You wait on a street corner, taking in the lush tropical scenery and the colorful clothing of the locals. It’s hard to believe that only a few months ago you were still in school, frantically trying to finish your reading for the week’s classes and wondering if you’d ever be able to submit your thesis on time. For a brief moment you totally forget the heat and the noise of your current location and you think back to your tranquil, leafy campus. You imagine running into a friend in the tree-lined circle outside your lecture hall or stopping by a professor’s musty office to discuss an upcoming assignment and take a moment to ponder if she really has read every single book on her shelves…
But you snap out of your reverie when your ride pulls up. This is no ordinary bus or streetcar—the shape is that of a familiar pick-up truck, but the exterior is a psychedelic explosion of color and eye-catching designs. You clamber on board to grab your place and prepare yourself for whatever today’s commute may have in store for you. Perhaps a local will coax a smile out of you with a few jokes, or maybe you’ll have to fend off a faux (or serious—it can be hard to tell) marriage proposal, or you might find yourself enthralled by a fellow passenger’s impassioned political speech. No matter what, you know that it will never be boring. Welcome to Haiti, and your daily commute via tap-tap.
If you think that your only options after graduation involve gray cities and soul-sucking commutes to non-descript offices, you definitely need to read about Shannon Smith, Systems Manager at Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods (SOIL) in Cap-Haitien, Haiti. Shannon took some time to share what it’s like working at an ecological sanitation-focused non-profit, living in a developing country, and learning how challenging and rewarding life after college can be.
What are you doing at the moment?
I am working as a Systems Manager with the 501(c)3 organization Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods (SOIL). SOIL promotes dignity, health, and sustainable livelihoods through the transformation of wastes into resources. We achieve this through developing social business models around ecological sanitation (EcoSan), a process in which nutrients from human wastes return to the soil rather than polluting fresh water resources. To put that bluntly, we are making small businesses that turn poop into compost so that people in Haiti don’t get sick, because Haiti is a country that lacks any type of large-scale waste treatment system.
I was really struck by SOIL’s impact after understanding the sanitation context in Haiti. Less than 25% of people in Haiti have access to a toilet and preventable diarrhea is the number one cause of death of children under five. One of my best friends in Haiti had an eight-year-old child who died that way. I imagine my niece in the US and if my sister had to worry every time her toddler had a belly ache. It’s just unimaginable the hardship that not having access to clean water and a toilet presents to people.
The fact that there is no widespread waste management system is a huge public health hazard, as we saw when the cholera epidemic struck in 2010. Since then over 9,000 people have died from what can be both an easily prevented and easily treated disease.
How did you find your current position? What was the application process like?
I attended Reed College, the alma mater of the Executive Director of SOIL, Sasha Kramer. SOIL reached out to Reed to offer an internship in 2013, which I applied for and received. That summer, I spent two months working in Port-au-Prince together with Sasha.
The internship went well enough that SOIL encouraged me to apply for a position after completing my undergrad. I was enamored with SOIL’s dedicated staff and mission, but I didn’t feel ready to commit to working full-time in Haiti. I decided to write my senior thesis on Haitian sanitation workers to deepen my understanding of the context surrounding SOIL’s work, and I was able to secure funding to go back to Haiti over the winter to do some field research. This visit confirmed that I wanted to apply for a full-time position.
What is a typical day like on the job?
I think that my job is typical in the non-profit sector when funding is tight and the workload is high. For me, that means that my work is divided up between administrative tasks like bookkeeping and documenting sales, human resources, improving monitoring and evaluation processes, marketing, social media and public relations, grant writing, and staff support.
While this can feel overwhelming at times, the variety has broadened my skill set and allowed me to explore areas that I find most interesting. I feel like I’m developing a strong range of qualifications that can be applied to a variety of career paths.
What are your favorite parts of your job? What are some of the challenges you face?
I really enjoy continuing to learn Haitian Creole, and luckily my coworkers are very gracious in helping me along when I’m lost. That being said, it can be pretty embarrassing to blank on how to express an idea during a meeting or a presentation. I try to remember my dad’s advice: be prepared to make a lot of mistakes and realize that that is how you learn.
I also find it challenging and exciting to work on the transition from a non-profit organization to a social business model. SOIL does not want to replicate the unsustainable economic model of a charity, and so we are trying to create livelihoods for people in the sanitation sector by showing that there is a potential for profit in waste collection and treatment. This is a pretty monumental and unprecedented feat! Luckily the SOIL team is really talented and capable, and so on the most difficult days, we motivate each other to keep our eyes on the goal.
One of my favorite parts of my job is interviewing our EkoLakay toilet clients, because it’s clear how proud they are to have a toilet in their home and how happy they are with our product. I love SOIL because our work is keeping people safe and promoting dignity and health in a really tangible way.
How has your experience on the job differed from your time as a student?
While I’m so grateful for my education at Reed, I don’t feel that my time in the classroom fostered the types of values that are truly important when working with people in an impoverished environment—namely compassion, empathy, and humility.
In academia, there’s often a sense of competition with your peers and Reed was very individualistic. As students, we hardly worked together at all and there would be a lot of intellectual posturing during class discussions. But is being able to sound smart while discussing a book you just skimmed before class going to help dismantle the structures that have created poverty, climate change, racism, and growing inequality?
Students leave academia, especially Ivy League schools, feeling like they’re ready to be the “experts” that provide technical solutions to poverty. But what too many don’t realize is that true learning and understanding only come by listening to people who are on the front lines of these struggles, i.e. you’re not the expert.
Working with SOIL, I feel that I’m continuously learning how to be a better listener and how to step back from my perfectionist tendencies and have the perspective to see that my idea of “perfect” might not be appropriate to this context whatsoever. I am getting more accustomed to teamwork and long discussions, which fits within the paradigm that “development” is a generations-long process, not a project cycle.
What advice would you give to other students/recent grads who are about to embark on a similar project (or are just considering it)?
As I said before, it’s really important to approach international development work with a sense of humility, empathy, and humor. I would suggest doing research on the new setting that you will be working in—I think that an understanding of the historical roots of poverty can help develop a more informed sense of empathy for the situation that people are in.
Also paying attention to that particular country’s cultural heritage is a great way to start interacting on a deeper level with the people around you—read books written by authors in that country, watch films, pay attention to which television dramas are popular. And remember that you are a guest in another country—be respectful and take the time to learn from people and dismantle your own preconceptions.
Outside of work, what is your life like at the moment? What are some of the highlights of your life post-graduation?
A lot of my friends who had graduated before me were saying that post-grad life is so great because you can work from 9–5 and then you’re done, instead of working, going to class, and then heading to the library. I think that might be true with a lot of office or service-industry jobs, but the non-profit world is not like that! I work a ton, which I’m able to maintain because I enjoy my work so much.
I’m really happy to be outside of academia for the time being. I love that my work allows me to directly take action on the issues that interest and impassion me, rather than writing a paper about those issues. And it also feels great to be in a professional setting in which my work has real stakes outside of a grade.
What’s something others might find surprising about your living/working conditions?
I’ve been thinking lately that I should start a blog about my commute to and from work every day. I spend about 45 minutes to an hour each way on a “tap-tap,” which is a beautifully painted pick-up truck that carries people on benches in the back. Every day is a new adventure on the tap-tap, whether someone is cracking jokes, trying to sell me police batons, giving me advice about living in Haiti, making a marriage proposal, or using the space as a platform for an impassioned political speech. It gets really crowded and uncomfortable in the tap-taps, but I really like it.
Homework time! Are you inspired by Shannon’s story and think you might enjoy this type of work after graduation? Look for opportunities to volunteer or intern with non-profits while you’re still a student to learn more about development work. Try to find alumni or people in your extended network who have had similar experiences and ask if you can conduct an informational interview with them.
P.S. Shannon also did some cool stuff when she was still in college. Check out our interview with her here to learn about how she started her own non-profit, raised funds on Kickstarter, and worked on a few projects abroad.