The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.
– Mahatma Gandhi
Preface: I met Maria Diecidue at a healthcare information technology conference meeting about four years ago. Each year, at this same conference, we got to know one another a bit more. When Maria, who lives and works in Chicago, briefly mentioned having gone to India through a corporate service program the last time we saw one another, I wanted to learn more. We didn’t get a chance to catch up, but when I started my blog last December, I knew I wanted her to share her story not just with me but with a wider like-minded audience.
A ‘bleeding heart liberal’ meets a ‘blue washing’
When she was young, Maria Diecidue, who describes herself as a “bleeding heart liberal,” wanted to join the Peace Corps. But as so often happens in life, she went down a different path. Years later, after IBM acquired the healthcare information technology company she was working for, Maria learned about IBM’s culture of giving at an employee orientation or “blue washing.” “It’s nice to hear that a multi-billion dollar corporation can be self-deprecating once in a while,” she said, of the “blue washing” reference. During the orientation, she was especially pleased to hear about IBM’s commitment to corporate citizenship. And, when she heard about the Corporate Service Corps, a four-week program modeled after the Peace Corps, she was ready to “drink the Kool-aid.” In the Corporate Service Corps, volunteers bring their knowledge and skills to an emerging country to address a community problem. Maria’s initial response was: “Where do I sign up? When can I go?”
Once she met the requirements to apply – employed for at least a year, good performance rating, and manager approval – she eagerly submitted her application, which included her preference to go to Asia from among IBM’s four geographical service areas. In her application letter, Maria talked about how population health has always been a challenge and how industrialization has made it worse. She firmly believes and is impassioned by the idea that technology should be used, not only for profit, but to solve global problems. In her essay, Maria also described her passion for environmental issues and the importance of a sustainable environment. As a docent for the Chicago Architecture Foundation, Maria was interested in the built environment and its impact on the earth.
Maria, who is an IA Communications manager for IBM Information Management, was accepted into the program in May 2011, but not given her assignment until six months later. It wasn’t until the end of April 2012, however, after receiving about ten hours of instructions and cultural immersion lessons, that she and 12 other IBM employees were deployed to Indore, India, a city of two million people in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. They were divided into four groups, with each group assigned to a local NGO (nongovernmental organization). There are some 18,000 NGOs, which are supported by the business community, working throughout India, according to Maria. She and her two partners, both business consultants, Miguel Contreras from Chile with a background in mining and Zach Waltz, a fellow American with a background in government, were assigned to develop a basic toolkit of do’s and don’ts for water sustainability and management.
Tackling India’s water issues
Maria and her colleagues were dispatched to vulnerable communities – or slums, as they are called in the U.S. As many as 600,000 Indore citizens live in vulnerable communities. In most of these communities, water is delivered by big tanker trucks and the women and children who were responsible for collecting and transporting water via buckets and tubs to their communities. In Indian culture, women raise the children, cook, clean, and gather and distribute water. Many kids don’t go to school because they have to wait for the water trucks to show up, which at times is in the middle of the night. Even though the women had interpreters who could translate Hindi to English and vice versa, Maria said, “You could actually understand the women, understand their passion. It transcended language. It was magical.” During her visit to the Rahul Ghandi Negar community, Maria met some amazing women who she refers to as “our water goddesses.” Despite being treated as second-class citizens in their own country – by virtue of their ability to get cooperation and collect money from the community members – they established themselves as community leaders. They convinced the local municipality that they can manage a bore well and got one dug in the Rahul Ghandi Negar. Now, water is available in the community a few hours a day, several days a week. Maria’s hope is that the kids will be able to go to school regularly now that they are closer to the water source.
In addition to observing the vulnerable communities, Maria and her colleagues visited developments for the growing middle class and schools for upper-class students. “Everyone is tapping into the same underground water-aquifer,” she explained, so all communities need to be educated on water sustainability. When the three saw how India’s natural water sources – its lakes and rivers – were polluted, Maria said, “We realized [access to clean water] was a problem not just for vulnerable communities but all communities, and it can’t be solved by one person.” One of the causes of water pollution in India is the lack of infrastructure for waste. All garbage, including plastic, is burned, which releases toxins such as fluorocarbon in the air and further exacerbates the environmental problems plaguing the country, she pointed out.
One of her colleagues was trained in a methodology developed by McKinsey & Company, in which transformation change requires changing the mindset, behavior, and capabilities of people. “A big part of that is recognizing and cultivating leaders and then replicating leadership within the community,” she explained. Maria and her colleagues worked with other NGOs in the area, comprising anywhere between five to 50 people, giving them the basic toolkit and designed to cultivate them into the green leaders of Indore by modeling the characteristics of the women they observed – the “charismatic ‘water goddesses.'” The toolkit itself teaches average citizens sustainable water management – how to manage water supply by harvesting rain water, recharging wells, and reusing grey water in the house, office, and community. Once the NGOs are trained, they continue the process of identifying and cultivating leaders, which creates a culture of self-sufficiency. “We worked nights and weekends [within the four-week period] to get it done,” she said.
Maria and her colleagues conducted an awareness class in the schools, asking these students how they would manage water if they couldn’t get it from the tap or only had access to it for one hour a day but not every day of the week. Maria and her colleagues asked them if they knew anyone who did not have water running from the tap at home. They did. “We went through exercises with the students to try to enlighten them of these conditions that people in their own town have to deal with because they can’t access water,” she said. When students were challenged to come up with solutions, initially, their response was for everyone to get rid of the swimming pools. By the end of the program, students learned, for example, to take short showers, turn off the tap while brushing teeth, and washing and reuse gray water from dishwashing for watering plants. “They were very receptive, and it worked really well,” she said. “It was very moving.”
Great expectations and life post-India
Going into the program, Maria was hoping to “do some good and make a difference,” although, she admitted, “I had no concept of how I could make a dent in this whole big problem of water management.” She knew, however, that the experience would have a great impact on her – learning about an entirely different culture. The people she met were very warm and generous, sharing what they had, regardless of their socio-economic class. When they visited families in their homes, Maria and her colleagues were greeted with flowers and bindis on their foreheads. “It was like a religious ceremony; there was something spiritual about it,” she said, of the visits.
When Maria returned, she gave a presentation on her team’s efforts on water sustainability to her immediate and higher-level management groups. “In some ways, everything’s changed,” she said, of her experience. Not surprisingly, she is more sensitized to the sustainability of water and the environment. Coincidently Maria’s significant other had previously adopted six children from India, and spending time there gave her an understanding of his children’s birth country and created a deeper bond with him. She also formed a bond with the IBM team members in her group and her circle of friendship has expanded to Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Chile, Germany, Japan, and Mexico.
The physical challenges of living for two years in an emerging country at this stage in her life (Maria is 62) will likely preclude her from joining the Peace Corps upon retirement, which was something she thought she considered years ago, she doesn’t shut down the idea completely. “I don’t know, maybe, we’ll see,” she said, gamely. For now, she volunteers with IBM’s mentor program at a Chicago high school, which is collaborating with businesses and being funded by the federal government as a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Academy. She recently presented at the academy, talking about her experiences in India and emphasizing the message of sustainability. She continues to do volunteer work, the most recent one for the Greater Chicago Food Depository. “Volunteer work,” Maria said, with conviction, “will always to be a part of my life.” In the meantime, she is happy to be working with a company that encourages its employees to do volunteer work and in doing so is a model for corporate citizenship. “We need more of this in the world,” she said.