The Fire of Future Solutions

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By: Seth Cochran, Young Champion of Maternal Health

This blog post was contributed by Seth Cochran, one of the fifteen Young Champions of Maternal Health chosen by Ashoka and the Maternal Health Task Force at EngenderHealth. He will be blogging about his experience every month, and you can learn more about him, the other Young Champions, and the program here.

My mind is on fire.

Maybe it’s the altitude or perhaps the furious travel schedule. Or it might just be that I spent the better part of the last week fully immersed in the explosive energy of the Young Champions Future Forum (YCFF) in Accra, Ghana. But in any case, I have so many ideas burning up my brain that I can hardly breathe. The YCFF was solid gold.

After back-to-back overnight flights from Peru and then New York, I landed in Ghana dirty, dizzy and dazed. I had a shower and hustled over to the hotel’s restaurant where several of myYoung Champion compatriots were hanging out. We ordered a round of Cokes and started catching up.

But before we could really start talking, a young man set up a massive keyboard near the door and started playing it at a disruptively high volume. Like an obnoxious voice at the table, the keyboard kept breaking up the conversation with jarring interruptions. But everything changed when an older woman with traditional dress and slightly tinted glasses walked into the room with a wireless microphone and started singing. Her perfect sequence of pop favorites from the last forty years set a hypnotizing foundation for an enlightening exchange.

Ashoka paired every Young Champion with an Ashoka Fellow working somewhere in the world. The diversity of placements resulted in a wide variety of experiences and talking to each other about our challenges and what we learned proved to be an incredible education. Besides hearing about how ideas and plans have changed, it also became clear that organizational structure and sustainability were common challenges across every placement.

How do we structure roles and responsibilities to best engage our teams? How can we find additional resources so we don’t have to depend exclusively on donor charity? The epiphany is not in the answers to these questions, but rather in the fact that everyone is trying to answer them.

When we moved into the formal part of the YCFF the next day, I had a hard time staying focused. I kept thinking about sustainability – about how I could more effectively engage donors and introduce business into OperationOF’s program to reduce our reliance on them. With a very small budget and the Young Champion program finishing at the end of May, this is a question that keeps me up at night.

I snapped out of internal monologue when Ashoka Fellow Kathryn Hall-Trujillo (aka Mama Kat) talked about unlocking empathy and connecting people in The Birthing Project. This part of her narrative seemed to shake something loose inside me. Over the next several days, we heard from several accomplished entrepreneurs, all of whom contributed to the developing fire inside of me. I felt a collection of possibility converging into something yet unknown.

The lineup of speakers reached its peak in the legendary Dr. Fred Sai who shared his deep knowledge and insight with an unparalleled charm. Dr. Sai gave us a brief history of the Safe Motherhood movement and then answered questions from the group. When Ifeyinwa Egwaoje asked Dr. Sai about how to improve the situation for mothers in Nigeria, Dr. Sai smiled and said, “Goodluck.” The room, surprised at such a short and seemingly consigned answer erupted into laughter. But as the laughter calmed, Dr. Sai repeated his answer, which is also the Nigerian President’s name, and then went on to discuss how critical engaging government was achieving the objective.

While the speakers proved to be extraordinary, the other Young Champions were the final element that turned the kindling fire inside me into a bonfire of innovation. Sparked through an exchange with Zubaida Bai, I came up with an idea. Every other Young Champion I shared it with contributed to that idea in some way with momentum building up to an unclenching excitement. This idea, which I am not yet ready to roll out, is a way to answer many of the questions that keep me up and night. Now, I am losing sleep thinking about how to make this idea a reality.

That is why my mind is on fire.