Change Generation: Emma Taylor, Co-Founder, European Disaster Volunteers

When the earthquake hit Haiti in January 2010, the world was mobilized: aid, donations, and volunteers poured in from around the globe. Now almost a year later, the news crews have disappeared and the donations have eased up, but help is still needed in the poverty-stricken nation. That's where Emma Taylor, 25, and the organization she co-founded, European Disaster Volunteers (EDV) come in. Discouraged by the lack of follow-up aid in disaster zones such as Haiti, and many others, in 2008 Emma started EDV as an organization that would be volunteer driven and could provide long term aid to troubled regions. Almost a year later, with over a dozen projects in Haiti, they've provided critical relief there, with future plans for work around the world. Emma, who now serves as EDV's Media and Marketing director, spoke with us about the genesis of this innovative organization, how she's getting used to a life of constant globe-trotting, and why she's thanking her 11th grade English teacher now.

What's your big idea?

After a natural disaster, aid tends to pour in—as well it should. This immediate aid saves lives and is vitally important, but it doesn't address the long-term issues that prevent communities from recovering on their own. We aim to help communities which have been devastated by natural disaster recover sustainably and become more able to meet their own needs after we leave. We also believe that volunteers are a powerful force in long-term disaster recovery, so we welcome anyone who's interested in helping with no registration or participation fees.

What was the inspiration behind EDV?

After college I went traveling in South America and found my way to an earthquake zone where I spent months clearing rubble and saw suffering I had never imagined. Clearing rubble was satisfying for me, but as I worked I started to realize that I was just cleaning up, not changing lives. I wanted to be involved with an organization that did more than just address the mess left by disaster—I wanted to know that my efforts would continue to make a difference after I left. I couldn't find one, so I co-founded EDV.

What problem were you first trying to address?

My goal—and EDV's goal—is to do more than provide aid after a disaster. We focus on addressing the underlying issues that made communities vulnerable to disaster in the first place and are inhibiting their long-term recovery. This means that we aim to do more than just takes weak communities back to their pre-disaster state. We "build back better" by designing programs and projects which meet core needs. Without a focus on these long-term issues communities can become trapped in a cycle of disaster, poverty, and aid dependency.

How did you know it was working?

This summer, as we launched EDV's first deployment in Port au Prince, the Vodafone Foundation in the U.K. named our Executive Director, Andy Chaggar, as one of its World of Difference Winners. World of Difference allows him to continue working through dedicated funding for salary and expenses. Vodafone's award was also a true recognition of our new charity's potential. It was an amazing moment and has been an incredible boost.

What was your initial goal?

Our goal was and still is to work with disaster survivors to address the underlying issues that made them vulnerable to disaster in the first place and are preventing them from recovering without outside help.

And now…

Our goals have the same general aim—described above—adapted for Haiti. Haitian earthquake survivors are held back by a lack of education and jobs, so we're working with community leaders to hold classes that teach the skills needed to secure jobs, rebuilding classrooms to increase access to education, and developing community programs, like our community soccer program, to help people come together to solve common problems.

Where did you grow up?

Easton, Connecticut.

What do your parents do?

My father was an editor who owned his own business and my mother has worked in publishing for more than 30 years.

Where did you go to school? What was your major?

I went to college at the University of Pittsburgh and majored in writing.

What's your favorite specific class or teacher? What was memorable about them?

My 11th grade English teacher was quite eccentric—aka, banging her head on the table when students made stupid comments. She had very high standards for her students and pushed us to think critically. Her motto for writing was "clear before clever" and she taught us that if you can write it out, you can reason through a problem. "Clear before clever" and "think it through" are two very good pieces of advice whether I'm writing for our website or giving trainings on how to avoid Cholera in a Haitian Displaced Persons camp.

What figures do you most admire? Whose leadership model do you follow?

When I think about leadership, I think about one of my aunts. She lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico and works for the city government. Albuquerque had a problem with kids skateboarding where they shouldn't be. Rather than trying to prohibit them or crack down on an activity they clearly loved, she led the push to design and build a skate park. It was a practical, positive solution to the problem which was presented to her. That's exactly how I try to approach problems today.

How is your life different now than it was before you started EDV?

I travel all over the world with EDV—right now I live in Port au Prince, Haiti. My role as Media and Marketing Director means that I spend a lot of my time getting the word out about what we're doing and what life is like in Haiti. I also work with directly with survivors, helping design and implement projects. It's very hands on and challenging—I love it.

What excites you about your generation?

I think our generation is powerful beyond measure. I work closely with EDV's volunteers, most of whom just find us online and then choose to give up their vacation time to come live in a disaster zone and volunteer helping strangers. That's an incredibly brave and generous choice and it never ceases to amaze me that people make it every day. The combination of our generation's online tools that connect us to the world and our willingness to get our hands dirty has limitless potential.

If you had 60 seconds with President Obama what would you say to him?

It's not very sexy or sentimental, but I think I'd like to ask him about where he sees international NGOs in relation to military involvement and governmental aid in the developing world. Tough in 60 seconds, but I'd go for it anyway.

How has technology and social media affected your work?

When we were first launching EDV, we didn't have funding to design or set up a branded website so we used a Facebook group as our primary communications platform. Now that we have a branded website, Facebook and Twitter continue to be huge parts of our fundraising and communications. We also built and run EDV on Google Apps. It's a very simple, powerful way of storing and organizing our work.

What is your biggest challenge?

Our biggest challenge by far and away was securing startup funding. All of the founders of EDV are very experienced disaster response volunteers who were living in disaster affected communities for months or years with no income prior to founding EDV. Those experiences gave us the know-how to help disaster survivors, but they left us with no personal money to invest in the charity and no big-money contacts to leverage. It took us more than a year to secure startup funding so that we could register EDV as a U.K. Charity. Today the biggest challenge we face is managing our growth while planning for our next major step. It is a really exciting time and presents us with lots of interesting challenges and opportunities.

What assets or challenges do you face as a young person?

My youth means that I have never worked for a long period of time in an office or professional setting. This is both a strength and a challenge. I lack business connections to leverage as EDV grows. We've had to work hard to forge new contacts, but the contacts we do have find us refreshing and honest because we're all young and we have a new take.

How would the world be different in 10 years if you had your way?

I was lucky to be born into a family and society that nurtured my interests, kept me safe and healthy, and gave me access to the one of the best educations in the world. Living and working in disaster zones and partnering with disaster survivors has made it very real and immediate to me that there is no fundamental difference between me and the poorest of the poor in Haiti or Peru. I was just incredibly lucky to have been born where and when I was. If it was up to me, your place of birth wouldn't be the key determining factor in whether or not you have the opportunity to live past five, survive a hurricane, attend school, and support your family.

If you weren't doing this, you'd be…

An editor, a traveler, a vagabond, a childcare provider...who knows!

Anything else we should know…

Well not to shamelessly plug EDV, but we do welcome volunteers regardless of skills or experience in Haiti and don't charge a registration fee. If you've ever thought you might like to have an adventure and do some good come check us out. We'd love to meet you.

Follow EDV on twitter @EDVMedia.

Change Generation


David D. Burstein is a young entrepreneur himself, having completed his first documentary 18 in '08 for which he was awarded a $10,000 grant from Nancy Lublin's DoSomething.org. He is the Founder & Executive director of the youth voter engagement not for profit, Generation18. His book about the millennial generation will be published by Beacon Press in fall 2011.

David and Fast Company are producing Change Generation, a new series profiling a young generation of change-seekers. We'll be covering everything from educational activists to champions of political reform, creative entrepreneurs, and outright thrill seekers. We'll be hosting Q&As as well as video profiles with production partner shatterbox.

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