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!!! Click the link to read the full text. Here’s the intro:

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.

Read on here: https://www.skyislandjournal.com/issues#/issue-9-summer2019/

 

 

 

 

True Confessions of a Mom Set Loose

October 31, 2018

On the plane from Miami to Guatemala City. This is my first extended solo excursion since having children, my first trip to Central America, my first trip to the developing world in a very long time. It’s a lot of first’s and with that comes excitement and joy and a re-awakening of my spirit or some part of me that’s been quiet for some time…as well as a visceral, biological longing and sadness that I can’t control and didn’t expect. It’s hard to say goodbye to my family and, much as I am sometimes desperate to bust out of the routine and the daily grind, it’s also incredibly difficult to break away.

By chance, the man who drove me to the airport this morning grew up in Guatemala. He was stunned that that was where I was headed. It feels like the universe conspired to cross our paths. I told him (between sniffles) that I hadn’t really done much for myself in 11 years and that I wanted to soak in the moment. He said, “You are like a comet, passing through so rarely but shining so brightly.” I like that idea!

So, here I am, halfway to Guatemala with my journal out and two books sitting beside me – Open Veins of Latin America (by Eduardo Galeano) and Less (by Andrew Sean Greer) – that I might actually be able to read with all this uninterrupted time. For the time being, though, my mind keeps jumping between thoughts of travel past and the younger me; about my kids, already anticipating our reunion; and imaginings about what this trip will be like! And this tells me that maybe I should take a couple minutes to just sit and be, quietly…but, first, a haiku:

Mundane and routine

Break the mold of must and should

Rare delight, bright light.

What if I fall quote

 

 

Notre Dame and our common humanity

Why is it that tragedy unites us but otherwise we spend our time picking each other apart and spreading divisiveness?

I don’t want to launch into a synopsis on modern politics or the state of the world today. Most people are pretty up-to-speed on the general dark cloud hanging over the western hemisphere without my rehashing it…so I’ll be short and sweet here for the sake of all of our sanity and won’t delve into things about which I know (too?) little.

What I know is this: Notre Dame cathedral burned yesterday and it stopped everyone in their tracks. Suddenly people of all stripes are united in their grief. Facebook posts display picture after picture of individuals’ experiences at Notre Dame, plus stories of longing and sadness from those who hadn’t had the chance to go there and see it in person.

The notion that this monument anchoring the skyline of Paris for centuries is in peril defies belief. This human construct, a display of the beauty that man is capable of creating, has for centuries drawn pilgrimaging Catholics, as well as millions of tourists of other religious and agnostic persuasions, to stand in awe of its majesty. It has survived so much history, so much destruction, from the French Revolution to the two horrific world wars of the 20th century. But in mere hours yesterday it literally went up in flames.

It’s like the smack across the face that the world needed. I hope it is, anyway, and that some long-term good will come of it. Historic monuments like Notre Dame are an investment. They represent hope, connect us to our past, and guide us toward the future. They are an incarnation of what binds us to each other and to our common good. They are a symbol of the best in human civilization – architecturally, culturally, and artistically –  and a beacon when we have lost our way.

We have been living in a period of neglect of community, faith, and hope. We have literally let historic buildings crumble and decay before our very eyes due to a lack of funding, indifference, and disinterest. In our lives, the virtual becomes ever more confounded with reality. We intentionally, or through the magic of algorithms and our personal data, surround ourselves only with like-minded individuals.

Today we must acknowledge these failings and renew our faith that we are more alike than we are different. It’s well beyond time to restore global sanity, to find common ground, and to chart the course forward with an intact moral compass by investing in what really matters. The investment required is not exactly in our history or our future, per se, but both together manifested in how we treat our fellow man today. Words like honor, dignity, respect, integrity, patience, and hope swirl through my mind. The restoration of the building is a worthy aspiration, but those values are what urgently need restoring.

Vanilla, Powerfully Plain

I mentioned that my family has bit of a love affair with the chocolate chip cookie. You know what the smallest make or break ingredient in a chocolate chip cookie is? The vanilla. The difference in taste that a single teaspoon of vanilla makes is astounding.

But I have often heard vanilla used as a synonym for plain. In fact, Merriam Webster dictionary defines vanilla as, “lacking distinction : plain, ordinary, conventional.” And, yet, a world without the vanilla bean would be flavorless and bland.

Where does the majority of the world’s vanilla grow, you ask? In one of the least plain, ordinary, or conventional places on Earth. That’s right, my old love, Madagascar.

Madagascar boasts more than 75% of the world’s vanilla fields. All of Madagascar’s vanilla is grown in the SAVA (Sambava, Antalaha, Vohemar and Andapa) region in the country’s northeast. Vanilla is Madagascar’s largest export, which is pretty remarkable given that the plant, which was introduced from Mexico during the French colonial period, needs to be hand-pollinated.

This CBS video from 2017 discusses the recent vanilla bean shortage, a little about the price fluctuations over the past two decades, and the impact of the shortage on US businesses. What the video alludes to but doesn’t dive into, is what life is like for vanilla farmers in Madagascar now that vanilla is second only to saffron as the most expensive spice in the world.

Used to flavor so many sweet treats in the west, with the US, France, and Germany being the primary importers of its vanilla, vanilla beans in Madagascar are labor-intensive to cultivate. In a developing country like Madagascar, where the rule of law is flimsy at best, corruption is rampant, poverty is beyond most westerners’ comprehension, and cyclones can wreak havoc on a crop that takes three years to be marketable, sustainable livelihoods are elusive.

When Madagascar was a French colony, the French government set prices for vanilla producers. Madagascar gained its independence in 1960, after which the Malagasy government set the vanilla prices. During both of these periods, prices were low and predictable. In the mid-1990s, however, just about when I arrived in Madagascar, the Malagasy government de-regulated vanilla prices because of pressure from global financial institutions. This was the beginning of the dramatic vanilla bean price fluctuations that have been on-going ever since.

Increased demand and higher prices would, ostensibly, seem to be a good thing for Madagascar, one of the world’s poorest countries by GDP (the 10th poorest according to the World Atlas). Global vanilla prices were hovering at about $450 to $500 per kilogram as of August 2018, with the expectation that this year the prices would decline somewhat due to increased production. For context, this is about the same as the price for silver.

Demand pressures, however, have led to farmers harvesting beans too early to prevent theft; increased need for security at vanilla fields; and generally more dangerous conditions for vanilla farmers. Much of the vanilla profits go to middlemen, though the SAVA region has also benefited from this boom period. For vanilla farmers, it has been documented that they typically don’t know what to do with the windfall. In the context of rural Madagascar, where the closest bank is often a day’s walk along routes patrolled by armed bandits, long-term savings are not realistic. A large influx of cash in rural Madagascar turns into a liability pretty quickly.

Because of the vanilla boom, in addition to demand for rosewood, protected rainforests in the northeastern part of Madagascar, like Masoala National Park, have been illegally cut to create more vanilla fields. It makes logical sense from the perspective of the local population, the majority of whom are barely surviving on a daily basis, with absolutely no social safety nets. No one wants to miss the opportunity to become a “vanillionaire”, and the long-term implications of their actions on the island’s unique flora and fauna, like the use of its vanilla beans, are luxuries that appeal to those who live in another world. They are irrelevant to day to day survival.

Except that, in the end, it isn’t irrelevant at all.

For the long-term sustainability of the region, of the very vanilla plant that is the source of such demand, it makes no sense at all (check out this 10-minute BBC documentary to learn more, starting around minute 7:30). Other aspects of the local economy benefit from tourists interested in seeing lemurs, wild orchids, and rosewood trees in their natural habitats. Even more esoteric to the rural population, but still meaningful, is the potential for medicines cultivated from plants that grow in Madagascar’s forests, such as from the Madagascar periwinkle, which is an ingredient in leukemia treatments. These are much the same issues I observed in 1996.

Where do we go from here? Trust me, this is a question I have been asking myself for over 20 years, since I first set foot in Madagascar. There are no easy answers. Education has to be one component. Functional government is inevitably another. There aren’t short-term solutions for long-term, sustainable outcomes. For creative ideas, I like this World Bank blog that reports on initiatives happening in Madagascar, and also Madecasse’s efforts to establish bean-to-bottle production within Madagascar. As in so many aspects of life, I also think it’s a good idea to have small, specific, achievable goals that can be accomplished in the short-term, but that begin to establish the path toward a larger, long-term goal.

So, for now, the next time you buy vanilla extract or vanilla ice cream or almost any sweet treat, think about that little dab of vanilla and what a difference it makes to your taste buds, but also what an impact it has on a little country way on the other side of the world. The story of vanilla is more complex that it appears, and it is far from plain.

Pictures courtesy of Madecasse and National Geographic

 

 

 

Madagascar, and I don’t mean the movie

If there is a traditional or typical path in life, I am almost assuredly not on it. Because I tend to wander down uncharted paths, a lot of my stories require a backstory to answer the inevitable “how the heck did you end up there?” And so it is with Madagascar. I have a lot to say about Madagascar, but I’ll start with the backstory for now.

In college, I went through a bit of a lost soul phase. The university I had chosen to attend wasn’t the best fit for me, and I belatedly discovered that just because I was physically going to the library didn’t mean I was actually learning anything (mostly because I was spending my time there sending email and writing funny haikus). I had been a pretty strong student in high school, but that wasn’t translating well into college. I temporarily lost track of who I thought I was and had a bit of an identity crisis.

The good news is that my crisis made me brave. I felt like I had nothing to lose so I kept trying new things. One particularly fraught semester I read a description in the Student Conservation Association catalogue for the backcountry trail crew at Baxter State Park in Northern Maine. I had only been to Maine once before, but I nonetheless decided that that was where I would find salvation. My attitude at the time was, “it can’t be worse than this,” so I applied. Long story short, sometime in late May, my mom dropped me off at the Molly Pitcher rest stop on I-95 in New Jersey where I had arranged for one of my new trail crew-mates to pick me up. And off I went into the wilderness for three months. Really? This was the plan? I can’t imagine what it was like to be my parents during those years. I mean, you dropped your kid off at a rest stop on I-95 in New Jersey? Clearly this was well before helicopter parenting became a thing.

Living in northern Maine was absolutely one of the best curves on the path of my life. I was immersed in a brand new environment, living completely off the grid in a physically stunning and remote rural area. I lived in close quarters with people from widely varied backgrounds, with different interests and challenges in their lives. I had tons of time for reflection – countless miles on the trail deep in thought, and no phone or electricity at the rustic cabin where we lived. There were few distractions. I hiked, I read, I wrote, I thought. We made a single trip to town each Friday to collect mail, use the payphone, do laundry, and go to the grocery store. We worked incredibly, mind-numbingly, body-achingly hard. Life in the park was basic and simple and incredibly rich.

One part of our job was to spend a solo week on “mountain patrol”. When it was my turn, I climbed Katahdin daily to be a resource for Park visitors about the trails, the flora and fauna, or whatever other questions they might have. In my backpack I carried extra water, a first aid kit, and a hand-held radio. I spent my days patrolling the trails above treeline and talking with hikers. Did I mention that I grew up in Philadelphia? This was one of the most foreign environments compared to my prior life experience in which I could find myself. And I loved it.

While patrolling the summit, I came across a group of campers enjoying lunch with a view before descending. Their group leader had lots of questions about my job, what I was studying at school, and what I planned to do next. I explained that my parents had encouraged me to learn a second language, and were hoping that I would spend a semester studying in France to solidify my French fluency. The notion of living in a big city, even if that city happened to be Paris, held zero appeal to me. I couldn’t fathom what I would find of interest there and I knew with 100% certainty that I’d cheat and speak English most of the time anyway. “Have you ever heard of the School for International Training?” she said. “You could study in another French-speaking country,” she said. And then she rattled the school’s phone number off the top of her head and I wrote it down on the back of my park trail map.

As soon as I got out to town, I called the 800 number from the payphone to request a program catalogue. This was at the dawn of the internet, so cellphones, google and email were not yet widely available. It was old fashioned phone and snail mail (and, no, this wasn’t the Dark Ages. It was the mid-90s). When I read the course description for the Madagascar program my eyes welled up with tears. The program combined all of my academic interests, from French language to environmental issues, and also the mystery of exploring Madagascar. I felt called to be there, like finally someone was speaking my language.

That February I touched down in Antananarivo and began the most transformative five months of my life.

What is the point of this story? I ask myself that question all the time. Sometimes, admittedly, there is no point and it’s just a good story. In this case, the point is that taking the less traveled path can be a good idea (just ask Robert Frost) and that being open to unfamiliar worlds -environments, people, lifestyles – is important, eye-opening, and life-changing. You learn a lot more about yourself when the familiar is stripped away. And you learn a lot more about others when you meet them where they are and attempt to understand their reality and see the world through their eyes.

“The real treasure, to end our misery and trials, is never far away – it is not to be sought in any distant region; it lies buried in the innermost recess of our own home, that is to say, our own being…if only we could dig. But there is an odd and persistent fact that it is only after a faithful journey to a distant region, a foreign country, a strange land, that the meaning of the inner voice that is to guide us on our quest can be revealed to us. And together with this odd and persistent fact there goes another, namely, that the one who reveals to us the meaning of our cryptic inner message must be a stranger, of another creed and foreign race.” – Heinrich Zimmer, “Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization”

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes” – Marcel Proust