The first thing that struck me was the approach. I’d been to numerous site visits since beginning my career in the non-profit industry over eight years ago. They all seemed the same after a while. Whether the visit consisted of taking international visitors in suits and ties to see the local farming initiative where we all discussed the situation of the poor shoeless farmer showing his family’s “inadequate” dwellings and property or seeing "yet another" hospice complaining of dwindling supplies, the scene always seemed reminiscent of the one just before. We all came with good intentions – to offer solutions to life’s problems to those whom we presumed could do nothing for themselves.
SALT changed the view.
Before our SALT group of about 15 people from various points on the globe set out on the visit we were asked to go through a personal exercise where we reflected on our own accomplishments, fears and hopes. We were then encouraged to consider the communities we were about to visit not in terms of inadequacies but rather to focus on the strengths, achievements and successes. This struck me as I had gotten quite used to numerous community mapping exercises where the highlights had been most often on the deficiencies, needs, and where the community was lacking support. The SALT team leading the site visits expounded on the merits of appreciation and encouraged the participants to share stories of times when we’d all felt appreciated and acknowledged for our own hard work, personal initiative, and resulting successes.
With this perspective in mind we set off for the communities. When welcomed, we did not see the shabby clothes and dilapidated wood homes of the people living there but rather the soft smile of a teacher who, with the community in northern Thailand, started youth programs to create HIV/AIDS awareness. Where once before we would have noticed the lack of toys and school supplies in the makeshift drop-in centre for street kids, we saw volunteers with a passion and dedication to genuinely mentor and assist children who had no other home to go to at night. Even without a steady supply of crayons the street children made beautiful art that adorned the walls.
I realised at that point that we in the development industry had it all wrong. All we needed was to add a bit of SALT to our approach and perspectives on communities, even within our own communities.
After a week of basking in this positive perspective on the places we were visiting, and life in general, I called my office to see how things were going. I had already been reflecting on how I was going to apply this newfound approach to life back in "The Real World” of deadlines, responsibilities, and high-pressure environments. The shock came when I was lambasted by a colleague for shirking these responsibilities back home in favour of “tripping around the countryside.”
My first reaction was to shoot back an equally biting response about how we should all be pulling together in the office minus the attitude, but instead I bit my tongue. I listened to the frustration and fatigue in my colleague’s voice and realized that I had never once told him how much I appreciated the work and support he provided to all of us in the office every day. I had become so accustomed to counting on him to pick up the pieces when things got busy that I never once in my time of working with him told him how much his unwavering and dedicated support meant to me.
I walked into the office the next week with a smile on my face for the first time in months and with the intention to apply SALT to my everyday working environment. I walked straight up to my colleague who was deeply riveted to his laptop screen and told him exactly how much his assistance meant to me and how profoundly grateful I was to be working with such a reliable, dedicated, and knowledgeable individual and team at the office.
He stared at me in stunned silence. A hint of a shy smile began to appear as I walked from his desk. He has never since complained to me or made negative comments about the work that he does for me or the rest of the office team.
A SALTy approach made the difference in this souring context.
I have since applied the more positive SALT perspective in numerous situations and my general approach to doing development work. Rather than hearing the stories of inadequate funding and lack of resources in communities I wonder what great initiatives might exist in this or neighbouring communities to help. Instead of looking at colleagues like cogs in the machinery of our daily activities I now see them as valuable members of the team with unique skills and contributions to make to the betterment of us all and the work we do. Every day I get a bit saltier.
This has made all the difference in the world. Much like the AIDS Constellation, with their SALT approach, does every day.