One year ago, Tjada D’Oyen McKenna joined Mercy Corps as our CEO during an unprecedented time. While our team members grappled with a global pandemic that affected every aspect of our programs and the communities where we work, we also faced a pivotal moment of change as an organization. We checked in with Tjada (pronounced Jay-dah, the “T” is silent) on her anniversary to reflect on her first year at Mercy Corps. From vaccine equity and climate change to building resilience and increasing diversity, Tjada shares what inspires her as she leads Mercy Corps forward.
How has it been leading Mercy Corps in the midst of the pandemic?
When I received a call about the CEO position, it was overwhelming to ponder taking the helm of an organization during the middle of a pandemic that had turned our world upside down. But I realized that COVID‑19 had made Mercy Corps’ mission more urgent than ever—reversing decades of development gains, worsening conflict, and pushing millions of people around the world further into hunger and poverty—and that I could not pass up an opportunity to step up and serve at this moment when the need is so great.
While the pandemic has made it more challenging to come together in person, there’s a silver lining in that I’ve been able to connect with so many of our teams around the world very quickly—from Myanmar to the Central African Republic. Recently, I was on a video call with our leadership team in Somalia. One of the women on the team told me that she started in that office serving tea and now, more than 15 years later, she’s running the HR department for the Somalia office. Virtual visits have opened a door where it’s easier to meet more team members and hear special stories like hers.
Of Mercy Corps’ accomplishments in the last year, what are you most proud of?
When COVID‑19 hit, our team members doubled down in strengthening their support of communities in need. In more than 40 countries around the world where we work, I have been inspired by how quickly our global team adapted. They kept our programs going despite travel restrictions, supply chain disruptions, and the uncertainty we have all experienced with this virus.
Since March 2020, we have helped nearly 37 million people with our COVID‑19 response. In East Africa, we used SMS, WhatsApp, social media, and radio to spread timely and accurate health information about COVID‑19 to more than nine million farmers. In the U.S., we distributed $1 million in grants to over 200 Pacific Northwest small businesses to help them adapt. To help protect healthcare workers in Tunisia, we 3D-printed face shields for local hospitals. Across our programs, we’re providing clean water, soap, and hygiene essentials to help more than 12 million people stay healthy and protect themselves from the virus.
Building resilience is one of our core beliefs: providing the tools and resources to help communities bounce back from the most challenging situations. COVID‑19 has been the ultimate resilience test for everybody. I could not be more proud of how our teams continue to do an incredible job helping communities, even when they are facing the challenges of the pandemic themselves.
We are also building resilience as an organization by being transparent and taking responsibility for our past failures and taking action to become a stronger organization because of them. We will not rewrite the history of abuse by Mercy Corps’ late co-founder Ellsworth Culver. Instead, we’re building a culture of integrity and accountability and putting in the resources and effort to improve our safeguarding systems, governance, and accountability. Through all of this, I have been continually inspired by our teams’ stamina and steadfast commitment to our mission and the communities we serve.
What weighs most heavily on your mind at the moment?
The first thing that comes to mind is how the pandemic has sharply worsened poverty, hunger, and inequality everywhere. We’ve lost about two decades worth of gains in poverty alleviation due to COVID‑19. How do we rebound from this?
Vaccine equity is a critical part of moving past the pandemic. We must fight for COVID‑19 vaccines to be distributed equitably around the world in order to fully recover together. Residents of wealthy and middle-income countries have received about 90% of the nearly 400 million vaccines delivered so far. We are urging the U.S. and other higher-income countries, as well as pharmaceutical companies, to take concrete action to address vaccine inequity and ensure vaccines can reach everyone, everywhere.
The damaging effects of the pandemic have exacerbated issues like natural disasters, displacement, and conflict over resources—already worse because of climate change. Our programming has focused on helping communities adapt to the climate crisis for many years now, and the need to support those who are most affected by climate change is more urgent now than ever: from helping farmers access solar-powered irrigation systems to connecting rural areas to sustainable energy.