Interview with Nina Blackwell

Nina Blackwell's schoolgirl ambition wasn't typical. Not for her the desire to become a model or a vet, a doctor or a TV star.

"Even as a girl I wanted to be a human rights lawyer," she laughs down the phone from her home in California. "So this job is a dream come true."

Since the beginning of 2013, the UTS Alumni has played a key role in shaping the future of Humanity United, a US-based human rights foundation "dedicated to building world peace, ending genocide and modern-day slavery, and advancing the causes of human freedom".

But her career has followed a circular route. Along the way, she has earned her spurs in NSW politics, worked alongside Malcolm Turnbull to press the case for an Australian republic, laboured night and day – sometimes unpaid - for Democratic candidates in the crucible of New York elections, and served in a senior executive role for one of the giants of 21st Century enterprise, Yahoo! Inc. And that's without mentioning the seven years she spent working for Hillary Clinton - former First Lady, US senator, Presidential candidate, Barak Obama's first Secretary of State, and still possibly the first woman President to win office to the White House.

"I fell completely in love with politics at university, the idea you could impact public policy and make people's better was fundamentally appealing."

Her close relationship with Clinton - first as a Special Advisor and then as her press secretary and spokesperson - came in the aftermath of Osama Bin Laden's attack on the World Trades Centre, which had a deep impact on Nina both personally and professionally.

On Sept 11, 2001, Blackwell and her husband, investment banker Mark Solomons, were living in a Manhattan apartment with a view of the Twin Towers. Blackwell was then working for the Democrats in the battle to succeed Rudolph Giuliani as Mayor of New York. It was primary day, when the Democrats were scheduled to select their mayoral candidate.

"I was on the subway when the first plane hit," Blackwell recalls. "I thought that my colleagues were joking when I got into the office and they told me that a plane had ploughed into the World Trade Center. But I was in the office, watching what was happening on multiple TV screens when the second plane went in and the towers collapsed and it was no joke – it was very, very real."

The primary was immediately postponed. "It wasn't until then that my husband and I walked back to our apartment on 12th Street which was within the cordoned area around Ground Zero and the real extent of the devastation became very clear. We had gone to donate blood and to volunteer at the local hospital but we weren't needed because no patients came – there was no one left."

"As senior city hall staff, we then returned to work - just a couple of blocks from Ground Zero - only days later. It was eerie and deeply moving to sit at desks which were covered in a film of dust and where the newspapers reflected what had happened on Sept 10."

Born in Sydney on April 30, 1972 and educated at SCECGS Redlands in Neutral Bay, Blackwell went to the University of NSW intending to study psychology and biology. "But I fell completely in love with politics at university," she explains. Though she dabbled in student politics, it was the politics of the real world that really interested her, "the idea you could impact public policy and make people's better was fundamentally appealing".

After leaving UNSW with a Masters in Political Science in 1993, she started work in the NSW Parliament, initially for a Liberal politician and later for the Australian Democrats.

In 1996, around the time she began working for the Australian Republican Movement as national campaign manager under chairman Malcolm Turnbull, she enrolled at UTS to study at night for a Bachelor of Law.

She looks back at her time at UTS as "an extraordinary life experience", relishing "the merger of experience and ideas" that came from studying with other committed professionals from a diverse range of careers. Though she found she could apply some of the legal knowledge she had acquired in the NSW Parliament, "to be honest what I liked most was the capacity to explore other interests totally outside my experience such as human rights law and constitutional law" - precisely the areas she is deals with now as Head of External Affairs at Humanity United.

"They were pretty sleepless years, so much work and so much study," recalls the passionate republican. "It was an honour being at the epicentre of a pivotal moment in Australian history and it was a really reflective time too, understanding who we are as a nation, where we want to go, and how we want to structure our future."

Ultimately, Australians voted against becoming a republic in the 1999 referendum. "Heartbreaking," she says. "But we all benefitted from having that national conversation." Turnbull remains a close friend: "I spoke to him just the other day."

When Solomons, her then boyfriend, was offered a job in New York in 2000, Blackwell decided to go with him: they were married the following year. With no green card and no long term plans to stay in the US, she opted to volunteer for the Democrats. Soon she was working seven days a week, for election campaigns including Senator Bill Bradley's unsuccessful attempt to become the Democratic candidate in the 2000 Presidential race and Hillary Clinton's victorious bid to become the first female senator for New York the same year.

The first time she met Clinton was during that campaign. "Hillary was still the serving First Lady and only came in to the media office once while I was there. It was like meeting your hero. She walked straight past my desk. That was enough for me. She was very nice to her staff, very congenial, but then, she always is." Their paths crossed again early in 2002. Aged just 29, Blackwell was invited to a New York hotel to meet the Senator who was looking for a special advisor. "I was very nervous," Blackwell remembers. In fact, she felt like she froze. Suddenly it was as if all the clever arguments she had rehearsed to show what skills she could bring to the role stuck somewhere between brain and mouth. Blackwell thought she'd blown a once in a lifetime opportunity to work with a serving senator who was widely expected to challenge for the US presidency.

But she obviously did something to impress the former First Lady: later Clinton told Blackwell she hadn't noticed how tongue-tied the Australian was. Over the next seven years, Blackwell became Hillary's press secretary and spokesperson, growing closer to Clinton than any other Australian. Again, it was an exhausting but exhilarating position since Hillary was more than a "mere" US Senator: she was an international figure whose views and positions were sought by the world's press.

The situation became even more intense after Clinton announced she was entering the 2008 Presidential race. For most of the Democratic Party's primaries, Clinton was the clear favourite to win the nomination. But, as history records, she narrowly lost to fellow Senator Barack Obama who went on to defeat the Republican candidate, John McCain.

Frustratingly, Blackwell found she was not at the heart of the Clinton versus Obama contest at the crucial stage - for the happiest of reasons. She was pregnant, with her first child, Sienna (now 6). She and her husband discussed the options and decided there was no way they wanted to be apart during their first pregnancy. "so I opted to stay in New York rather than go on the campaign trail."

Surely Clinton's defeat by Obama would have devastated Blackwell as much as the failure to secure an Australian republic? "Yes, it was disappointing. We were all keen to see Hillary become President, but none of us ever doubted how wonderful the end result was for America.

"For Democrats, it was an incredibly positive time, especially when President Obama appointed Hillary as his Secretary of State." In 2008, her husband's career took the family to San Francisco (he's a managing director at Morgan Stanley and they now have a second child – a son, Jake, aged 3).

Would Blackwell ever be tempted to work for Clinton again if the politician decides to compete the 2016 Presidential election?

"I am lucky that I see Hillary perhaps every three or four months. But my life is in California now. I'd help her in any way I could, but I couldn't go back on the road. I have two small children and a job I love."

"It was an extraordinary time, in the middle of historic movements like the Iranian Green Revolution and the Arab Spring. We really saw how the internet and social media could be an incredible tool for global social change and how it could be used as much by the forces of evil as well as the forces of good."

During the three years she worked for Yahoo! Inc, Blackwell was responsible for the website giant's global public affairs and then for communications strategies across all the company's business units in the US, Canada and Latin America. It was a time when people were questioning whether the new generation of social media companies was adequately addressing new-found corporate responsibility. Blackwell worked on issues such as Human rights, privacy, freedom of expression, the protection of children online, law enforcement and corporate social responsibility. "It was an extraordinary time, in the middle of historic movements like the Iranian Green Revolution and the Arab Spring. We really saw how the internet and social media could be an incredible tool for global social change and how it could be used as much by the forces of evil as well as the forces of good."

However at the beginning of 2013, Blackwell became Head of External Affairs for Humanity United, founded by Pam and Pierre Omidyar. Pierre is best known as one of the two founders of eBay.

It is, she says, the position she dreamt of as a young girl, and the one which makes most use of her studies at UTS. As a private, grant making foundation Humanity United tackles some enormous global challenges including genocide, atrocity and conflict prevention, post-conflict national building and the fight against modern day slavery.

Blackwell describes it as an "organization is about improving people's lives beyond borders and helping those who have been deprived of their fundamental human rights."

While she only meant to stay in the US for a couple of years, Blackwell doesn't expect to live full time in Australia any time soon ("We'll be here a while longer"). But she is an enthusiastic participant in Advance, an organization which keeps professional Aussie expats in touch and seeks to harness the incredible amount of Australian talent overseas.

"I'm passionate about helping to transform what could be a brain drain for Australia into a brain gain," she says.

Words by Steve Meacham, February 2014