My first trip to a developing country was in 2007. A few friends and I traveled to Zimbabwe with hopes of connecting our church in Austin, Texas with some churches in Africa. During my visit, I met some Zimbabwean leaders: a couple named John and Orpah Chinyowa. John is a pastor at a local church, and he and his wife Orpah oversee Musha WeVana Children’s home. I had the opportunity to see the incredible work they were doing to care for children who had been orphaned, and I was struck with admiration and respect for them and their work. A few months later, I traveled to Cairo, Egypt, and I saw the incredible work my Egyptian friends were doing to care for the poor in their community. While it was beautiful to see the work that these local leaders were doing to support their respective communities, I left both of these trips with a feeling of frustration. I saw firsthand the impressive impact of local leadership, but had grown so accustomed to the narrative of Western nonprofits being the ‘solution’ to global poverty. Why was this model of local leadership not the norm?
I began to ask myself: why are so many white males from the western hemisphere leading so-called movements around the world, rather than championing the leaders that already exist in each community? How can this kind of model, one led by someone with little experience or understanding of a culture and its people, possibly instill sustainable, long-term change in a community? For close to two years, I researched nonprofit work as it relates to community development. I found myself again and again filled with frustration as I realized that most nonprofits were failing at supporting local leadership and the work communities were already doing to empower themselves.
In my heart, I knew that the key to impactful and sustainable change had to be an organizational model that would entrust the vision and ultimate leadership to the local leaders: the women and men who live in and are from these communities.I also recognized that although most have good intentions, the nonprofits who control the money, power, and privilege would still have the final say on decisions being implemented in the communities where they work. This reality was sucking the soul out of so many brilliant leaders, who never had access to the true opportunity to lead and to feel empowered by their partner organization.
I was desperate to create a model (I’m not the first) where I, a white, privileged male, could somehow undo this reality, and change the international development nonprofit narrative to honor and serve these amazing leaders and the work they were already doing in their respective communities. I was told this idea was next to impossible; that donors would not support it, that you can’t find leaders capable of such a task, etc. But in my head, I kept hearing one quote repeated…
“It always seems impossible until it’s done” – Nelson Mandela
2009 was a year of research and struggle. The problem I immediately faced was that the leaders I knew who could help me build out this model and prove its viability (John & Orpah) lived so far away that I could not create the progress I wanted. I needed time to work through my questions, establish agreements, and work to develop solutions with them.
As the calendar year flipped and a new decade emerged, tragically, the people of Haiti had little time to celebrate. On the fateful day of January 12, 2010, a massive earthquake shook the people of Haiti and changed their future in just a few seconds. The numbers are staggering: 250,000 lives were lost, over 300,000 people were injured, and over 3 million people’s lives were affected.
A few months after this tragedy occurred, I touched down on Haitian soil for the first time. As I left the chaos of the airport, I was immediately surrounded by the pain and suffering of the Haitian people, who had created a tent-city right outside the airport, just one of hundreds of tent cities throughout greater Port au Prince. Lost limbs, tears, and orphaned children, desperate for food, were some examples of the tragedy that was so apparent in the community. It was suffocating and heartbreaking. Little did I realize, a glimmer of hope would come in a little less than 48 hours.
Nancy Rogers was onto something when she said where suffering exists, “look for the helpers.” And that is why I was there: to look for the helpers – the local leaders. After spending a few days in the city of Port Au Prince, a moment of hope came amidst hearing stories that seemed so tragic. That moment was meeting a man named Jean Alix Paul. Jean Alix is by far one of the greatest leaders in the world, and trust me, I’m not exaggerating. He has the education and resume to prove it: 25 years of awe-inspiring experience in business, finance, ministry and community development. But most importantly, he has a gigantic heart and undeniable character. He is a brilliant leader, who hustles each day to make life better for Haitians.
I finally found a person with whom I could partner and live out my passion to see high-capacity local leaders leading. Someone who I could stand behind, unseen, and help bolster their vision and push it forward.
Over the next two years, I would go to Haiti almost every month. In those two years, the amount of work we accomplished together was truly remarkable. Local leaders, much like any leader, can not do it all alone. They need partners and they need supporters. But the most important facet of the local leadership model is that they are ultimately able to run with their vision, make final decisions for their communities, and lead their communities to a better future, without someone from the outside overriding them to control what is best for the leaders and their communities.
Soon after, we saw more houses being built by Haitians, jobs being created, and schools being reopened. Haitian led clinics were thriving, children were being fed, churches were planted, and leaders were raised up. All the progress was Haitian led, and as the community developed, more leaders emerged.
I would stay with Jean Alix and Mylene, Jean Alix’s wife — who, by the way, is an amazing lady boss and entrepreneur– and during our time together, we would share hours upon hours of conversations. These conversations were raw and real, and finally I brought up the idea of the local leader model: one where leaders were truly leading, and nonprofits, like Help One Now, were playing support roles. I remember Jean Alix laughing and saying, “Brother, you should try and do it… this is how it should be.” I often wonder if he just thought it was impossible. There I was, the founder of a new nonprofit (I would often tell people I led a multi-hundred dollar nonprofit), and I’m telling this giant of a leader, who has done so much good for 20+ years, that the way we’ve done it for many years is not the best way… of course, he already knew that.
I remember the moment of breakthrough, with another Haitian leader. Jean Alix and I would spend time with this leader, who built a school out of wood and tarps, hired teachers out of faith and soon, hundreds of kids in the community were attending school. One day, this leader had an issue that needed a solution. He asked me a question and I told him I did not have an answer, and that he was the leader and needed to make the decision. Immediately, this man shed tears. I was confused as to why he was so emotional. He told me that out of all the years of working with nonprofits, no white man had ever told him that. He thanked me and gave me a hug. This was the moment that I knew the real importance of local leadership — dignity is essential.
Many years have passed and so much good work has been accomplished. The people of Haiti started to slowly recover, but sadly, because of the prevalence of corruption in the government, much suffering and extreme poverty still exists in the country. Devastatingly, things are now getting worse. Protests and violence have become the norm and many NGOs have decided to leave the country due to safety issues and uncertainty. Thankfully, Help One Now’s work behind Jean Alix, his team, and our other leaders in Haiti has continued to flourish, as these leaders are rooted deeply in the trenches. Churches are thriving, we just opened a secondary school together, and we recently launched our Family Empowerment Program where 100+ families will soon start businesses and be able to provide for themselves in Haiti for generations to come.
To be clear, I do not make this claim with arrogance. Help One Now has by no means figured it all out, and we have admittedly made plenty of mistakes in the past decade as we learn and grow with our leaders. But one fact, of which I am assured, is that we partner with some of the most brilliant leaders in Haiti and around the world. When everything seems to be going wrong, and we feel we are surrounded by chaos, the local leaders know how to manage these critical moments. They can respond in ways that are thoughtful and impactful for their people, all while pushing for progress in their communities. While chaos and hardship will always exist in our world, the good news is that these local leaders now know that they are not alone in the struggle for progress. They know they have a group of friends who believe in them, and who are willing to hang back in the shadows, honoring their leadership and their vision. When times are hard, they know it will be okay.
Together we push to build a better world through the work and leadership of local leaders who guide us forward.
Together We Build.