The third feature in our International Development Leader Spotlight series: Andrea Johnson, Executive Director at Green Empowerment. Why did you pursue a career in international development? I have always been interested in social justice and equity but my background was in climate and conservation. While working in this field in Ecuador, I grew to better understand and became passionate about community-based development and especially the unequal distribution of resources globally. I believe everyone deserves access to clean water, energy and a healthy environment to thrive and this career allows me to participate in a way that aligns with my personal values. How does Green Empowerment take an anti-colonial approach to international development?We truly believe that local organizations, communities and individuals are best suited to lead community-development projects, even infrastructure projects like ours, but they are often left out of decision-making and lack access to resources to advance projects. We embrace a distributed decision-making approach, where local in-country organizations ask for our support and communities decide whether or not to move forward with projects. They are involved before, during and after the project because their knowledge of the language, culture and community are critical to designing and implementing a sustainable project. I delivered a TEDx talk last fall about this topic and it's something that we believe is not just the right way to do work, but also leads to the long-term sustainability of our projects: 97% of projects are still successful 10 years after completion.
How do you ensure Green Empowerment’s beneficiaries are represented with dignity? There are a few elements here that are critical for Green Empowerment. The language we use is important and we avoid messaging that reinforces colonial ideas, leads to the othering of people or perpetuates white saviorism. We engage community members and our partners as active participants in all projects and we refer to them as participants rather than beneficiaries, because we also learn from and benefit from partnering with these local leaders. When it comes to gathering photos, stories, and videos we always get participant consent and we incorporate participants’ voices directly in storytelling. We never represent our participants as helpless or needy but rather active and engaged, solving a critical problem in their own community.
What is one project or movement that inspires you?I am very inspired by indigenous leaders who are fighting for their rights and for agency over their natural resources. Via Green Empowerment, I get to play a small behind-the-scenes part in helping some of these communities to realize their own aspirations for development and I am hopeful that the global community is starting to listen more and more to indigenous people in the effort for more global equality as well as to combat climate change impacts.
For young professionals considering a career in international development, what is one piece of advice you would share?I would tell people to focus on developing very tangible skills and experiences that could be utilized in the international development sector - whether this is accounting, marketing, engineering skills - our sector needs a wide range of diverse professionals and there are many ways to participate and support development efforts.