From Guatemala to DC

I haven’t decided if I’ll keep using this blog, but for now, a quick update. It’s been a hectic summer since finishing up my contract with Community Enterprise Solutions in Guatemala at the end of May. Before heading back to the states, I passed through Nicaragua for about ten days of travel/exploration, then spent the rest of June with family in San Francisco and DC…all the while searching for a new job.

The job search process was hard but not as painful as I had envisioned – in June I was offered a job with USAID’s new U.S. Global Development Lab, as a Program Assistant in the Center for Global Solutions. It took a while to get in the door as I had to wait for my security clearance to be processed, but I started a few weeks ago and it’s been great so far.

So, what is the U.S. Global Development Lab? Most importantly, it’s brand new – officially founded in May, by bringing together two existing offices at the agency, the Office of Science and Technology and IDEA (the Office of Innovation and Development Alliances). The lab works to promote STIP – Science, Technology, Innovation, and Partnerships – throughout the agency’s work, both in partner missions in the field and in helping to redefine how business is conducted on a day-to-day basis in the agency. Specifically, I work in the Center for Global Solutions, which is charged with driving widespread adoption (“scaling up”) of proven, transformative solutions across the globe. The “solutions” in the pipeline already vary widely, from a simple antiseptic that minimizes risk of infection in newborns when applied to the umbilical cord right after birth to promoting digital payments as an alternative to circulating cash.

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Si no viene la lluvia, no crece la milpa

So, that’s it. Yesterday was my last day of work as a Field Consultant for Community Enterprise Solutions. The past few weeks have been full of “last times” – last visit to the weaving cooperatives in San Juan, last meetings with each of our asesoras, last trips to our puntos, last time eating in Juana and my favorite comedor in Solola. And it’s been full of goodbyes, to all of my friends, many of whom have become like family, to my favorite spots around the lake, and – especially hard – to Juana.

These last few days, as I get ready for my flight out on Tuesday, people have been asking me how I’m feeling about leaving. It’s hard to say, really…I feel sad to be leaving so many people and projects behind, and sad to leave such a beautiful country, but I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to spend so much time here, to learn everything that I did, and to see so much of the country in the process. And I also feel equal parts excited and anxious – lately, a bit more on the anxious side – about whatever might come next. That part’s still up in the air, but I am certain something new and exciting will present itself soon.

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A Much-Delayed Update

Guilty again for not posting for so long! I’ve been doing a ton of work lately on revamping CES’s social media presence, including our two blogs, Real Impact and Field Stories, facebook, twitter, and instagram…so needless to say I have had next to no time for any personal writing.

Biggest success of this month: taking apart, putting back together, and selling Solola's FIRST "Estrella de la Cocina" improved cookstove

Biggest success of this month: taking apart, putting back together, and selling Solola’s FIRST “Estrella de la Cocina” improved cookstove

In general, things have been good, albeit hectic. On February 15, we launched a new “1000 Communities” Strategy, in which CES internationally has declared that we will reach 1000 communities around the world, by February 15, 2015, with a minimum sales goal. We’ve divvied up communities by country and by region, leaving Solola with 75 – which is, quite honestly, a LOT. Juana and I have spent the past month or so formulating our plan to tackle this bold strategy, and have started off by conducting community diagnostics in a number of new communities where we’d like to work, to determine which products will be the best product to focus on in each community, and what will be the best way to provide access to that product. So – that’s the quick and dirty work update. Plenty of other things going on too, from social media to my blogging/organization research for the peacebuilding organization Insight on Conflict, to prepping for summer student programs and managing Good Stuff Good Works, our artisan export program…so as always, I feel like I’m constantly being pulled in a million directions but the flexibility and independence is a lot of fun.

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Staffs of Power

This month, I am getting a crash course in local government. January in Guatemala means new alcaldes – local government leaders – which for us, presents a great opportunity to reach out to new communities with whom we would love to collaborate. Here in Sololá, this means presenting at of comudes, official meetings bringing together all of the alcaldes in a particular municipality.

Before presenting at a comude, Juana and I have been visiting each municipalidad to ask permission – a relatively complicated and precise process, that involves printing two copies of a solicitud – a letter addressed to the indigenous leader, formally explaining our organization and why we would like to present at the comude, presenting our case verbally, asking for an authorizing signature to prove that the letter was received…and then waiting for a confirmation days or weeks later. The intricacies of the process are what have been throwing me off sometimes – like, the time I printed a letter addressed to the indigenous alcalde rather than the “community” alcalde by mistake (local governments here have side-by-side leaders, one representing indigenous interests and the other representing general community interests), or how I’m sometimes unsure of how to greet or say goodbye to the alcalde after he listens to our presentation. So I’m really glad to have Juana or WIcho with me at each of these presentations, as they definitely understand these customs and protocols way better than I do.

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Wrapping Up 2013

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It’s been about six weeks since my last post – oops! In that time, I passed my six month mark of living in Guatemala, and things have just been crazy ever since. By November, rainy season started tapering off – finally! – meaning that instead of expecting a nice downpour every afternoon without fail, I’ve been getting used to beautiful, hot sunny days followed by stunning sunsets over the lake – typically enjoyed from the roof of my lovely Panajachel apartment, or sitting down by the shores of the lake. Last week, we even held a rooftop yoga class at sunset, followed by tarot card readings by our lovely friend, who leads both.

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Work: how to summarize? It’s been crazy. My region, Solola, is full of complex struggles, many of which are beyond my control but are still frustrating and exhausting to deal with. Sales have been tough, our office was closed for almost two months, and morale for my team (and myself) has been pretty low too. The problem is, that in a job like this one, it’s hard not to take things personally, and not to see structural failures or roadblocks as your own “fault” or your own “responsibility.” But I’m working on it, and continuing to get to know and understand the strengths and weaknesses of my region and how I, working with my local team, can make the most of our potential.

photo 1One of our biggest successes in the past month or so in Solola was our “Día Con el Agua,” an event intended to promote our water filters, though through education and interactive activities, rather than simply marketing and sales promotion. The entire team came out to support us, along with a great group of students from Atitlan Multicultural Academy, the school where many of my Pana friends work.

And then there’s been the travel, and the adventures – so much easier to fit in without worrying about those pesky daily rainstorms! On Todos Santos – All Saint’s Day (November 1), a whole crew of us decided to check out the Festival de Barilletes Gigantes – Giant Kite Festival – in Sumpango, a little less than an hour from Antigua. We spent the day wandering through a cementary and huge open field, full of giant paper kites up to 5 meters wide, snacking on delicious local treats, and finally, just before sunrise, watching all the kites launched into the air, one by one.

And this past weekend, I tackeld my third Guatemalan volcano, Acatenango – another highlight. At 3900 meters, Acate is a bit shorter than Tajumulco, which I climbed last month, but what really made the trip special were the amazing views. We spent the night camped out at 3500 meters, watching a meteor shower overhead and directly overlooking the constant eruptions of another neighboring volcano, Fuego – and I mean literally huge explosions of red volcanic rocks and lava spewing from the cumbre (summit). We summitted early in the morning, right after a fantastic sunrise, and found ourselves in a massive crater, in 40+ mph winds, overlooking huge, fluffly white clouds and the peaks of so many other Guatemalan volcanos, seeing as far as the lake where I live and the Pacific Ocean. Seriously – unreal.

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So – that’s been my life! December’s brought a whole host of year-end tasks – individual reporting on all of my projects, looking over sales goals from the past year, and moving forward to think about sales, goals, projections, and plans for the coming year. After the holidays, I’ll be back in early January with two student groups – a group from Indiana followed by a group from Miami of Ohio – before starting to dig in to everything we’d like to accomplish in 2014!

The Roof of Central America

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DSCF1134Last weekend, I made a spontaneous decision to climb Volcan Tajumulco – the highest mountain in Central America, at 4220 meters (13,845 feet!). I’ve done a bunch of volcano hikes before but never in freezing cold rain, carrying a fifty pound pack of gear, and camping overnight at 4000 meters. What an adventure!

It started Friday afternoon, with a pre-trek meeting in Xela with our guide company, Quetzaltrekkers. They distributed gear – big backpacks, sleeping pads and bags, tents and tarps, warm pants and jackets, giant bottles of water – and went over logistics and what to expect. The actual trip started at 5am, boarding a camioneta with all of our gear for a three hour ride to the department of San Marcos, where the volcano is located, finally strapping on our packs around 10:30 after an energizing breakfast of (you guessed it), rice, beans, eggs, and tortillas, at a comedor.

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Nobody Said it Would be Easy

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I've lost track of all the hours I've spent travelling this month - on chicken busses (camionetas), micro-busses, pick-ups...

I’ve lost track of all the hours I’ve spent travelling this month – on chicken busses (camionetas), micro-busses, pick-ups…

This past week has made me think even more about what my own role within this “project” of development that I’ve been taking on. What falls under my responsibility, and what falls under the responsibility of Juana, or other members of my Chapin (Guatemalan team)? How can I practice servant leadership, by empowering and collaborating with my Guatemalan counterparts, while still adding my own contributions to our team’s work and finding ways to take advantage of my own strengths?

I thought about this a lot last week, as Juana and I were co-leading a few stove charlas for women’s cooperatives connected to us by one of our new partner organizations. I spent hours looking through existing stove presentation materials, talking with my coworkers, organizing visuals, and overall putting together what I thought would be a great charla. That’s not to say I did it all alone – Juana helped with the process, of course – but it was me who sat down, wrote up a script, printed copies, and led ourselves in practice.

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TOMS: Buy One, Give One

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The debate about the TOMS “buy one, give one” model is not new. In sum, TOMS promises that for every pair of shoes it solds, it will give away another pair of shoes to a child in need. So what’s wrong with this? Critics suggest that donating shoes in this way fails to address one of the most important root causes of poverty: a lack of access to fair-paying, sustainable employment” and moreover, undermines local markets.

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Today, it appears that TOMS might actually be listening to and responding to this criticism. TOMS recently announced that beginning in January 2014, they will begin to employ 100 Haitians and build a ‘responsible, sustainable’ shoe industry in Haiti, further pledging that, by the end of 2015, TOMS would produce a minimum of one-third of all its giving shoes in places where the shoes are distributed to needy individuals.

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Deloitte: Partner to Partner

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It’s getting harder and harder to find the time to keep this blog updated – especially over the last few weeks, my travel schedule has ramped up heavily, and I’ve gotten more and more embedded into a huge variety of projects, both for my region and for SolCom at large. It’s fun to always be moving and always be flipping back and forth between different things, but it gets exhausting too, and focusing on so many things at once makes it challenging to keep priorities in order.

But the dynamic nature of my job means that there are always new, exciting things being thrown at me. Last week it was helping to facilitate a four-day consulting visit from Deloitte, as the pilot program of a new potential partnership called Partner to Partner. Four teams of five consultants met four different local Guatemalan organizations – in addition to SolCom, projects focused on Mani+, a company marketing and selling an enhanced peanut butter nutritional supplement, Byoearth, an organization focusing on the development potential of empowering cooperatives of women to sell organic fertilizer, and an organization here in Pana, my friend Alyssa’s school AMA and it’s partner entities Hiptipico and Milpa. Krystal and I helped facilitate the consulting project for AMA, which was a blast from start to finish, despite the consolidated time frame.

The Deloitte team and Alyssa with one of her Hiptipico artisans and her two kids, Jesus and Maria, who will be starting school at AMA in January

The Deloitte team in Pana with Alyssa, one of her Hiptipico artisans, and her two kids, Jesus and Maria, who will be starting school at AMA in January

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Four Months In

It’s been a hectic few weeks. Less than a week after I was pick-pocketed, my nice, comfortable, American-style apartment, right on Panajachel’s main street, was broken into, and my computer stolen, along with a few other things belonging to my roommate. These things happen – everywhere – though it still shook me quite a bit, especially the violation of someone crawling through my window and taking something from me that’s so so personal, full of pictures and resumes and work files and who knows what else.

But life moves on, which is what I’ve been doing, slowly. We found a new apartment within a few days – an almost impossibly beautiful, spacious apartment with a huge green gate and a guardian to provide extra security. It’s been hard to get much work done these past two weeks without a computer – when I’m not in the field, my computer is really my “office,” so not having that, and not having dependable internet access, has been a challenge. But luckily a new computer should be arriving for me from the states in the next day or two, which will make my life so much easier.

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