Is this the first “National Manager for Climate Change” in a National Society?

Shirley Blackshaw is a leader at the Costa Rican Red Cross who is orchestrating efforts to counter climate change. The IFRC innovation and futures team had an exclusive interview with Shirley, who outlined her experiences as a leader and the activities she carries out as the National Manager for Climate Change for her National Society.

How has your career evolved in the Red Cross?

I remember as if it was yesterday my first day with the Red Cross when two volunteers gave us a first aid talk at school twenty-five years ago. They invited us to join and, since then, I never left. I started in the ambulance services, so I know what it is like be on the ground and responding to severe accidents. I am struck by how the situation has changed recently as the violence aggravates in the region. Today, when arriving at a scene, my colleagues face a very different situation where it could be that one person took another person’s life – this no longer means an ‘accident’ as it was when I started.

After my role with the ambulance service team, I was invited to the aquatic rescue unit since I have always been an ardent swimmer, particularly in open water competitions. I spent eight years with this unit that belonged to the Relief Management. In parallel I studied a degree in environmental management. As volunteers, many times, we don’t learn about things that happen in the lives of our colleagues outside of the Red Cross, so many didn’t know about my professional career.

It was not until three years ago that the Costa Rican Red Cross went through a transformation where the Relief Management Unit became the Risk Management Unit. This transformation resulted in the creation of new national areas, including climate change, resilience, and community health. During this period, I was going through a tough personal situation, and I thought my days with the Red Cross were over. Despite this, my colleagues supported me, and one of my supervisors invited me to join the climate change team.

My current position, as a National Manager for Climate Change, is as a volunteer. Therefore, I have to divide my workload and personal responsibilities as the mother of an eight-year-old child. I often say that my son was born in the Red Cross because when he is not in school, he comes to the office and attends my meetings. Managing the time to perform all these tasks is very challenging. The Red Cross is lovely, but at a volunteering level; we have to be very careful not to let it absorb us. I’ve known colleagues who have lost their jobs, homes and dropped out of their studies because of their activities with the Red Cross. So, that balance point has to be sought and always borne in mind.

Shirley joined the Costa Rican Red Cross 25 years ago

First, she volunteered with the ambulance service

Then, she joined the aquatic rescue unit

Now, she is the National Manager for Climate Change

What do you enjoy the most about your work with the Red Cross?

What I love about this organization is being able to support other people. Now, with my current position, I enjoy helping my colleagues from the headquarters in mobilizing resources and supplies in large emergencies.

What does such an important position as National Manager for Climate Change for the Costa Rican Red Cross entail?

The most relevant project we’re working on has to do with the national implementation of the Blue Flag initiative that began in July 2017. This initiative awards organizations that successfully implement ten parameters that contribute to reducing climate change effects. I joined the team later in October, where I have contributed my professional experience in environmental management.

We are implementing more than 10 Blue Flag activities related to community awareness and green spaces. With this last one, two branches were awarded in the previous year at Playa Carrillo and Playa Esterrillos for becoming sustainable beaches. The branches have members from both Costa Rica Red Cross and the community who – together – are responsible for the necessary activities to achieve the award.

For three years, the National Society has incorporated half of its committees to the Blue Flag programme. To participate and be candidates for the awards, the branches commit to demonstrable actions that go hand in hand with the care of the environment such as saving water and electricity and reducing the use of fuels. From the national headquarters, we provide support and follow-up for them to achieve these objectives. These changes have represented a saving of more than US$ 83,000 for the organization. The aim is to make the Costa Rican Red Cross a carbon-neutral organization by 2022, perhaps the first National Society in the world to achieve it.

One of the difficulties we have faced when implementing this project has been the public’s perception of the Red Cross as an emergency relief provider and not as an authority on climate change or other areas of development; this has slowed down the community work. In spite of this, what I find beautiful about the Red Cross is that members of the community are volunteers themselves, so they understand the local context, and they play a fundamental role in promoting this initiative.

“The aim is to make the Costa Rican Red Cross a carbon-neutral organization by 2022, perhaps the first National Society in the world to achieve it.”

A playground made of recycled materials

How do you envision the future for this role?

In the future, I think this department will incorporate more full-time staff. Although we have made essential breakthroughs with a team made up of volunteers, with more staff we could get so much more done. The second big goal that I foresee is sharing this initiative with other National Societies. The Blue Flag program is well-known internationally, and the Costa Rican Red Cross has already normalized its implementation and evaluation. Therefore, sharing this model with other National Societies could be a significant contribution to counter climate change as one of the biggest 21st-century challenges.

Do you know of other National Societies that have similar roles?

I know that in National Societies such as Guatemala where my colleague Verónica Rivera is the coordinator of the climate change program. Also, the Mexican Red Cross has a department that focuses on climate change consequences. Nevertheless, I do not know of another person as the National Manager for Climate Change.

What do you think makes a leader inspiring?

I believe that listening to people is fundamental. Sometimes without realizing it, we give our teammates instructions and things to do, but I think that leadership must go beyond that. Another critical point is encouraging them to try new things and acknowledge their results. To be an inspiring leader, I think, one has to know how to communicate ideas and give support so that team members can run as independently as possible. Something that I consider necessary in a leader is to be clear about her responsibilities and to recognize that each person plays a unique role and nobody is above anyone in the team. Something that has worked very well for us is the use of horizontal platforms to communicate as a team. For example, WhatsApp has served us as a channel where we share and discuss ideas, as well as make joint decisions.

What can you say to all those young women who will be the next generation leading efforts to counteract climate change?

Many statistics are suggesting that women are significantly more affected by climate change worldwide. Sadly, many women are still invisible in many places. However, things are certainly changing; I can say with great pride that in my National Society more than half of the branches are led by women. In my area, in climate change, we are only women, and we have delivered exceptional results. My message to all those colleagues and young women who have been harassed or downplayed for pursuing their dreams, I ask them not to stop shining and not abandon those passions because no matter how hard the storm has been, the sun always rises to the next day.

Lastly, my nomination as an inspiring leader in the International Women’s Day competition organized by the International Federation made me realize all the affection that people have for me all around my country. It was very touching to read all those messages from my colleagues with whom I have worked throughout my career with the Costa Rican Red Cross. I was delighted to see all the incredible work that women around the world do in the Red Cross and Red Crescent, leading innovative areas and impacting so many lives.

“My message to all those colleagues and young women who have been harassed or downplayed for pursuing their dreams, I ask them not to stop shining and not abandon those passions because no matter how hard the storm has been, the sun always rises to the next day.”