By Kelsey Halling
A couple of years ago, a graduate student and I sat down to enjoy a cold beverage in an oppressively hot Haitian bar. The topic? The importance of listening to feedback over prescribing solutions.
“But how do you go about getting that information?” she asked.
“It’s simple,” I responded. “You pick a neighborhood and get an introduction to someone who lives there. Then pay them to join you for a day of walking from house to house, meeting their neighbors, and asking if you can talk to them about garbage. When a neighbor says yes, survey them.”
“But, that would take so much time!” she exclaimed.
And it’s worth it. And a lot of organizations don’t do it.
Good questions require listening, synthesizing data, seeing the gaps in your own understanding or planning, and then finding the right information to make the best decision. Questioning, rather than prescribing is what leads to innovative, collaborative, sustainable solutions. I believe that this is why Thread has been successful in Haiti -- an environment where we have watched many organizations fail.
Except that, the water filtration system is made of expensive parts that need to be imported from far away. After a few months, something breaks and no one can replace it. Then the system sits and rusts. Schools are built and sit empty because there are no teachers to run them. Local shoe makers are put out of business.
All of this happens because people arrive thinking they are doing a good thing, and no one takes the time to first check their hypothesis with the communities they are trying to help.
It’s easier to overthink than it is to hit the pavement and start asking things like:
It’s only through asking that we were able to adjust our methods and approach based on constantly gathered feedback. Quickly, we started to learn and adjust.
Manique and Equel did a great job. The goal in this new format is to make these meetings a habit that happens whether or not Thread is there. I like problem-solving and sometimes I have good ideas, but I’m not hubristic enough to think that I should be standing in front of more than 40 entrepreneurs telling them how to run their businesses in Haiti.
I’m there to listen, to support, and occasionally bring access to financing. I believe that the answers to all of the challenges these entrepreneurs face are in that room in their collective expertise. If we can facilitate good discussion and ask the right questions, they will learn so much more from one another than I could ever teach them. Again, the solutions are only found through listening.
We don’t just know where our raw materials come from and visit once a year to satisfy a compliance requirement. We go beyond auditing to focus on coaching. We prefer lasting development to compliance. We don’t just generate income opportunities, we teach people how to run and grow businesses. That’s how we measure responsibility.
I’ve had the privilege of watching entrepreneurs like Manique and Nadine grow from learning to run a business into successful entrepreneurs. Now, they are becoming leaders in their industry.
This is what we’re talking about when we say things like “where your stuff comes from is just as important as where you take it.” This is what we mean by the phrase "Ground to Good." It’s beyond ensuring that labor laws are met, that minimum wage is being paid, that the material is certified recycled content. It’s the belief that we can leave some part of this world better and help people develop the skills they need to keep improving it.
Follow Thread to learn more about how entrepreneurs in Haiti are growing their businesses and making their communities better places to live and work. T-shirt made from the plastic collected by people like Manique and Nadine are available on the Thread website.
Images courtesy of Thread
Kelsey Halling is director of impact for Thread. She measures, manages, and improves the impact Thread has on people, planet, and profit along every step of the journey from a plastic bottle to the most responsible fabric on the planet. Follow Thread on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook to learn more.