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Why Sabbaticals Matter at Mission Partners

Children Play in Haiti

By Hannah Lee

 

 “It’s not the answer that enlightens, but the question” –Eugene Ionesco

As a communications professional, an important part of my job entails developing and delivering clear messages—researching, structuring arguments, writing concisely. Like many of my peers, I am laser focused on execution and solutions, and I often forget (or don’t find I have the time) to step back and critically think about the questions I am asking, or the answers I’m being given.

But earlier this summer, I was given a special opportunity to do just that.

In July, I had the privilege to truly step back—to take a sabbatical. At Mission Partners, we believe in the value of giving back to local communities through volunteerism, and we realize the impact of volunteerism on our day to day work. After the one-year mark with Mission Partners, each full-time employee earns sabbatical days—a unique and special model for a small firm like ours.  In my case, I had the privilege of spending my sabbatical in Bercy, Haiti. Located 40 minutes outside of the Haitian capital, Port-Au-Price, Bercy is where Mission of Hope operates.

Mission of Hope brings life transformation for every man, women, and child in Haiti—including those who volunteer. The organization takes a comprehensive approach to building and strengthening communities by creating jobs, providing food and clean water, educating kids and adults, teaching agricultural skills, and caring for the sick and elderly. While volunteering, the phrase “we believe Haitians will rebuild Haiti” was constantly said throughout every activity, empowering Haitians to the leaders of their own success.

Through this experience, I learned much more than I will ever be able to give. Most importantly, my sabbatical reinvigorated my joy in asking questions, and listening intently to the answers.

On the first day, right after arriving at the airport, I was greeted by a Haitian staff member at the organization. He asked me what team I was rooting for in the World Cup. Before I could even answer, he stated that it better be Brazil. Immediately, I felt connected to him. In that conversation, I had learned my first lesson.

With a simple, intentional question, you can relate to anyone—even those who appear most different.

In that conversation, I was reminded that thoughtful questions can lead to connection. That was a powerful moment to start my sabbatical. Each day during the week, our group of 40 volunteers traveled to a partner village to collect survey data. The data collected was used to better serve families in the community. This information is vital to meet critical needs in the community like clean drinking water, health care services, food, and shelter. Each day we were assigned up to six homes, some made of brick and some still composed of blue tarp—a reminder that Haitian communities are still feeling the effects of the 2011 earthquake. At each home, we built new connections. We made new friends.  We washed and then dried clothes on cacti while others played tag with kids. By the end of the week, survey data collection was our favorite thing to do.

But, it didn’t come easy.

To collect the data the organization needed, we received a list of survey questions. Right away, at our first house visit, we started asking “do you have access to clean drinking water?” and “when’s the last time you visited the dentist?” without even getting to know the people in front of us. We just dove into these personal and somewhat intrusive questions without thinking to step back. Without thinking to first build a connection with the single mom of two kids. My group fumbled through those thirty minutes, relying only on the awkwardly worded survey questions. Walking away, I felt disappointed. At the next house, we ditched the formulated questions and asked simple, intentional questions.

That changed everything.

Suddenly, the formatted questions were coming up naturally. Our conversations were full of mutual laughter, joy, and prayers for one another. I often pride myself on asking good questions, however in an unfamiliar place, I learned I have room to grow.  And that was my second lesson of the week.

Asking intentional questions takes practice.

After a week of practicing asking intentional questions, it was time to head home to the U.S. Although I was sad to leave such an incredible place, I was ready to return home. As we were boarding the bus to the airport at 4:30 am, our flight was canceled. But not just our flight. For the next 72 hours, all flights in and out of Haiti were canceled due to political protests.

The Haitian government had raised fuel prices by 51%, making it nearly impossible for many Haitians to continue traveling to work, school, church, or really anywhere. In response, Haitians created blockades along the road in protest. As they awaited a response from the Haitian government, they continued to protest.

And we waited.

As Americans, we are used to quick answers, but in this situation, we couldn’t find the answer on our phones. And no question we asked could have given us a solid answer.  We were safe, but as we waited, we grew anxious, tired, and confused. When would we go home? Would we have enough food? Would we be able to leave before the impending tropical storm hits? All good questions, but when volunteers asked, they knew there was a slim chance of having an answer. Which led me to my next lesson…

In times of uncertainty, too many questions may not always be the answer. Sometimes all you can be is present.

Returning home, I didn’t immediately take the time to process the last part of the trip. I felt overwhelmed and flustered. Even as friends asked, “how was your trip to Haiti?”, I went blank.

And then someone asked, “tell me about someone who inspired you” and I found words again. By drawing on a specific moment where I was present in relationship with someone, I could bring to life my experience instead swirling in the final 72 hours of uncertainty.  And there was my final, and perhaps most important lesson.

It’s the thoughtful questions, not always the perfect answers, that enlighten.

This sabbatical pushed me to be a better version of myself, to come back to work with a new energy, and most importantly, to step back, reflect, and ask better questions.  It’s just the answer I had needed.

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Communicating Outside of Comfort Zones

By Carrie Fox

To communicate effectively, we know that the people with whom we’re speaking—the humans at the receiving end of our messages— are just as important as the words we use. But we also realize that the human element of communicating can be the most difficult element to master.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, as we’ve been guiding several organizations to challenge the audiences they deem their priorities; to assess the words they use with their employees; and to consider what might happen if they broke out of their comfort zones in their communications messages. Across all assignments, it comes down to one key word: language. Is the language that you use having the desired impact with the people whom your brand is intended to serve?

In the weeks leading up to the now infamous Starbucks incident in Philadelphia, I had been reading “It’s Not About the Coffee: Lessons on Putting People First From a Life at Starbucks,” a great  business book by Starbucks’ co-founder Howard  Behar. It was fascinating to watch the scenario in Philadelphia play out because it completely contradicted Behar’s core philosophy to be human, first.

For Behar, the secret to building Starbucks had everything to do with building a company that had the potential to become their customers’ third place: there was home, then work, and then Starbucks. But, to win that coveted spot, Behar knew the company needed to foster a place where all felt welcome. And they needed to build a language of welcome across all class and color lines. But for one store in Philadelphia, and in hundreds of other stores where similar incidents have been reported—that language of welcome wasn’t deployed. In far too many instances, Starbucks employees lost sight of the person who was right in front of them.

I’d wager to bet that the Starbucks story can be found inside most of our organizations, whether it’s been reported or not. The language we build, inside the walls of our organizations, is often built with certain audiences in mind and there can be dangerous consequences if we don’t stop to think about how our language sits with those outside of our respective comfort zones. Who is understanding our message, and who feels left out? Even worse, who is receiving an unintended negative message?

The language we use to communicate across age lines is equally critical. Take for instance Generation Z. They are self-aware, self-reliant and drive, and they do not respond well to companies that don’t take their values and priorities into consideration. According to Marcie Merriman, author of the recent report Rise of Gen Z: new challenges for retailers, Gen Z is almost uniformly tech-savvy and content-hungry, and tend to be pragmatic, entrepreneurial, socially conscious and highly tolerant. “They represent a major opportunity for businesses attuned to what they want and how to deliver it,” she says. “The question is whether these businesses are ready to speak the language of this rising class.”

What language do you use in communicating your brand story? Is it one of welcome and inclusion, with words and actions that are accessible across audiences, or has your organization built a language of insiders, designed primarily for those inside your comfort zone?

If the latter is likely, a willingness to break out of your communications comfort zone may be just what you need in the year ahead. The real question is: how open are you to embracing it?