Hannah Gaventa recently returned from a year living in the Philippines, where she was a JDC-Pears fellow managing disaster relief programmes after Typhoon Haiyan. After graduating with a BSc in Biomedical Sciences from King’s College London, Hannah spent 3 years as Education Coordinator for Tzedek. She currently serves as International Director of Jewish Education at Moishe House.
Tell us a bit about your personal background and what brought you into global service work. Is it something from your family or that you picked up from home?
I was always really conscious when I was growing up that my mother had converted to Judaism, so half my family were Christian, and the other half were Jewish. I spent a lot of childhood trying to think how those two communities relate to each other. That brought me into the world of community building and development work: noticing that there are so many people in the world who are struggling with conflict and that I’m in a really privileged position to do something about that.
[After university] somebody recommended I look into a Jewish organisation called Tzedek. I did their year-long fellowship, 6 months in the UK and 6 months in Northern Ghana. The projects I was working on were mainly with women: helping women with vocational training and education and giving small loans in a micro-credit project. It was really empowering to see how these communities were being totally changed by the women who were shaping them. And it was just fascinating to see how a small amount of money – really not a lot of money from where I was coming from – could change lives; not just [the women’s] own lives, but entire communities.
What was transformative for you about being in Ghana? Did you experience any culture shock?
Definitely. I remember a few moments when I realised that I was not in the UK any more. I had prepared to work with some teachers, to have this big meeting of some shared experiences and some training. We’d worked on it for a while. The teachers came 3 hours late to the meeting – which was just ‘Ghana time’ and [apparently] regular.
It made me think how different things work well in different contexts. It didn’t matter that the teachers were 3 hours late; we had the most amazing meeting, and they do incredible work with their schools. It was just as important for me to build the relationships and hang out with the teachers, not just try and stick to my agenda. It changed my attitude to community building: I started to think about how to engage with people from their perspective, rather than from mine.
Have you encountered challenges working in the developing world as a Jewish person?
There was one moment, on a site visit to a small island [while working with JDC in the Philippines]. As a show of appreciation, there was a whole spread of pork and seafood – I don’t eat pork and seafood, yet I felt so terrible about refusing it.
I tried to have a leveling conversation by saying where I come from and asking about their families and their community. I began with, ‘I’m Jewish – have you heard of Judaism and do you know what that is?’ There’s often a lot of conversations around that kind of stuff to break the ice anyway. At a certain point I think I said, ‘It’s really interesting actually, in Judaism we have different laws about things that we do; for example, we have Saturday as a day of rest, not Sunday like you, and there’s different food that I don’t eat. ‘
It was important for me to firstly, approach it in a tone of ‘this is really interesting, I am sharing this with you.’ And saying, ‘I really appreciate this amazing food that I invite you to eat with me, and am really excited to have this rice and a couple of vegetables and to sit with you and hear more about your community. ‘
What’s the most powerful idea you’ve come across working in the international development field?
Giving local people the power to make their own decisions. It can never be the international person, organisation or donor shaping projects. I don’t know what people want or need; people themselves know… You have to go into the conversation to listen to people and not go along with what you think will work.
What’s something that inspires you about one of the communities where you’ve worked?
The whole time I was [in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan] I was hearing stories about people using churches as evacuation centres, and making sure that people with disabilities in their community were helped out of the storm. It was definitely difficult to hear people’s stories about trauma and how they survived this disaster, but it was most interesting for me personally to learn how they were being so resilient and supporting each other, which I think is a great model to pass on.
Excerpt from original interview conducted by Gaby Koppel.