Learning from Change

My first two months at Habitat for Humanity International were a whirlwind. Friday of my first week I was asked to travel to South Africa to support final preparations for a regional conference we were organizing on land rights and governance. Saturday morning, less than 24-hours later, I was sitting on a plane watching DC shrink out of view. Coming back, my team jumped straight into pursuing new funding opportunities with tight deadlines. The hours were long and the learning curve was steep, but I learned so much.

Then, six weeks into my fellowship, my supervisor called me into her office and told me she had accepted a new option with Habitat and would be relocating to the area office in Pretoria, South Africa. I was excited for her, and also nervous for what the change would mean for my fellowship year. I did not know who would be my new supervisor or what my work assignments would be during the transition. While the main Habitat office is in Atlanta, my supervisor and I are based in DC, which is the government relations and advocacy office. The rest of our Global Program Design and Implementation team is based in Atlanta or works remotely. My supervisor and I worked extremely closely, being the only two D&I staff in DC. Every week my tasks changed to respond to new program and grant deadlines.

It would be impossible for me to separate my fellowship experience from the experience of supporting and navigating my supervisors’ transitions. So many of the professional and “soft” skills I gained this year came from this process. Here are five things I have learned and gained in navigating a supervisor transition this year:

  1. Patience and flexibility

There were a number of unknowns in the transition, in large part because the visa and relocation process is complicated, even for employees staying with the same organization. The timeline for opening a call for applicants to fill my supervisor’s positon was partly dependent on the timeline of her relocation, which was, in turn, dependent on her receiving her work visa. My supervisor was often out of the office, traveling to prepare for the new position or working remotely to facilitate collecting and compiling the lengthy documents for her visa application. Patience and flexibility in the face of uncertainty have been two of my biggest areas of growth this year, and I know these skills will be invaluable moving forward.

  1. New projects and opportunities

Because my supervisor had additional commitments and responsibilities, she asked me to take on new and different responsibilities. In November, I helped plan a learning exchange in Manila, Philippines, titled “Strengthening Land Tenure Security for Urban Poverty Reduction in Asia-Pacific.” Usually my supervisor would have traveled to attend and help facilitate the event, but because of the transition I had the opportunity to go and to represent the Global Programs Design & Implementation team. Now being the only staff member on my team based in DC, I have also had a number of opportunities to represent Habitat for Humanity at various sector events, including working groups, and workshops hosted by USAID and the US State Department.

  1. Connecting and collaborating with new colleagues

As I previously mentioned, Habitat’s DC office is the organizations’ Government Relations and Advocacy office. With my supervisor in transition, I have been able to be more involved in supporting collaboration between our team and the global advocacy team. Through this collaboration have learned a lot about access to land and tenure security, which is the focus of Habitat’s global advocacy campaign, Solid Ground. With the global advocacy team, I helped coordinate Habitat’s 30-person delegation at the ninth World Urban Forum (WUF9) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia where we were engaged in more than forty events and presentations. WUF9 is the premier global conference on urban issues and development. It was incredible to spend a week in Malaysia learning about, and working towards, more sustainable and resilient cities with 22,000 attendees from 164 countries.

  1. Two-times the expertise to learn from

Having two different supervisors this year has also meant that I get to learn from two highly qualified experts with different professional background. My first supervisor was an expert in urban planning and development, with experience working for UN-Habitat, the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. She was instrumental in developing Habitat’s extremely successful REELIH project and building a coordination structure for our Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) programs. My new supervisor is an expert in WASH and disaster response, with over 20 years’ experience in the development sector. He has responded on the ground to the Haiti earthquake in 2010, Japan Tsunami in 2011, Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, Nepal earthquake in 2015, and the refugee crisis in South Sudan. I am so fortunate to have worked closely and built relationships with both my supervisors, who are generous and take the time to explain new concepts, tools and methodologies to me.

  1. Looking forward and back

I was eight-months into my fellowship when my new supervisor started in his position, and I was grateful to be able to support his transition by compiling and sharing resources, providing background, and sharing my experience working on Habitat’s land, urban, WASH and gender programs. In a role that has often been very face-paced, his transition has helped prompt me to reflect back on my experiences this year. I am reminded of just how much I have learned this year. Helping explain Habitat’s unique structure and programs now will also prepare me to on-board the next Davidson Impact Fellow this summer.

Change, it is said, is the only constant in life. Its inevitability does not, however, make it easier in the moment (at least not at first). In can be hard to see opportunities when you are in the midst of uncertainty — I know because, nine months ago, when I was told this would be an important learning opportunity I struggled to see past the challenges that come with change. Now, I am infinitely grateful to both my supervisors and the experiences I have gained, which I know will serve me well beyond this role as well.

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.


When is the deadline?

This year I am working in the Global Learning and Organizational Development Department (GLOD) at Habitat for Humanity International (HFHI) in Atlanta. One of the big projects I am working on this year is to transition Habitat for Humanity’s (HFH) intranet site called My.Habitat to a new, updated version. We are in the preliminary stages of this transition which consists of trying to determine what the new platform should look like. This brings me to the biggest (professional) adjustment I have come to face so far after leaving Davidson – you are on every time frame except for your own.

At Davidson, you have to work as efficiently as possible in order to fit big projects into tight time frames. Successfully fitting within these time frames is possible because the people they depended on were, for the most part, also within the academic boundaries of Davidson. When you move to cross-divisional projects within a giant non-profit, the time frames begin to expand. It does not seem to matter how efficiently my team and I work on moving this project forward because we are at the mercy of the time frame of every other person or department involved. For example, the first step in this process has been to meet with other nonprofits of similar sizes and structures to talk about their intranet platforms, structures, features, and their own process in reaching their current intranet. Within a few days my team and I had compiled a list of nonprofits and reached out to them. Two months later, we still have not had all of our conversations.

Another adjustment in the transition from Davidson to HFHI is bandwidth. When I joined this team to make it four members, they were finally beginning to have the bandwidth to take on bigger challenges related to our intranet site My.Habitat and our LMS site called HabitatLearns beyond the day to day maintenance and growing number of bug fixes that come with the territory of working off a 2008 platform. At Davidson, we were stretched thin and had to prioritize, but these decisions did not often impact thousands of people. The big trade-off for our team has been upholding the basic functionality of My.Habitat, or begin the transition to a new platform with increase performance, features, and functionality. My joining of the team meant that we may not have to choose one over other—until two weeks ago when one of our team members learned he was moving to Mozambique in October. Now the bandwidth will be even smaller.

The biggest personal adjustment has been moving to Atlanta. When I moved here I didn’t know anyone at all – I lived here a full month before my two amazing roommates (also DIFs) and my kittens joined me. I also moved here thinking that I had the city life down – after all, I thought Charlotte was a big city – but as it turns out, Charlotte is to Atlanta as Davidson is to Charlotte. Now that I have been here for nearly three months, I love it here. Hands down the best part about the working world compared to Davidson is free time. Real free time – not the guilt-ridden Scrubs binges on Netflix that always occurred a little too close to deadlines – but time that I truly have control over. And other than having to deal with pesky nuisances like bills, it is really nice to be outside of the Davidson bubble tackling what we millennials affectionately call “adulting.”

Expecting the Unexpected

“Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It’s the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy for you too.” – Frederick Buechner

At some point during each of the six audit projects assignments during the span of my fellowship with Habitat for Humanity International’s Internal Audit department, there has been a moment, if not moments, which have taken my breath away. These moments take on many forms – joy, heartbreak, discomfort – as I learned about the context in which Habitat is working. They are those moments that, while I can anticipate them coming, I can never quite be mentally and emotionally prepared. After this past year of service, I have learned to expect the unexpected.

As an Internal Audit department, our role distills to asking the right questions and observing the operations of each Habitat entity either domestically or internationally. Often, this involves analyzing financial statements, probing staff for longer answers, and most importantly, developing trusting and confidential relationships with each staff member. In addition to providing information on the Habitat entity’s operations, each individual provides critical insight as to the culture and socioeconomic situation of the communities and families Habitat serves. Anecdotes of her or his personal life pepper conversations, preparing me mentally for the homeowner visits.

The excursion to visit partner families in Madagascar is one that, five months later, I continue to have the same reaction. As the team piled out of the Habitat truck and proceeded to follow the GPS coordinates to the reported location, we set off on foot to traverse ragged dirt pathways. We zigzagged between half-finished houses, outdoor latrines, and buckets of standing drinking water as well as passing by families, children, and the occasional barnyard animals in the scorching 90°F heat of the January summer. I was reminded of the world’s deep need for more solutions for whom the fundamentals of daily life are missing – food, water, and shelter. Peering around a corner, I knew we had reached our final destination as I saw a home that was complete with a roof overhead and panes in the windows. That was the model Habitat home – a decent place to live.

During our conversations with the homeowners, who spoke only French and Malagasy, we learned that the mother and father felt that the Habitat home had provided a stable and dry structure in which to raise their three elementary-aged children. In addition to the primary goal of stable housing, the homeowners had been welcomed into the Habitat network of their rural community which provides additional non-quantifiable opportunities for support and friendship. The community formed in that village has brought deep joy to the partners and kids alike, and owning a decent and simple home has brought peace to the parents.

Each individual home I have visited this past year across the world – ranging from Madagascar to Malaysia – has provided joy, but only temporarily. It reaffirms the necessity of organizations such as Habitat to be working in locations of extreme need and poverty in order to empower partner families and provide sustainable support to these communities. But each project further stirs my intellectual and personal discomfort not only in the moment but months later as well. As my fellowship with Habitat for Humanity International draws to a close, I know that I will carry these moments forward which will prevent my own real peace and joy until the world’s deep needs have been met.