Join me for today’s conversation where I will be speaking with Jo Bacallo, the founder of SEEDS (Schools for Environment Education, Development and Sustainability). Jo believes in the right for every young person in remote communities to access information about environment education, and learn how to live sustainably.
From growing up in the Philippines as a student journalist who did not accept the reality of injustice, Jo became a water storyteller to bring the voices of the outsiders, the ones left behind, on stages around the world. She encourages young founders of grassroots organisations to pursue their activities in water and climate education because, even though the work is difficult, it will have a tremendous impact in the future.
Enjoy the conversation!
Jo recommended the book The Examined Life by Stephen Rosz. And somebody she would love to listen to on this show is Pavlo Vezdenetsky, the founder of a nonprofit organisation that protects rivers in his hometown of Khmelnytskyi, Ukraine.
To connect with Jo, you can find her on LinkedIn and Facebook. You can also visit her website and watch one of her most recent video interviews. To find out more about SEEDS, you can connect with them on their Facebook page.
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Hello dear listeners, welcome to narratives of purpose, you are now tuned into a new episode showcasing unique stories of changemakers, stories of people who are contributing to make a difference in society. This show was created to amplify social impact by sharing individual journeys of ordinary people who I believe are making extraordinary impact within their communities and around the world. My name is Claire Murigande. I'm your host on this podcast. And if you want to be inspired to take action, then look no further, you are in the right place, get comfortable, and listen in to my conversations.
My guest on today's episode is Joana Bacallo, or better known as Jo Bacallo. Jo is a water storyteller. From growing up in the Philippines with a sense of hating injustice, Jo worked in the aviation industry. Then she later became a UN Sustainable Development Goal advocate, particularly for goal number six, ensuring access to water and sanitation for all. She recently created the SEEDS organisation. The name is an acronym for Schools for Environment Education, Development and Sustainability. In our discussion, Jo shares the work she carries out in the development world of water and environment partnering with local indigenous communities. She also talks about how she champions women and girls through education. And for this episode, to reach more people, I invite you to take a moment and share your feedback by giving us a review on Apple podcasts or on our website at narratives dash of dash purpose dot podcastpage dot i o, this will help other listeners find our show and further amplify the stories we bring you on narratives of purpose. For now, let's get into the fascinating conversation with Jo.
How are you Jo? Welcome to Narratives of Purpose.
Thank you, Claire, I'm super excited to be here. And thank you for inviting me to be part of Narratives of Purpose.
My pleasure, you know, just a bit of background for our listeners we met in the summer of 2022 at a conference. And I was really intrigued by the fact that you identify I would say or at least you were presented as a water storyteller. So that in itself is quite intriguing. So we will go into that. And we'll speak as well about your foundation. But before we start, let our listeners know a bit of who is Jo? And how did she become a water storyteller?
I'm not a student of development, climate, I didn't have any specific expertise. In fact, I studied international business and my masters is in aviation management. So I came from a very different role. But I guess travel enabled me to see those different realities. So I thought I'm just going to tell their stories, the ones that are not there. And for me, that was the kind of etymology of why do I tell their stories, being a water storyteller can be for anyone. And I think right now my journey is to help other people unlock the ability that you can do that too, in your own different ways. So that's me, from aviation industry now into the development world.
you're saying that you want to be the voice or these people who don't have a space on the stage? How did you get that consciousness at that point to say, Okay, now I have the chance to be invited to those stages and I want to tell their story. So walk us a bit through that. Was there a defining moment that made you realise that?
To tell you the truth, it has something to do with an introspection and maybe not many people would like to admit that we hit a wall at a certain age, where you're asking yourself, What am I doing? Why am I seeing these things? Why am I doing this work? And why is this work enabling me to see one reality? And then I go to, I call it my time machine, the aircraft. And then in the next two days I'm going to be in a different country. Why am I seeing that? So I was trying to pull the pieces together and in fact, to tell you honestly, it's about almost like I knew that I had to confront this. It's a narcissistic point of view that I'm not accepting this, it has to come from my own experience. I'm going to do this because it's not right, it doesn't feel right for me. And, again, fast forward the story, when I'm in communities and meeting amazing teachers and students, it feels good. I felt that no one recognises in some people that I work with before in the development world, that before we actually integrate ourselves into the community, it first has to feel good. So the transition point is pockets of little experiences that I received over the years of travelling. So there was not any specific moment that I wake up, oh, I have to do this. It was more of like questioning yourself continuously. And sometimes it has to do with being away and pulling yourself from the normal things that you're doing. Because there's too much noise around you. I think that was the switch.
So you speak about, you know, being in communities and sharing their stories. So tell us about how you started? Which communities or which country, or which groups you're working with? And how do you share these water stories? When, say you're invited on stage, how do you raise the awareness so to speak?
I started my journey while I was working as a flight attendant in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and I think in the Gulf region, the aviation industry is maybe not like the ones in Asia or in Europe, where people just go from one place to the other, but it's more of like grand hype experiences. And I have received that, in my time in Dubai, where we have places, and I can see grandiose lifestyle, people who are kings or celebrities. And then you go to one place and experience almost like the same thing. And again, going back to retrospection, where, why am I experiencing this? And then when you look outside your hotel room, you kind of question, why are the other people not on the same level as me. So again, it's questioning all the time. But I think the layer that was added in my experience is the water that I see around, and again, like, you know, not mentioning different countries or cities. But how come that one day, I go to a place where I open the tap water, and I can drink it. And in the next two days, I'll be in a country where the bottled water even smells. So I felt that maybe fundamentally growing up in the Philippines. And when I was growing up, I was a student journalist, I felt that I had disdain and hate for injustice. So I would not accept this reality. And so I started to learn about water. And I think our relationship with water in the West, or the normal setup of things, as we say, is that it, it's our drinking water, and it's the water that we use to wash ourselves. But actually, in my self discovery, I saw that water can mean gender inequality in different parts of the world. And also it means war. It means a lot of injustices and whoever gets the water gets the power. It's like this movie 'Rango' where this guy is just getting the water and keeping it for himself and he rations the water. So you see how water is also power. And when you ask me like, how do I continue this? Or how do I promote this advocacy, is when I thought of attending all of the water conferences and conferences that relate to how do we reduce inequality through our own little ways. I really believed that we can only make change when we are in the big guys, the big boys of really strict institutions of water development, or organisations for women and girls. I just thought I need to be part of this organisation. I need to take part in that conversation. I want to be part of the conversation because I'm this person who's I've seen it in my own way, how can I, how can I do it? How can they be part? And so the long road of development work and advocacy have been very tiring for me. And I don't know if people would also resonate with that because you're trying to squeeze yourself in an institution that maybe is not meant for people like you, the outsider. And so I thought maybe I should just do it, my own thing. And I know it's gonna be hard. And it's going to earn a lot of eyebrow raise, and no, you don't belong there! You don't have any credibility! And so yeah, you basically can't do it. How come we cannot just sit and listen? And maybe that outsiders or people like me, who want to take part, who are from different industries can actually make a difference. And we're seeing that a lot in different movements. And now you can see a lot of campaigns and conversations on bringing art, bringing photography, bringing music, in translating or communicating what we wanted to achieve to different audiences. Because I would like to believe we're always group thinking, important, intelligent people. And this is what we need to do. This is what we need, this is what other people need. But actually, we're forgetting that those people who are not there should be included, how do we include them? Listen to them, maybe they're the ones who're gonna lead. So from institution, I went on a different road of actually freeing myself of that bias that we can only make a difference if we are in those chunks of big organisations.
How have you seen the evolution? Or I don't know if there's an impact already, since you've been doing that. But are people paying more attention to what you're saying, for instance?
I felt that a few years ago, when I was introduced to the indigenous community in the south of the Philippines, it was something that I knew it will be very difficult to penetrate in terms of curriculum design, or how do they do their, their things around? It's because there's, again, so many layers of the society, and very remote communities are still in touch and very much intact with their traditions and culture. But as a young person, long time ago, you just feel super frustrated and super impatient, that why are they not listening? Why are they doing the things that they're doing? Maybe there's a different way, how can we introduce a different way to them, so that maybe they can try, but instead of you trying to fight their system and fight who they are, you just stay with them, spend time with them, and they will show you the way they will allow you to be part of them. And, in fact, most of the time, the solutions I'm thinking about in terms of water, sanitation, and hygiene in schools, which is our project in the south of the Philippines, the solutions come from them, the manpower, the people, the crowdfunding of people who are wanted to see, for example, a project there for a hand washing facility is immense, you don't even have to tell them, I think the value of listening and really, genuinely wanting to know the people who are going to be your partners, not the recipients of your aid but partners in development, are so imperative in the works of development. And so, I guess we left the community where we went there with my partner, Project Development Manager from Art Dubai. We entered the school through education, trying to provide them with school uniforms and facilities, but the project grew where now teachers and other parts of the community like the parents are given economic opportunities. Also, with the rise of I will say social media in terms of delivering this message that this situation exists. I think people are more and more open to also welcoming new ideas and ways of thinking and ways of seeing things. I guess that leads me to my next project which is also going to be in Pakistan.
I was just going to ask you about your organisation now, SEEDS right? that you founded. How did that start? And tell us more about what is your objective and your ambition now with your own structure, so to speak.
I founded SEEDS, well it was complicated when you are a foreigner from a different place. And now that I'm residing here, I thought I can't do it anymore Claire because before I'm able to travel, and I have, I have so much resources and going to different countries is attainable all the time. But now I'm, I'm here, I decided to move to Europe. And so I can't do it anymore, right? And so I thought, hang on, like these are just noises again. You have to go back to who you are and what you have started cannot be just left behind there, just because you're far away. Remember, the pandemic taught us that change and, and things happen even if we're far away. And so over the year, I decided to get on my notes and reflect on my travels. And maybe my personal journals helped me a lot to see my little milestone in terms of what I have accomplished as a person who's doing a lot of projects and partnerships with different people. And so I thought that the easiest way, and the kindest way to get into a community is actually through education. And I always refer to students as young persons, because if you're a student, it means you're enrolled in a school, but in some parts of the world, they are not enrolled in a school, they're just informal settlers. So I decided that I wanted to create a very inclusive organisation where schools or informal settlements where people gather to learn would be advocates for development, environment education, sustainability, as well. So I come there in the school, where I partner with their teachers, their parents, and of course, the founders of the school, where you're not going there as someone from a nice background of lifestyle, and you're going to tell them what to do, which I think it's counterintuitive. So you're going to go there as a partner, then you're going to sit down and listen to each other. And you discuss how are you going to put these school children or young people from point A to point B, where the difference would be an increase in quality of life. And so their school curriculum would be the most omnipresent and kindest way to actually do that. So I'm not going to tell you that this is the way we do things here. It's mostly around almost like an anthropological point of view, where you will not teach them the immediate ways of how to protect the ocean, for example, where in fact, they live in a mountainous region. It's great if they know that, but how are these people going to grow up and will be the advocates for your environment education, because if they do, so other things will flow, like economic opportunities, etc. And, of course, you wanted to teach them or be partners with them, but at the same time, learn about their culture. And their traditions because there's no one size fits all, as we say. But at the same time, I also want to emphasise that SEEDS, School for Environment Education, Development and Sustainability, is not disrupting the environment education sphere, or it's not some sort of like amazing that I would be like the best of the world, I created this, in the context of this phrase we always hear: the ones left behind. The ones in the mountainous region, the ones in their indigenous schools and in refugee school. So I wanted to start from there. And I wanted to hear what they have to say. And I'm super excited, because I knew more than anything, I'm gonna learn so much from them.
And I think it's also quite important what you mentioned, because also what happens in their environment is definitely going to affect us as well.
Exactly. And remember, the rich countries, quote-on-quote, are the ones who are contributing most to the emissions and waste. But the poorer countries, or let's say, mostly Global South, are the ones on the receiving end. And the forests in the Amazon or the rivers, for example, are being compromised, and they don't have any resources to protect this or rebuild it. Again, there is a massive inequality for this, we have to stop talking about it and actually give strong commitments to it. Of course, let's not forget, organisations like me, and I know there's a lot more grassroots people who are working on the ground. And I think there is such a massive ripple that can be created. That's why I encourage young founders, and and people who want to go to the development world, in water and climate and environment education that it’s not going to be easy. But it's going to have a massive impact. We just don't know it and we don't feel it on an immediate scale.
It's also very important that you mention that it's not going to be easy. Because I also believe everything has a process and every process takes its time. Just have that in mind. And as you were saying before, you know, when you said okay, you moved to Europe, and now you can't just stop what you started, you know, that process has to continue maybe it's taking a different form now through your organisation, which leads me again to another question, because you mentioned grassroots organisation. Do you have specific partners in the places you're operating? And who are you working with, basically?
When I met you last June, at Laax in Switzerland, I had the opportunity to share my meeting with Mr. Shakeel Rehman, my current partner in Pakistan. He is the founder of Shaheed Haroon Elementary School in Peshawar, Pakistan. He built the school in honour of His Son, whom tragically, he lost in a motorcycle accident in San Francisco in California. And when he went back to his hometown, he was asking himself, why did this situation happen to him? He saw the poverty that is everywhere around the town where he grew up. And so he said, in honour of his son who was supposed to be graduating university that time, he wanted to give back to people the gift of education. And so when I met him on a flight back to San Francisco, the story of Mr. Shakeel and his son really touched my heart. And I guess, when you have so much empathy, and you connect with someone who also has the same heart as you, it's not something that you would forget easily. And so our friendship grew over the years. And I decided to contact him and ask him about the school once, once I decided to create my own organisation, which is going to be very relevant to the children in Pakistan. And so he allowed me and he asked me, maybe there would be an opportunity for us to work together. And he specifically asked me about the topic of menstrual health hygiene, which in fact, most likely, is inexistent in any parts of the curriculum in the school. I'm not going there to be a champion for menstrual health hygiene, but to actually learn what are the different ways on how do the young girls deal with their everyday lives when they start to hit puberty? I need partners with this. Firstly, it will be Mr. Shakeel, the founder, with an open heart and an open mind that I know this school is in the middle of a city where this is not usually taught in elementary schools. And I believe that without the approval and the open mind of Mr. Shakeel, projects like discussing menstrual health hygiene as part of health, as well as hand hygiene, and you know, water in schools and, and basic hand washing in schools, will not thrive if we're not good with our partners, if we don't listen to what they need. And so I'm going there as an observer, and almost like a middle person on what do we need, what can we improve, and I'm super excited to work with them and really listen to their challenges. I wanted to also highlight my relationship with students in Ukraine at the moment, where also one of my partners in an ongoing project with Ukrainian University is a person, Pavlo, whom I met just online during the pandemic. And that partnership led to many workshops and, and different ways of learning with young Ukrainian students. And those workshops resulted in tree planting activities and really basic watershed management and a little bit of art and advocacy in communicating water and climate issues. So partners are very important in successes of each project.
And I know that your organisation is very, very young, it's very new, but tell me, what is your ultimate vision with SEEDS?
My ultimate vision is environment education for young people. Every young people have the right to have access to this information. They need to be equipped with all the resources that they can. I started my organisation as a young water advocate, and now I have an organisation that covers a lot more scope. And my ultimate end goal is that each young person would have the access for environment education, development, and how to live sustainably in their own little communities.
And at this point, is there still something that you say you're struggling with, or any challenges you want to speak about, that you think perhaps our listeners could be interested in supporting you with?
Even if I shrug it off, some institutions actually still look that you are a woman, and we forgot that there is a woman of colour. And I felt that, but I refuse to believe that it exists. Maybe here in Europe most especially. But in fact, it does. And so if I'm able to confront it, and really think that, okay, they see colour, and then they see gender, but again, if you put that in the centre of, of your lifestyle, you will not go anywhere, you're just going to question, what's my role, and you just place boundaries based on on who you are. And you didn't even choose to be this way.
And for you, personally now, so you've been doing this for how long exactly now?
I incorporated seeds just this year, but I've been doing my work for water, maybe around 2014.
If you look back, you know, and you see this whole journey, how meaningful was that for you up until this point that, you know, you wake up every day? And you say, Okay, this is my calling, I'm going to continue doing it. Share with us a bit of that.
I guess it's when you have finally answered the question, what if money was no object? What are you going to do? And one time I went to Uganda, I went to volunteer in a prison. So I actually lived in a prison. And as you can imagine, Claire, I, I lost a lot of friends, and relatives don't understand. Why am I doing the things that I'm doing? Why am I so drawn to experiences that will make me understand injustice, through those micro experiences, while you have this other life, and then another Alter Ego? I've been to many countries, but those experiences with people and the conversations that you're going to have, the meals that you're going to share, those were the transformative years that those moments you knew exactly where you're going to go, and you're in the right track, however difficult your situation might be.
Now, just to conclude, you know, I like to ask the same couple of questions to my guests. And one of them is do you have a specific recommendation to our listeners, lots of people like to share books. So what would be your recommendation?
I knew that there's this specific book in my shelf for a very long time that I keep on re-reading. It's called The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz, it's an American psycho therapist. And I say this because you don't have to open the book and read it chapter to chapter. But it's a book that I thought really changed me in a way where how I think we are not alone. And Stephen Grosz as a psychotherapist listens to the patients, it's almost a collection of 50,000 hours of listening to his patients, and one or two stories would resonate with you. And I think that's amazing to, to hear and to feel that you are not alone in this life that we lead. And the biggest takeaway from this book is: in our journey through change, and in changing ourselves, there should be loss, and we should not be afraid to lose something in the process of change. In terms of writing, he's so kind and non judgmental, and I think we lose that a lot, most especially when we are in the sphere of development, and we tend to be "I am better than you, I have more experience than you." We never approach life nowadays with "How can I learn more? How can I be a student of a certain topic?"
My second question: which other interesting guests do you think I should host next on the podcast?
I think I mentioned earlier about my partner, Pavlo, he's currently in Ukraine, stuck in Ukraine I would say. And he's around, in his 30s as well and we connected during the pandemic. He's also a founder of a nonprofit organisation that protects rivers in their hometown in Khmelnytskyi. I wanted people to get to know him, and I always tell this story that sometimes when we have a chat, we talk about food, we talk about festivities like any other person. But at the same time, we would end the conversation: "Jo, if I don't respond it’s because we don't have electricity." And he always grounds me. His experiences, though far away from us, always ground me that there is still a threat that is happening right now. And people in that part of the world, in Ukraine, are still experiencing this constant threat. But there is this person who despite everything, lack of resources, lack of ability to actually go and travel elsewhere to learn, is there and already thinking how to rebuild Ukraine after the war. I'm so proud of him, Pavlo.
Thank you so much Jo. Really I mean, for me this conversation was absolutely beautiful. And I would leave you the last word. Do you have any parting comments to share for our listeners?
We should not leave anyone behind. And if you know someone being left behind, I think help and the extension of access should start from them. That’s it, Claire. Thank you so much.
What a captivating conversation. Giving a voice to the ones left behind, indigenous populations or refugees, and bringing environment education to each young person in their own communities, that is Jo’s mission as a water storyteller as well as through her foundation: SEEDS. You can learn more about SEEDS on their Facebook page at seedsglobalschools, the link is available in the show notes.
Thank you so much for tuning in today, I appreciate you taking the time. This was episode 45, a conversation with Jo Bacallo “On Water Storytelling”. Remember to share this episode with your network and your friends. If you are enjoying our show, we would also love to get your 5-star rating on Spotify. We are always keen on hearing from our audience, so feel free to connect with us through our social handles, you’ll find us on Instagram at narrativesofpurpose_podcast, on LinkedIn at narratives of purpose podcast, and you can leave us a voice message anytime on our website at narratives-of-purpose.podcastpage.io.
Until the next episode, take care of yourselves, stay well, and stay inspired!