Heroes are there when you need them. And they’ve proven it over time. You can’t fake this one. Everyone can look in the rearview mirror and see what’s true. The Water Project learned early on that gaining access to water means nothing if you lose it again. Water has to flow every day for the promise of change it brings to become and remain a reality. And that’s really, really hard. Again, I think of our in-country teams who are at the ready because they are local. They remain among those they serve, in order to serve. Self-interest takes a back seat to being ready to respond to need.
As part of my series about people who stepped up to make a difference during the COVID19 Pandemic, I had the pleasure of interviewing Peter Chasse. Peter is the President & Founder of The Water Project, a non-profit organization that provides reliable water projects to communities in sub-Saharan Africa who suffer needlessly from a lack of access to clean water and proper sanitation. Peter founded The Water Project in 2006 with a committed group of students in Saint John, NB, Canada where he was serving as a Pastor. Together they set out to complete one water project after hearing of a specific need in Kenya. It quickly became evident that by equipping people with the right tools for telling the story of water, a movement could take hold. Within three years, and after officially founding the organization in the U.S., TWP had raised its first 1 million dollars of support for clean water projects — almost all through individual and small group efforts.
Peter is passionate about helping others find reliable access to safe water, as water projects relieve suffering, open doors to education, stimulate economic development, and most importantly introduce a true and lasting hope. Peter’s vision continues to see access to safe water enabling thriving schools, people getting back to work, farming that provides enough food to earn a living, and needless suffering alleviated as health improves.
When COVID-19 hit, The Water Project quickly went into high gear, bolstering the organization’s hygiene and sanitation training — as well as introducing new training on mask making and social distancing — in an effort to help prevent and mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus in the communities they serve. The Water Project has conducted more than 900 training sessions since mid-March.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Peter! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how and where you grew up?
I grew up just outside NYC, in Montclair, NJ. It was an amazing experience at a unique time. No chance we could have afforded to do so today, but we snuck in just in time… a couple of decades ago. The opportunities there, the education, the art, the access to insights and intellects, the rigorous debates, and the dance with so many accomplished professionals was incalculably valuable. I got really lucky our family landed there. I don’t take it for granted.
I will forever be grateful to the people there who stuck me in jobs and responsibilities I had no business doing — because I had no experience — and just let me at it. That confidence and experience shaped me and allowed me to stick myself into some places I had no business going… but absolutely needed to, in order to earn the expertise that comes through naive trial and error.
It was Lili Brown, our next-door neighbor, who introduced me to the world of non-profit through The Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (now Human Rights First). My first real job, she invited me close enough to her passion and work to glean crucial lessons that still guide my work. She was a hero.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
To be honest, I haven’t been reading a ton in the evenings lately. This time demands a getaway once and awhile, an escape. And, to be honest, I don’t control the remote anymore in a house of teenagers either. And they, seeking a similar escape from the noise and chaos around us, decided we would watch the entire Marvel series of movies again… and some again, and again. It’s been fun. And I have to say, for movies that were so often dismissed as pandering or “fast-food” cinema, taken as a body of work over time — there’s more hidden in this series than is perhaps immediately obvious. Or maybe that’s because we’re all simply re-calculating and re-evaluating everything lately and passing those thoughts through the simple lenses presented in the Marvel movies is, frankly, refreshing.
Also… take a load off. It’s ok to eat ice cream for dinner too. Times are… well, you know.
That being said here are some past great and essential reads:
“When Helping Hurts” — Brian Fikkert & Steve Corbett: Doing good doesn’t always mean you’re doing right.
“Radical Candor” — Kim Scott: Telling it like it is can be the most loving and meaningful thing you can do for the people you care for at work.
“Nudge” — Richard H. Thaler, Cass R. Sunstein: Behavior change is hard. Small thinking can be a big deal.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
Ok, so I have to back up my recent choice of intellectual enlightenment now, don’t I? No problem. I’m going to go with Thor’s mother — in the final movie in the Marvel series, End Game. Thor is seeking consolation from his mother at his lowest point, when he has by his own measure, failed miserably to live up to the image of a hero, a king, and certainly of his father. He’s been wallowing in this self-pity for years at this point. We’ve walked with him on this journey through the last few films and this moment we know is pivotal for well… the universe. What is she going to say to make it right?
Thor is a hero to the middle-aged in this film. That is, those of us who set out to achieve something, have made some progress, have also and most assuredly failed terribly at points, and find ourselves constantly grasping at whether or not we’ve lived up to our potential. Some much more accomplished folks than I will go through this in their early 30s. So be it.
She says to her son — the God of Thunder …
“Everyone fails at who they’re supposed to be, Thor. A measure of a person, of a hero, is how well they succeed at being who they are.”
That’s top-shelf advice. And it’s something every leader needs to hold in check. There is no replacement for a healthy ambition and drive. It’s essential to success. But, like everything, it has a boundary, beyond which it becomes destructive, to one’s self but usually first to others.
At some point, we have to set aside the notion of what others “believed we could be” or “see for us” or “expect of us” and live into who we are. The love and encouragement that others pour into us in an amazing gift, and if you are blessed to receive it you should be thankful for and certainly not squander the energy in imbues. But when those expectations and aspirations lead you to even begin to consider sacrificing ideals, truth, ethics, and selfless care of others… stop.
Thor fails (as do most of the heroes in the Marvel universe) whenever they reach TOO far or too early. It’s a fascinating take on “hero”. And one that becomes glaringly evident when you consume all of the films at once.
I have seen so many organizations and people place a goal on the wall that is nothing more than an oversized, arbitrary metric of success — unusually informed by some outside party or book they read the night before. Or, they simply looked at a balance sheet and said, “double that.” And at that moment, they reach too far. It’s beyond who they are or who their organization is — everyone knows it — and it becomes the siren’s call of “success.” It’s almost always a noble or valuable goal. But it’s too fast. People get hurt. Or, leaders burn out.
Now… remember, Thor goes on to help save the universe. So, I’m not discounting growth here — even world-changing growth. But the steps to get there are today and tomorrow. One at a time.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. You are currently leading a social impact organization that has stepped up during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to address?
The Water Project has been working to solve the water crisis, one community at a time, since 2006. We work through teams and partners on the ground in sub-Saharan Africa to provide access to clean, safe, and reliable water to those who suffer needlessly without it — generally in the rural and under-served countryside.
These communities are vulnerable to COVID-19 like all of us, but should the disease take hold the devastation would be uncontrolled. Without proper medical care, facilities, medicines, etc., there would be little to help those who become sick. It’s not something we even want to imagine.
Prevention is the key. So as the world shut down, our teams went into high gear, doubling down on hygiene and sanitation training — which we have always done — and adding comprehensive COVID-19 training to our efforts. We’ve carried out over 900 training sessions since mid-March, re-visiting communities we work with to teach hand washing, mask making, and social distancing. Dispelling rumors and providing common-sense approaches to staying safe has been embraced by the folks we serve and will surely make an impact in preventing spread.
In your opinion, what does it mean to be a hero?
A hero serves others. It’s really that simple. Laying down one’s own self-interest is the ultimate measure. And so, true heroes tend to be exceedingly rare.
In your opinion or experience, what are “5 characteristics of a hero? Please share a story or example for each.
- Sacrifice — Our teams in Kenya, Sierra Leone, and Uganda — as well as our staff here in the U.S., have all turned down other opportunities for self-gain in order to serve others. We take care of our folks to be sure — they deserve it. These are very smart, very driven people. Their skills, talent, and work ethic are second to none and are deeply valuable. And they could earn more, have more secure retirement portfolios, bigger homes, you name it. Our teams in-country could leave the countryside and find success in the cities… or leave their country altogether seeking some experience elsewhere. But they remain. They serve. They love their neighbors every day by ensuring they have clean, safe water. They enable their neighbor to make their own decisions about their futures without this obstacle in their way. It’s a remarkable sacrifice.
- Reliability — Heroes are there when you need them. And they’ve proven it over time. You can’t fake this one. Everyone can look in the rearview mirror and see what’s true. The Water Project learned early on that gaining access to water means nothing if you lose it again. Water has to flow every day for the promise of change it brings to become and remain a reality. And that’s really, really hard. Again, I think of our in-country teams who are at the ready because they are local. They remain among those they serve, in order to serve. Self-interest takes a back seat to being ready to respond to need.
- Relationship — We don’t live in a world of things. We live in a world of people. Societies and organizations make their biggest mistakes when they forget this. The hard part about relationships though is that they are forever fleeting. Relationships happen right now. I’m either in it with you or it’s fading into the past. Heroes recognize this and remain vitally connected to those they love and serve. There’s no substitute. Relationships cost time, energy, and peace. We take on one another’s burdens. It’s the root of heroism again. Sacrifice. Independence is easy but ultimately selfish. Inter-dependence is the pinnacle of being in a relationship with another human. I need you and you need me. Dependence is where we encounter the Divine… but that’s another interview.
Relationship also means knowing whose voice should lead. Heroes have no need for the spotlight. Often the amplification of critical but marginalized voices is the work that needs to be done. Listening, the neglected task at hand. This truth is best discovered in a relationship.
- Trust — This one is the sum of an equation. Reliability + Relationship. You can’t manufacture trust. You can’t conjure it. You can only measure it. And one way to do that is to gauge how quickly a leader can move people through change. For the hero, it’s almost effortless. You follow them anywhere. Why? They have proven themselves over time, and they have your best interest in mind — which you know because through your relationship you have come to understand and believe their true intent. I was chatting with a Board member recently and we were discussing this idea of trust and we came to the realization that the theory of “change management” — of which there are many techniques, books, etc. — is really just a “lack of trust” management. It’s rough, and most often inadequate substitute for the real thing.
- Bravery — A hero knows fear. Intimately.
If heroism is rooted in doing something difficult, scary, or even self-sacrificing, what do you think drives some people — ordinary people — to become heroes?
I’m not sure a hero is driven to be a hero. I think a hero is first self-sacrificing, reliable, and relational and because of that — will do heroic things.
Some others are driven to do great things but are not heroes. As a society, we often mistake these two people and elevate the wrong one to positions of leadership.
That said… I think fear drives heroic action.
I’ve grown weary of this aversion to fear I see in social media, self-help books, and especially faith communities. It’s nonsense that fear should always and with conviction be jettisoned for some other motivator. Fear has served our kind well for millennia. It’s how not to die.
Fear can paralyze for sure. It can lead to retreat. And yes, we can acknowledge that those aren’t necessarily always healthy responses. However, it’s also true that freezing in the face of a rattlesnake and running away zig-zag (look it up) from an alligator are both entirely reasonable and advisable reactions.
Fear is the right response to looking at a deeply broken world and grasping the consequences of greed, lies, and base human nature. Fear alerts the hero that action is desperately needed. Fear acknowledges that the outcomes of inaction are unacceptable. Fear says move.
For those who hate the word, I am with you in that fear is not a destination. It is not a sanctuary or retreat. You cannot remain in it. Fear is a signal, not an excuse. It demands a reaction, not a tenant.
Ultimately, fear is love. Fear says I cannot tolerate this outcome for you, and I will act. That action is heroic.
What was the specific catalyst for you or your organization to take heroic action? At what point did you personally decide that heroic action needed to be taken?
About 14 years ago, I was attending a conference of pastors and church leaders from across Atlantic Canada, where my family was living at the time (our home is the US). A young associate myself, serving in Saint John, New Brunswick, I found myself just about ready to get home for the weekend. I’d grown a bit weary of listening to any number of speakers and teachers present to us over the prior three days. We had been discussing influence, culture, teaching, and how to lead the people in our care to life-changing growth. That’s what the brochure said, in not so many words. I, instead, was mostly a bit tired. These conferences can get a bit long. So, when the host introduced the audience of over 300 to their next guest speaker I, like many I suspect, was thinking more about the clock than the life diverting encounter that was in fact imminent.
Titus Kilu, a Kenyan and pastor himself, had been invited to share his experience caring for communities surrounding the town of Machakos in Southeast Kenya. His accent was considerable, but he was easy enough to follow given the proper attention. I remember thinking to myself that at least this would be different, so perhaps I’d lean in.
I was fascinated by his energy and enthusiasm. He didn’t waste any time getting to his point. Things were hard for the people he served. He was here in Canada to ask for assistance. And his chat with us began like many of these asks do.
Together we listened as he described what many of us largely understood. A lack of food, education, health, and money was hindering any development the families he cared for sought after. Poverty was gripping this part of his homeland. In just under a minute he laid out the familiar contrast between our abundance and their want. And, honestly, had the cadence of his speech been any slower than his blistering delivery, I too may have been lost for any more attention.
I had heard all of it before, countless times. Having grown up in the era of Live Aid, the Ethiopian Famine of the 80s, and countless appeals to “save Africa” I assumed, briefly in the space between his words, that the evening would end no differently than the many other times I had faced our world’s inequality. I would, for a time, reflect on my Western privilege. I would mourn the suffering — however inadequately. I would then calculate the scale of the issues and conclude that there is a little meaningful contribution I can possibly make. Thankfully, his pace didn’t offer me any more space to excuse my inaction.
Titus immediately introduced us to a problem I frankly didn’t know existed outside of the deserts of the world. The lack of clean, safe drinking water. Titus lived with daily reminders of the impossible problems of developing out of poverty. What Titus learned is that the solution to each of these much larger issues is rooted in a more foundational problem. Thirst.
Over the next minute or so he teased a picture of flourishing that captured my imagination for change, one that I had long exchanged for complacency. He painted the very simple picture of a girl waking up each morning, having traded a long walk to water for a day of hope as she returned to the schoolroom where she belonged. He introduced a mother returning to meaningful, valuable work in her community, freed from the waterborne disease that crippled her. He challenged every misplaced notion I might have held of a “handout” as he told the story of farmers returning to the work they knew and loved in the fields, growing, again in abundance.
All in a matter of seconds, the gift of clean, safe water seemed revolutionary.
Who are your heroes, or who do you see as heroes today?
I have others for sure, but one that stands out in this moment, and I know he’s become a bit of a political lightning rod, is Dr. Anthony Fauci. He meets so many of the criteria I mentioned above as he leads us through this pandemic.
He, better than most, grasps the fear that should motivate us all to sacrifice for one another. The alternative he knows is unacceptable.
And he, like The Water Project, is engaged in some of the hardest work there is — changing behavior. Getting people to wash their hands, distance from one another, give up personal habits, all in response to an invisible virus or organism. Yeah, we get it. It requires trust. It takes time. It can go wrong in a hot second. It balances understanding human nature, how we respond, what’s important to us, how external influences may interfere with our messaging, competing interests… there is never a shortage of variables at play.
He is staring into this beast with and for us all. His tenacity and perseverance are inspiring.
Let’s talk a bit about what is happening in the world today. What specifically frightened or frightens you most about the pandemic?
The purposeful obfuscation of truth coupled with negligent and malign inaction. That and the weird shortage of toilet paper.
Despite that, what gives you hope for the future? Can you explain why?
These moments of upheaval tend to remove the veils we’ve created for ourselves and our society. We begin to again see truths that are immutable and undeniable. These truths help us rebuild systems that acknowledge, account for, and hopefully help inoculate us from the brokenness of the world as it actually is. There will be an inevitable re-evaluation of true leadership, the role of government, the nature of “freedom” and independence, and a rending of illusions as to the value of tribe, party, race, and wealth.
We are living through a revolution that history will define for us in retrospect. If we can find a way to love one another as we pass through it, it will be worth it.
Any hope I have is that sacrificial love has proven, without question and throughout all history, to undo the deepest of evil.
What has inspired you the most about the behavior of people during the pandemic, and what behaviors do you find most disappointing?
All of us know this when we see it. We weep with the doctors, nurses, first responders, and scientists as they fight for us at great personal cost. The tears are hope. Hope that the best of us will save the rest of us.
But don’t get me started on the rest… Yikes. We have some growing up to do.
Has this crisis caused you to reassess your view of the world or of society? We would love to hear what you mean.
Nope. The world is broken. The prescription is selfless love.
What permanent societal changes would you like to see come out of this crisis?
I would like to see structural changes that incorporate the idea that true freedom is the freedom to care for others first by ensuring justice and mercy for all.
That will of course require a return of nuanced debate with and among people we don’t agree with, who we acknowledge are imperfect, who have deeply flawed personal histories, and are thus…. exactly like us. We are all learning. The best of us are doing it actively and listening in order to grow.
We could all use a healthy dose of grace. None of us deserve to lead in the final measure of things. So, perhaps we can abandon the search for perfection, and seek out reasonableness and personal sacrifice as the core qualities of a genuine leader — as a start. In the meantime, we can individually focus on the good we hear in other’s responses to this current chaos, and at least let pass quietly the nonsense we’re all going to utter from time to time. The truth is often lost in raucous condemnation. But when goodness, mercy, and justice are amplified, they can easily muzzle the noise of deceit.
And wash your hands! At the very least it signals to everyone else that you acknowledge you may not be as squeaky clean as you believe. It also nudges the next person toward healthier behavior. Trust me, we see this work every day at The Water Project. Communities humbly lead one another, simply by doing the right thing for the other’s health and well-being.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
No self-interest will ever truly satisfy you. I’ve checked.
That isn’t to say money won’t buy some happiness. Just ask those folks on the fancy jet skis. That’s fun times. Still, present happiness is not enduring satisfaction. Even the wealthiest people in history acknowledged that their only hope of satisfaction was in the next dollar.
But wow, is there a lasting peace that comes in helping someone else.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
One of the encouraging things I’ve seen happen during the pandemic is a number of tech companies stepping in to offer assistance to non-profits as they have had to re-tool for work-at-home, offer remote services, or simply adjust to dramatic changes in funding.
Tech has been at the very core of our work at The Water Project from the beginning. Our website is where all of our donors, team members, partners, and communities come together to learn about our work, manage project data, track impact and performance, and offer support. If it doesn’t work, we don’t work and the communities we serve suffer. We face challenges securing it and making sure it is reliable so we can, in turn, be reliable to the communities we serve. Cloudflare, through its Project Galileo program, stepped into that gap with and for us even before the pandemic. The program provides security and protection — for free — to important public interest groups that are vulnerable to cyberattacks and high traffic loads. It’s been transformative, especially as we navigate increased traffic to our website as a result of our COVID-19 efforts. We’ve redirected resources that otherwise would have been distracted by the demands of security and high-availability and instead allowed them to focus on what we do best — helping others. Because of Project Galileo, even a small organization like ours has a secret IT weapon allowing us to keep our virtual office not only wide open but safe.
We’ve watched as other companies have done similar things around infrastructure and video conferencing. And it strikes me that this ought to be more of the norm. These amazing tools are often simply out of reach for non-profits. Either a lack of budget or lack of in-house talent keeps some truly innovative tools and implementations on the shelf. That’s a shame. Blockchain is one obvious example.
Just as Cloudflare has done for us, I’d love to see a continuing and growing commitment of tech companies to even more pro bono, truly free, software licenses, and additional offers of support, implementation, and even brainstorming with and for causes they believe in. Many do this in some measure. We are enormously grateful for them. And I think if more understood the impact that it makes, they wouldn’t hesitate to do more. I know they’re in it to change the world. There’s a way to do that while they’re going public too.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Dr. Fauci, again. But after this pandemic is in the books. He’s busy. But, dang, he sure seems like he’d be fun to hang out with. And his masterful and superhuman ability to not get bogged down in the mire around him… is something I’d like to know more about.
How can our readers follow you online?
@PeterTWP — though I’m not an active Tweeter… I will happily engage.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!