Ouida Chichester, a Manager at BSR, applies her experience in international development to her work at BSR, where she works across industries focusing primarily on human rights, sustainable communities, and women’s empowerment. She also supports BSR’s HERproject. Prior to joining BSR, Ouida worked with the United Nations Development Programme in Belize, where she developed and contributed to projects on water governance, gender equality, and disability rights. She also has worked at Community Partners International, a nonprofit dedicated to the well-being of the people of Myanmar. Ouida helped build New Global Citizens, an organization dedicated to engaging U.S. youth in global philanthropy and activism. As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ecuador, she worked closely with youth, women, and grassroots organizations. She is fluent in Spanish. As a Rotary World Peace Fellow, Ouida obtained an M.A. in International Relations from the Universidad del Salvador. She also holds a B.A. in International Relations from Mount Holyoke College. Louden Richason, Kenan’s Pathways of Change intern placed at BSR, conducted this interview with Ouida at the BSR office in San Francisco.
LR: Where did you grow up, and what were your early years like?
OC: I grew up far northern inland California – Mendocino County. I actually grew up for the first five years of my life on a hippy commune. My parents were part of the “back to the land, drop out, not be part of the problem, take themselves out” solution in the 1970s. I was born right at the end of that.
I was born in a teepee with a midwife, and my early years were life on a commune. We had communal meals in the main house where an adult would rotate through and be responsible for making dinner for the community. I grew up with a gaggle of kids, the one-room schoolhouse, all of that. I was one of the younger kids in the group.
By 1985ish, the commune was falling apart. Marriages were falling apart, and the communal structure was not really working anymore. It kind of ended, and I moved away with my mom. My dad still lives on what was the commune, but it is no long really a commune. It’s a land trust. He just lives there with one of the families that was part of the commune back in the day.
That was the beginning. That was one solution at looking at the world’s problems – to take yourself out of it and not be part of the system, not be part of the problem. My roots of thinking about solutions to problems originated in that way of thinking. Those were my early years.
LR: What is your educational background?
OC: My pre-K education was the one-room schoolhouse on the commune seeing other kids learning and playing. For kindergarten through eighth grade, I actually went to Waldorf schools. One of the things I think I got from that is – a Waldorf education is a lot of things – but it’s thought to be a moral education so it really teaches values. Then, for my high school years, I went to an alternative high school in the town of Mendocino. It started out as being a continuation high school, but ended up being very much a flexible environment where the learning philosophy was that you should get “credit” for any time that you are learning. So, if you’re taking guitar lessons, you should be getting academic credit for doing that, so really turning your whole life experience and everything that you are learning into something that you can put on a high school transcript. You are really able to do a lot of different things through that model, and it’s also very based on community. We would go on two retreats every year, a fall retreat and a spring retreat, where the whole purpose of it was to create community and to see the humanity in everyone. We would have things like different ceremonies and activities that would bring together and build a sense of community for high school students. High school can be a really tumultuous, emotional time so having this strong community of people was incredibly important and interesting, especially being in kind of an isolated, rural, small community. It was interesting to have that kind of high school experience. Some of my closest friends today are the friends that I made in high school – so building really deep connections.
From there, I wanted to get as far away from my California background as I could and ended up going to school at Mount Holyoke College in Western Massachusetts, so I ended up at a very old, women-only college. I went there for three of the four years of college. My junior year I spent in Argentina doing study abroad. Then I also did a graduate degree program. I was a Rotary World Peace Fellow and studied at their Argentina center, which has since closed. That’s my random, different educational background.
LR: What did your path to business and human rights look like, and what has your path within business and human rights looked like?
OC: My path to business and human rights is an interesting one. The first place when I touched on business and human rights was when I was a volunteer working with Amnesty International. I was working as their country specialist for a number of years after graduating from college and going into the Peace Corps. I served in the Peace Corps in Ecuador and so when I came back from that, I wanted to get involved in promoting human rights in Ecuador. I had a friend who was a country specialist for Amnesty International USA, so he involved me in that work for Ecuador. I initially got involved in the work though the Amnesty International Business and Human Rights program. At the time, they were doing shareholder activism and getting involved in the Chevron case in Ecuador and using shareholder activism as a way to push forward the access to remedy for the communities impacted in the Amazon in Ecuador. That was my first look what business and human rights could be.
Then, for many years, I was focused on international developed at the community base level, which had very little to do with the business side of human rights – much more focused on communities. But after doing my graduate degree, I really wanted to do something that did involve the business sector given the amount of resources that the business sector has at their disposal. That is how I got involved at BSR and working in the business and human rights in BSR, primarily focused on extractives industries.
LR: On a related note, what does your work at BSR entail, and what does your day-to-day look like?
OC: Day to day it varies tremendously. I think that is one of the benefits of being a consultant. We have a lot of different kinds of projects that we get to work on. We often, from one day to the next, are doing very different things. I think there are some themes to the work that I have been doing at BSR, particularly around the business and human rights side of things. I’ve done human rights impact assessments across the wide range of sectors and have looked at the intersection of where companies meet communities and the human rights impacts of companies on communities. My work with extractives companies has focused on that intersection.
LR: What are the most rewarding and challenging parts of your work here?
OC: I think some of the challenging pieces are seeing a problem and identifying a problem and not having any sort of decision-making power around how things are dealt with. You can make recommendations, but you have no power to actually implement any of those things.
So then I think where things are very gratifying is when you see the companies we are working with implementing the recommendations that you put forward and you see those recommendations having positive impacts.
LR: In what ways has your work at BSR changed your view on business and human rights?
OC: It’s a lot more complex than I would have imagined at the outset. There are lot more shades of gray than just the black and white that I thought when starting this work or thinking about it when I was with more of the activist NGOs that often paint things very black and white. But there are a lot of very good people working in companies that may have somewhat tarnished reputations when it comes to human rights. There are a lot of people working really hard to make things better. So just understanding that there is a lot of complexity in the relationships that people have to manage within companies and within the structures that they have to operate and a lot of different pressures that are put on them. Even if everyone at leadership has the right intentions, it can be sometimes difficult to put things in place – thinking through how to manage those and how to help the individuals within companies who want to push forward on issues of human rights, thinking from our end how we can do that and how we can give them the tools that they need to push things forward. It’s complex, and it’s hard. It’s not just “Oh, just do this and everything will be better,” because there are also the unforeseen consequences that even when companies think that they are doing the right thing, it does not always work out exactly as they had planned.
LR: On a more general note, what skills do you think makes a person most successful at BSR?
OC: At BSR, I think you have to be curious. You have to be interested in the world around you and have to be open-minded. You can’t have forgone conclusions like, “Oh this is what this is.” You have come into every project and every situation with an open-mind and curious to learn what it is that you find. Whether it is doing a simple benchmarking of different companies looking at the same thing, you can find surprises – or digging into community grievances. Being curious and open-minded are two things that really mark someone of being able to succeed at BSR.
LR: What organizations do you look to as leaders in this space – more than BSR?
OC: I think it takes a trifecta of organizations to really be effective in this space, so you need the organizations like BSR that are kind of in the middle. Then, you need the activist NGOs that are pushing companies from the outside to act. Those are your activist NGOs that can make a big splash and get a lot of attention for issues. And then the companies themselves. Without those three different pieces, and the people inside the companies who really want to change, I don’t think you are going to see change. I don’t think it’s particular organizations – I more think of it as the different actors in this space that are needed to make change.
LR: What do you see as the biggest opportunities in this field and the biggest contributions still needed?
OC: There’s still a long way to go in this field. I don’t think that we are even close to being there when it comes to business and human rights. In a sense, I don’t think we’ve really closed any opportunities. I still think everything is on the table if you are looking at supply chain or women’s human rights or children’s human rights. Maybe there are certain sectors that are further along but I don’t think there is a company or a sector that has human rights and business figured out. I think we all will have long careers and long opportunities ahead of us to really tackle some of these issues. Everywhere you look, there are opportunities to improve human rights and to take the best practices and things that we have learned and really apply them. I think there are a lot of things that we can say we know at least in theory what the right thing to do is, and we are still struggling as a field to figure out how to really implement those in a way that really sticks and really works.
LR: What do you see as the future of this business and human rights space?
OC: I think it is continuing and deepening it. Continuing to work towards business models that are sustainable and respect human rights. Businesses will continue to need to be profit-driven, but I think the future is going to be much more linked to having issues of human rights linked to profitability. I think that there is a clear trend towards having consumers of goods and services caring about the human rights impacts of their products and the services that they are using, so I think the two will become increasingly linked. Businesses will continue to have to pay attention to and invest in human rights and respect human rights in their operations.