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Work Better Innovations for Inclusive Economy
MALD alumna Bonny Ling looks for partnerships to support human rights in complex situations
Dr. Bonny Ling’s career has taken her across the world and back—she’s worked in six countries, but she might have lost track. Ling F02 received a PhD in law from the Irish Centre of Human Rights, University of Galway, where she studied human trafficking, and subsequently did her postdoctoral fellowship and taught at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. In 2004, she worked for the UN on the peace negotiations between North and South Cyprus. A clear mission organizes all of her work: to advocate for inclusivity and human rights globally, and especially in our supply chain.
“We hear about labor abuses in almost every product we carry. We know about cobalt that fuels the electronics in our lives. We know about solar panels and forced labor. As consumers, I think nobody feels good,” said Ling. “The head doesn’t meet the tail. We’re not being consistent. Simply put, this cannot be the best that we think we can do.”
“The vision that we have has to be one where our words and commitments meet the reality we want on the ground,” she added.
At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ling found a new way to think from the ground level in her own backyard. Ling’s family had relocated to the Isle of Wight, an island off the South coast of England, half a year earlier. With lockdown in place, a chance virtual meeting with a local community worker, Anita David, changed everything. David reached out to ask Ling if she could host weekly English conversation hours for local migrant women over Zoom. David was worried that the pandemic would cause them to lose touch with migrant communities.
“Every Thursday during lockdown, I would speak to women for about an hour over lunch, and we would talk about big things and little things—like tea and soap operas,” said Ling. “Some conversations would turn to heavier topics, like loneliness and lack of services in the community because the pandemic was having such an impact on our lives.”
Ling heard of one mother with young kids that, in a particularly dark and cold British winter, her heating broke and she struggled to get it fixed for many days. In other conversations, concerns about the mental strain of children being away from school and isolation arose.
Through efforts like the conversation group, Ling and her colleagues learned more about immediate community needs. David has long been a committed community development worker in Portsmouth and had dreamed of several projects to get migrants onto the job ladder but hadn’t been able to pursue them due to lack of funding. Bringing her skillset and expertise as an independent business and human rights consultant, Ling suggested that they create a social enterprise to make these dreams reality.
The team registered Work Better Innovations at the end of 2021 and launched in 2022. Work Better Innovations directs profits from consulting work with various stakeholders to community needs, supporting asylum seekers, migrants, and refugees.
“Our job as a social enterprise is identify where we can make a difference under the theme of pushing for a responsible, sustainable, and inclusive economy. We work off those prompts for the client side of our consultancy and also for our community service. We find a lot of meaning in that work.”
One key area of focus has been in supporting migrants who are transitioning to the job market, a particularly difficult on-ramp for migrants who possess qualifications and credentials unfamiliar to local employers. The social enterprise assists with hard skills—CVs and interview preparation—while maintaining a holistic outlook, providing soft skill training as well as mental and emotional support.
Over the course of their first year, Work Better Innovations was able to expand and provide critical aid through a winter marked by high food and heating costs in the UK. While the group cannot replace the functions of local authorities, they look to address the holes and cracks the state leaves behind. A new event series invites migrant families to attend a health training over a warm meal. With a two-year waiting list for dentists, the first event in December featured a discussion on oral hygiene. The one in January 2023 focused on mental health. The next two dinners will address maternal health and teach some basics of first aid, conceived of because of long wait times for ambulances.
Ling’s efforts with Work Better Innovations stem from a clear philosophy on human rights. Changing the system from the inside presents a unique set of challenges; it requires enterprises to reconceive of cost and profit by considering the world we’ll leave behind.
“I find that often if we speak and we’re truthful, these very unusual spaces do emerge. You meet allies in places where maybe you didn’t expect,” Ling said. “Maybe a lot of that is also Fletcher. We learn how to speak to people who are very different from us—different studies, countries, places. You try to find commonalities, and I find that opens creative and trusting spaces.”
Such curiosity and openness distinguish Ling's career. Recently, Work Better Innovations was tasked by a Fortune 50 company with addressing forced labor risks in Taiwan, by producing Guidebooks on International Labour Organization’s Forced Labor Indicators and training Taiwan’s SMEs on the identification of forced labor risks. Given the potential widespread impact of this work, Ling has been able to collaborate with several companies, multistakeholder groups, and even other Fletcher alumni to help drive awareness.
Ling has been collaborating with thought partners such as Kelly Liu F16 to scale and support the work to address multiple stakeholders within the landscape. Ling’s Fletcher community has been personally and professionally invaluable through the increasingly complicated challenges of the past few years. While a Zoom conversation club helped inspire Work Better Innovations, Ling’s own virtual chats with fellow Fletcher alumnae were a personal salve through COVID and beyond.
“This is an incredible group of women who have done really amazing things, and yet there’s a feeling of humility and hope as well. Coming together in Medford helped us build that special bond we have. Even now, I lean on them a lot to make sense of our complex world.”
Recently, Ling reflected upon her time at Fletcher while unpacking books from her several moves. She came across a book on Aung San Suu Kyi she’d read as a student and paged through, looking at her annotations.
“I remember it spoke so deeply to me as I studied international law at Fletcher. She’s very flawed, and I think many in the human rights world feel disappointed that it wasn’t supposed to turn out like this, for Aung San Suu Kyi and for Myanmar.” Ling said. “It spoke to this dichotomy in how we’re trying to do better despite the flawed people we are and the flaws that we all see. I remember at that moment in time, at Fletcher studying international law and human rights, I was so inspired by her.”
“Life is complicated. These situations and enormous global challenges that Fletcher teaches you to solve are very difficult,” she added. “The parts aren’t congruent, there’s the cross-border element too—we have to be okay with that complexity and not advocate for a solution that is too simple and creates other problems. We have to be mindful and draw upon the expertise of our colleagues and to be humble and say, I don’t know, when we don’t know. We have to be flexible. Even when things look bleak, there is still a lot of hope and solidarity in this space, working together to support human rights.”
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