Kajsa Övergaard: Not sure when we had our first trainee, but it’s happened at least occasionally since the mid-1990s. From around 2008, we had trainees on a more regular basis. First, we advertised in Europe and had trainees from many different European countries. Then, we started to use the Swedish Development Forum, an organisation the Right Livelihood office in Stockholm has used to find our amazing trainees since around 2010.

Trainees usually come fresh out of a bachelor’s or master’s degree carrying lots of ideas, fresh knowledge, dreams and ambitions. For Right Livelihood, this means having a person on board for a while who will look at what we do with fresh eyes – asking us questions about why we do what we do, or how we do things. This is truly valuable for an organisation! Of course, it takes time for our staff to introduce them to our work, but after that, they usually contribute to the work and the atmosphere in a wonderful way. Also, after the trainee leaves, we have a new ambassador for Right Livelihood out there in the world.

RL: What are the Swedish working or educational conditions enabling traineeships?

KO: There is no fee to study at universities in Sweden. Most students finance their living costs and books by taking student loans, which are very beneficial with low-interest rates. There is one part that is a grant and one part loan. Many university programmes include an internship of about 6 months, financed under the grant/loan scheme. Students with a focus on global sustainability work, in a broad sense, can apply for an internship through The Swedish Development Forum. During the 6-month period, the trainees will also be part of an intern network for which The Swedish Development Forum arranges both study visits and lectures.

RL: How is it in Geneva?

KO: We also have trainees in Geneva. Since 2015, we have had 19 trainees there in total, some of them only for the duration of a single UN Human Rights Council session. Four of them as a result of our close cooperating partner, the Global Campus of Human Rights, through their European Master’s Programme in Human Rights and Democratisation.

RL: What are the learnings for trainees?

KO: A trainee will get good insight into how it might be to work within a civil society organisation. They will learn about how we organise our work, our planning – from our strategy, to annual objectives and then the detailed planning around specific tasks, like an event with a Laureate for example. They will see how we involve all the other parts of the organisation. They will learn about all the details, what even a smaller event will need. And for those taking part in the planning and execution of the week around the Award Presentation, they will be part of organising a major event and what it means when it comes to thinking through every little detail. They will also get  good insight into budgets, reporting – and we do believe that we, as an organisation,  and the Laureates have so much experience to give to young people.

RL: What are the roles assigned to them?

KO: We’ve had trainees focusing on support or events in Stockholm, education, communications, research and planning, also carrying out the work around Human Rights Council sessions. We always try to find roles fitting for the person with as much responsibility as the trainee would like. When starting, we ask the trainee to list their expectations around what they would like to learn, for example, and we also follow up. We always try to involve them in meetings, also outside the office for networking, and give them different roles during the meetings.

RL: What is the general profile of a Right Livelihood trainee?

KO: Most trainees have a background in international studies somehow: human rights, peace and conflict, sustainability or similar. We’ve had trainees from Belgium, Germany, Brazil, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, the UK, Finland, Nicaragua, France, India, Austria, Romania, Uganda, the USA and Denmark. Probably, I missed some countries.

RL: Do you have an estimation of the number of people that have completed a traineeship at Right Livelihood?

KO: Yes, I’ve tried to calculate and it seems like we’ve had at least around 70 trainees of various lengths and formats!

RL: Many of them are very young and this opportunity is their first working experience. Do you see a change in them when they start and when they end the traineeship?

KO: Yes, very often we see them grow, dare to take up more space and put forward their ideas, for example. Many of them have become more clear about what they want to focus on moving forward, having had the opportunity to learn about a lot of different issues through Right Livelihood Laureates.

RL: What feedback have trainees given you about the meaning of this experience?

KO: It, of course, varies, but we have mainly received really good feedback, where they’ve appreciated the smaller team, meaning that they can also see their own contributions. They also usually like that we are happy about a lot of questions from them, and our aim is to be inclusive, trying to make sure they understand who and what we are talking about, etc. Most trainees also appreciate that they get quite a lot of responsibility. We always ask for both spoken and written feedback before trainees leave and of course, there are sometimes things we could have done better. For example, many trainees would like to have a project of their own, but we are not always able to provide that in the way they might expect.

RL: Have you met trainees years later? What is their feedback once a longer period of time has passed?

KO: Yes, I’ve met quite a few and also corresponded with even more. It is a lot of fun learning about colleagues working with a Laureate organisation or within a foreign office somewhere in the world, with Fair Trade or a focus on sustainability or education, for example. Or, learning when they build a family and have children!

RL: Is there anything that has changed at Right Livelihood that was first brought by a trainee? Any initiative that has stayed longer than themselves?

KO: Probably more than we realise! But I know that trainees have inspired our growing organisation to get even more organised – for example, when it comes to how we sort information and papers earlier compared to today. For sure, they have brought in the importance of doing fun things, fun parts during planning days with all staff, for example.

RL: Do you remember any meaningful anecdotes with trainees that you can share?

KO: Well, actually, our Executive Director, Ole von Uexkull, was one of the earliest trainees. He was a trainee and accompanying person for Right Livelihood Laureate Michael Succow when he was in Stockholm to receive his Award in 1997. Later, Ole was employed as a freelancer for researching nominees. He became our Executive Director in 2006.

Also, another five colleagues, now permanent staff, started out as trainees – Steffi Geilhof, Mikaela Fredrikson, Stina Thanner, Adam McBeth and Camilla Argentieri. I do want to emphasise though, that being an intern at Right Livelihood does not automatically lead to employment with us! It is still quite rare.

Alex Repenning, who has been our Education Manager for a few years now, but who is unfortunately leaving us in July, was a summer intern in Stockholm in 2017 together with Luisa Neubauer, who is today a climate activist with a central role in Germany. Luisa was first in contact with us when Right Livelihood Laureate Bill McKibben received the Award in 2014, when she came to Stockholm for the Award Presentation and interviewed McKibben. A few years later, she also met Greta Thunberg, who became another Right Livelihood Laureate in 2019. The discussions Alex and Luisa had over the summer in the Stockholm office was actually the starting point for the book, Beginning to End the Climate Crisis: A History of Our Future, first published in German in 2019.

Another lovely story is when a trainee and one of our staff members fell in love while both working in the Stockholm office  – and are now happily married!

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