Let There be Light

Alumnus earns Echoing Green Fellowship for bringing community-driven change to his native Myanmar

UC San Diego alumnus Lin Thu Hein has come full circle; after arriving in the United States from Myanmar at age 13, he is now using his degree in electrical engineering to bring solar-powered lighting to people off the grid and displaced by the recent unrest in his home state of Kachin in Myanmar.

Hein and the non-governmental organization (NGO) he co-founded, called Atutu, have a unique approach to this work. Through their Grassroots Design method, the NGO partners with local communities to co-create solutions to the challenge they’re working to solve: this puts the communities they work with in the driver’s seat of development efforts, instead of being beneficiaries. The approach earned Hein a coveted Echoing Green Fellowship , awarded to transformational leaders in the social sector; past Fellows include Michelle Obama, Van Jones, and Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America.

Much of Hein’s formative thinking about community-driven social change stems from his years in the Global Ties program at UC San Diego. Global Ties partners interdisciplinary teams of students with nonprofits and NGOs to co-create solutions to socially urgent problems in San Diego and the developing world. Hein was part of the One Village Philippines project team , which partnered with nonprofit Gawad Kalinga in the Philippines to bring affordable solar-powered lanterns, and a source of income, to their partner village.

Through the project, Hein was able to travel to the Philippines three times over the course of four years to work hand-in-hand with the partner organization on this joint venture, a transformational experience not just for him, but for many of the students who went with him and have since decided to volunteer their time to the Atutu mission.

"Our experiences on those trips, talking about group dynamics, talking about the balance of power, talking about the way being on the ground changed our perspective and how we would do it differently or how we would communicate that differently, those were instrumental experiences," said Hein. "In training our next group of volunteers and designers for Atutu, those trips helped us come up with the guide rails so that we don’t have any Western designers or Western engineers taking over the conversation at the collaboration stage."

Mandy Bratton, director of the Global Ties program, said she’s not surprised to see Hein earning this level of national recognition for his work, but is heartened that so many fellow Global Ties alumni have chosen to participate in Atutu as well.

"I knew from the moment I met Lin that he was going to go far and do this kind of important work, but the fact that he has brought along so many Global Ties alumni—almost 50% of the people he’s working with at Atutu were part of the program—I think that’s one of the neatest parts of the story, it’s amazing."

Alexis Tam, a chemical engineering alumna who co-founded Atutu with Hein in 2018, is one of those alums who is still actively involved as a volunteer with the organization. She and Hein met working on the One Village Philippines project together.

"Atutu is a unique experience because we choose to prioritize self-efficacy in the communities that we work with," said Tam, who volunteers as the organization’s Director of Operations, managing the portfolio of emerging projects and research and development initiatives. "This upcoming year, we are setting up the infrastructure to build solar home systems for off-grid communities in Myanmar. We have done this all while working fully remote in an online community the past few years, with members all over the world. I’ve also made some long-lasting friendships through this organization."

Bringing light to Myanmar

While Atutu leads humanitarian innovation projects across a variety of sectors, from developing education centers to implementing water pump systems in off-grid communities, the Echoing Green Fellowship supports one of Atutu’s projects in particular: Sunbird Solar Technologies. The goal of the Sunbird project is to partner with community members on the ground in Myanmar, called Atutu Fellows, to manufacture and install a solar light system in homes, starting in Kachin state.

"The Sunbird project in particular aligned with my professional experience and my academic experience," said Hein, who worked at a solar microgrid startup company after graduating in 2019 with a degree in electrical engineering with a focus on renewable energy and power systems. The Echoing Green Fellowship enabled him to devote himself full-time to Atutu starting in late 2021. "My focus on renewable energy and power systems at UC San Diego, plus growing up in a community with very limited energy access, made it a good fit for me to work on the energy access aspect of our development mission."

Hein and the Atutu team of volunteers in the United Statesmany of them UC San Diego alumni-and Fellows in Myanmar, were able to install about 70 of these home lighting systems before the turmoil of COVID, and later a coup in Myanmar in February 2021, forced the team to pause. Instead of stopping their efforts, the Atutu team saw a new need, as thousands of people were forced to leave their homes and move into makeshift camps for internally displaced people. The Sunbird Solar team is now partnering with Myanmarese fellows to manufacture and install these lights in the temporary settlements for the internally displaced.

The core goal of the mission remains unchanged.

"We’re trying to empower the community that we’re partnering with to have a voice, and be in the driver’s seat of their own development journey," said Hein. "Our goal is to work with a group of Atutu fellows, community members on the ground, who are interested in working on energy access but are facing some sort of systemic barriers toward that goal" said Hein. "We’ll try to unblock those barriers with the access and the tools and the resources that we have."

A journey there and back

Hein grew up in Kachin state in Myanmar. While his mom worked abroad in Thailand for several years to provide opportunities and a new pathway for him, he was raised by a team of aunties and extended family. When he was 13, his mom had an opportunity to move to the San Francisco Bay area and bring her son with her. Hein attended high school in the Bay Area before earning his degree at the Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego.

"I think throughout that time there’s always been this lingering desire to do good for my community and to do good for Myanmar," he said. "I had this feeling that nothing was going to be done unless I did something; now I’ve got access to people who could do something about making these changes, while the people who have wanted to do something didn’t have access to these resources that I do now."

Current Atutu members from Global Ties include Alexis Tam, Jacob Hohn, Hao-In Choi, Ayush Sapra and Anuka Zandanshatar.

Atutu Fellows in Myanmar include Mung Dan Aung, Zaw Htoi Aung, Myo Win Aung, Zaw Latt Aung, Hein Htet Aung, Chi Oo Maung, Tsaw Htoi, Gum Lawt Aung and Jar Li Gam.


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