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How She Got There: Michaela Cisney, Founder & Executive Director of Priyam Global


Name: Michaela Cisney
Age: 26
Job Title and Description: Founder and Executive Director of Priyam Global
College Name/Major: Indiana University, Master of Public Health
Twitter Handle:@michaelacisney
Instagram Handle:@saltwatermocha

What does your current job entail? Is there such a thing as a typical day?

Michaela Cisney: I don’t have a typical day, but my typical morning starts with attempting to wake up at 6:30, a mug of black coffee or green tea (mood depending) and often a short yoga practice at home. I start the day by glancing through my Spark Planner to check in with my goals and agenda for the week and month.

In addition to my work with Priyam, I freelance as a communications consultant in global health, so my tasks vary and my job mainly entails strong time management skills and being able to stay highly organized. I first look at any urgent emails for Priyam or consulting assignments, and then get to work. For Priyam, I usually schedule out a few days of social media posts, make some progress on a grant application or research for grant opportunities. I’ll probably email a possible collaborator, investor or partner. I might be designing our next shop goods, writing a blog feature or scheduling an email update to our tribe. Lately, I’ve been meeting people for lunch or coffee to talk about our newest project, get their feedback on our proposals and invite them to be involved.

Other typical parts of my day include meetings over Skype with staff members of the humanitarian agency I consult with, writing and finalizing reports, editing health curricula, drafting blog posts and submitting marketing support materials for review. I split my time between working at home and working in coffee shops around town (I’m currently based in Bloomington, Indiana) and travel to India a handful of times each year.

I try to prioritize self-care between tasks. Working from home—and the nature of my jobs—means that it’s up to me to set boundaries and keep from burning out or succumbing to stress. Staying aware and backing off from work for a few minutes keeps me sane. I might make another cup of tea, water the plants, eat an orange, take a hot shower, find a ten minute yoga sequence on YouTube, or make myself go outside and stand still for a few minutes just to breathe.

What inspired you to start Priyam Global?

MC: My journey to founding Priyam Global began in 2009, when as a volunteer in India I watched a young mother bring her three-year-old daughter to an orphanage and then leave without her. Her little girl was affected by a disability that paralyzed her legs. When the mother turned to leave through the gate, her eyes were filled with tears. This experience sparked four years of research into understanding the realities of life as a child with disabilities and the challenges their families must overcome. During these years, I earned my bachelor’s in community health before taking a job as a community health worker supporting families living in poverty in Indiana, U.S. Frustrated by a program that never involved the families in determining what they needed, I earned my master’s degree in behavioral, social, and community health with a focus on maternal and child health and the goal of influencing health programs to listen to those they serve. In 2014, I founded Priyam Global to tackle the root causes of poverty for children affected by disability in India and raise awareness of childhood disability in developing countries. I am and will always be inspired by the beautiful language of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and motivated every day to fight for what it stands for, for every child, mother and family in India and elsewhere, and for every neighbor, stranger and friend at home.

What is the best part of your job?

MC: I love the challenge. Essential to our vision of change at Priyam is a conviction that beauty makes a difference. Beauty, which captures us all, is a catalyst for change. Poverty and disability can be difficult to discuss and are not always beautiful, but we are committed to sharing our work in fresh, compelling and beautiful ways that inspire involvement and change rather than suffering and pity. That is not always easy and requires creativity, persistence, humility and a constant ability to pivot and redesign. It is time for the best in art, design and innovation to be channeled for children affected by disability, and that is what we aim to do.

What is one thing you wish you knew about your industry when you first started out that you know now?  

MC: In terms of what it takes to build a movement in global health that is genuinely collaborative and impactful, I wish someone had told me that it is okay to spend years thinking gradually around every angle of an idea before acting on it, that it’s okay to go into communities without an agenda to listen to what they have to say (again and again) before deciding what to do, and that I should listen to both the optimists and the cynics in this kind of work. I wish someone had told me that those things are not just okay—they are necessary.

What is one mistake you made along the way and what did you learn from it?

MC: Much has been written on the Western savior complex: a complex held by people from western, wealthier countries (America, Europe) that gives them a sense of superiority and misplaced responsibility, assuming they have the answers to complex problems in developing countries and jumping in to “help” and “save” the locals with little or no understanding of the political, social and economic factors at work. Globally this is a huge problem, and critics, understandably, are everywhere. I was aware of these issues before beginning Priyam and I was wary of them, so our central values have always been collaboration, equal partnership, listening and respect for the expertise and experience of local communities.

Recently, however, I realized I was in the middle of a mistake. In a small organization, the words we use directly shape what we do and directly hinder or help the possible impact of our work. Despite our focus on partnership, I realized that 90 percent of our social media communications began with the words “our work” or “we [do this].” It was very us-centered. We sometimes referred to local initiatives (where the real work is happening) with a tone that bordered on amazement, as if we were surprised that anyone in a developing country could possibly have the initiative and dedication to make a difference without outside help. We talked about partnership, but our partners may as well have been invisible for the number of times we actually featured them on our social channels. These were all very subtle, but together they painted a clear picture: our actions and words were not reflecting the values we chose to guide us. Rather, they were reflecting assumptions we thought we’d left behind.

I’m still learning, but I’ve learned from this small shift that we still have a long way to go. I’m learning to craft sentences that take the focus away from us. I’m learning to treat our partners as cofounders rather than recipients. Learning how to live our values, both in words and action. There are many start-up organizations today that do respect the local scene, that do want to learn from and work alongside to expand possibilities rather than “save” or “help.” Most of us genuinely value collaboration. But I think we all need to be more aware of the silent assumptions that might underlie our work. They’re in the words we use.

What do you look for when hiring somebody?

MC: I look for openness, positivity and independence. It’s important to have an honest view of what you can and cannot do well. Someone I admire once said, “You need to know what you don’t know and know what you know to be a good healer. If you know what you don’t know, you can be more resourceful.” That’s one of the most essential traits for me—resourcefulness. I don’t care if you don’t know everything, but if you know how to find the resources and make the connections that are relevant and useful and fresh and put them on the table for the entire team to access, we can learn together.

What advice would you give to a 20-something with similar aspirations?

MC: My aspirations are to bring healing and restoration to some corner of the world in some way. It’s not specific to nonprofit or global development work. Being a light often starts with being different. Carve out a niche in any career—for profit or nonprofit—as a person who lives with integrity and strength. When you come across something that shatters what you thought you knew about the world, let the uncomfortable questions from a difficult experience linger long after you return to the safety of your home. Don’t jump into “changing” it immediately. Look at a daunting problem and approach it with curiosity. Listen, listen and listen some more. You absolutely cannot make a difference in the world without choosing again and again to shove your way past your many comfort zones. Sometimes, surprisingly, you’ll find more comfort in action when just outside of that is a more uncomfortable process with greater rewards: listen, and learn humility.

Also, be kind.


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