Having set up non-profit organization Place to Grow in 2011 to support communities affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, Angela Ortiz is sharing her experience to help others. Her newly launched book, "Place to Grow: 8 Principles That Will Make You An Effective Leader in Social Impact," is designed to offer insights and practical tips gleaned from hands-on learning over the past nine years.
Ortiz, 38, describes the book (available on Amazon) as a cross between a pocket guide and journal, complete with empty pages to allow readers to track their developmental growth. By doing so, she believes budding leaders can become more positive and resilient to challenges.
“One of the realities of becoming a leader is that you are constantly going to be failing and being criticized. It can be very emotionally stressful and quite draining. But when you look back and see small gains, you can celebrate them,” she says.
Ortiz speaks from hard-earned experience. A Tokyo-based kindergarten teacher when the disaster struck Tohoku, she took time off work to volunteer on the ground, where she met an acquaintance.
“He said volunteers give local people energy and hope, so I thought I’d see what I could do. I’m really good at staying calm and coordinating logistics so I found myself feeling confident and excited about how I could help,” she recalls.
Within weeks, she had resigned from her job and relocated to Minamisanriku, a Miyagi Prefecture town in the epicenter of the disaster zone. Determined to rebuild the community, her focus became activating residents and supporting them to deliver change. She engaged local stakeholders in various programs, encouraging them to work together to rekindle their intersocial ties.
With no experience in the field, she relied on her academic and professional background in early childhood education, which turned out to be a great asset.
“Instead of going in with solutions, I asked questions. And through answering questions, there is a cognitive change that lets people think proactively,” she says.
Once she knew what was wanted, Ortiz says she simply connected third parties offering help and local people. But her work was still challenging, comprising “thousands of conversations” with local people during the day, as well as paperwork in the evenings—a “boot camp” in social impact leadership, she says.
“Leadership is about constantly learning how to talk with people and understand where they are from while presenting new ideas,” she says. “People don’t just change the way they do things because it’s a good idea; they have strong emotional connections to things, so you have to inspire them to choose and own new solutions.”
Ortiz’s book is packed with examples of real situations she faced in Tohoku, where she says she experienced “incredibly accelerated learning.”
“Rather than reading about complex issues surrounding social growth in post-disaster situations, I had a front-row seat to a color-picture education video on how communities work together and how Japanese towns and cities are structured,” she says.
By 2015, Tohoku’s physical recovery was gaining momentum; roads and community spaces had been rebuilt and plans for ongoing development were in place.
Still, the area’s social recovery was in its early days. Minamisanriku, she says, was suffering from a lot of political and social conflict that was hindering the town’s emotional healing. Rather than leave the fragile community, she rebranded Place to Grow to focus on local children’s growth via fitness and language exchange and re-organized it as a completely volunteer-run non-profit, allowing her to return to Tokyo.
Today, as CSR manager for adidas Japan, Ortiz draws on her Tohoku experience daily to inspire action and drive change.
“At adidas, we’re working to reduce the use of single-use plastic in our operations in Japan. That’s not simple or one-size-fits all. We talk to lots of stakeholders and focus on long-term outcomes,” she says.
Ortiz also continues to be involved in Place to Grow. In the face of an uptick in Covid-19 cases in Tohoku, she and other volunteers are working to develop online activities to keep local children connected. The organization will also benefit from 50% of proceeds from the sale of her book.
With growing recognition worldwide that everyone makes a social and environmental impact every day through the decisions they make, Ortiz says lessons from her book can be applied to everyone’s personal and professional life in some way.
“If you’re going to be making an impact anyway, why not be intentional,” she says.
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