Green Planet Series: Interview with Michael Despines

Michael Despines - speaker

Our new Green Planet Series celebrates Mother Earth. She has many names and perhaps Pachamama is one of my favorite words for her!  Today’s interview is with Melibee speaker, Michael Despines. Melibee’s Maria Snyder picked his brain regarding combining environmental and sustainability issues with cross-cultural cooperation, world travel, and non-profit work. Michael also reflects on the challenges of living overseas, re-entry, sustainable living and the best part of talking with people about international issues. Michael is a long time friend of Melibee and works at the Institute for Sustainable Communities (ISC), an organization that has supported community development initiatives in over 24 countries.

You work at ISC as Vice President for International Programs. Can you explain a bit more about your role there?

One big part of my job is making sure that our international projects are being implemented at the highest professional level. For example, next month I will be traveling to visit our projects in Serbia and China to see how our programs are doing. I talk to our partners and listen to their concerns and see if they are satisfied with our support. I review the data we are collecting to see if we are achieving the targets we established. I talk with our staff and try and understand what is going well and look for ways to support them better and help them overcome obstacles that they may be facing. Another big part of my job is looking for new program opportunities. In the last year I have done assessment trips to Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines and Burma. On these trips I try and meet as many people as I can to better understand the local realities, needs, and opportunities. I meet with government officials, local NGOs and local activists, business leaders, community groups, potential donors, and other stakeholders. I am looking for a country where the needs match our skills, where there is funding potential, and where we can find good local partners.

ISC has programs throughout the world aimed at creating sustainable communities. How do you handle cultural differences in different countries when communicating and working on environmental, social, and economic goals?

The first step is being aware of cultural differences and taking nothing at face value. We work very hard at taking our time to try and really understand the issues before we get involved. For example, before we launched our program in China we participated in 100 meetings over a one year period with local people and groups to ensure that we were developing a project that was appropriate and relevant. Also, the key to success is our national staff. The vast majority of our employees are from the country where the projects are located. They help us understand the local realities, the culture, and show us how to operate effectively and appropriately. Our local staff are the soul of the organization and keep us grounded in reality.

So much of international education and environmental work relies on air travel and we end up with the unfortunate irony of contributing to global warming (via the huge carbon footprint of long distance flights) while trying to promote green ideas and awareness of global issues. What can we do in this predicament?

It is a maddening conundrum. Most of modern life is set up in a way that makes it very, very, very hard to live in a sustainable way. Travel to new worlds and cultures can offer tremendous insights and personal growth. But that insight does come at a very high cost to the planet. One must look for ways to compensate for that high cost. Look for ways to reduce your impact on the planet in other aspects of your daily life so the pluses and minus balance out.

How has living in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Rwanda, Gabon, Sierra Leone, and Kenya changed your world view and goals?

Living overseas completely transformed my world view. For the first time I realized that the values, beliefs and attitudes I had were American values, beliefs and attitudes. I learned that there were in fact many ways to live life. There were in fact many ways to approach and understand the world. I lived with people who were surviving on a dollar a day. Their lives were very hard yet in spite of this they typically demonstrated great humor, compassion and generosity. You can’t help but be humbled – and inspired.

How has the re-entry experience in the US been for you? Have you ever experienced reverse culture shock of some kind?

I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania and had never traveled outside of the US until I left for Peace Corps when I was twenty-four. I lived in Gabon for two years. I went through the normal cycle of cultural shock. But by far the greatest shock was when I returned to the United States. It was really then that I realized how much I had changed during that time. Suddenly the US seemed so strange to me – or at least some aspects of American life. I spent the next 16 years living mostly overseas in a variety of countries. The hardest transitions were always when I came back to the US, however, over time the “shock” became less and less. For me, life overseas was always a good fit. The pace was typically much slower. I did not have a TV and the internet was not around yet. There were just so many fewer distractions that allowed you to really focus on what mattered and engage more with people. Once back in the US, I was always struck by the frenzy of it all and the bombardment of messages on why I should be dissatisfied with my life and how shopping and collecting more stuff would solve that.

In a post that you wrote for Melibee’s blog earlier this year you encouraged readers to take steps to being more responsible consumers and citizens. What have you found best motivates people to follow through on these steps?

Nothing promotes motivation like success and solidarity. First, look for ways to simplify your life. Focus on the big things. What really has an impact? Each month look for a new action you can take to reduce your impact on the planet. Be active and reach out to others who share your passion. Like minded friends and colleagues who can help celebrate the victories and get through those tough days. There are millions of people taking steps to change the world for the better. Search out those stories. For example, I follow on Facebook. Every day they share amazing examples of how people are transforming cities to be more sustainable.

Can you describe your speaking presentations with Melibee? What is it that you like about having these dialogues?

I have spent 20 years researching issues around sustainability. I have had the opportunity to live and work in many parts of the world and I have seen the trends and evidence unfold before me. Unfortunately, few people are aware of the root causes and issues that are, and will, impact our lives. I have a knack for boiling complex issues down to their essence and presenting these ideas in visually compelling ways. There is a growing awareness that we are on a path that is completely disconnected from the real world. Many people have an intuitive sense that we can do better. I enjoy helping people connect the dots and help reaffirm that there is a better way. Your gut is right. I enjoy being able to help paint a picture of what life could be like if we made different choices. It is all completely up to us. We don’t have to wait. We don’t need some miracle breakthrough in technology. It is all about us as humans and how we want to live our lives. What is important?

After a presentation before a high school class in Maryland I had several boys come up and give me high fives; I was pretty jazzed that I could present in a way that resonated with them. At universities, I often have students and professors come up to me after the event – they often vigorously shake my hand and thank me profusely for the messages I offer. It is profoundly satisfying to imagine that I could touch even a few people that way. With each new person committed to change, we get that much closer to the tipping point for real progress.

Thank you to both Michael and Maria for sharing their conversation!  If you’d like to learn more about Michael’s presentation, please visit this page!


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