Navigating Uncharted Waters: Successes and Lessons Learned in 2020

It seems as if the whole world is taking one deep, collective breath as the end of 2020 approaches. Although we are looking forward to what the new year will bring, the lessons learned in 2020 are crucial for the future of our global community. This year brought much uncertainty, yet one thing remained steadfast and clear: our mission to strengthen communities by delivering renewable energy and safe clean water.

With our mission at the forefront, we were able to navigate uncharted waters, and the organization grew and strengthened in ways we hadn’t imagined before. Our approach has always centered on listening to local partners and communities and letting their knowledge guide project development. This vision has driven us for the past 23 years and served as the foundation of our success this year.

Our Executive Director, Andrea Johnson (for whom we wished a happy birthday on this December 10th!) has continued to courageously lead our team towards building a more sustainable and equitable future for all. In the interview below, Andrea shares Green Empowerment’s challenges, successes, and lessons learned in 2020.

What were the biggest challenges Green Empowerment faced this year?

Andrea: Like everyone else, 2020 was nothing like we had planned for it to be! While many of the challenges we faced mirror those of other organizations, one of the biggest challenges for Green Empowerment was tracking and adapting to the situation across so many countries. Fortunately, our partnership model meant that this was a collaborative effort with our staff and leadership on the ground, but it did feel daunting at times to support our staff when each country had different COVID-19 cases, travel restrictions and guidance.

What new perspectives will Green Empowerment take into 2021 and beyond?  

Andrea: Many of the adaptations we had to make in  order to stay high performing and connected as a team we will be able to continue into the future and honestly, will help our organization moving forward. We completed an all staff Virtual Engagement Series that allowed for our geographically and culturally diverse team to learn and grow together in ways that an intensive two-day in-person retreat hasn’t achieved. This was also true for our public engagement – we increased the use of videos to help bring our supporters closer to the work from their homes and hosted public webinars that allowed for our supporters outside of Portland to connect with our team in new ways. While we are ready for a new normal with more human contact, we will look to maintain virtual engagement to complement in-person events.

Looking back now, is there anything you have done differently this year?

Andrea: One of the hardest things about leading this year was the amount of uncertainty in the world. I think our team did a great job being adaptable, creating certainty for ourselves where we could and focusing on our mission. One thing that I wish we would have done earlier was to have a public virtual event for our supporters. The two we did have were very well received and I think we could have done a few more to give our supporters a chance to connect with the work and our staff. I hope the recent videos and digital communications we have been sending out help everyone see the impact of their support and understand that they are part of a global community that is spreading positivity in the world and creating tangible impact for communities that oftentimes are left behind.

What was the biggest highlight of 2020 for Green Empowerment?

Andrea: This year really emphasized to all of us at Green Empowerment that our partnership model is resilient to and effective during global events – from the direct impacts of the global pandemic to the societal reckoning on social and racial justice. We have always focused on listening to the communities and partners with whom we work and we were able to advance critical energy and water projects precisely because of this operating model. 

While the highlights of the year live within each completed project, each community that has started to embark on the journey of advancing their project and new tools we developed to continue to support our partners, the big takeaway for us is that Green Empowerment and our approach to community-based development is resilient and positioned to grow and thrive, despite all odds.

2020 Highlights

Going Virtual: Turning a Weakness into a Strength

Thought of as the “silver lining” to this year, going virtual allowed us to connect with field staff and supporters in ways that did not happen as easily before. From virtual capacity building to the Cebiche Challenge and a virtual staff retreat, the success of going virtual went above and beyond our expectations.

Virtual Capacity Building

While the pandemic limited the implementation of projects in the field, it presented an opportunity for us to develop and deliver a free, six-week virtual capacity training course in comprehensive water system design to roughly fifty participants from over a dozen organizations in five countries. This was the first time that we were able to reach such a large number of partner organizations for a capacity-building effort, let alone cover such a wide breadth of material. The material was presented by Green Empowerment’s resident experts, Samuel Schlesinger and Maria Elisa Espinoza, as well as former Green Empowerment Technical Manager Michel Mapoux and sector leader Mauricio Gnecco. Samuel explained, “By taking advantage of a lull in field activities, we were able to share experiences and best practices from multiple countries, set up a unified and field-tested strategy for water project design and budgeting, and build increased capacity for partners, getting training to where it counts most: often-overburdened and hard to reach program leads and field staff.”

Cebiche Challenge

Partnership and collaboration are essential ingredients to Green Empowerment’s lasting impact with communities. This is what inspired us to develop the virtual Cebiche Challenge with Andina Restaurant, a local Peruvian restaurant in Portland, OR. For the last 15 years, Andina Restaurant has partnered with us to host a spring benefit dinner that celebrates the rich culture of Peru and helps raise funds for Green Empowerment’s projects in Peru and across the globe. Like so many events, due to COVID-19, we are not able to host the benefit this year. However, to rally support, Doris Platt, owner of Andina Restaurant generously shared her secret cebiche recipe with the Green Empowerment family and the Cebiche Challenge was born. We challenged our supporters to try making their own at-home version of cebiche using Platt’s recipe. Supporters would then upload photos and videos of their culinary masterpieces to Facebook or Instagram using the hashtag #cebichechallenge. We were thrilled and inspired to see the number of supporters who happily took on the challenge and celebrated global connection! Across cultures, many traditions begin and center around cooking and food. Oftentimes simply sharing a meal can build trust, leading to the start of a healthy partnership.

Smart Grids for Small Grids

This year, we raised nearly $4,000 for our Open Source Initiative campaign, now moving forward as the Smart Grids for Small Grids initiative! We have been working with regional partners SIBAT and TONIBUNG to build renewable energy micro-grids with remote indigenous communities in Southeast Asia. Our goal is to minimize service interruptions during peak hours and increase the beneficial use of produced power by developing locally manufactured open-source technology that automatically turns appliances on and off during the 24-hour power cycle each day. 

 One of the major benefits of more reliable grids is that they significantly support women and children. In areas where power outages are common during peak hours, having reliable lighting during the evenings gives children the chance to continue their school studies. This technology also has the capacity to support larger appliances that supplement or replace household work that is typically completed by women. These appliances can free up time in women’s lives for other pursuits and starting small businesses based on their current skills. Many cultural and economic factors can affect whether these possibilities are realized, but access to electricity is a key component to creating the opportunity for change! Thanks to our supporters’ generosity, we can bring this technology to more parts of the world, increasing economic opportunities with open source technology for smarter, more affordable and reliable microgrids.

Expanding Our Work to East Africa

In a year such as this one, we feel lucky and grateful to have the resources and support to expand our trainings and programs to a new continent. Green Empowerment works in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and now East Africa. Our work in Uganda is built off of our 20+ years of experience implementing renewable energy projects and mirrors our successful partnership models in Peru and Myanmar, where we have been working with local partners to electrify rural health clinics. 

This summer, we launched an app for remote data collection so that community service providers can understand their energy needs without having technical expertise. After deploying the application with Medical Teams International (Medical Teams), we are now helping them to prioritize projects and design appropriate solutions for their clinics. Medical Teams has been providing healthcare to displaced people and refugees in Uganda since 2004. Energy for health clinics is essential in providing high-quality medical care, whether it’s for refrigerating vaccines, providing sufficient light for nighttime care, powering vital medical equipment, or allowing for swift communication with a central office. “Our collaboration with Medical Teams International represents an important step in helping leading medical organizations improve their services and programs through energy access. We have been so impressed by Medical Team’s dedication to solving this challenge, from field clinicians to their leadership, and are excited about moving from analysis to field implementation together,” Andrea said.

Onwards and Upwards: Looking Towards a Bright Future Ahead

When we look back at the past 12 months, we can’t help but feel overwhelmed with gratitude. Together we navigated working virtually, expanded our programs, and enhanced our renewable technology all while continuing to center on social justice, local leadership, and sustainability. 

In the last two decades, our service partnerships and sustainable development efforts have helped over 425,000 people take the development of their communities into their own hands. As part of our 3-year strategic plan, our goal is to reach an additional 100,000 people by 2022 in rural communities with critical renewable energy and clean water infrastructure across the globe. We have seen the strength and resilience of our partners and supporters like you this year, and we have no doubt in our collective ability as a global community to continue working towards a more sustainable and equitable future for all.

Looking forward to ringing in the new year with you!

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