Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Monica Sanders of ‘The Undivided Project’ Is Helping To Change Our World
Imposter syndrome is fake. Just keep going. As I said, I have had struggles with this phenomenon. Then I realized it is the product of anxiety and to a lesser extent, societal expectations. It is not a real thing that can have an impact beyond allowing it to have one.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Monica Sanders.
Monica Sanders founded “The Undivided Project”, an organization dedicated to creating climate resilience in underserved communities via Internet infrastructure and service-centered digital solutions. She also holds a faculty appointment at the Georgetown University Law Center, manages a university program focused on environmental justice, and is a Senior Fellow at the Tulane University Disaster Resilience Leadership Academy. Professor Sanders is a nationally recognized expert in the field, having been a part of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine Committees, and being a part of the inaugural class of the FEMA Vanguard Fellows Program.
Professor Sanders’ prior experience includes serving as a Senior Committee Counsel for both the House of Representatives and Senate Committees on Homeland Security, as well as the Senior Legal Advisor for International Response and Programs at the American Red Cross, and as an attorney for the Small Business Administration during the Hurricane Maria and western wildfire responses.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Well — I am nearly 18 years late for the law firm job I was planning to go into when I first thought about law school. However, as a New Orleans native and Hurricane Katrina survivor, I witnessed families separated, the military curfews, homes destroyed and the long-term impact and recovery efforts necessary to rebuild lives after such a horrific disaster. I changed my mind about how I wanted to use that law degree.
I have a saying, “Attitudes become policy, policy becomes law, and law changes peoples’ experiences in society.” My passion about disasters led to my dedicating much of my life to roles associated with disaster preparedness and recovery, climate justice and now thinking about how the digital divide intersects with these things. I know the law can be a tool for equity and justice across all of these themes.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
I founded “The Undivide Project”, an organization dedicated to creating climate (disaster) resilience in underserved communities via Internet infrastructure and service-centered IoT solutions. We also help communities with training and advocacy tools.
I’m just getting started, and with that comes episodes of imposter syndrome. We are also in a space where no one else has been. That means people don’t believe us or believe in us in most cases. One of the best stories I have is about how my board and our partners came to be. I reached out to a nonprofit volunteer website for a board scout. That person, Casey, found some incredibly influential people in their respective spaces. We don’t have paid board roles. In fact, they have to help fundraise. But they said yes to a part of something new because a woman they don’t know asked them. For people like that to say, “I am 1000% in!” is really something. Then, we have great partners. We are working with DataKind and Digitunity, and Georgetown’s Office of Ministry and Mission has helped us. I’ve been able to work with Clorox on their disaster preparedness program for several years now to help equip different communities with resources to prepare for and stay safe amid natural disasters. Isn’t that great?! So, the idea of these people and partners supporting me is a bit surreal at times.
Would you like a funny story? When you are working with communities, you show up where they want you to show up. A couple of weekends ago, one of my board members and I spent the day working on a community garden cleanup. We are eventually going to help this neighborhood design a digital inclusion and resilience plan, maybe even a climate justice plan. But this day was about spreading compost and manure all over to create raised beds. So many people came out to help and we made some great connections — while shoveling manure. I came home to my partner blurting out how excited I was to meet so and so at the “manure pile.” He said to me, “Babe you can do a bit of ‘you know what’ talking, but you cannot talk about you know what when you are promoting your business.”
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
This journey so far has been fun and funny. And there have been mistakes. Many of them were about learning how to navigate philanthropic systems and this particular part of the tech space. I like to do, and still have to do, some of the work myself. I was working on our website and mixed up some of the coding so that a partner link went to the wrong top-level domain. That happened to be singer Monica’s site and not mine. She is great and likely didn’t notice people trying to bounce from our gallery were hitting her site and not mine. I noticed. Missed the traffic but hope our donors enjoyed the music. I changed the coding and registered another domain. The lesson learned is that delegating is important.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
As I mentioned earlier, The Undivide Project’s mission is to create climate resilience in underserved communities. We focus on undoing the so-called “Digital Divide” by working directly with communities.
We do applied research and give the results to communities. Right now, we are tracking rural broadband funding and whether it is used to build community resilience. We did a series of mapping projects to show a group of communities the digital divide, climate and disaster risks they face. Now they can use that information, in an accessible format, as an advocacy tool. We also have a white paper out about how disaster management can address these issues.
We directly help communities, and we will be doing some digital and climate justice literacy trainings early next year. As I mentioned earlier, we are helping a community in the DC area with a digital inclusion and resilience plan.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
This is work that inspired the founding of The Undivide Project. I actually mentioned it in an interview with Authority two years ago, working on incubators and working on a project to help bring WiFi to West Baltimore, MD. The community installed nodes in multiple sections of the community, had laptop drives and connected thousands of people. We actually trained people from the community on how to maintain the infrastructure. This was all in 2020 just as the pandemic was starting. This past summer, I was speaking at a disaster conference. Afterward, someone walked up yelling, “Remember me?!!” It was one of the guys from the neighborhood. I won’t tell his story, but life for him had been tough. He had a job doing IT for the hotel where I was speaking! We were both crying, but he told me to keep going. So now we have to keep going.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
- Our vision is that the Internet and the benefits it can create should be accessible, equitable, green and available to all. I think first and foremost, you have to listen to communities and respond to their needs — not expecting them to mirror a society we imagine but reacting to what is real.
- I think we (society) need to lose the scarcity mindset. We are stuck in a place where we believe that rights and resources for one group means that someone else has to lose something. That isn’t true, we all gain or lose together.
- I want politicians and policy writers to understand the interconnectedness of systems and impacts. Case in point, digital divestment and lack of climate and disaster resilience are not coincidental.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I love Bill George’s book, Authentic Leadership. If you bring your authentic self, good ideas, bad ones, genius and flaws into a space, you give others permission to be their authentic selves. Leadership is consistently creating space for others to be their best.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Hire a social media person (really) or company. I had an okay following on a couple of platforms. But understanding algorithms, audiences, collecting analytics, etc. is a full-time job, an art form even.
- There are many free or low-cost resources to help startups. I spend months trying to find good board members and paid consultants without realizing how many organizations offer many of these services for free or at discounted rates.
- Work-life balance is critical for founders. I seriously burned out this summer. Usually, a holiday break is enough of a rest for me. I underestimated the additional demands on one’s persona that comes with starting something new. It is nothing like building for other people. Even when you are doing what you love, it is critical to keep track of how much you are actually doing. Now, I know to take breaks during the day and have long weekends of “disconnect and reflect” time besides my usual vacation.
- The funding gap between BIPOC founders and everyone is real, take nothing for granted. I was astonished at the proposals I saw declined and approved in this process. Then I saw the numbers related to how different people do not have the same access or automatic credibility in the VC and philanthropic communities.
- Imposter syndrome is fake. Just keep going. As I said, I have had struggles with this phenomenon. Then I realized it is the product of anxiety and to a lesser extent, societal expectations. It is not a real thing that can have an impact beyond allowing it to have one.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Let’s start a digital and climate justice movement. ☺ Actually, can we start a movement to make a more egalitarian society, one where we understand that access to rights, dignity, and prosperity for one is the same for all? Is that too high-minded?
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You’ve got to live life to the fullest. You just enjoy every beautiful thing there is to enjoy.” –Leah Chase
Another New Orleanian whom I just loved and who inspired so many people. She had a heart of service and helped so many people in the community. Mrs. Chase was a great cook and humanitarian. But she was also a trailblazer, an imaginative restauranteur, activist, one-time boxing manager and so many other things. I appreciate that you have to have a zeal for life and not be afraid to try things.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Arianna Huffington! I listened to her morning meditation series on Insight Timer, and it was a game changer. I have so many questions about entrepreneurship, wellness and storytelling to ask her.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
At the time of publication, multiple communities around the country are currently recovering from disasters. For more information about what to do and how to help, visit ready.gov.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Monica Sanders of ‘The Undivided Project’ Is Helping To Change Our… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.