Natalie Relich has been OHorizons’ Executive Director since 2013. She’s been instrumental in guiding our organization on a path towards unprecedented global success in the provision of concrete BioSand Filters to families in developing countries in order to reduce the number of people in the world who don’t have access to safe drinking water. I, Dylan Lunney-Director of Communications for OHorizons, did a Q&A with Natalie to share some insight into the person steering OHorizons’ ship.
Career: Executive Director at OHorizons
Education: New York University- Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service M.P.A, International Policy and Management.
University of Michigan- Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy B.A, Public Policy.
Have you always been destined for a career in international development? When did you realize this is the work you’d like to be doing?
I definitely did not always picture myself doing this kind of work. Growing up, my dad was a doctor and my mom was a nurse, so I always knew that I wanted to do something that would help improve people’s lives. I just wasn’t sure what that would be exactly. Starting in high-school, but more so in college, I began to get interested in politics and public policy. For a while, I saw myself having a career in government and making an impact on society in that regard. A summer internship in a local congressman’s office and a subsequent summer in Washington DC helped me decide that politics and government, while fascinating, were not particularly well-suited for me as a career. At Michigan, I had been interested in and took classes on international issues like HIV/AIDS, climate change, and human rights. I think spending a year living in China after graduation helped solidify that international development was where I should be working and where my passion was. I spent that year teaching English, but had the opportunity to travel to over ten different provinces throughout the country, many of them very rural. I was able to see and experience how, even in a country that has experienced enormous economic growth, difficult life can be for those that get left behind.
What teacher, including preschool through grad school, made the most impact on you and why?
I have been really fortunate to have had some amazing teachers in my (long) time as a student. Quite a few of them stand out as having a really formative impact on me as a student and as a person. My social studies teacher in middle school, Mrs. Johnson, was probably the best teacher in the strictest sense of the word. I still remember things she taught in her class about the American Revolution and early American life. I’m kind of a history nerd and definitely credit Mrs. Johnson with that. This interest in history and government (and subsequently how history shapes government and policies) eventually helped lead me to study public policy in college.
Who are some additional people that have been key influences on your life?
My parents have always been extremely supportive of my work and the choices I’ve made to ultimately get here (moving to China after college, going to graduate school, travelling to/working in developing countries, etc). It’s because of them and their careers (doctor and nurse) that I have always had a desire to make the world a better place. That sounds pretty cliche, but I always admired them and the fact that they save/improve lives every day (all the while raising 4 kids!). I definitely wouldn’t have chosen to do this kind of work if it weren’t for them.
I’m curious about your experience as a fellow and mentor with StartingBloc? Can you identify a couple of skills or viewpoints that being a part of this community has imposed upon you? For those who aren’t familiar with StartingBloc, this organization holds transformative 5-day experiences (called Institutes) where Fellows learn and develop key leadership skills from proven change-makers.
I was a fellow at the DC ‘14 Institute and a mentor at the NY ‘15 Institute. StartingBloc has offered me a great opportunity to meet and engage with like-minded people from a variety of different fields who are interested in changing society for the better, whether that is through government, business, or the non-profit sector. For me, this community is a huge asset and the most valuable part of my StartingBloc experience. It was actually a StartingBloc fellow who told me about the Maker Movement and its similarities to OHorizons’ values and our work. I hadn’t really heard about this movement prior to attending an Institute and if I hadn’t perhaps we never would have won the InfyMakers challenge!
StartingBloc also provided my first formal introduction to design thinking and rapid prototyping. This was something I knew about and that OHorizons inherently took into account when engineering the Wood Mold, but I hadn’t actively practiced rapid prototyping and iterating or applied it to human-centered design in a structured way. This exercise was really helpful as we improved the Wood Mold Construction Manual and undoubtedly will be helpful when OHorizons looks to design a low-tech solution for one of the other Horizons in the future.
What attracted you to OHorizons?
Two things. 1) They were working on improving access to a fundamental basic need: clean water. There was no question that this work was critically important. 2) OHorizons was approaching the problem differently than any other organization I’d encountered. They were not trying to “spin the wheel,” they were seeking a new, fresh approach and examining the issue of clean water access differently. The problem wasn’t just that people didn’t have safe drinking water, it was also that we KNOW how to get it to them, but still millions go without. So, something must be wrong with our distribution and implementation methods. This kind of thinking really resonated with me and is one of the things I think makes OHorizons so unique.
What do you like most about being the Executive Director of OHorizons?
Honestly, it’s a privilege to be able to do this kind of work every day and I’m really grateful I have that opportunity. Getting to travel to interesting places is also a perk! :)
You’ve been to Bangladesh and Ecuador to run trainings on building OHorizons’ Wood Mold and implementing local BioSand Filter projects. What have been some memorable personal takeaways from these experiences?
Don’t be afraid to humiliate yourself (it’s probably not as bad as you think). Towards the end of our training in Bangladesh, our implementing partner, LEDARS, graciously hosted a farewell dinner for us and invited all of their staff, board members, and some community members. Much of the evening was spent singing (or trying to for us Americans) and dancing to a variety of Bangladeshi music. After many different LEDARS staff members had sang for us or played an instrument, there were calls for us to introduce them to an American song and dance. I am a notoriously horrific singer and dancer and couldn’t really think of a typical “American song” that I could actually sing for people. So, we taught them the Hokey Pokey. It was as embarrassing as you’re imagining, but obviously loads of fun and a big hit with everyone. I think there is a video somewhere… which will never see the light of day!
More seriously though, practicing humility will always get you farther than not, and probably teach you something along the way. I am constantly humbled when I travel; any assumptions you have about a place or people are typically proven wrong very quickly. In terms of our trainings in Bangladesh and Ecuador, I went in as an “expert” on the Wood Mold and BioSand Filters, but you always wind up learning something new from the people you are training. Whether it is a more efficient way to cut the plywood or how to use rudimentary hand tools, there is a constant learning curve, even for someone who has made multiple Wood Molds (although my carpentry skills definitely still need some work!) and has practically memorized the manual.
What have been some of your biggest takeaways, in terms of improving OHorizons, been from these in-the-field experiences?
I think some of the most important things we learned were about the Wood Mold itself. In both Bangladesh and Ecuador, we were working with people whose first language was not English and some who did not speak any English at all. Despite their limited English ability (and zero Spanish or Bengali ability on my part) and that the manual was in English, our trainees intuitively understood the manual and how to make the Mold. There was actually little formal “training” on our part, we were mainly ensuring that safety precautions were being taken and answering any questions as they came up.
In Bangladesh specifically, we learned that the Mold could be made in a very resource constrained environment. One of the Molds we made during that training was cut entirely with a hand saw. This is something we previously thought wasn’t possible or practical, but our circular saw was not in working order for the majority of the training so we had to use what was available. Rolling blackouts were also quite common, so for large parts of the day we were making the Mold without any electricity.
We were able to gather a lot of feedback about how the manual was organized on these trips as well, and cut the manual down from about 180 pages to around 80 pages now. Earlier versions did not have a section on actually installing a filter and we did not have an Appendix at that point either; we realized both of those components were really important.
I personally see one of the best executive decisions you’ve made being to make the Construction Manual for OHorizons’ Wood Mold open-source. Can you tell me a little about what logic was behind that decision?
We always wanted the instructions for the Mold to be readily accessible; the entire reason behind inventing the Mold was to reduce as many barriers as possible (financial, technical, etc) to getting a drinking water project underway. Initially, we had a license agreement that turned out to be a bit cumbersome for early Mold users. It was a fairly long document that had a lot of unhelpful (and confusing) legal language. We patented the Wood Mold and had this agreement in place to actually protect the organizations that were using the Mold. We didn’t want anyone to be able to commercially profit from having the instructions to the Mold and use that as a way to create barriers for people needing access to drinking water.
During the summer of 2014, a student group from the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign approached us about using the Mold and were able to build it on their own without any formal OHorizons training. This was really a turning point for us and largely the reason we decided to make it open-source and easy to download from our website. The group had arrived in Mali thinking the steel mold they previously commissioned would be ready and they could begin training villagers in how to make BSFs right away. Well, the steel mold was made incorrectly and they didn’t have the time or budget to try to commission another one from a welder. They contacted us and after a short phone call and emailing them the manual, they were up and running within 24 hours, making several Wood Molds and BSFs over the course of their short time in Mali.
Seeing that the Mold could be made with little to no input from OHorizons was a big deal to us. We realized that we needed to make the manual open-source so more people, like the group from Illinois, could potentially benefit. While our original process was well-intentioned, it actually just created more barriers to people using the Mold and thus providing clean water, which is not something we ever wanted. Now, it is super easy and fast for anyone with an internet connection to download the Construction Manual and accompanying Appendix and get started on building a Wood Mold and subsequent filters.
What is something special or unique about OHorizons that not everyone would know?
Well, we’re both under 30, I would argue that’s pretty cool! I think that allows us to have a unique and fresh mindset in how we approach our work and how we view OHorizons’ in the context of the larger international development organizational ecosystem. We’re a relatively young organization so we’re not inhibited by certain notions of “how things should be done” or limited by established procedures and processes that could potentially limit innovative thinking and problem solving.
What are your goals for OHorizons in the next few years?
I really want to see the Wood Mold reach as many people as possible. Since we made the Wood Mold Manual open-source and available for download in April of 2015, hundreds of people from over 40 different countries have downloaded it and the Appendix. We’re seeing more and more people download our technical materials every month, which is super exciting. I’d like to see this kind of growth continue into the future.We’re also focused on strengthening our existing partnerships and scaling our current project in Bangladesh. 1,000 Bangladeshi families will be given BSFs in 2016 and as many of our supporters know, we have some ambitious plans to dramatically increase our impact and reach a million people (about 200,000 families) over the next several years.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Thank you to all of our supporters, none of this would be possible without you!
I want to thank Natalie for taking the time to do this interview. I found it exciting and interesting learning more about her background. I hope you did too. As always, thank you to our readers, supporters, and international coalition of volunteers and partners!
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