8 Questions for Erika Helms, Nonprofit Expert

Erika Helms is the former executive director of the Jane Goodall Institute China, which she helped found, and currently serves on its board of directors. She was kind enough to sit down with us and share some of her 15 year of experience in China.

When and why did you first come to China?

I first came in 1992 for my junior year of college. I started studying Chinese as a freshman and had always planned to study abroad and continue learning the language through a university. I did a whole year at theBeijing Foreign Studies University (Beiwai) through the IES program and went back to finish college and got into the Hopkins-Nanjing Center and spent a whole year in Nanjing right after graduation.

What projects have you worked on in China?

I got my first job in 1995, when the UN Women’s Conference was being held in Beijing. I had a friend who was interning at the Associated Press and he helped me get a job there. All these journalists would come to the AP bureau and tell us, “All the news bureaus are looking for assistants.” So I ended up getting an internship at NBC news and stayed on at the AP as well doing some translation work.

I got internship after internship and was eventually asked by Sky News to open its first bureau here in 1997. I worked there for three years as a bureau producer and my job was basically to know how to get things done here in China.

But in 2000, I decided that I wasnt cut out to be a journalist so I ended up getting a job with a non-profit. I wanted to work for the environment because I could see it being destroyed everywhere I went as a journalist. I didn’t know what I could do but I thought I needed to do something. That led to me to a career the nonprofit sector and that’s what I’ve been doing for 10 years now.

What is your opinion of China’s current environmental situation?

I think it’s dire. One of the biggest problems is that although the top leadership has the right ideas and they’re trying to go in the right direction, they can’t make the lower levels of bureaucracy do the things they want to do. Part of the problem is infrastructure, and also corruption and lack of skills in the local leadership. The system where local bureaucrats prove their worth by increasing GDP is bogus. I think of all of these big ideas at the top are not being implemented down at the bottom. Maybe eventually it will trickle down but it’s going to take a lot longer than the leaders at the top had hoped.

But the Roots & Shoots program at the Jane Goodall Institute China is working from the ground-up right?

Right. Roots & Shoots is bottom-up and we’re trying to reach the general population and convince them that environmental issues are not just for the government and big companies to solve. As consumers we can make choices that force companies to do things. The intense pressure that’s been on Apple is just one example. With the incredible explosion of Weibo, there could be answers that come from other parts of society.

What projects are you working on now?

I’m based out of London now but I’m still looking back to China. I’m trying to build bridges between the nonprofit sector in the UK and all of the interesting support mechanisms they have in the UK for the nonprofit sector. There’s lots of nonprofits that support nonprofits or networks of foundations and all this infrastructure to help the sector that China is just starting to build. The Chinese have a lot of exchange with the States but there’s very little exchange with the UK. I think China should be learning from both.

What do you think is one of the biggest misconceptions about China?

One of the things I’m facing with nonprofit foundations in the UK is their view that, “Yes, business and government need to be obsessed with China but why should we work with China?” They think doing civil society work in China is not possible. I don’t think that’s true. There’s so much happening and there’s a growing civil society sector. Yes, there are regulations. Yes, it’s complicated. But it’s really important work because the growth of civil society can change the growth of China. It already is in a way.

Why is promoting civil society in China important?

I think that civil society gives people a kind of spiritual experience or reward that they are not getting right now. If people have no spiritual life, that manifests itself in worshiping material goods so they become obsessive consumers which is terrible for the environment and for themselves. I think helping other people and working with your community gives people a kind of spiritual satisfaction so on the one hand it’s necessary to discourage consumerism; on the other hand civil society can help spread information and enhance people’s awareness and give people a sense of belonging to a community that they are then going to take better care of.

That’s a great answer. Alright, what is one of your most memorable China experiences?

When I first arrived at the dorms in Beiwai there were no showers in the building. The shower building was outside, behind the dorms. So not only did we have to shuffle out in our rubber sandals to go and take a shower in a different building with towels and whatever in hand, but once you got in there, there were no curtains.

The first couple of times you think, “Oh my God, am I really doing this?” but then you get used it. The Chineseayis are in there scrubbing each other down—one of them leaning against the wall and the other scrubbing her back with a rough facecloth to get the dead skin off. I would be horrified, like “Whats going on?” but I think those are important experiences to have. When I think of these new groups of students coming to China, I think, if only they had to have that experience!

Photo courtesy of Erika Helms.