Next Stop – GUATEMALA!

Guatemala MapTouching down in Guatemala City, you’ll be surprised to see how modern the airport is. I was expecting it to be really rugged since Guatemala is a “developing country,” but it’s not – the airport anyway.

Oh, look! A mariachi band is waiting for us! You can see the glimmering floors, the drop ceiling and recessed lighting, the very modern arrivals area in the below video.

We are going to have a real adventure and take a chicken bus to a more rural part of Guatemala, mostly because I just love saying chicken bus and because, well, look at it! Chicken Bus2The chicken bus is a retired yellow school bus that migrated from the United States to Guatemala where it was given new life and transformed with wild paint, flashing lights, and blaring music into a means of public transportation. Pile on. No number of passengers is too many for the chicken bus! Did you take your dramamine? It’s a long, windy route to get where we are headed.

Notice as we leave Guatemala City heading West toward Solola and Lake Atitlan all of the U.S. influence here. Papa Gino’s, Starbucks, and Domino’s abound.

Outside the dirty bus window, you can watch the stunning Guatemala countryside whiz by as we navigate the chaotic and crowded roads at an uncomfortable clip. The weather is perennially spring-time – 75 degrees or so during the day, generally sunny, and 50’s at night. The countryside is lush and verdant, the bright pinks and yellows of tropical flowers adorning the roadside even in the most barren places. In the distance, Volcan del Fuego perpetually puffs wisps of smoke into the air. The smells of cooking, wood burning, and exhaust permeate the air. There is rarely a moment of quiet between the honking cars, chirping birds, and barking dogs.

Everywhere you look you will see women in their traditional dress, the traje. The Mayan culture remains strong, despite the Spanish colonial and American influences. The cultural customs of modesty and honoring the ancestors remain guiding pillars of life here, especially in rural communities. Twenty-one (21) different Mayan languages are still the primary languages used in Guatemala’s Mayan communities.

Which is where we run headlong into an issue with the Coronavirus. This virus has the potential to be a crisis on an epic scale in developing countries like Guatemala. The health system here was already one of the weakest in the hemisphere. All of the government information – and it is abundant (Guatemala has closed its borders and has been incredibly restrictive and proactive about isolating the virus) – is in Spanish.

Most rural communities here are remote, have no internet access, do not speak Spanish, and typically do not read or write. Radio remains the primary form of communication. Which is why it’s all the more stunning and impressive to see the MAIA Impact School, based in Solola, immediately begin to assess where their skills and relationships can be most helpful and take proactive action. In this space of limited resources, MAIA leads with ingenuity and heart.

As a school for rural, poor, indigenous girls run by indigenous women, MAIA works with some of the most vulnerable populations in this part of the world. MAIA has worked hard to build relationships with families and to gain the trust of community councils in the region they serve. Family engagement is an enormous part of each student’s education (as this video shows).

As soon as Coronavirus began creeping its way across the world, MAIA realized it was uniquely positioned to assist the rural villages and address some of the issues that the they will face. The first thing they did was to quickly compile home school packets for all of the students. Without access to the internet, this pause in school could prove to be a major setback for learners who already had substantial obstacles in their way. These home school materials aim to keep the girls connected to their MAIA community and persevering through this pause on the path toward their educational goals.

The second initiative they undertook was to begin to address the major information gap facing rural villages. They created videos that translate the government’s Spanish information into the Mayan languages of the rural villages and posted those videos on MAIA’s social media pages. The videos quickly became the most viewed and shared content on their pages ever. You can watch them here. Better, though, for the state of our souls currently, are the bloopers. They exude humanity and love and light even if you don’t understand the words.

MAIA continues to explore ways to reach the rural villages, but also is trying to figure out how best to report out from the villages to media outlets. The plight of rural villages will be profoundly difficult and there is a real risk that it will go unnoticed since there is no movement in or out of these places.

As we move along in our virtual travels and in our individual worlds, in this moment of profound quiet, how can we be proactive? How are we each uniquely positioned to make a meaningful difference, now and going forward? What’s next when we get through this period of “new normal”? Back to normal? Is that good enough?

I am wondering how we can galvanize this moment of extreme slowing down and re-evaluating to shepherd in a new paradigm; how we can look to a future that does things differently, more equitably, a world that engages more people more completely. MAIA models a different way of doing things, and a respectful and bold approach to change. This is our collective moment to rise up, not only to get through this social isolation but to fundamentally change business as usual.

You will be all right. WE will be all right. And, in fact, we can be better.

Stay well, stay home.

I am currently reading Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond.

Specific reading to Guatemala:

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide” – Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

Silence on the Mountain: Stories of Terror, Betrayal, and Forgetting in Guatemala” – Daniel Wilkinson

The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop?” – Francisco Goldman

A Beauty that Hurts: Life and Death in Guatemala” – W. George Lovell

When the Ground Turns in Its Sleep: This is a beautiful novel that will give you a sense of time, place, and history—all woven together into a compelling narrative that makes it endlessly readable.

Popol Vuh: The Mayan Book of The Dawn of Life and The Glories of Gods and Kings (Kindle Edition): If Maya history is your thing, then this is the definitive guide. It gives the backstory you need to fully enjoy the numerous Maya temples you’ll visit while traveling Central America.

A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya: Descend into the Mayan culture throughout Mexico, Belize and Guatemala in this travel narrative that dives deep into the regional culture, ancient Mayan beliefs about time, as well as a look at modern Mayan culture.

Jungle of Stone: The True Story of Two Men, Their Extraordinary Journey, and the Discovery of the Lost Civilization of the Maya: A fascinating tale chronicling the two men who traveled through the Yucatán and Central America in search of the Maya Kingdom, and brought this ancient civilization back to the world.

 

 

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)

Coming into the Light – 10 Life Lessons from a Year of Writing and Living Courageously

A year ago, a friend asked me to create a blog about our trip to Guatemala. I had never set up my own website before or blogged (gosh, I still detest how that word sounds) or publicly written much at all to that point. But she knew that I liked to write, having watched me carry my journal everywhere back in our days together in Madagascar in the 1990s and then again as we traveled around Guatemala. I assumed I could figure it out, and it seemed like a good challenge.

What I discovered is that there is more formatting and behind-the-scenes work needed to get a website set up than I expected. It’s more time-consuming than it is difficult, and I spent ages just trying to think of a website address. I eventually settled on “Put Your Own Oxygen Mask on First” thanks to a sticky note that sits on my desk as a reminder to myself. At a certain point, I just needed to get writing. So I plugged it in, and after confirming that no one had claimed it yet, I went with it. I know it’s probably too long, but it was time to unstick myself from the nitty-gritty details and get down to writing. As time passes, I adjust and tweak the site’s format and layout. As with so much in life, greater clarity comes with time. You can perfect – or improve it – later. The most important part is to just get started.

First draft yoda

And start I did. I published my first post on November 15, 2018. Looking back at the past year, I am astonished for many reasons, but especially with how this writing endeavor has blossomed and grown. In the past year I wrote 50 blog posts. FIFTY. That’s a lot of 5am wake up calls. The lesson here is that writing is most effectively accomplished with focused, uninterrupted time, and for many writers that’s early in the morning. The other lesson is that I can pretty much turn any pursuit, even if it starts as a passion project, into work. The good news is that I noticed it happening and backed off a bit. That’s the gift of being in your 40’s – perspective and life experience!

Throughout this year I have had days – okay, weeks – where I have become discouraged and self-conscious. My strong and judgmental inner-voice has ruled my thoughts saying, “Who really wants to read this stuff?” and “Isn’t this a little self-indulgent?” I hear a Sarah Palin-esque derogatory and snarkily delivered, “How’s that hopey changey stuff working out?” in my mind and wonder, “What’s the point? Does all this – any of this – really matter?” I am but a drop in an ocean of snark and negativity, and does anyone really care about what I have to say anyway?

Anais Nin quote

But I carried on, because I like writing and how it helps me sort through my thoughts and experiences. About halfway through the year I began to pitch essay ideas to journals and newspapers, partially out of curiosity and partially, to be honest, to see if the pros though my writing was any good. And I was delighted that a couple pieces were chosen to be published! My essay The View from a Chicken Bus, about an indigenous girl’s journey to school in Guatemala, was published by Sky Island Journal in their Issue 9 in June. It has since been nominated for Sundress Publications’ “Best of the Net” and the Pushcart Prize. My essay on being a sandwich generationer and a child of Alzheimer’s was published by the Washington Post in August and then picked up by the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun, and eventually by Maria Shriver who published it in her Sunday Paper on November 3, 2019.

What a thrill and unexpected gift it has been to watch my words travel around the world! Talk about validation! The feedback I have received from readers has been astonishing, compelling, heartening, and uplifting. I am amazed that my words can bring others to tears, or lift their spirits, or provide a new perspective to set the tone for their day or week. Other caregivers who have walked the long, lonely, difficult road of caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s reached out to me from all over the country to express their sorrow at my loss, but also to share with me their journeys and their pain.

The fact that my experience resonated with so many other people, that my words touched people’s hearts and inspired them to open up to me, highlights how important connection is, how critical it is to break down the feelings of loneliness and isolation – be it from our circumstances or our modern culture – that can overwhelm us. A friend shared, as she observed my writing journey: “I had never really considered how sharing an experience, beyond an in-the-moment conversation perhaps, could help others.” But it does. I think, in some way, I have always felt that innately, but evidence is mounting about how much it matters (and is missing). According to the results of a recent scientific analysis, loneliness is becoming a worldwide epidemic, and not just for caregivers. Fostering connection with other people, providing a means to have hope, it turns out, are critical remedies to a burgeoning public health issue.

Hope is what drives all of us forward. When all else is lost, what propels us forward besides our hope and our connection to other humans and those we love? So, then, why not be guided by hope? Why not seek connection with others (and, when I say connection, I mean authentic, genuine connection, not Instagram likes or FB “friends”). The alternative is so bleak. Everyone struggles. Everyone seeks a purpose and for their lives to have meaning. Having hope is not an absence of difficulty, or an avoidance of reality. It’s the light at the end of a tunnel of darkness; it’s the anchor that keeps you moored in stormy seas; it’s an intangible but absolutely critical feeling that is sometimes found in the unlikeliest of circumstances and where you least expect it. It matters immensely. This coming year I will redouble my efforts to share stories that give hope, especially where and when we least expect it.

Walt Disney storyteller quote

This year has been an exercise in writing, personal growth, and reflection. There is plenty of room to continue to grow in all of those areas. As author Rob Buyea has said, “The largest room in the world is room for improvement.” Isn’t that the truth? I will forever battle the internal judgement that says that no one wants to hear what I have to say, or that I have to prove myself, or that I am only as good as my last published article. I continue to find room to breathe into the self-doubt, to practice empathy and self-compassion. I live and write with integrity and intention. Or I try to. And I am blessed by this purpose-filled life that has grown out of the sometimes tumultuous and quagmired quest for who I wanted to be when I grow up. As I look back, here are the lessons I have learned through this year of writing (plus a couple of years of living):

  1. Don’t let the details be your undoing; as with writing, the first draft usually stinks but it has to be written to get to the next draft; so it is with life – get started and keep going;
  2. My biggest critic is myself – and I suspect I am not alone in that (why else would the imposter syndrome be a thing?). Check the narrative. The feelings are real, but is the story they are telling you true? Monkey mind is how Buddhists describe it. I guess I’ve always been a storyteller of sorts ;-).
  3. Be open to new perspectives about who you are and what you can do. As I began to think of myself as a “writer,” it opened my eyes to new opportunities and to connecting with people in a new way. I have made new friends this year that I would never have known or had occasion to overlap with a year ago;
  4. Curious gets you a lot further than furious when it comes to connecting with and understanding other people;
  5. If you’re at all like me, learn to check yourself when what started as a fun pursuit becomes a deadline-driven project; remind yourself who is in charge – or should be – you or your to-do list?;
  6. Being vulnerable is uncomfortable; it is also real, human, and relatable;
  7. Conformity is boring. Be uniquely you. Always;
  8. Sharing our stories is how we relate to and connect with one another;
  9. Storytelling is an art, and it’s an important part of helping humans understand their purpose and their past;
  10. Thank you for reading!
  11. BONUS – I like lists (and post-it notes).

First draft Anne Lamott

“My deepest fear is not that I am inadequate. My deepest fear is that I am powerful beyond measure.

It is my light, not my darkness, that most frightens me.

I ask myself, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who am I not to be?

I am a child of God.

My playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so other people won’t feel insecure around me.

I am born to manifest God’s glory within me. It’s not just in some of us: it’s in everyone. And, as I let my own light shine, I unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As I am liberated from my own fear my presence automatically liberates other.”

-Marianne Williamson

 

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