By Evan Young
When you start something that tries to find a comprehensive, sustainable solution in a field as complicated as sanitation, you’re bound to run into some obstacles. These can be anything from unexpected realities to stifling bureaucracy to an absurd amount of externalities you never took into account. The key, at least from what we’ve found, is to embrace these obstacles; take them in; embrace them; and forge on.
The direction in which you forge on is always a mystery. Nearly a year after Maz and I started our Project Dharavi solution from inside the GWU classroom of Matthew Wilkins, we’ve been taken for a wild ride. After receiving the D-Prize Grant and seeing success in the GW Business Plan Competition (where we came in Third Place Overall and won the Best International Venture Award), we saw an entire world open up in front of us that we felt compelled to explore. We needed answers to some of our most pressing questions and assumptions. So we went to find them.
This search took us to Nicaragua and India over this past summer. In Nicaragua, we went with em[POWER] Energy Group not only to explore the potential of a pilot project at their sites, but to learn as much as we could about the lived experiences and realities of sanitation on the ground. We met families, community leaders, and organizations working on the front lines of the sanitation crisis. In India, we saw the issue of sanitation manifest itself on a complex, massive scale that only India could provide. It was in India, however, where we found something else.
Here, we came upon the realization that our Project Dharavi solution needed time and development, as we did. We saw that pressing social stigmas and governmental bureaucracy would hamper the ability to make the immediate impact we wanted. So we pivoted. It was hard, but necessary.
Instead of solely focusing on our own model, we saw the potential of working with organizations that already have great connections to the communities in which they work and best practices that have been proven over time. This was the case for ASHA (Association for Sanitation and Health Activities), a grassroots organization working to build toilets hand-in-hand with economically and socially marginalized villages in Odisha. Their deep connections to these communities foster open dialogues that lead to awareness and training on the importance of sanitation, changing and improving lives.
Photo taken by Maz in Delhi
We hit it off with them and saw that we could provide immense value for them in a different way than we originally realized. We could help rally support for them and, in the process of doing so, change the way the world views the sanitation crisis. We realized that we had not come to see the depth and reality of the sanitation crisis until we were forced to confront it and see it for what it was. As an organization based in DC with access to a diverse network of actors, we could make this happen on a much larger scale. We could put a face on the sanitation crisis, making it real and compel people into action.
So here we are. Not quite where we thought we would be, but where we think we need to be. Over the next two months we will be launching a crowdfunding campaign to work with ASHA in the construction of 231 toilets for 231 families. This will also run in tandem with our Coming Clean Campaign, which will try to bring photographers from around the country to translate the story of the sanitation crisis for the world. (For more information on this visit http://www.asepsis.org/comingclean)
It’s been a wild ride and we could not be more excited for where it takes us now.
Evan discusses sanitation conditions with slum-dwellers in Delhi