Whitney Stacey, founder and CEO, Monochrome International

I love people and I love finding out what is important to them.

Aside from donating to an aid organisation or sponsoring a child, there is only so much many of us can do to improve living standards in less fortunate countries. Whitney Stacey took her desire to make an impact to new heights when she created her own aid organisation at the age of 18. Monochrome International has been running strong for four years, working with local communities in Tanzania to improve education standards for children and helping parents support their kids as they grow to become future leaders in the community. Not only has Whitney successfully navigated the world on non-profit aid work, but she has also tried her hand at other social ventures as well with the new Monochrome Coffee Co. We decided to have a chat to Whitney about her work and just what it takes to start your own aid organisation.

What first spurred your passing for humanitarian work?
I’d wanted to go and do some sort of work with children in Africa – I didn’t know where specifically – since I was about 14. I knew I wanted to make a big difference but I didn’t know how to do that and I thought I was too small to make a difference in the world. When I was 17 I did a really great educational training and development program and in that program I saw that I had all of these things getting in the way of me doing what I thought was really important. I told my parents what I wanted to do and they were really great about it and they said to make it happen. Four months later I went to Tanzania – I had a friend that went to Tanzania through a great organisation and that’s how I chose my destination!

What did you experience when you were over there that made you want to undertake the sort of work you do now?
I really didn’t know what to expect – I’d seen the usual stuff that people see on TV about Africa and the horrible stuff happening. It wasn’t really like that at all – they were not desperate, just really amazing people. I was surprised, it wasn’t how Africa is portrayed here and I thought it was really crazy because people in developed countries are scared because they are ‘third-world countries’, which is a term I hate. That was part of my inspiration – I thought we could just empower these people rather than feeling sorry for them and pitying them. I really fell in love with the kids that I worked with. They were no different to me when I was their age. They were always so excited, they loved their friends, they loved school and their families – I thought it would be cool to work out a way for them to have similar opportunities that I did like going to a great school and doing what they love. I also wanted to do something a bit different because there are a lot of charities and humanitarian aid organisations that do a lot of work in other areas.

What sort of steps did you have to go through to launch Monochrome International?
I came home after six weeks in Tanzania and it was when I got back to Australia I realised that it wasn’t going to be a one off thing. I wanted it to be an ongoing part of my life. I started organising a little fundraiser gig in Brisbane to raise enough money to build a classroom for a small care centre for 30 kids. Because I didn’t have anyone that I could trust to send the money to – I was looking at going through another organisation but they wouldn’t send the money where I wanted to send it – one of my friends told me to start my own thing. I seriously Googled ‘how to start a non-profit organisation’ and I also spoke to some people that had done similar stuff, found some people to join my committee and launched it when I was 18.

Tell me about the work you are undertaking! What is the scope of the work you do these days?
We’ve got two core programs now and we’ve done various one-off projects as well. All of our programs are designed to help youths live extraordinary lives and be leaders in their community. Whenever we design anything its to ensure that we fulfil on that commitment. The first program is our sponsorship program where we have 26 kids in a school in Tanzania. It’s designed in a way that parents have to pay for a certain amount of the school fees so that the parents are being held accountable and being held responsible for their child’s education. If the parents aren’t on board in that way, we found that giving stuff away stuff for free doesn’t work. It takes away their pride and responsibility to their kids.

The second core program is called our Empowering Parenting Seminars. That program is designed for parents that have children in school but haven’t been to school themselves. We noticed that there is a big gap in what the parents see as possible and what the kids see as possible. Kids go off to school and begin to want to be a teacher or a doctor and then they go home and their parents tell them that they need to be a farmer. We have these amazing conversations with the parents in a seminar format to help them start thinking of way that they can communicate with their kids to help them dream really big. Also we work with the parents to ensure that they have everything they need to be empowered as parents.

It’s a different approach to what many would consider the work of an aid organisation – in your words what would you say in the main point of difference between Monochrome International and other aid organisations?
With us it’s not about doing everything for the people we work with. We concentrate on empowering and helping them make stuff happen in their own community. When we were creating the organisation there was a lot of thought put into what will make the biggest difference. What would it be like if all the people in Tanzania had the potential to be powerful leaders that can make a difference rather than waiting on foreign aid? We talk to the parents and we talk to the kids to see what is working – we have a conversation with the people we are impacting about what we could improve on. They know what they need and what will make the difference.

Over the four years that you’ve been doing this, what are the biggest challenges that you’ve faced in regards to running Monochrome International?
The biggest challenge has been altering the way that people relate to us as a non-profit organisation. It’s been hard altering the conversation about aid work and what they do in communities. For example, with our Empowering Parenting Seminars parents didn’t want to come unless they were being compensated for the day. They had been used to having other organisations coming in and giving them stuff for free. If they came in for training they would get paid to be there because they were taking a day out of their work. Compensation often diminishes the work and the point of the whole exercise. There are also some misconceptions about the work that we do here in Australia and over in Africa as well.

What have been some of the greatest rewards out of the whole process?
Last year we went over to Tanzania for a couple of months and I went to the school to see the kids and I could have a conversation with them for the first time ever! Their English had gotten to a level where we could really understand each other. My Swahili has never been fluent and their English wasn’t either until now. There were these extraordinary kids that I loved so much but I had never been able to really speak to them, so it was crazy when they were all talking to me. Knowing that them having that level of English is going to make a huge difference to their life. Also last year we expanded our work to Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda – that was really amazing! It was great to partner with a local organisation and do some work in communities in those countries.

What are some of the long-term goals for the organisation?
We want to have regular seminars in those three new countries and more in Tanzania as well. We want to have local representatives in each country as well. In the near future I’d love to start working with young social entrepreneurs in Tanzania, as they are really the potential change agents and the ones that will be providing jobs to kids in the future.

What is inspiring you these days?
It’s the whole opportunity of it all! I love people and I love finding out what is important to them. I can’t wait to see what these kids do as they get older and what they get passionate about and making sure that it happens.

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