Represent! Women in STEM: MAIA’s Formula for Success

I have another guest blog to share today! This post was written by Isabela Lyrio and was first published on the MAIA Impact School website. As we approach International Women’s Day on March 8, this is a timely reminder of how much progress women have made in terms of gender equality as well as how much room there is to still grow. Isabela’s piece focuses on STEM education for girls broadly, and specifically on how the MAIA Impact School incorporates STEM learning into the curriculum. The feature picture I chose of MAIA Girl Pioneers working in a lab is groundbreaking in its historic significance. This intentionality around vastly expanding education and opportunity in every dimension imaginable for this overlooked population is game changing. These young women are examples of hope in action, personified. And with that, take it away Isabela:

Why is it important for girls to learn and excel in STEM not only in the classroom, but in the workforce as well? STEM is science, technology, engineering, and math, careers considered to be the changing forces for the future. It is estimated that 65 to 85 percent of jobs today will no longer exist in the next 20 to 30 years, in large part due to automation and ever-changing local and global economies. Women in developing countries are most threatened by this change because they are overrepresented in occupations that are most likely to become automated. The STEM fields are some of the fastest growing sectors of the global job market; however, women only represent 35 percent of the student body pursuing university degrees in STEM fields.

MAIA believes in the importance of representation. When girls and women lead innovation, they make it more inclusive, impact a larger population, and act as role models for more girls to get involved in this field in the future.

In Guatemala, the opportunity for indigenous women in STEM is almost nonexistent. This marginalization is reflective of greater social context, the poor quality of public education, and gender and cultural norms. According to the Ministry of Education’s 2017 national assessment of high school graduates, only 9.6 percent are considered proficient in math, only .59 percent better than the 2016 results. Similarly, in literacy only 32 percent of high school graduates are considered proficient, a .01 percent improvement from the previous year. This problem is compounded when considering that only 10 percent of indigenous girls graduate from high school and 1 percent receive a university degree.

Scientists at Work
Girl Pioneers in Science Class; Photo by Anna Watts

The MAIA Impact School is working to transform these statistics and provide the tools Girl Pioneers need to have a choice-filled life and become leaders in the industry of their choice. MAIA offers a rigorous, culturally adapted curriculum that is delivered by educators who are pioneers in their own fields and come from the same rural towns as the Girl Pioneers. MAIA’s educators are powerful local role models for girls in Guatemala.

Marlen Cumes, MAIA’s natural science educator, is from a small town in the Guatemalan highlands. When she was deciding on her career path, Marlen wanted to study agroforestry in university but was met with resistance from her family—they believed this was not a woman’s career. Marlen fought for her beliefs and passions and pursued her career as an agronomist. It was challenging for Marlen to follow her dreams and overcome deeply embedded stereotypes of what a woman’s career should be in rural Guatemala. Her graduating class was equally balanced, 50 percent men and 50 percent women. However, only 11 percent of the women were indigenous. During her studies, Marlen became passionate about soil preservation and climate change but would hit brick walls when trying to engage with adults in her community on this topic. Many adults already had their minds made up and would not respect her expertise as a woman in a male-dominated field. That’s why Marlen sought opportunities as an educator, where she could teach passionate young students who have open minds and want to make a difference in the world. Once she was hired as MAIA’s natural science educator at the Impact School, she found that she was in the perfect place to teach the next generation of changemakers in an organization that is breaking paradigms just as she did.

Marlen Teaching
Marlen Cumes, MAIA’s Natural Science Educator; Photo by Livvy Runyon

MAIA is a bold organization that asserts the right of indigenous girls to pursue a high-quality education by emboldening them to use their voice in spaces where indigenous women’s representation has been limited, especially in STEM and technology. Divisions in access to technology reflect socioeconomic divisions and amplify the lack of access to opportunities marginalized groups face in developing countries. By investing in computers, a cutting-edge science lab, talented local educators, and intentional partnerships, MAIA is ensuring Girl Pioneers will have the skills and opportunities to become leaders in STEM fields.

Students and Garden
Girl Pioneers at the MAIA Impact School Zayed Garden; Photo by Layla Rojas

Indigenous culture is integrated with MAIA’s identity and academic instruction, this is important because it creates an environment that is familiar and fertile for learning. One example of the integration of indigenous identity and academics is MAIA’s Zayed Sustainability Garden. MAIA was awarded the 2019 Zayed Sustainability Prize as the most “innovative and inclusive school in the Americas” and received $100,000 to launch the Zayed Garden at the Impact School. The Zayed Garden combines STEM learning opportunities with traditional Mayan farming practices, organic gardening techniques, and nutrition. As part of the Zayed curriculum, Girl Pioneers learn about traditional medicinal plants as well as organic and permaculture gardening. By integrating medicinal plants as part of the natural science curriculum, Girl Pioneers learn to integrate the knowledge of their ancestors with STEM subjects, giving them unique insight and experience in this field.

Claudia Marisol, a 10th-grader, recently participated in Ella Impacta, a competition sponsored by Vital Voices in Guatemala City, and competed against students from elite schools from all over the country to receive seed funding for community-based projects. Claudia proposed a project of family gardens, where families grow organic vegetables in their homes, with the goal of increasing access to fresh vegetables but also to address the problem of malnutrition in her community. This project would increase access to nutritious organic vegetables and diminish the use of chemicals and pesticides in rural communities, thereby fortifying nutrients in the soil, protecting water sources, and sharing information and resources about the advantages of organic gardening with community members. Claudia Marisol won $1,000 in funding for her project, and is applying what she learned at the MAIA Impact School to become a changemaker in her community. She’ll use the intersection of traditional permaculture techniques and the natural science curriculum (with support from her educator, Marlen).

Ella Impacta Win
Girl Pioneers with their Ella Impacta seed funding and Xoco MAIA Supporters in Guatemala City

It is essential to establish a sense of belonging for female minorities in STEM fields. According to a study in the STEM Education Journal, the biggest reason minority groups drop out of STEM majors in university is that they feel they don’t belong in that space. This is attributed to  interpersonal relationships, perceived competence, personal interest, and science identity. At MAIA, we create a positive learning environment in STEM and other culturally relevant subject areas, so Girl Pioneers feel a sense of belonging rather than alienation in these fields. We ensure they know they have the ability and expertise for any field of their choice, and if they choose to pursue a career in STEM that they have the tools they need to become leaders.

Marlen is a trailblazer in her community, ensuring younger generations can learn from her and follow her example. We see Girl Pioneers like Claudia Marisol following this path and multiplying impact to benefit the community. At MAIA, we are guided by the question “how far can she go?” and we are just beginning to witness the infinite impact of Girl Pioneers and their passion for learning and social transformation.

The secret to change

 

A Clean Sweep – and a Win for the Power of Hope, Resiliency, and Perseverance

Dear Readers,

Let me start by saying thank you for reading! I am so grateful for your interest and your time. I certainly have days, sometimes full strings of days, where I can’t read beyond the news headlines let alone a deep dive into a blog post. So, thank you for setting aside time to read on! As I have mentioned before, I also have days in which I wonder what’s the point, does it really matter, is anybody out there? But then I hear from readers who tell me that what I wrote changed how they felt and, well, that is the very definition of making a difference.

Imagine: if in our daily lives we are confronted with feelings of “what’s the point?”, “it’s bigger than me,” “I couldn’t possibly make a difference,” what must it be like as an indigenous girl in rural Guatemala, where from any early age you are taught that you have no worth and where everything you experience tells you that you are an afterthought? Worse, as you get older, the tide pushes ever harder against you because of cultural norms and systemic racism, poverty, limited and inadequate educational options, no professional network, the wrong last name. How many times must these women feel hopeless and powerless in the face of forces much bigger than them?

But then someone with a bold and completely audacious vision steps in and begins to construct the building blocks to change all that by educating one girl, one family at a time. And guess what? OH MY GOSH, it is working! MAIA set out ten years ago with a mission to unlock and maximize the potential of young women to lead transformational change. And the MAIA Girl Pioneers are doing it!

The most recent proof of that? On Wednesday night three Girl Pioneers competed in the final round of a national competition called Ella Impacta (She Impacts). The contest, sponsored by the international organization Vital Voices, focused on giving young women a stage to share their social impact visions. Contestants came from across Guatemala, including the elite private schools and universities. Over the past few months, the contestants received mentorship and training on how to design and present projects. On Wednesday night they each made their final “pitch” to a panel of judges.

MAIA Girl Pioneers won 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place! 

MAIA Contest Winners and XocoMAIA
MAIA Contestants with their Mentor and XocoMAIA (Guatemala City) Supporters

Remember, in Guatemala, the average Maya teenage girl obtains only 3.5 years of education. Only 10 percent of indigenous girls in rural Guatemala are enrolled in secondary school, and fewer than one percent continue on to university. Add to those disturbing statistics that even when families do invest in the promise of education, the substandard quality of Guatemalan schools fails them. According to the Guatemalan Ministry of Education only 10 percent of high school graduates meet international standards of literacy, and only 9 percent reach the standards of math comprehension.

Given all of those statistics, it’s incredible that these girls are even at the table. But a clean sweep of the competition?!?!? These pioneers are no longer in the shadows. They are striving forward, proving out a model for change. The formula: bold, audacious, committed action towards a vision; building robust partnerships within the community and beyond, from mentors to the XocoMAIA supporters in Guatemala City to Guatemalan and U.S. donors; living a growth mindset, perseverance and resiliency daily. You want an example of grit? MAIA and the Girl Pioneers live it every single day.

So, what were the projects that these pioneering young women put forth?

The first place winner, a 10th grader named Claudia Marisol, designed a project called Huertos Familiares (Family Orchards) to address malnutrition in her village by growing diverse fruits and vegetables locally. This project builds on her experience with the MAIA garden plot that was jumpstarted by the school’s 2019 Zayed Sustainability Prize award. Claudia received $1,000 as seed money to launch her initiative and will travel to New York City for the next stage of the competition.

The second place winner, Norma Alicia, pitched a pre-school called Paso A Paso (Step By Step) for her community to give kids a running start into elementary school. She won $500 to begin her project.

The third place winner, Rosa Angelica, proposed a social entrepreneurship project to augment the opportunities for female artisanal crafters in her community.

MAIA Students with US Ambassador
(Left to Right:) MAIA Mentor Silvia, MAIA Student Rosa Angelica, U.S. Ambassador Luis Arreaga, MAIA Student Claudia Marisol, and MAIA Student Norma Alicia

What’s the point? This, this right here. The problem is too big? It is big, and there are lots of big problems. You couldn’t possibly make a difference? Start by making a difference one person at a time. A small kindness, a shared story, an honest vulnerability, an unexpected smile to a stranger, a hug and gentle reassurance to an Alzheimer’s patient, even if they won’t remember.

Dive in! Too many too big problems means there is ample opportunity to create meaningful change and make an impact in someone’s life. It’s amazing what people can do with hope, a path, resources, and support. And, if you are very lucky, one day you get the chance to watch them soar. Today is my lucky day. Congratulations to all of the students and staff at MAIA Impact School! Abrazos fuertes a todos!MAIA Logo

 

What Would Light be without Darkness?

Apparently the existential thinking of my French studies sunk in somewhere after all despite the fact that I would desperately wish for the French novels and films of my academic years to come to a conclusion or point of some sort. Mercy!

Several decades later, as I travel in my little world, I notice how the holiday lights proliferate by the day and how the reflecting snow augments their brightness. It’s no mystery that the season of light happens on the longest and darkest of days as we (in the northern hemisphere, anyway!) descend towards winter. As I witness and delight in the decorations springing up around me, and as I set up my own decorations, I can’t help but also think about the darkness.

Darkness usually has such a negative connotation. Certainly at this time of year, darkness comes ever earlier and, as the sun sets, the cold burrows deeper into your bones. Personally, I have trouble leaving the warmth of my home to venture out into the dark. As far as I am concerned, when it’s dark the day is over. That doesn’t work out so well when it is dark at 4:30 in the afternoon. But as I set up my decorations, I find myself anticipating the dark, knowing that the lights are muted, invisible, meaningless without it.

Maybe I’ve spent too much time freezing my toes off in a snowbank recently, but my brain has been firmly veering toward the existential. What would light be if we didn’t have darkness? Not much. It turns out, the darkness I generally dread is the platform for the delight of the glimmering lights all around me. This makes me think further about gratitude and love: Would we even understand our good fortune without suffering? Isn’t grief one of the deepest and most profound expressions of love?

I think about the trials I have faced in my life, about times and places I never want to revisit or repeat, about the people I have loved and lost (or am still losing slowly, every day). I recognize how the challenges transformed me into the person I am today, that the slow loss of my mom to Alzheimer’s forced me to pay attention and to spend extra time with her while we could still talk, that the sudden loss of my aunt drew me closer to my uncle and cousins, that “grief is just love with no place to go.”

Grief is really just love quote

Adversity and challenge can be blessings in disguise. With them comes introspection, awareness, knowledge, compassion, connection, and gratitude. Without them is a life unquestioned, many paths not taken. Adversity led me to work in the woods of northern Maine and to travel to the other side of the world to study in Madagascar. It was the discomfort and emptiness of my questioning, who-am-I-and-where-do-I-fit teenage years that gave me courage, that forced me to stretch myself, that showed me who I really was and helped me define my passions, and that taught me to see with gratitude the blessings that exist every day in my life. Once again, the darkness was the platform for the light.

At this consumeristic time of year, I am even more mindful of my many blessings, especially the basics. Here is my short list of cherished things. We should never take these (and many more) for granted. Trust me.

  1. Shelter – I see the snow on the ground, hear the wind howling outside. I have woken with wet toes when the bottom of my sleeping bag slid out from under the tarp that protected me from the rain; I have slept outside when temperatures have dipped below 20 degrees, every article of clothing I could carry on my body, my sleeping bag hood drawn down to my eyes around my head. But my nose was still so cold I had trouble sleeping. I am so grateful to have a roof over my head and heat to keep to me warm;
  2. Umbrellas – You only have to get soaked in a rainstorm once to understand what a wonderful invention these are. Live in the woods working days on end in the rain and you will never forget the comfort of being warm and dry;
  3. Washing machine – As a mom, laundry is, admittedly, the bane of my existence at times. But, oh my gosh, the machine does it all by itself! And we are fortunate enough to have one in our home. One bout of stomach flu running through the family is all it takes to realize how awful life could truly be. Imagine walking your laundry to the laundromat down the street when you are recovering from the flu. That’s right. We are blessed beyond measure.
  4. Clean water – I fill my water bottle directly from the tap. If you have never experienced anything else, it’s easy to see how having clean water, on demand, anytime you need it wouldn’t register as a luxury. But many countries don’t have treated water and many women spend the better part of their days fetching water from miles away. I knew that the parasites and bacteria in untreated water wreaked havoc on more delicate American and European GI systems (sometimes called Montezuma’s revenge), but only recently did it strike me that those who live in developing countries also get sick from the water. Water they drink every single day. Five months in Madagascar taught me clearly how impossible it is to work, go to school, be healthy and strong – live – with constant tummy troubles.
  5. A quality education – Education is a much less tangible “thing,” but it’s so critical that I have to include it. An education is both a foundation and a launchpad. A quality education is something that should be a right and a guarantee. But it isn’t, not in many developing countries (where many girls are fetching water instead of going to school), but also not equitably in the U.S. An education provides a path toward financial security, a way to access broader opportunities, and, fundamentally, hope. She’s The First recently launched a powerful video about how imperative and transformative an education is. One of the extraordinary women profiled is a graduate of the MAIA Impact School in Guatemala.

 

I could go on. But those are my top five.

Hopelessness is the darkest of places to be. In this season of light and giving, I encourage you to think about how you can shine your light into the darkness. Shine your light on all of your blessings, no matter how small they may be. Reach out to those who are in need of hope. If each of us were to be a ray of light for even just one other person this year, think about how much hope we could fill the world with. Let’s make 2020 EXTRA-ordinary, each in our own ways.

In thinking about something bigger than us as individuals, and in the giving spirit, here are some of my favorite organizations that are doing the difficult, audacious, and awesome work of providing high-quality education, clean water, and recognizing our common humanity across the world. I am holding them and all of my readers in the light this holiday season.

MAIA Impact School – Unlocking and maximizing the potential of young women to lead transformational change.

Water for People – We believe in a world where everyone has safe drinking water, forever.

One Revolution – It’s not what happens to you, it’s what you do with what happens to you.

Brokeness of world quote

 

Finding the Spark: How to Make Change Happen

Back in grad school, one of my professors asked us to define the spark that engenders change. What causes some stuck (people, projects, towns, cities, countries) to evolve, change, revitalize, or otherwise transform while others stay stuck? After much discussion, there was no definitive answer. The mystery of successfully effecting positive change – of figuring out the spark that finally ignites transformation – is something that I have been thinking about and trying to answer ever since.

Today I had a whole elaborate plan cooked up in my head to reveal the (honest-to-goodness-I-keep-lists-of-this-stuff) five elements that most characterize effective change. But, honestly, it’s reading like a research paper and I am, ironically, feeling stuck (and a tad bored) as I write it. So, instead, I am going to illustrate effective, BOLD change with an awesome, feel-good, hope-filled story.

So, here it is: last week the middle school students at the MAIA Impact School celebrated their promotion to high school!!!! This is HUGE. This is unprecedented! This is transforming lives and creating a path that’s never been trod before.

Remember from previous posts that MAIA is a secondary school designed specifically for rural, poor, indigenous Guatemalan girls. Any single one of those factors creates a challenging situation. All four combined seems insurmountable.

In Guatemala, the least equitable society in the Western hemisphere, Mayan girls are an after-thought. Families live hand-to-mouth, scraping by, tenuously surviving, with no opportunity for better – for generations, for the entire scope of their pasts and futures. Education, especially for girls, has historically been neither an option nor a priority.

By supporting their daughters to attend MAIA, these families have both courageously attempted something that is totally new to them while sacrificing someone to help out at home now for a better future for their child, their family, and, ultimately, their country later. When they completed sixth grade, these girls had already exceeded the cultural norms for their education. Now they have completed all of middle school and are off to high school! Grab your tissues and check out this highlight video from the graduation ceremony.

MAIA’s new school building in Solola opened just one year ago this month. Rob Jentsch of MassInsight, the behind-the-scenes education guru and co-architect of the school, observed: “Beyond the fields of the Esturctura de Elementos Esenciales at least once per trip I have a moment where I get a little overwhelmed by seeing how well you all are bringing to life what is at its core an extremely ambitious proposition. So ambitious in fact that literally no one I’m aware of has attempted it. I just had that moment. There are 150 indigenous girls, led by an indigenous staff of teachers, who are at school on a random Tuesday learning and growing at a depth and pace and in an environment that any parent in the world would wish for their child.”

The preschoolers who attend school in a space at the MAIA Impact School also graduated last week. Mostly I am including their pictures here because they are just so unbelievably adorable. But also, think about what they and their families are witnessing every day as a real possibility for their futures. The sign behind their heads reads “Bienvenidos a la Clasura Aula Magica,” which means, “Welcome to the Magical Classroom.” This truly is magical. And it’s also what hope looks like in action. A future of opportunity in the making. Ripples of change expanding ever wider, generation to generation.

My list of what it takes to create change and shift the status quo doesn’t mention the word ambitious, but I think I will add it. Fundamentally, change starts with a bold and audacious vision (anchored with proven best practices and measurable milestones). It demands courageous action, commitment, and perseverance, every single day. And it requires leadership that’s realistic, that recognizes the formidable odds and all the problems (and they are manifold), but doesn’t get quagmired in or paralyzed by dwelling on them. When you have all that, well, it’s a start. Usually change on this scale is incremental and takes an incredibly long time, a slow shift in the sands, a ton of work happening behind-the-scenes for years before a vision becomes reality. MAIA is all the more remarkable for asking themselves “how far can she go?” and then laying out a path for these girls to see just that. MAIA is transforming an ambitious vision into reality at an unprecedented pace within Guatemala and on the international stage (the photos below are from the United Nation’s Day of the Girl in October where MAIA presented a Girls Bill of Rights!).

In this often frantic time of year, step back from time to time, take a deep breath, and a good look around. The essence of human life – connection with others – happens before our very eyes in the Target parking lot, in the checkout counter at the grocery store, at a highway rest stop – if you let it. Flood your heart with hope – for the courageous MAIA students and their families in Guatemala and for positive change in your own life. Recognize with deep gratitude all the good in the life you have; the wonder and fundamental good in this world; and the potential of us all, and for our common humanity.

Smile. Connect. Hope. Gratitude.

Thank you for reading, and Happy Thanksgiving!

In this season of giving and gratitude, if you are so inclined to support the MAIA students as they chart a bold, new trajectory, please give at www.maiaimpact.org/donate

MAIA Logo“If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, that will be sufficient.”  (German theologian and philosopher, Meister Eckhart)

What Does Courage Look Like?

Today is video day. I have two videos to share, both of which show in images versus words what courage looks like – no, check that – what courage IS.

The first is a one-minute video of Vilma Saloj, a young Mayan woman born into poverty in rural Guatemala, giving an empowered and moving speech at the MAIA Impact School annual event in Denver, CO. This video is worth every second of your time spent watching it. For context, most Mayan girls in rural Guatemala are lucky to make it to 6th grade and to learn limited Spanish. Vilma is seen here presenting like a pro, in English, with a bold vision of being part of systemic change in her country. #maiaimpact #wearethesolution

The second is also only one-minute long and features Kendra Smith: kickboxer, stuntwoman, former pro-wrestler, personal trainer, and athlete. She travels to Guatemala every year to teach self-defense and kickboxing to the girl pioneers at the MAIA Impact School. She is currently working on a program to incorporate self-defense as a regular part of the school’s curriculum. #warriors #girlpower #stronggirlsstrongwomen #maiaimpact

Those are my messages of hope and joy for today. I’ll close with a poem written by MAIA 7th grader Wendy Palax:

Indigenous Woman

Fighter and entrepreneur

Strong and capable,

Indigenous woman from the land,

Brave and bold.

 

You are like the phoenix that rises

From her ashes,

Your traditions

Are wealth.

 

With your gown of beautiful colors,

Weaved with the hands of your ancestors

Showing a warrior woman

Dancing to the beat of the marimba.

 

You fight for equality,

Shine among the nature,

Woman dedicated to culture,

Indigenous woman of my town.

 

You care for your traditions

For your customs

For your family

For your language

For your gown.

 

You love and care,

Have feelings

Of joy and emotions.

WE ARE THE SOLUTION

Contemplations over Coffee

I love my morning cup of coffee. I used to be a tea drinker, but coffee is my current go-to daily indulgence. I didn’t drink coffee or tea until I had kids, but during those puffy-eyed, foggy-headed, sleepless baby years I developed a habit of going to a coffee shop for a latte. Yes, a latte. Because I am still a baby about drinking straight up black coffee. Going to a coffee shop served the dual purpose of being a treat for me (oxygen mask moment!) and a destination to get out of the house.

Finding a cozy coffee shop remains one of my favorite ways to see a new city or town. I will walk a great distance or drive quite a few miles out of my way with the lure of a local coffee shop as my destination. Some of my favorites include Reykjavik Roasters (Iceland – Icelandic folks really like their coffee!), Catalyst Coffee Bar (St. Albans, VT), the Kalaheo Coffee Company (Kauai, Hawai’i), and Café Loco (Panajachel, Guatemala).

In Guatemala, I had the opportunity to visit small-holder coffee farmers who are members of a cooperative called De La Gente. I loved this visit, of course, because coffee was involved, but also because it was my first chance to meet actual coffee farmers. I had seen large, glossy images of coffee farmers plastered on the walls of chain coffee shops – coffee farmers tending their crops; coffee farmers posing happily with freshly picked beans or with their family in front of a bright red, newly scrubbed jeep; coffee farmers staring across vast, idyllic landscapes. I had seen advertisements for Fair Trade practices, the happy smiles in the photos implying that life as a coffee farmer was good. But those images smack majorly of marketing campaigns, and I have always wondered: who really and truly are the people behind the coffee and what are their lives actually like?

As usual, the story is more complicated than a Fair Trade label and a sustainable living for farmers (known in industry lingo as “producers”). In the central Highlands of Guatemala, coffee grows in the folds of picturesque volcanoes. This area produces some of the best coffee in Guatemala because it is the perfect micro-climate for these shade-grown plants. Except when the volcano erupts, of course.

For these coffee producers, the commute is a walk up the hill to the higher elevations where the coffee beans grow. The cooperative model has had a positive impact on farmers in this area. With 28 coffee growers working together, they are able to get better prices. So that’s a good thing. Better prices should mean more money in the pocket of the farmers. Hopefully. As part of a direct trade cooperative, the De La Gente farmers are better off than many. But they still work 12-hour days, sometimes more. And they are still extremely vulnerable to the smallest change in circumstances out of their control – weather, infestation, global prices, health issues within the family.

Coffee is only harvested once per year, apart from in Columbia. This means that, for producers, managing cash flow is extremely challenging. All of their annual income is realized in a matter of one or two weeks. The farmers dream of more than just barely surviving. Stability and predictability are not yet a reality; margins are extremely thin.

How vulnerable are coffee farmers? Coffee plants rely on a temperate climate with a specific range of degree in temperature. Martin Mayorga, of Mayorga Organics, says, “If you doubt climate change, go talk to some coffee farmers. 1,000 meters was prime elevation for growing really high quality coffee in Central America. One or two degrees of climate shift, it becomes basically unsustainable.” Climate change is already impacting low-altitude coffee-producing regions because of increasing temperatures, making plants more vulnerable to insects and diseases.

In 2013, coffee rust impacted many coffee farmers in Central America. The result of this disease outbreak meant the producers weren’t able to produce enough coffee to meet their loan payments. I should mention that coffee farmers often rely on loans to bridge the gap between growing seasons. These loans come with high interest rates. If their once-per-year payment from that year’s coffee production isn’t sufficient, the farmers can’t pay back their loans. The cycle and insecurity intensify and deepen year after year.

In Guatemala, much of the coffee grows in the shadows of active volcanoes. According to Henry Wilson of Perfect Daily Grind, the world’s largest English and Spanish coffee publication (with 5 million page views), during the volcanic eruption of Volcan del Fuego in June and November 2018, coffee production decreased by 30%. How does anyone survive under these conditions?

The solution(s)? According to Mayorga and Wilson, the prescription for producers is diversification. Producers need to be adaptable to market forces, but also to the varied outside forces that impact their ability to produce high-quality coffee. Diversification enables producers to generate income from a range of products over the course of the year. Portfolio diversification equates to risk management. Both Mayorga and Wilson have begun to work with farmers to produce and market other crops that grow well where coffee grows such as chia, cacao, beans, and quinoa. According to Wilson, the coffee farmers near Volcan del Fuego survived their losses in 2018 because they had already diversified their crops.

On the consumer side, we can be more thoughtful about where the beans that fuel our day come from, how they are produced, and by whom. And we can demand better if it’s not good enough. It’s easy to forget where the supply chain that gets products onto our supermarket shelves starts, but it’s important to think about it. As Mayorga Organics notes in its purpose statement, “The solution isn’t as simple as paying farmers a few cents more. It’s about treating our farmers as EQUAL PARTNERS and empowering them through communication and cooperation. It’s about ‘trimming the fat’ in the agribusiness supply chain to create more value for farmers and for consumers–all while obsessively focusing on quality.”

The world is a complicated place. The problems in developing countries are often interrelated – the systems of export-based economies set up during colonial periods endure, keeping the poorest mired in cycles of hopelessness and poverty from which they cannot escape. In primarily agrarian economies, diversifying crops leads to greater stability for farmers on a year-over-year basis. The less vulnerable farmers are, the better able they are to weather the impacts of climate change, and the more likely they are to allow their children time away from the farm to pursue an education. The more educated the populace becomes, the deeper their understanding of the forces that impact their daily lives, from climate change to politics. It’s all connected. No one can pour from an empty cup.

I am not an expert on these subjects by any stretch. But they matter. Here are some further resources to pore over as you pour and enjoy a nice, warm beverage to start your day:

10 Reasons Fair Trade Coffee Doesn’t Work

Changing Challenges and Solutions for Guatemalan Coffee Producers

Small Coffee Farmers Need to Diversify

Acknowledging the Impact of Slavery and Colonialism in the Coffee Industry

Cultivating Change Podcast

PS – Check out the video below to further understand the conditions in which producers of various commodities the U.S. imports work, thanks to Martin Mayorga. He writes, “The farmers we typically work with are usually in remote areas, don’t have proper tools, and are most easily exploited by large traders. Our goal is to give them stable income and work with them to develop their skills, tools, and capacities so THEY can choose who they work with. It’s a long, challenging process but if we don’t go into those communities, those producers will continue to be exploited and consumers will be the unknowing tool used for exploitation.  (BTW, these farmers are separating chia seed from the husk. It’s the first of many steps necessary to get to pure, clean chia seeds and is done using tractors in industrialized farms)”.

 

 

 

A Meaningful Solution for our Southern Border

I wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times last month in response to a series of articles Nick Kristoff had published about Central America. It wasn’t chosen for publication there, but, hey, I can publish it here! It’s still relevant, perhaps ever more so.

The problems are clear, manifold and complex.  But so is at least one solution. If we double down on education and create meaningful opportunity, the trajectory changes. Having hope matters. This is a human truth, and it transcends boundaries. A robust education creates hope, opportunity, and a path forward, both in the U.S. and elsewhere. This path requires investment, leadership, humility, and commitment. But this path also produces long-term results, in addition to being one of the most all-encompassing and humane.

June 6, 2019

Dear Mr. Feyer/To the Editor:

Re: “Food Doesn’t Grow Here Anymore. That’s Why I Would Send My Son North” (Opinion, June 5)

Mr. Kristof’s column highlights the conundrum of the immigration crisis on our southern border. In communities without opportunity, where climate change has destroyed harvests and survival is a daily struggle, what choice do people have but to leave?

Antagonizing immigrants at the border isn’t going to change the hopelessness they are fleeing. Creating real and meaningful opportunities for their future does. A robust education is a fundamental pathway toward this goal. The MAIA Impact School, a secondary school for indigenous girls in Solola, Guatemala, is an exemplar of best practices in this area.

MAIA, led by Mayan women, provides not only academic opportunity, but also the mentoring and support students and their families need to navigate this unfamiliar road. Imagine the trickle-down impacts when empowered, educated girls become empowered, educated mothers. Educating girls and family planning are two of the top ten solutions to climate change, according to a study by Project Drawdown. Education provides a transformative solution to systemic poverty and climate change, expanding generationally like the roots of a strong tree.

Sincerely….

That’s what I wanted the New York Times to share. Bold, audacious, selfless solutions.

For more information and recent perspectives on Guatemala, below are links to articles from a range of sources:

https://www.forbes.com/sites/stuartanderson/2019/07/15/a-safe-third-country-agreement-with-guatemala-could-be-dangerous/amp/?fbclid=IwAR1jCK8fA0YyyKa3lbm4oTc8SjVEUrezYfDx0S5_oRWrhJh5jSn6g26QIig

https://brightthemag.com/in-rural-guatemala-this-school-make-the-girl-effect-happen-kipp-maia-education-cbeabb429863

https://www.yesmagazine.org/peace-justice/guatemala-deployment-united-states-migrants-asylum-20190613

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-49134544

https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-guatemalan-city-fueling-the-migrant-exodus-to-america-11563738141

https://www.newyorker.com/news/dispatch/how-climate-change-is-fuelling-the-us-border-crisis

And because it’s an awesome moment, here is a video of a band greeting people at the arrivals terminal in the Guatemala City airport.