Gingko Partner Interviews: Mei Nianshu

This article profiles Mei Nianshu, founder of the environmental NGO, Green Kunming, in Yunnan province and one of five Narada Foundation Gingko Partners for 2010.

Editor’s Note: In 2010, the Narada Foundation (南都公益基金会), a private charitable foundation, selected five individuals for the pilot “Ginkgo Partners Support Plan”. Each Ginkgo Partner will receive funding of 100,000 yuan (approx. US $15,700) per year for the next three years and support for tailored learning programs. Four of the five Gingko Partners were interviewed in the Spring 2011 issue of China Development Brief. We hope that the stories of their personal and organizational experiences lead to better understanding of this personal support program.

Mei Nianshu: Enjoying the Pursuit of Goals, Step by Step

When she was 13 years old, Mei Nianshu saw a CCTV news broadcast about an international environmental organization. Greenpeace’s volunteers on the high seas were attempting to stop Japanese whaling, tying themselves to the deck of the whaling ship without any trace of fear on their faces. A clear impression of this event stays with Mei to this day.

When Mei was at university she decided to study environmental engineering. After graduating in 2002, she decided to enter the Hubei Academy of Environmental Science where she was involved in setting up environmental impact assessments.

“NGOs are outspoken and cool! Totally different from the feeling you get in a public institution.”  [Editor’s Note: Public institutions in China are government-supported universities and research institutes such as the Hubei Academy of Environmental Sciences where Mei worked.] Mei believes technical personnel engaged in environmental protection and impact assessments do not see protecting the environment as their vocation. This leads to many companies being given a green light to pollute. This situation makes her feel guilty, since she did not achieve her original ideals.

One event in particular was hard for her to forget. To promote investment, local authorities built a large iron ore pellet plant upwind of a city. This factory discharged serious air pollution, threatening hundreds of thousands of residents that lived downwind of the project in clear violation of the environmental impact assessment. At the time, Mei felt she needed to speak out against the project, but her advice was not adopted. She says this stemmed from an insufficient environmental impact assessment system. In this case, the construction agency hired a company to write the environmental impact assessment for the project. Due to this business relationship, the company raised few concerns about the environmental aspects of the project.

During this time, Mei actively sought out local environmental NGOs and became the leader of a World Wildlife Fund volunteer discussion group in Wuhan. She also proposed and organized a campaign to “reduce white pollution and institute city-wide shopping bag fees”. [Editor’s Note: The term “white pollution” refers to litter, in particular plastic bags.] During this time, the Chen Lake Nature Reserve in Hubei Province had over 20,000 mu (1,333 hectares) of poplar trees planted illegally, seriously damaging the winter habitat of migratory birds. With the support of volunteers who appeared in the newspapers and supervised the process, the trees were uprooted. She says this experience was “so cool…really satisfying” and was the kind of work she wanted to do. It also showed her what NGOs are and the power and social benefits they can bring. Experiences like these shaped her thinking when she established her own NGO, Green Kunming.

In 2004, Mei decided to leave the Academy of Environmental Sciences, but was not yet feeling confident enough to work on her own. Fortunately, at that time [the Kunming office of] Oxfam Hong Kong was hiring a new project manager, which gave her a chance to try NGO work that could lead to other job opportunities. However, the interview required her to elaborate on her understanding of rural development and review a project proposal in the space of half an hour. Having never come into contact with project management, she had to improvise answers. The result of the interview was predictable.

Making matters worse, not long after Mei returned to Wuhan from Kunming, she suffered a sudden recurrence of chronic stomach problems, causing her a lot of pain. She had to have duodenal diversion surgery. The experience led her to “think less about pursuing material desires and more about the meaning of life,” and confirmed her interest in NGO work.

In July 2005, only one month after the surgery, Mei was already impatient to return to Kunming, thinking that Kunming was the place where she could realize her goals. Her parents were uneasy about this choice, but Mei stood firm: “Let me decide my own future; my life is my responsibility”.

This time, through contact with some environmental NGOs, she found that few ENGOs in Kunming worked in volunteer training and public participation. She found a job in Kunming, once again working as an environmental impact assessment engineer. At the same time, her idea of an independent ENGO began to take shape. In 2006, Mei formed a Green Kunming volunteer corps in her spare time and began to work on environmental rights and education. In 2007, after she officially registered her organization, Mei invited many environmental experts to become board members of Green Kunming. This was intended to both overcome suspicions from the government and also to gain support from local researchers, enterprises and institutions in Kunming.  [Editor’s Note: Inviting noted scholars and experts to be on the board gives the NGO greater credibility because it brings in people who are “inside the system” (tizhinei) and thus more likely to be trusted by local authorities.]

For a long time, Mei was the only full-time Green Kunming employee. This, by necessity, led her to rely on volunteers. Together, they  launched an investigation to protect groundwater in Kunming, protect trees around Dianchi Lake, and other activities. In 2009, Green Kunming won the “SEE – TNC Ecological Award” from the Society of Entrepreneurs and Ecology (SEE) and the Nature Conservancy, which came with 100,000 RMB in prize money. After this, Green Kunming’s staff increased to four full-time employees.

In 2010, Green Kunming implemented a total of ten projects, half of which had no budget for staff. In February 2011, the project Mei was responsible for concluded, meaning she no longer had a source of income. She decided to use part of the Narada Foundation’s 100,000 RMB award as her salary, enabling her to devote more time and energy to improving the organization’s strategic planning, project management, team building, fundraising, public relations, collaborative projects, and overall social services. In addition, she hopes to use some of her time to study Buddhist meditationand participate in NGO meetings and Drucker Institute trainings to increase her knowledge of social issues outside of environmental protection.

With the organization’s growth, Mei has begun to consider internal management issues such as staff incentives and communication that needed addressing. She credits the advice of friends as well as eight months of environmental leadership training for helping to identify some of these issues. During her interview for the Narada Foundation Gingko Partners Plan, three experienced interviewers also offered helpful insights.

The interviewers commented that her personal goals were “too ambitious, goal-oriented and results driven.” It was only then that Mei realized that the combined personal and professional goals she had set for herself left her with no time to enjoy the joys of the environment and life. She discovered her perseverance was driven by a strong sense of responsibility and a stubborn personality, and had nothing to do with happiness. This was certainly the wrong approach for sustaining team morale and momentum.

Mei says about her future that she hopes to enjoy life more and to “cherish the successes as well as the twists and turns in the process”. She will also continue to offer more understanding, support, and space for her colleagues.

Relaxed, confident, and smiling, she says, “The dream is the end goal, happiness is the road there!”

In Brief

This article profiles Mei Nianshu, founder of the environmental NGO, Green Kunming, in Yunnan province and one of five Narada Foundation Gingko Partners for 2010.
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