Cameron Conaway interviews award-winning social entrepreneur Ned Breslin.
Ned Breslin joined the team at Water For People in 2006 after working on water and sanitation issues for 16 years in Africa. In 2011, thanks to his taking the lead on making innovative initiatives both scalable and sustainable, he was awarded the 2011 Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship. Ned’s insights and experiences have been fundamentally enriched in partnership with his wife Lindsey, whose dedication to HIV/Aids, and women and children in difficult situations, has inspired him for over 2 decades. Ned is the proud father of two girls who were both born and raised in Africa and who, he told me, continue to guide him at least as much as he guides them. Ned took time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions for us here at The Good Men Project. Here goes:
What life circumstances made you want to spend your life helping others?
I think it was a combination of things that came together. First, because of my rather rough upbringing I always was concerned about the welfare of others, particularly children. I also had a professor at college who saw something in me and helped me go to Kenya as a University student, where I found myself on a water project in the Chalbi Desert in the far north of the country. I remember meeting a caravan of women and girls moving across the desert with their camels, having just collected water from a deep hole in the desert. I could not even see where their home was or where they were heading as the desert was so vast and the landscape so empty. We were talking but the young girls in the caravan were not happy. They wanted to get moving as the sun was getting hotter and the distance to travel was clearly considerable. One girl looked at me with what I interpreted as a look of “Really? Do you really want us to stand here and chat in the desert sun?” She had a look of defiance which I liked/appreciated, leading me to hate charity efforts to depict people around the world as victims of their circumstances rather than active agents of change. She did not have flies on her eyes and was not waiting for some charity to save her. No, she was pissed and capable, just was being held up by a bunch of pretty ignorant young white guys in the desert. That moment made it clear to me that water and sanitation mattered, that it was a girl’s issue primarily, and that my work would have to be done in a way that built from people’s strengths, desire for change and at times their anger and frustration – but never driven by pity as that is so disempowering. We can all play a role but it’s a humbler role, not savior but a fellow human transcending (yet respecting) cultural boundaries to drive towards something better.
What are two major problems that young social entrepreneurs are facing in 2013?
I think young socents walk a fine line – they want to “do” something and have this amazing energy and in some ways this courage that is rare to move beyond themselves and their comforts and see the world in unique ways. The best young entrepreneurs from around the world are not shackled by the prejudices, the barriers and the stereotypes that older generations have been, and thus they are more comfortable pushing the edges of ideas and implementation. Yet their lack of patience often means they take some early steps that they think are clever and new when in fact they have been tried and suck. It’s exciting because the idea they are testing is new to them, but they often do not look around and see if others have tried it and what they learned, so they go down black holes that would have been avoided if they somehow measured their enthusiasm with a slight bit more patience and reflection and curiosity. It’s a balance because people stay in reflective mode too long, so how do we harness the power, optimism and “can-do” of young socents in a way that is more aware of what has happened around them in the past, allowing them to move forward from strength?
All socents – young and old – need to start showing that their results are starting to match their ambition and rhetoric. Entrepreneurs are being challenged to show that their ideas not only are impactful and radical, but also are starting to scale and replicate. Too many socents do interesting work at a small scale but do not think of spread, and that challenge is becoming clearer. Socents need to respond in ways that turn the tide from clever and interesting to impossible to ignore in ways that radically improve the world.
When was the last time you cried?
I have actually become quite a crier. I held everything in for so long – I never cried – that I exploded with tears years ago when I finally decided to let my emotions emerge, and am now seeming to find a balance as I learn the wisdom and courage of tears. But actually I was watching the only television channel in English last night in Budapest and they had a recorded earlier story from NBC Nightly News on teachers in Newtown, CT and Oklahoma who spread themselves across their students and saved them from real harm – from gun fire and ferocious winds. I have a huge soft spot for that. These teachers looked horror in the eye and put themselves between it and kids, selflessly. That always draws a tear or two from me now. I think its just that ability to see beyond yourself and frankly also it shakes me a bit as I do wish my mom had done that just once when I was a kid. I struggle often with the concept of a mom and a dad as mine were not great, and my mom never protected me from my dad. So when I see people risking their lives – especially for kids against forces greater than kids (like bullets, winds and alcoholic dads) – I always marvel at that.
Monitoring is often considered the boring part of impact. It is by no means flashy but it is perhaps the most important part of measuring whether any initiative works. How can we make monitoring sexy?
Monitoring is the sexiest thing around my friend! What better way to embrace the world and improve than to look back, reflect on what goes well and what sucks and then not only build on strengths but unleash your creative talent to address weaknesses and challenges? That is life, that is rare, and monitoring, when well done, brings out the best in us. It unleashes our talent and creative energy, it creates new opportunities to work with others and opens new doors that we never imagined, if we dare to ask hard questions, look back and walk forward with courage. It’s the best!
What would the 13-year-old Ned Breslin say to today’s Ned Breslin?
It’s a great question and I have never been asked this. I must say I can’t get away from trying to turn the question around. I was pretty beaten and traumatized at 13, and my biggest issue was abandonment. I was just so alone in a family of 5 (soon to be 7 with the impending birth of my twin brothers). So I actually wish, at 13, I could have seen me today – warts and scars and tears but also laced with a new family, stunning wife and daughters and a work life I am blessed to be part of – and say to little Ned that you will not be alone forever, and you will rise… at 13 I was trying to survive and dodge the hate. I often wonder what would have happened if I had a bit of hope to go with all that. Looking back I am amazed at the resilience of little Ned. I am an incredibly big dreamer and optimist now, but I wish I had a dash of hope back then (and yes, a tear falls at Heathrow).
You’re a fly on the wall at a community gathering. What do you hope people say about you?
That he never stopped, and had the courage to ask hard questions of himself that – like monitoring above – helped him become a better father, a better husband and a better leader, bumpy that this road is….