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

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.

 

 

 

Working to Enhance the Voice of Women

I mentioned in a previous post that I have been doing a lot of writing, it just happens to not be happening on this blog site! It occurred to me that I should share some of my recently published writing here. So, in case you missed it, here is a link to an article in the local paper, or you can read below and view extra pictures and a video!

Meg Steere was recently appointed as the first New England-based Board member for the MAIA Impact School (www.maiaimpact.org), a school for indigenous girls located in Sololá, Guatemala. In its third year of operation, MAIA exists to “unlock and maximize the potential of young women to lead transformational change.” Guatemala is consistently rated by the World Economic Forum as the least equitable society in the Western Hemisphere. Meanwhile, countries that have greater levels of gender equality are safer and more prosperous. Educating girls is also among the top ways of combating climate change.

Guatemala Ranking SDG Gender Index

Meg traveled to Guatemala in October 2018 to attend the inauguration of the new school building. She was impressed by the caliber of the school leadership, and that, by design, the school is run primarily by indigenous women with an emphasis on empowering the local community. The school’s model markedly changes the trajectory of its student’s lives. In recognition of their success and their potential, in January 2019 MAIA was awarded the Zayed Sustainability Prize (see video at bottom of this post), demonstrating “impact, innovation, and inspiration to enable inclusive and equitable access to quality education.”

MAIA students are girls who have the talent, courage, vision, and desire to succeed but lack the opportunity. Through education, these women can lead their families and communities out of poverty. One key aspect of their education beyond academics is vocal empowerment. These girls have been raised in a culture that tells them to be quiet—that they are silly and stupid, unworthy and worthless. At school, they learn to trust their voices, to speak up, and to prevent societal judgment from defining their self-worth. This message transcends borders.

Susie Caldwell Rinehart—brain stem tumor survivor, ultramarathoner, mother, life coach, and Colorado-based MAIA Board member —released her memoir Fierce Joy: Choosing Brave over Perfect to Find My True Voice on May 15. Hers is a story of miraculous survival; motherhood; losing her voice, literally and figuratively, and then finding it again; and choosing to conquer her fear of imperfection in order to live her most authentic life. Susie and Meg have both found inspiration and strength in the courage of the Guatemalan girl pioneers. Through Susie’s medical journey, which brought her to MGH and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Susie discovered that “the opposite of joy isn’t sadness, it’s perfectionism.” She began to write her memoir as she underwent months of recovery, radiation, and separation from her family in Colorado. She returned to Boston in early June for her book launch.

MAIA’s impact continues to expand, boldly challenging the narrative and compelling us all to be braver and to rethink what our expectations are—of ourselves and others—and why. Join this brave movement working to close the gender gap in education and catalyzing positive change globally. A portion of the proceeds from sales of Fierce Joy will be donated to MAIA Impact School. 100% of donated funds to MAIA go directly to the students, mentors, educators, and families.

 

The View from a Chicken Bus

This is an exciting day! My essay, The View from a Chicken Bus, was published today in Sky Island Journal, an online magazine!!!

The View from a Chicken Bus

Meg Ounsworth Steere

The chicken bus dives and weaves along the tight switchbacks, sandwiched between lushly green, undulating volcanic cliffs to one side and a vast, deep cavern open to the expansive lake below on the other. The retired yellow school bus migrated from the United States to rural Guatemala. Here it was given new life and transformed with wild paint, flashing lights, and blaring music into a chicken bus, a form of public transit.

Outside the dirty bus window, an overwhelming cacophony for the senses unfolds – the scenic natural beauty; the chaotic, crowded, narrow road; scents of cooking, burning wood, exhaust; sounds of honking, birds chirping, dogs yapping. Overloaded motorbikes swerve in and out of traffic carrying 2, 3, 4 people. Small 1990s pickup trucks, their beds full of standing riders, scream downhill inches away.

In the smallest openings on the roadside, tourists stop for pictures of waterfalls or the lake and volcanoes. Opportunistic market stands pop-up, their purveyors – women in their village’s colorful and ornately woven dress – mixing, patting, and baking tortillas, frijoles warming and ready to sell.

The bus is crowded, the air stale and warm. It winds its way up from the rural, lakeside villages to the hillsides around Sololá. Passengers, mainly rural Mayans, call to the driver for stops along the way. The men wear tattered jeans; t-shirts or lightweight button downs; a cowboy or baseball hat; work boots. The women are dressed in traditional Mayan clothing – a short-sleeved cotton blouse with brightly colored geometric designs; a thick belt; a calf-length skirt embellished with a colorful, embroidered band; simple pumps, flats, or sandals.

One passenger stands out from the rest as she calls to the driver to stop near the entrance to a large, modern school. The driver and other passengers look on, mystified about this place and this teenage girl, both standing out uniquely in the Sololá landscape: unusual, unfamiliar, a vision for what could be, but also a strange curiosity and maybe something to fear.

The girl walks the uneven, rocky dirt path along the road toward the school gates, clearly uncomfortable that the eyes of every passenger, neighbor, and bystander are boring into her back, their questions, doubts, and hopes piling up on her small shoulders. She sidesteps sewer water trickling down the road, brushes the dust off her shoes, and turns onto the paved drive to the school entrance.

In rural Guatemala, it is rare for anyone to complete more than sixth grade. Most families are generationally poor, stagnated and mired in a life of day-to-day survival by the impacts of racism, gender inequality, insufficient education or health care, and limited economic opportunities beyond what they already know – farming. The harvests have become less reliable with unpredictable and more volatile weather. Being Mayan comes with traditions and cultural norms, and also a history of marginalization and subjugation. During the 36-year civil war that ended in 1996, 93% of those killed were indigenous. About 50% of the general population, but 79% of the indigenous population, lives below the poverty line.

In rural Guatemala, the standard architecture features single- or two-story buildings, with concrete siding. The rusted and battered tin roofs are supported by gnarled, roughly hewn wood beams. The colorful exterior paint, if not the concrete itself, is chipped and worn. Buildings are stacked up the hillsides, one on top of the other, seemingly supporting each other as they claw into the mountainside, grasping to hold on. Roads vary from dirt paths cut into the hillsides to cobblestones or pocked asphalt.

Each year survival here becomes more difficult. Out of sheer desperation and hopelessness, some attempt to migrate north, leaving Guatemala and their history and families. For many, the prospect of leaving all that is familiar, walking all those miles towards an antagonistic and uncertain future, doesn’t seem like a much better option than staying and trying to carry on. Something fundamental must change for survival to be tenable here.

Enter this school and this unique girl. The sign on the school’s brick wall proclaims “MAIA, mujer empoderada…un impacto infinito” (empowered woman…infinite impact). Empowered, indigenous, poor, rural Guatemalan girls. I can’t help but stare and wonder. Historically girls here have been taught to be quiet; that making eye contact is disrespectful; that they don’t need an education. On average, women in Guatemala, especially Mayan women, only complete 3.5 years of school. Narrow options and limited health information result in Guatemala’s top ranking for the highest fertility rate and youngest population in all of Latin America.

How valuable is this young girl, full of talent, courage, and a desire to succeed? How powerful is the concept that by providing educational opportunity and modern learning tools, alongside mentorship and support for the students and their families, real, systemic change could trickle down and spread roots generationally? How courageous must these girls and their families be?

Every day these families make a conscious choice not to shrink back. Every day they bravely face the ingrained, negative messages that say that girls don’t matter; that they are silly and stupid, unworthy and worthless. These girls must sense their differentness, an isolating notion that can seep in and slowly ebb away at their drive and their souls if they let it. Their path is long and challenging. It takes the power of a sprinter and the endurance of a marathoner. They face the academic and emotional challenges of any middle or high schooler, but also the burden of being the first to break the status quo, push the boundaries of cultural norms, and change the narrative for themselves, their families, and their country.

The dense clouds overhead release suddenly, the splattering rain interrupting my reverie and fogging the view. The bus driver pulls the door handle, hinges squeaking, and the bus roars into gear. Through the rain-streaked window I see the girl cover her head and rush to catch up with her classmates. Together they pass through the school gates, a small but determined caravan of hope.

Click here to see the full issue: https://www.skyislandjournal.com/issues#/issue-9-summer2019/

 

 

 

 

Ask and you shall receive!

Nick Kristof has made his way to Guatemala! I don’t actually think this is because of my post the other day, but I am still thrilled!

The focus of this piece, published in today’s NY Times (June 6, 2019), is on climate change driving migration…do you know what Project Drawdown says is the top solution to climate change? Combined, it’s girl’s education and family planning.  And so I circle right back to MAIA. This is extremely important stuff, folks. Educating girls in Guatemala has incredible trickle down impacts on so many issues, from simply the humanity of alleviating  the suffering of other human being’s day to day survival to creating opportunity and hope to reducing the impacts of climate change. 

Nicholas Kristof and the Power of Hope

It’s not just me. Nicholas Kristof, the renowned New York Times journalist and two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, also believes there is power in hope. He published an article in the NY Times opinion section on May 29, 2019, entitled Cash, Food and Health Care All Help the Poor, but Something’s Still Missing. It’s about poverty within the indigenous population in Paraguay, and how opportunity (also known as HOPE) can be a transformative force in substantively changing the trajectory of people’s lives.

Hope doesn’t mean just an idea and a good feeling. It means a pathway to something new and the supports to get there. The program in Paraguay references mental health support in addition to guidance on how to grow a small business. No one goes it alone. The notion that anyone is successful completely alone and in a vacuum is one of the biggest fallacies ever promoted.

As I read Mr. Kristoff’s article, I found myself thinking about the MAIA Impact School in Guatemala and the similarities between what he observed in Paraguay and what I have seen happening in Guatemala. The MAIA school, led by courageous and empowered Mayan women, sees hope in the form of providing a real, robust education to young girls with the potential to succeed but no opportunity to do so. These girls are rural, poor, indigenous, and female, four major challenges in a country where machismo is the norm and racism against the indigenous population is severe (of the 200,000 people killed during Guatemala’s 36-year civil war, 93% were indigenous). MAIA provides not only academic opportunity for these girls, but also the mentoring and support that they and their families need to navigate the extremely demanding road before them. This road begins with these girls beginning to build a path for their families out of systemic poverty. Imagine the trickle-down generational impacts when empowered, educated girls become empowered, educated mothers. The possibilities for change spread like the roots of a strong tree.

MY HOPE is that Mr. Kristoff finds his way to Sololá, Guatemala, as he winds his way back north…this story, the incredible work being done by this school in Guatemala to create hope and an actual opportunity for a viable future needs to be broadcast more widely. The little news we hear about Guatemala in the U.S. fixates on negative imagery from illegal border crossings and migrant caravans to drug cartels and political instability. What if the news focused more on what kind of hopelessness would compel someone to make that fraught journey to an uncertain and antagonistic future? What if they presented solutions that would help people build a future that would be a reason, a means, to stay?

Pulitzer committee, I’ll be awaiting your call ;-)!