Archives for March 2018

More Than a Roof and Four Walls

As a young professional in DC, one of the first questions I usually get asked is, “Where do you work?” I’m lucky because almost everyone has heard of Habitat for Humanity. But most people I talk to have no idea that Habitat for Humanity is a global organization, operating in nearly 70 countries.

In the US, Habitat is best known for mobilizing large teams of volunteers to build homes for low-income families. Families contribute sweat equity during the construction process and commit to repaying the cost of their home through a no-interest mortgage. It is incredible what can be accomplished with many hands. Last summer, over the course of a week, volunteers built and renovated 150 homes for the Carter Work Project in Edmonton, Canada. Habitat volunteers are so efficient they make housing look easy! But in reality, housing issues are incredibly complex, bringing together a wide range of sectors and systems.

As a Davidson Impact Fellow, I support Habitat’s global programs in a number of areas, including WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene), energy efficiency, urban development, gender equity, and land tenure security. Housing is more than a roof and four walls. In order to realize Habitat for Humanity’s vision of a world where everyone has a decent place to live, we must address all aspects of housing that affect low-income families around the world.

Adequate housing was recognized as part of the right to an adequate standard of living in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. According to these standards, for a particular form of shelter to be considered “adequate” it must meet a number of conditions, including security of tenure, availability of services and infrastructure (water, sanitation, energy for cooking, heating, lighting, etc), affordability, habitability, accessibly, location, and cultural adequacy. In many regions around the world the greatest housing challenge is the quality, not the quantity, of available housing units. Addressing the global housing deficit often requires creative incremental solutions, rather than building new housing units. I want to introduce you to two of Habitat’s international housing initiatives to give you a sense of both my role and Habitat’s role as a leader in the global housing sector.

Solid Ground – Access to land for Shelter
The biggest surprise of my fellowship came right at the beginning: on Friday of my first week I was asked to go to South Africa to help finalize preparation for a regional conference on land governance and tenure security. I left the next morning! I will admit, on my way to South Africa I was not 100 percent sure why Habitat for Humanity – a housing organization – would be organizing a conference on land. But the answer is clear: without land there can be no housing. Access to land and housing fosters strength, resilience, and lies at the heart of ending poverty. At the regional conference, I learned that only about only about 40 countries in the world have well-functioning land administration systems, and in most developing countries less than 10% of the land is formally registered. Globally, 75 percent of people lack proper documentation to the land on which they live. Housing currently accounts for more than 70 percent of land use in most cities, yet 1 billion people living in cities lack secure land rights. Without secure tenure, families live in fear of eviction, loss of livelihood, and are often unable to access basic services, including water, sanitation and electricity. In 2016, Habitat for Humanity launched Solid Ground, the organization’s global advocacy campaign that aims to increase access to land for shelter for 10 million people. Local Habitat for Humanity organizations and partners implementing the campaign in 37 countries, and have already improved policies and systems projected to increase access to land for shelter for 1.6 million people. Without the constant threat of eviction looming, families feel secure to invest in their homes, making incremental improvements that increase both their quality of life and disaster resilience. Helping convene an international conference on land with 98 participants from over 20 countries really reinforced for me the intersectional nature of housing issues. Visit the Solid Ground website to read more about the conference my experience.

REELIH – Energy efficiency retrofits and market systems
One of the most unique Habitat programs I have had the opportunity to support is REELIH – Residential Energy Efficiency for Low Income Households – a joint project with USAID, which aims to improve living standards in multi-unit apartment buildings in Eastern Europe by developing regional and national strategies and resources to address the impact of rising energy prices on collective housing. Basic services – including energy, water and sanitation – are vital to adequate housing. Over 50% of Armenians, and 20% of Bosnians live in multi-unit Soviet-era residential buildings. These buildings, which account for 75-80% of apartments in Armenia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, were constructed cheaply, and often without any insulation. Traditionally energy costs have been heavily subsidized by the state, but now, with energy costs rising, a considerable portion of the region’s population lives in energy poverty – defined as spending more than 10% of household income on energy in order to heat their homes to a minimum standard of warmth. In winter months, families in Armenia and Bosnia and Herzegovina can be forced to spend 30-40% of their disposable incomes on heating. To date, REELIH has completed pilot retrofits on over 1200 housing units in three countries, providing families up to 50% in energy savings. Results from these pilot projects fuel advocacy activities to influence public policy and the energy efficiency sector. I’m not the only one who thinks REELIH is an amazing and innovative program – it recently received a special mention for the World Habitat Awards, which “recognize and highlight innovative, outstanding and sometimes revolutionary housing ideas, projects and programmers from across the world.”

These are just two examples, but Habitat for Humanity International has programs that address all aspects of “adequate housing”. The programs, and the houses themselves, may look different in each of the 70+ countries where Habitat works, but they all align with Habitat’s commitment to building strength, stability and self-reliance through shelter.


Fundraising for a Free Medical Clinic

Passing the halfway point working at Matthews Free Medical Clinic (MFMC) has been bittersweet. Being able to experience so much, yet knowing time is fleeting, has left me rather melancholy. In attempts to remain positive, I want to share a very impressionable moment along my journey thus far. As previously explained in my first blog entry, MFMC serves the uninsured and non-elderly (ages 14-64) individuals of Mecklenburg and Union Counties that have family income levels at or below 200% of the federal poverty level. As a free medical clinic, we do not receive reimbursements from private insurances, Medicare, or Medicaid, nor federal or local government funding. This means the Clinic is run 100% on donations and grants. Nearly half of our yearly revenue is raised through our two annual fundraisers: the MFMC Golf Tournament and the Hearts & Hands Benefit. On October 21st, 2017, at Myers Park Country Club, MFMC hosted the 9th Annual Hearts & Hands Benefit: a cocktail dinner complete with silent and live auctions. All proceeds raised provide direct patient care to people in our community that would otherwise go without.

The entire event was a complete success.  The 9th Annual Hearts & Hands Benefit brought in over $55,000 for the Clinic, $10,000 more than the previous year. In addition to assisting with the preparation and execution of the event, I also had the opportunity to create an animation video that was shown to attending guests and is now featured on the Matthews homepage ( <>). Being entrusted to represent both the Clinic and our patients with significant components of the night’s events was incredibly meaningful. Within the video, I illustrated the effect donations have on patients: $150 can provide 10 patients with flu shots, $600 can provide 1 year of care for a patient, and $1000 can provide 50 life-saving cancer screenings to patients. The $50,000 raised will have a profound impact on the expansion of services and access to care our Clinic can offer.

It is impossible to finish this blog entry without thanking my friends and fellow Davidson alumni for volunteering at the event. Andy Baay, Bruno Mourao, Elise Lankiewicz, and Holt Evans took the time out of their weekends to support MFMC. When I graduated Davidson, I was fearful I would lose connections to the people I met at school. Much to my surprise, connections have strengthened, new friendships have formed, and Davidson alumni continue to root for their fellow Wildcats.

Landscapes of Gratitude

Although I still have many months left in my tenure as an Impact Fellow with the Carolina Thread Trail and Catawba Lands Conservancy, I’m already starting to feel the slight tug of nostalgia for my time here. It’s that same feeling I got in my final semester at Davidson; the one where there’s still so much work ahead but you can’t help wanting time to slow down just a little bit.

But that wasn’t necessarily how I thought I would feel about wrapping up my time here. To be honest, when I began my fellowship I wasn’t sure quite how I felt about sticking around the Charlotte area after graduation. I had always imagined jetting off to lead backpacking trips in New Zealand or teach in South America after leaving Davidson and instead I was moving 30 miles down I-77 to help protect the same landscapes I had lived in my whole life – the Southern Piedmont. Don’t get me wrong, I love the rolling hills and sprawling farms of the central Carolinas, but in my dreams of post-grad life I had always imagined myself a little farther from home.

This was a serious miscalculation of the experience on my part. When I’m at work, walking through a sunny patch of woods or making my way up a headwater stream to monitor a conserved property, I am in awe that I’m lucky enough to have a job that puts me in contact with so much beauty. Sure, there are days when it’s 30 degrees and raining and outside is not first on my list of places I’d like to be. There are also days when I find tire dumps and piles of trash out in the woods and natural beauty doesn’t exactly come to mind. But almost every day I find at least one moment when I feel profoundly grateful to be exactly where I am. Sometimes it’s something as simple as making it through a briar patch and walking into a beautiful clear patch of pine trees in a section of woods otherwise choked with invasive plants. Sometimes it’s leading a bike ride or a hike and seeing families taking the time to be together and enjoy the fresh air. And perhaps best of all are the times when those moments of gratitude come when the people I work with manage to make even the most mundane tasks enjoyable – when I’m writing our e-newsletter or responding to questions from volunteers on social media and one of my co-workers makes me laugh so hard I think I’ll cry. These are the moments for which I already feel nostalgia and these are the people, the ones who make me laugh until I cry, that I know I will deeply miss when it comes time for me to leave in August.

I don’t yet know where I’m headed when my fellowship ends, but I know that wherever I go I want to find a job that makes me feel grateful to be there. The best career advice I got while I was at Davidson was this: find something you enjoy enough that you’d be willing to do it for free, and then figure out how to get paid for it. I’ve learned a lot while at the Conservancy from trail building to beer canning, but I think the most important lesson I’ve gained is just how true that advice is. My fellowship has strengthened my ambitions to pursue a graduate degree in geography and my dedication to outdoor and environmental education but more than anything I’ve learned what it feels like to be passionate about my employer’s mission and engaged in the work I do. And now that I know what that feels like, I don’t want to settle for less.