The other day I was paddle boarding with a friend on a particularly hot and blustery day, stuck on my knees because the wind and chop were so strong that I risked tumbling into the lake if I stood up. After 20 minutes paddling into the wind, I looked up only to realize that I was a few feet further out from shore but still parallel with the dock. So much effort, so little progress, and, honestly, that relentless wind made me feel vulnerable and exposed even though I could have just let it blow me back to shore and call it a day.
As I dug my paddle deeper into the water to renew my effort to gain some forward momentum, it made me think about the extraordinary headwinds indigenous Guatemalan women deal with every day, and what it would be like to be stuck right where you are from the moment you are born, conscripted to a life of poverty, limited agency, and lack of opportunity. Young women in rural Guatemala face quadruple discrimination from the day they arrive on this Earth: they are poor, they are Mayan, they live in a rural area, and they are female. The MAIA Impact School works to change that by connecting the latent talent that exists in rural Guatemala but has been overlooked for generations with opportunity, starting with access to robust education through high school and aiming for university studies and access to formal work opportunities (as opposed to remaining in the informal economy, which is much more common, precarious, and poorly paid).
Each of MAIA’s Girl Pioneers (or GP’s, so called because they are pioneering a completely new path for themselves, their families, and their communities) trajectories has been astonishing. Though the wind remains incessant, there’s a flotilla of support, guidance, and information available to each of them about how to improve one’s technique, navigate challenges, find balance, and move forward.
In MAIA’s first class of high school graduates, a GP won a 4-year scholarship to college in the United States through She Can, an organization that builds female leadership in post-conflict countries. There are still so many hurdles for her to leap over and hoops to jump through before this opportunity becomes a reality, including the SATs, the bane of most high schoolers’ existences. Imagine being the first person in your family to go to high school, let alone college, and trying to take the SAT not in your first language, nor your second language, but your third language. More headwinds.
Because the US college process is so unique and challenging, with the SATs in one’s third language adding an extra twist, MAIA’s US Executive Director asked the Board if anyone knew someone who provides one-on-one SAT tutoring. I texted my neighbor, who is a college counselor, and he recommended Summit Educational Group. I googled them and cold called them, stumbling over my words as I tried to explain what MAIA is and does succinctly and clearly, who the GPs are, what the need was, all the while dreading the eventual question of cost. I asked not knowing what to expect and feeling like I was asking a lot. I was glad to be on the phone when I said the words “pro bono” because my face burned bright red and my armpits got sweaty. The gall of calling a complete stranger and asking for a favor – and then asking for it for free! Completely brazen.
But then, incredibly, they said YES. Yes, we will offer 22 hours of our time free of charge to provide the tools and resources this extraordinary young woman needs to continue along her path. That yes made my heart sing, astonished that this might actually happen and truly touched to experience the goodness, kindness, and generosity of other humans.
Several weeks ago, two MAIA staff visited the US for a conference. While they were here, we thought it would be good to meet and thank the Summit Education team in person. At our meeting we were able to give them a little more context about MAIA, rural Guatemala, and the GPs. It was the appropriate, polite thing to do in thanks to an organization that gave so selflessly on our student’s behalf.
But the part that struck and surprised me most that has stuck with me was how powerfully resonant and moving this connection to Guatemala was for them. Though they had no prior connection to MAIA or to Guatemala, while I was busy sweating through my shirt feeling awkward and queasy about my bold ask, they weren’t asking themselves if at all, only how. In fact, the response was more like:
“We don’t often get the chance to help a student like this.”
“This whole experience has been the highlight of my time here at Summit.”
It turns out that my ask was a give. Your read that right. By asking, I gave the gift of meaning, joy, and connection. By connecting, we build bridges and forge deeper understanding, expanding our own world and worldview. The wind may not die down, but if we work together we all make more forward progress.
Asking for help is hard. It’s challenging to separate a need from feeling needy. I find it easier to ask on behalf of someone else, certainly on behalf of a cause that’s bigger than me, but it’s still hard. It strikes me now that while it is so hard to ask for assistance in so many aspects of life, sometimes – often? – the asking creates an opportunity to give that is meaningful to the giver. As Lynne Twist writes in her book The Soul of Money, “this unlocking of a vehicle to change circumstances is a gift.” It’s a remarkable, empowering twist and the ultimate oxygen mask moment.