Founder, New Lens Travel and freelance journalist
Interview by Yara Kashlan (RSJ '16)
Jacky Habib, RSJ '11, is the Founder of New Lens Travel and a freelance journalist and content writer.
Tell us about your company, and what you do.
New Lens Travel turns voluntourism on its head. Instead of sending volunteers to ‘help’ or ‘save’ people in developing countries, we send them to learn from locals. We pair our trip participants with local media professionals in Ghana, like reporters and filmmakers. Through the program, we use media as a tool to engage communities, meet the people beyond the headlines and capture alternative narratives from what we typically see in media.
How has your time at Ryerson and J-School helped you now?
Studying journalism at Ryerson was great because it’s such a hands-on learning environment that prepared me for a career in media. It helps that Ryerson’s J-School is well-known and respected in the industry. In fact, back when I applied for the media training position in Ghana, one of my former instructors from the journalism program gave me a reference (shout out to Gary Gould) which I’m sure it helped me land the gig. I think where I am right now is directly linked to time I spent and connections I made in J-school.
I knew I was interested in combining my media skills with a career in the nonprofit industry, so I studied Nonprofit Management at Ryerson’s school of continuing education. I balanced this with my journalism courses and I know that the knowledge I gained supports my current work. Outside of academics, I was involved in a ton of activities on campus and in my community. I worked for the students’ union and was elected to their Board of Directors, I co-chaired Ryerson’s chapter of the World University Service of Canada and helped run the Student Refugee Program on campus. These experiences all shaped me and have a role in my current work.
What inspired you to start New Lens Travel?
A few years ago, I was a media trainer in Ghana, working with reporters and citizen journalists. When I was there, I crossed paths with people in the media industry who were telling such interesting stories and using their work to promote social change. I was so impressed and started thinking about how much we (people from the west) could learn from these individuals who I had the privilege of working with.
I was familiar with the problems of volunteering abroad and thought to myself: here’s an opportunity to flip the narrative and typical power structures. What if we traveled not with the intention of changing the world, but of learning from people who are changing their own communities?
While in Ghana, I connected with an amazing group of kids who run a social justice and media club in their slum. They come from a community that’s highly stigmatized, so they tell stories of what actually happens there, with the goal of changing public perceptions. I have so much admiration for these kids and wanted to support them on an ongoing basis. I figured if I could develop an alternative volunteer abroad program that makes a profit, I’d be able to channel this profit to their club, so we can support the next generation of African storytellers. This led me to start New Lens Travel, which works to both highlight the amazing media professionals who are rewriting narratives about Africa, and also supports upcoming storytellers to do the same.
Why was it important to you to start this initiative? And to what degree are you involved in it?
I want people to learn firsthand about life in other countries. When it comes to Africa, the images we see and stories we hear are overwhelmingly negative. They often have us pitying people and thinking we can solve their problems when we fly in for a few weeks to build schools or dig wells, and this oversimplification is a problem itself. It’s common for people to approach volunteering abroad with a saviour complex, and I wanted to challenge this and create a space where people can learn, be critical and consider what their role should be.
As for my involvement, it’s quite extensive. I have a fantastic team in Ghana that I work with mostly when we run summer programs. Being the founder and executive director means I’m involved year-round in everything from developing partnerships to recruiting trip participants to managing the program.
What are you aiming to accomplish?
Like our name suggestions, the idea is to facilitate an experience where people can develop a ‘new lens’ about people and places that seem foreign. That’s definitely what happened to me the first time I went to Ghana, and I think working in media was instrumental to helping me understand issues, meet all sorts of interesting people and challenge the assumptions I had. It’s my goal to create this experience for other people.
In addition to this, another goal is to support the work of storytellers in Ghana. Currently, we’re supporting a group of youth in the slum I mentioned as they start a publication that will feature stories about their community. Through our business model, we’re able to provide financial and other resources (mentorship, training, etc) to this group so that they can tell their own stories.
What does your average (if we can call it that!) day look like?
Leading up to a New Lens Travel program, my day can include a mix of logistics, administrative work and meetings. On a trip, my day to day involves a range of tasks including picking up participants at the airport, hosting guest speakers and managing the program to ensure it’s running smoothly.
Outside of New Lens Travel, I’m a freelance journalist so I spend my time pitching stories, writing and producing for media outlets and other freelance clients. I’ve dabbled in communications and marketing as well, so it’s been a mixed bag. I split my time between freelance work and New Lens Travel, which is definitely my passion project.
What skills, besides those taught in J-school, do you need for this type of a job?
People skills and networking are so important. If you know how to build and manage relationships, it will do wonders for you. In terms of the work I do for my company, I’ve had to develop skills including marketing, proposal writing, managing budgets and people. I would’ve never thought I’d be doing this, but you pick it up as you go along and there’s always people to reach out to for support. Places like the School for Social Entrepreneurs (where I was a fellow in 2015) and the Centre for Social Innovation, a coworking space I use in Toronto, have been instrumental while starting this company.
What’s next for you?
I’m currently in Kenya working as a reporter for Nation Media Group. I’m filing stories for their print, online and broadcast outlets across the region. In the coming months, I’ll be expanding New Lens Travel to East Africa, so I’m thrilled about that and am looking forward to growing our social impact as well.