"Only those that have learned the power of sincere and selfless contribution experience life's deepest joy: true fulfillment."
This month's "Taking the Lead" features Wendee Nicole, Founder & Director of the RedemptionSong Foundation [RSF. But even that impressive title doesn't begin to describe Wendee's inspirational story and how she took her unique leadership skills and
experience to a part of the world that many of us would never dream to venture.
In the following interview, Wendee describes why she created the Redemption Song Foundation and how her sacrifices have made a world of difference to the Batwa people and their community in Uganda, Africa.
Tell us about your background and what inspired you to start the Redemption Song Foundation.
After earning my M.S. in Wildlife Ecology from Texas A&M University in 1995, I became a self-taught freelance journalist & photographer. For two decades, I have traveled the globe to report on science, health, and environmental justice issues, from the Himalayan foothills of Nepal in search of endangered red pandas to the Peruvian Amazon to report on community-based conservation with the Yine Amerindians. My work has been published in magazines such as National Wildlife, Nature, Discover, Scientific American, and Environmental Health Perspectives, as well as on Discovery Channel and Animal Planet Online.
In January 2014, I traveled to Uganda after becoming the first recipient of a $20,000 journalism grant from Mongabay.org to report on the "the next big thing" in tropical forest conservation. My chosen topic was focusing on economist Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel Prize-winning idea of how human livelihoods and natural resource conservation can coexist in harmony - but only if certain principles are in place.
I arrived in Uganda excited to see my favorite animal, the mountain gorilla, when in reality I ended up so moved by the extreme poverty and slum-like conditions that the indigenous Batwa pygmy people lived in, that I felt called by God to do something about it. Knowing the US dollar would go so much further in Africa, and the fact that the money I donated to this cause would go directly to the community, I sold my house in Houston and moved to Africa.
Tell us about the Redemption Song Foundation and your role with this organization.
When Uganda established Bwindi Impenetrable National Park for gorillas in 1991, they evicted the indigenous Batwa pygmy people who are itinerant hunter-gatherers, and gave them no land or money in compensation. They lost not only their forest home but also rights to hunt and gather food from the forest. They literally had nothing. Two decades later, they live in mud structures, or in some cases leaf teepees, on land given by charities, but struggle mightily with high rates of alcoholism, HIV, poor health, and lack of education. The mission of RSF is to see the Batwa empowered to make healthy decisions for their lives and for the community, and to be self-sustaining in their work and lives.
I serve as director on the ground, as well as President of the Board of Directors – I don’t take any salary for my work. Though I have a small staff in Uganda, I am in charge of all of the field work, managing the finances, publicizing our efforts, managing staff, and raising funds through our artisan coop. It is a lot of work, but very rewarding.
Describe your leadership style or the leadership model you have incorporated to make The Redemption Song Foundation a success.
We are a new organization, and some of what I am doing in Uganda is trial and error because what works in the US doesn’t necessarily work in another country. I quickly learned that I needed to find a way to motivate the Batwa people to come together and work. My first step was listening to their needs and interests. They identified needs for clean water, better housing, a bridge across the river, more steady income and other basic necessities, which we are working towards one by one. The first time we had a field workday, almost no one showed up. I’d heard from other nonprofits in the area that this particular community was not inclined to help out. They drank too much, were lazy, no-good. I didn’t believe that. So I hired a hardworking man who lived on my property. His family was homeless before we took them in, and we paid only him (not the Batwa) for working. The Batwa villagers showed up and matched this hardworking man’s pace. I found that by having one person work hard, others followed suit. I rewarded the Batwa villagers with a healthy meal afterwards, which they really appreciated. I often care for their children and provide them with much needed attention. They know the money I raise will indeed go back into their communities. As a result, they have seen their village and homes transformed into much more livable spaces. They see that I genuinely care about their community and over time the Batwa have come to trust me and know I will keep my word.
What challenges are nonprofit leaders facing today that speak to the need for them to have strengths in these attribute areas?
This is a totally new venture for me. I ran a successful writing business for 2 decades, but here, I am learning as I go. But I would think for any leader, if you want to have success in your mission, you need to listen to the people you serve first and foremost.
Although English is the national language in Uganda, if people have dropped from school, they only speak the local tribal language, so in my case, a major challenge is accurate language translation. I always need to ask the same question multiple ways so that you get an accurate and thorough understanding of a situation. The first thing you hear isn’t necessarily the way people actually feel. I would suspect this applies in many situations and for other nonprofit leaders. I also believe that having a heart that genuinely cares about the issue you are working on makes all the difference. Finding staff and volunteers with the same level of passion for the cause as the leader is essential, and something I am still working on.
What steps are you currently taking to improve yourself to become a more effective leader?
I spent the first year at RSF learning the country and the people I am serving, and my next phase is to participate in some training so that I can become more effective at things where I could use help -- managing staff, learning how to work most effectively in a foreign country, and how to work with girls trying to escape prostitution, as well as other social issues that the country desperately needs help with, but I am personally not fully equipped to deal with. I am seeking such programs either online or when I return to the US on visits.
Have you experienced a career or leadership challenge recently that you have overcome?
After working at RSF for ten months, my primary staff member suddenly quit -- with 3 days notice -- on the very day I returned from a trip to the US. She helped me train a replacement for 2 days, but that person decided the job wasn’t right for her. I was in this big house alone, without any staff. The only person who I could find quickly spoke very little English and with no one to translate we were both felt like giving up. I prayed, and I got to work trying to find replacements. I eventually found two staff members who did such a great job in their first days I saw how when a door closes, a window always opens. I decided to have 3 or 4 on staff instead of 1 with a 2nd helper, because it will prevent me from being in a situation where if one quits I'm stuck without any help. These staff also have their own challenges, but it just goes to show when you feel like giving up, just be patient and wait another day, another hour… things will turn around.
Would you mind sharing some of the tips on how you were able to change what was perhaps a negative career challenge into a positive outcome?
Having a network of friends and colleagues to communicate with when going through a really difficult situation is essential. This was true when my staff member quit and I genuinely did not know if I could continue. Friends or colleagues who understand, empathize and give feedback help me keep perspective when I’m having a rough day, or a serious challenge. When dealing with tough situations in another country where everything is so foreign and different, it is so helpful to be able to communicate by email, Skype, and phone to people “back home.” Once I am centered again, I can confront those challenges with my staff or the community on a more even keel. I don’t always do this perfectly, but it is a growth area for me.
The other thing that helps me stay focused on my mission is the young boy who inspired my entire move to Uganda, Beckham. He’s a 6 or 7-year old child who I photographed when I first visited his village. His eyes spoke volumes, and I kept looking at his photograph and feeling him – and God – calling me there to help. He was malnourished, had worms and a severely distended belly. He had one shirt he wore for 5 months and nothing else. Three months after my first visit, he was severely beaten by a relative, his hands bound, and thrown into the river where he almost died. His father rescued him and he spent two weeks in the hospital recovering. I just give that kid all the love I can, and I’ve seen him emerge from his shell. He and I share a special bond now and when I feel challenged, as one is in a foreign country so far from home, recalling his challenges gives me strength to continue my work. Seeing how much this young boy has changed, and how much healthier he and all his siblings are is really a beautiful thing, and what keeps me going, knowing that change can be made, but has to be sustained. I know I have to ensure that if nothing else, this village is equipped to sustain their improved standard of living. I can’t give up.
What are some top tips you can recommend to other professionals who want to be recognized as a high potential emerging leader?
I strongly believe that before publicizing efforts too much, spending time on the ground with the community you’re serving is essential. I started the work of RSF in January immediately after first visiting the country, but have now spent a year on the ground working and serving, and getting to know the area, culture, and people. Now I am in a better position to start to grow our network and promote our efforts a bit more. I think it is very helpful to network and communicate with other leaders in the same country or field. I don’t think that recognition as a leader in itself is that important. I think the most important thing is ensuring that the service work being done is effective and the money is being used efficiently. I think that recognition will follow, and if it does not that is ok because the work is what really matters.
Wendee your story gives me goose bumps! What a beautiful narrative of how one person can truly change the world!
To make learn more about this fabulous organization, please visit the websites Redemption Song Foundation or WendeeNicole .
Donations are tax-deductible in the US, and can be made directly on the Redemption Song Foundation website: Support Us!.
To order handmade jewelry or baskets, visit the RSF Facebook page, Artisan Coop 2015 photo album: RSF Artisan Coop. Once there, make a comment on the photo of the items you wish to order, then send a message with your mailing address. Wendee will send you the shipping & handling fee. Items are already in the US and ready to ship, with more coming regularly. You can pay /donate by sending a check to RSF, PO Box 876, Frisco, TX 75034 or via credit/ debit card or PayPal at the RSF Donate page.