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.

 

 

 

Anaya Tipnis and Access to the American Dream

Independence and self-reliance are two of the most prized American values. We are raised in a culture where individualism is paramount. From an early age we are told stories about how anything is possible if you work hard enough. We are brought up on images of settlers coming to this country seeking freedom from the hierarchy of European society, and then of pioneers bravely striking out for new territories in the west in search of the American Dream.

One is left with the impression that success, then as now, is all bootstraps and determination, and that opportunity is equitably available to all. Facebook and Instagram reflect only the polished finished product. Magazine and newspaper articles tell tales of overnight success stories that seemingly truly happen overnight. In reality, overnight success is often many years in the making. What “got you there” doesn’t make for pretty pictures. The seemingly easy wins, the quick pivot and big idea that gains traction, the rags to riches are built on a lifetime of relationship and skill building.

Working hard matters. But, when you dig deeper into success stories, there is also usually someone in the wings – a mentor, a teacher, a parent, someone or an accumulation of someones – providing guidance and support along the way. The notion of instant success in a complete vacuum is folklore. Is there opportunity to be found by people of all stripes and backgrounds in the U.S.? Absolutely. Do some have advantages over others in the pursuit of these opportunities? 100%.

I’ve been reflecting recently on the enduring impact and importance of a good education. Education creates a solid foundation, a springboard that expands one’s options and from which to make choices in the future. There is incredible privilege that comes with that, from literacy and critical thinking skills that enhance one’s basic ability to function in the world, to the confidence to handle new situations, to a broad professional network and understanding of professional norms. As a child, my siblings and I were given the space, the support, and our parents’ disciplined example when it came to pursuing our studies with vigor and without distraction. Going to college wasn’t a question; it was a priority. I wasn’t aware at the time of the enormous and enduring gift I was being given. Only now do I realize more fully how the core fundamentals of my education – literacy and grammar, critical thinking and data analysis, clean writing, and a challenging of one’s preconceptions – inform who I am and what I am capable of today.

In this context, I think about the MAIA Impact School in Guatemala and how education is poised to change the trajectory of the girl pioneers’ lives. Notably, part of the curriculum at the Impact School includes mentorship. Mentorship bridges the gap between the students’ family and cultural history and a new future of expanded possibility. Working hard and the means to afford an education are obviously critical pieces. But so is having a support system in place to help navigate unfamiliar terrain.

In the United States, the opportunity to attend school exists more broadly for all. Education through high school is both a right and a requirement, though educational opportunity and outcomes are widely variable and often influenced by geography and wealth. The leap to college for low-income and first-generation college students is vast. In some ways, because of the traditional values we are raised on that espouse hard work, independence, and self-reliance, the gap is even wider because it isn’t acknowledged, as though the unique struggles of first-time college-bound students don’t or shouldn’t exist.

Working hard and financial means are only two components of successful outcomes. To pretend otherwise is to be disingenuous about one’s own experience. For students who are trying to break the mold, to chart a new course, the demands are even more rigorous and the reality more isolating. The notion that working harder will remove all barriers is a myth. The Anaya Tipnis Scholarship Fund recognized that, “a high percentage of [low-income and first-generation] students drop out of college for reasons other than solely financial, from lacking a familial support system to an adverse academic environment. While many organizations help high school students secure college admissions, almost none provide vital mentorship for transitioning to and succeeding in higher education.”  They have made it their mission to help first-time college students by closing both these financial and mentorship gaps. In partnership with Upper Bound, Upper Bound Math and Science, TRIO, and Urban Scholars, the Anaya Tipnis Scholarship Fund offers:

●  Cash awards of $3,000 to each accepted student;

●  One-on-one mentorships tailored to each student’s individual needs;

●  Internship opportunities at local institutions and/or organizations.

The award recipients for 2018/19 and 2019/20 are shown in the following picture. You can read more about their individual stories here!

PHOTO-2019-07-26-21-38-44
Anaya Tipnis Scholarship Awardees

This is hope in action. This fund honors Anaya and her life wish. It bridges the gap to achieving the American Dream for hard-working and driven scholars, attempting to level the playing field by creating more equitable access to, and outcomes in, higher education. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – Community and Connections Count. That concept may not be as prized or acknowledged as some traditional American values, but it is a more genuine and real one. No one truly goes it alone. And no one should have to.

The Scholarship Fund’s Annual event and award ceremony will take place this year on August 20, 2019, in Needham, Massachusetts. If you are interested in attending or contributing, RSVP through their website at: https://anayafoundation.org/index.php/events

Congratulations and good luck, scholars!!!

 

 

 

In the Shadow of a Blood Moon

I used to earn $50 per week.

Accommodation was provided as part of my job, and we pooled our resources to purchase food in a family meal plan. I lived in T2R9 in the unorganized territories* of Maine at the time, a one hour drive to the closest town. We made one trip to town per week, family-style in a lumbering repurposed Suburban. The town trip consisted of food shopping (family plan), collecting and sending mail, doing laundry at the laundromat, and using the payphone – yes, for real, the payphone. If you’ve never seen one, I included a picture here. There weren’t a ton of extras to spend money on in Millinocket, ME, which suited me just fine since I didn’t have any money to spend anyway. Somehow I managed to break even each week.

Well, every week except for the week that I got my period. Tampons and pads weren’t part of the family plan. And, guess what? They are expensive and, also, essential. The other women on the crew lamented the same issue – every month we slid further into debt. And there was really nothing we could do about it.

You would think that this experience might have made me wonder as I traveled in developing countries how women there handled this issue. I guess I assumed there was some practice handed down woman to girl about feminine hygiene and how female bodies work. I often assumed other cultures were more evolved and open than my own close-lipped, grin and bear it Irish-Catholic heritage. I made those assumptions and didn’t think much more about it.

It turns out, there isn’t a good practice in most developing countries for handling basic health education on this issue. In many countries, girls miss school, are sent to huts together to wait out their “time,” or sit on a piece of cardboard alone in a room until it’s over. Every single month. I only figured this out recently when one of the women I was traveling with in Guatemala brought kits from Days for Girls to distribute to the students at the MAIA Impact School.

Do you understand how vulnerable a group of girls in a hut alone could be? Or how much school is missed when this happens every month? Or, simply, how unhygienic it is not to have a means to deal with this, or a cultural support system to explain why it is happening and what it means? Does teenage pregnancy in these circumstances, inequitable educational attainment between girls and boys, or high maternal death rates really come as a surprise in a world where this completely natural and necessary process isn’t discussed, in many cases is feared, where tampons, pads or pharmacies don’t exist, and where earning $50 per week is more the norm than the aberration?

To begin to address this problem and solve the many ancillary issues it creates, Days for Girls (DfG) developed reusable sanitary supply kits that are hand-made in the United States by individuals and groups committed to creating change for these girls. Sewing groups gather regularly or sewists work independently to make pads that can be discreetly hung on a washing line to dry and that last for approximately three years. The design has evolved over time – 28 different iterations to date – into an effective, durable, reliable and environmentally friendly product. Over the years, Days for Girls has earned the trust of village elders and other decision-makers, winning some semblance of freedom for girls worldwide.

Wisely, these kits aren’t just distributed to anyone who asks. Days for Girls requires the person distributing them to be trained and to teach the recipients about how to use the pads and care for them properly, but also about what is happening with their bodies and why. Kits go where people involved with Days for Girls travel. The number of kits available depends on how many each chapter is able to produce.

My local Days for Girls chapter sent this recent status update: “212 kits will go to Uganda in a week, to help girls stay in school. 10 kits will head to Guatemala in July as a pilot project. 10 more travel to Zambia soon. The last 20 will be donated to Days for Girls’ refugee project. They will be taking 11,000 kits to each of three refugee camps. Imagine fleeing your homeland and arriving somewhere unfamiliar, then living in a camp with thousands of other people, none of whom have access to sanitary supplies. The conditions under which many others live is challenging, to say the least. We hope to relieve some of the misery. The kits have been extremely well-received in the camps in which they have been distributed in small numbers in the past. We will also be sending some kits to Ghana in December.”

I am astonished both by the thoughtfulness and impact of this program as well as by my own ignorance. The provision of these basic supplies has an immense effect on a girl’s well-being, dignity, and potential. Globally, countries that have greater levels of gender equality are safer and more prosperous (World Economic Forum). Educating girls is also among the top forms of combating climate change (The Unsung Solution to Climate Change). In Guatemala specifically, “if women had equal economic participation, in 10 years the Guatemalan GDP would grow by 46%, or $40 billion, or $2,460 per person. In a country with an average per capita income of $4,060, that’s a big deal” (MAIA Impact School). Reducing the number of school days that girls miss matters enormously. This is a really big deal.

To follow are a couple of examples of videos from the Days for Girls website that more fully display the results of providing these basic necessities alongside health education. #daysforgirls #maiaimpact #girlsforgirls.bracelets

*Side note – I know it says unorganized, and I get now what it means (no local, incorporated municipal government – essentially vast swaths of territory with very few human beings), but in my early days in T2R9 I kept thinking the word was “disorganized.” I remember thinking what an odd way that was to describe a place, but, fine, own it, you disorganized territories. Whoever heard of moose and black bear getting organized anyway. That may just be me and it may only truly be funny when you’ve been living in the woods with the same 8 people for months on end, but it still cracks me up.

Update – check out legislation that just passed in New Hampshire! Lack of access to feminine hygiene products should never keep girls out of school – in the US or anywhere else!

Article: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/new-hampshire-passes-bill-requiring-free-menstrual-products-in-all-public-schools_n_5d31bd0de4b0419fd32bd119