On the fringes of power
How a political career led a UTS alumna from Malcolm Turnbull to Hillary Clinton.
Nina Blackwell’s schoolgirl ambition wasn’t typical. She had no 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 alumna 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 earned her spurs in NSW politics, worked alongside Malcolm Turnbull to press the case for an Australian republic, laboured night and day for Democrat candidates in the crucible of New York elections, and served in a senior executive role for Yahoo! Inc.
That’s not even mentioning the seven years she worked for Hillary Clinton − former First Lady, US Senator, presidential candidate, Barak Obama’s first Secretary of State, and still a possibility to become the first woman elected US President.
Her close relationship with Clinton − first as special advisor and then as press secretary and spokesperson − came in the aftermath of Osama Bin Laden’s attack on the World Trade Centre, which had a deep impact on Blackwell both personally and professionally (see next page).
Born in Sydney on 30 April 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. That interest naturally transferred to the politics of the real world, “the idea you could impact public policy and make people’s lives better was fundamentally appealing”.
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, Blackwell 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, “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 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.
When Mark Solomons, her then boyfriend, was offered a job in New York in 2000, Blackwell went with him: they were married the following year.
With no green card, she volunteered for the Democrats. Soon she was working seven days a week, for election campaigns including Senator Bill Bradley’s unsuccessful attempt to become the Democrat 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 into the media office once while I was there. It was like meeting your hero.”
Their paths crossed again early in 2002. At 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 she froze and had blown a once in a lifetime opportunity. Later Clinton told Blackwell she hadn’t noticed how tongue-tied the Australian had been.
Over the next seven years, Blackwell became Hillary’s press secretary and spokesperson, growing closer to Clinton than any other Australian. The situation became even more intense after Clinton entered 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.
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 seven).
“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 four).
Would Blackwell ever be tempted to work for Clinton again if the politician decides to compete the 2016 Presidential election?
“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.”
During the three years she worked for Yahoo! Inc, Blackwell was responsible for the website’s global public affairs and then for communications strategies across all the company’s business units in the US, Canada and Latin America. 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 dreamed 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, and the fight against modern-day slavery.
Blackwell describes it as an “organisation is about improving people’s lives beyond borders and helping those who have been deprived of their fundamental human rights.”
Story by Steve Meacham