Saturday Series: An Interview with Rowen Jin

By Seyyada A Burney

In our new Saturday Series, we interview inspiring people that our readers have nominated. These people are working on the frontlines to improve the global food and agricultural systems. Want to nominate someone?  E-mail your suggestions to Danielle Nierenberg!

Rowen Jin is a Project Manager for World Water Relief in Haiti. (Photo credit: Rowen Jin)

Name: Rowen Jin

Affiliation: World Water Relief

Bio: Californian Rowen Jin recently graduated from Swarthmore College as a Biology major and an English minor. She immediately fell in love with Haiti during her first visit in the summer of 2011 for  earthquake relief work. After making a career change from research to health-related development work, Rowen returned to Haiti in 2012 as a Project Manager for World Water Relief.

She speaks fluent Chinese and is conversational in Haitian Creole and Spanish.

Almost one-sixth of the world’s population does not have access to safe drinking water. How are World Water Relief’s projects alleviating this deficit?

In 2009, Kevin Fussell, MD, one of the founding members of World Water Relief and our current Board president, personally witnessed and recognized a need for safe drinking water in Batey Siete, Dominican Republic. Bateys are communities of largely Haitian sugarcane field workers throughout Dominican Republic. Many of these batey communities are underdeveloped and underfunded by the Dominican government because they are predominantly Haitian. We’ve been working ever since 2009 to help the situation on the island of Hispaniola. For most of our projects, we implement the school model of water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH). We construct drinking and hand-washing stations at schools, improve sanitation facilities, and conduct hygiene education courses. Through this approach, we hope to bring more comprehensive changes to the communities where we have projects. The key to our success is that we recognize our limitations and know our strengths.  We know we can have a positive effect on small communities and school populations if they meet a set of criteria that we have established, including community support for the project, a source of water, school administrators who want us to be there, etc.  We bring an understanding of the culture and language (all of our project managers speak the language of the countries we are serving) and a respect for the opinions of the people.  This is our formula for success.  We don’t necessarily look at the whole country’s population. We focus on those we know we can help. The specific areas where we are working have no voices other than among themselves.

World Water Relief wasn’t originally meant to cover disaster relief but you’ve clearly risen to the challenge in the wake of 2010’s devastating earthquake. What prompted you to take on this daunting task? How did you mobilize relief efforts in such a short time?

As an organization that was working in Hispaniola before the earthquake, we always wanted to respond effectively to the needs of the communities—and when the earthquake occurred, the need was obvious.  However, our response after the earthquake was very different from our mission.  We are not an emergency response organization but we had access to portable emergency water filtration units and with the help of volunteers, Board, and staff, we were in Haiti just two days after the earthquake providing safe drinking water to hospitals, clinics, and other places around Port-au-Prince where it was needed.  But as soon as the larger NGOs entered the picture with water tanks, etc., we got out of their way and went back to what we do best – providing access to safe drinking water and other components of WASH in schools.  We try not to be limited by what our model is or what we are used to doing. We were able to respond quickly because we are a grass-roots organization – young, small and nimble.

Every project location must present its own challenges. How do World Water Relief projects overcome underlying issues such as a lack of investment in rural areas?

Normally, we work at schools exactly for that reason, to have a community structure where we can work within so that 1) we don’t have to start from zero and 2) to support community transition of these projects later on. We have not really witnessed a lack of support for the rural areas that we have worked in as many of our projects are supported by organizations (churches, other NGOs, established community leaders, etc.) that have been in the areas for a long time. However, there oftentimes can be a lack of infrastructure. For example, in Plaisance, Haiti, they do not have electricity and must purchase gas every time they run the motor for the system. To help resolve that, we sat together with the schools to come up with a plan for water sales to help supplement gas costs for the schools. The school now manages this arrangement that was a solution to their particular problem.

The WASH In Schools project brings water filtration and sanitation facilities and education to schools throughout Hispaniola. Why is it so important to include children and youths in your projects?

As our Haitian project director, Jean Baptiste Wisnel often reminds us — “Children are our future.” They are the true agents of change in a community. As an organization, we believe in empowering the community to take initiatives on their own. We feel that we will be able to accomplish this goal through children. We have recognized that children will go home and talk about what they learned about their health and perhaps question why their family is taking water from an irrigation ditch when there is safe water being provided to them at the school.  We also hope they will take the initiative and work toward an overall plan to provide safe drinking water to their community in the future. We look for generational changes.

Speaking of generational change, what are World Water Relief’s aims for the future? Do you foresee expanding World Water Relief projects outside of this region?

In the future, we do hope to expand beyond Hispaniola. Currently, however, we are just focused on Hispaniola and doing the best we can to help bring change. There is a lot of work in the DR and Haiti.  World Water Relief is all about quality and not necessarily quantity.  We are not about putting pins on the map to show where we are serving but rather we choose to circle back and make sure that our projects continue to work.  Sustainability is not a buzz word for us but rather the way we do business.  We also look to showcase our sustainability model so that other organizations, which have the best intentions, look at the bigger picture and choose areas to work in that they can realize real and long-term success.

Seyyada Burney is a Research Intern with Nourishing the Planet.

Read some of our other Saturday Series interviews: Mary McLaughlin, Bruce Melton, and Sarah Alexander.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE. And to watch the one-minute book trailer, click HERE.

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