Satisfaction, Synergism and Serendipity

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Anita Smart began envisioning and working toward the concept of universities interfacing with development projects in Chiapas at about the same time the IHF was beginning.  She was the volunteer facilitator of the Brown University Chapter of the IHF in Chiapas from 2007-2010, and has been the Executive Director since 2010.  

Now is when I get to take a deep breath and be philosophical. Looking back on ten years of collective envisioning, focus and lots of hard work allows for a moment of gratitude and satisfaction.  The biggest lessons of our past could have been considered our biggest mistakes and failures, but the collective nature of the IHF/ Natik intrinsically recognizes that as long as we learn from the past, we know that the future will be better because of it.

The mission of carving out a niche where academics, idealism and pragmatic solutions converge in the real world is a constant challenge that motivates our forward momentum in some very intense ways. With so much going on all the time, moments of philosophical reflection are rare. Therefore, these ten days of remembering the past and affirming the future have created a surprising sense of joy and celebration; we have all thoroughly enjoyed this brief respite for collective retrospection!

One of my first newsletters as ED three years ago was about the power of synergism. It was during a phase of organizational chaos and there wasn’t much concrete news to report. We were in the process of transformation; the past model was disintegrating and it was unclear what the future would bring.  As I look back at that time, I am grateful that the synergism of our collaborative model has brought us to a point where the Natik family stands strong in our conviction and our operational dynamic.  Fiscal and program transparency permeate every level: board, staff, volunteers, partners and project participants.

By its definition and modus operandi, Natik draws visionaries and leaders whose hearts motivate all of us to participate in something bigger than the egocentric trinity of Me, Myself and I. Collaboration is our middle name and we all contribute in whatever ways we can, to make a positive difference in a world that seems to produce more bad news every day.

We love the serendipity of each new person who asks: “what can I do to help?” because we know that every member contributes something unique, helping Natik grow stronger and wiser as our collective journey takes us into the future…

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Hermanas – Sisters

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Heidi McAnnally-Linz was a student member of the Haverford University IHF chapter from 2001-2004, was the IHF Executive Director from 2006-2010, and the Board of Director Chair from 2010 until just recently.  Heidi reflects on the ten years since she met Dolores, her friend, colleague and “sister” in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala.  

“Ya viene tu hermana.” “Here comes your sister!” the women chuckled. Since my actual sister was thousands of miles away, I assumed they must have been talking about another one of the local expats who in spite of looking nothing like me was always confused as my sister. But I realized they were talking about Dolores, who was walking towards us, and I started laughing myself. Dolores and I couldn’t look more different — I’m almost six feet tall, light hair, light skin, blue eyes, and always in Western clothes (even when they are “indigenous” fabrics). Dolores is five feet tall (on a good day), dark skin, dark hair, dark eyes, and always in the indigenous dress typical of Santiago Atitlan. Yet the women were right — Dolores and I may as well be sisters. We basically grew up together.

Ten years ago, when I was a sophomore in college, I met Dolores. She had just graduated from a vocational school with a degree in administration, and she was one of the only women I had met in Santiago who spoke excellent Spanish. I immediately asked her to be my translator, since my Tzutujil was only good enough to make people laugh, not to actually have meaningful conversations. My goal for the summer was to understand what the widows’ group I had connected with wanted to do and how we, as college students, might walk alongside them in support of their efforts. Since older women in Santiago speak about as much Spanish as I speak Tzutujil, Dolores was a lifesaver.

Over that summer, I watched Dolores grow not only in translation, but also in leadership. The more we talked, the more trust we built with the widows, and the more trust we built, the more they confided in us. At 19, we both grew up that summer — we heard the stories of women whose husbands were found murdered on the side of the road by the military, we learned of rampant corruption even within the widows’ group, and we became passionate about the things the widows wanted: education for their kids and dignified work for themselves.

Now, ten years down the road, Dolores and I have shared so much life together (we’ve each gotten married and had kids of our own) and, I hope, brought so much life to the community of Santiago Atitlan together (through Just Apparel and the dozens of students who have gone through the Natik scholarship program). Our story for me is the story of Natik — as we have all grown in friendship over the past ten years, our passion for the communities where we work and our complementary skill sets have blossomed into relationships of mutual trust and respect with the common goals of alleviating poverty in those same communities. I can’t wait to see what the next ten years will bring.

School without a name

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Yolanda (Yoli) and Juana (Xunka) Bernarda Hernandez Gomez are leaders of Mujeres Sembrando la Vida (Women Sowing Life), an organization that brings together nearly 250 indigenous Tzotzil women from diverse communities in the municipality of Zinacantán in Chiapas, Mexico. Yoli recently shared the history of their remedial education program with Natik fellow Devin Graves. 


 

Every development project begins when someone notices a need in the community.  The remedial education program in Zinacantan began when Xunka and Yoli saw a need in their community. We sat down with Yoli and asked her about how the remedial education program began and the progress since its initiation in 2010.

While working at the Casa Cultura in Zinacantan, Xunka noticed that many of the children in the community were struggling at learning basic math and Spanish. Because this need was not being met in the primary schools, Xunka and Yoli decided to take action and formed the remedial education program. At the beginning, it was funded as an extension of their university scholarships through Mujeres de Maiz en Resistencia.  The program allows children of all ages to get help with homework, as well as private and group tutoring. The children are able to ask questions and receive assistance from one of several advisers that volunteer their time in the learning space that was donated by their uncle.

Most of the children who participate are sent by their parents, many of whom do not understand how to help their children with their schoolwork. “Mothers come to us saying that the schoolteacher told them their child is not good at multiplication, and request our assistance,” explains Yoli. She said that most of the parents have little to no education themselves and are inadequately prepared to help their children with their studies.

Since the creation of the project, Xunka and Yoli have been able to see many fruits of their labors. “There was one girl who came to the program without knowing how to read, and after one month she was able to read,” commented Yoli. “Her mother told us that she saw a big difference in her daughter, saying that she could now help her brothers and sisters with their schoolwork.”

The sisters are now ready to go beyond their previous word-of-mouth promotion by reaching out to local schools, offering tutorial services to children who the teachers identify as needing a little extra help. Caitlin, the newest volunteer at the program, is helping to improve the facility and is focusing on helping the students learn through creativity and imagination. As part of their Veredas scholarships, Rosie and Josefa have been teaching every Saturday. Soon the children will decide on a name for the program.  Xunca and Yoli are looking forward to going to Guatemala to meet the team there and learn as much as they can about the Puerta Abierta program in Santiago Atitlan. Their hope is to eventually be able to afford their own building to better serve the children.

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Joining the Natik Family

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Picture 1Devin Graves is the monitoring and evaluation fellow for Natik, beginning his fellowship in September, 2013. Devin earned his Bachelor’s degree from BYU – Idaho in Organizational Communication. He has worked with refugees and immigrants from Latin America and Africa, and spent his undergrad developing and implementing service projects throughout eastern Idaho. Most recently he worked at the Experiment in International Living recruiting group leaders for cross-cultural summer abroad programs, and led a group to Salta, Argentina.

When I was looking for an organization to work with while I completed my fieldwork for my graduate degree, I wanted to find an organization where I could become an integral part of a lasting change in a community. I had spent months researching different NGOs and had not found the perfect match until I had a conversation with former Natik fellows Brooke Pike and Elliot Williams, two alumni from SIT Graduate Institute (where I was completing my Master’s). In the conversation they told me about the unique opportunities that Natik had to offer, and the possibilities Natik gives fellows to actually work in development projects and make a difference in the communities of San Cristobal and Santiago Atitlan. From our brief conversation, I knew I had found the perfect organization.

Natik is unique in that I am able to work with my skills and competencies to fill a need the organization has rather than doing busy work. During my graduate coursework, I specialized in monitoring and evaluation of development projects, something I had hoped to incorporate into my work in San Cristobal. Not only am I able to work in this field, but I am also able to develop and implement new monitoring and evaluation plans for multiple projects, a dream that I did not think would be fulfilled. Developing the monitoring and evaluation plan is also an integral part of the thesis I must write to complete my graduate degree. Additionally, I am working on a cross-cultural exchange project that is happening in January, which allows me to take the skills I have used in previous cross-cultural exchange projects.

I arrived in San Cristobal this past week and can already tell that this is the perfect match for me. I have been fully integrated into projects and can envision where these projects will take me. As I have had the opportunity to get to know those associated with the projects, they are all so grateful for the support Natik is willing to give, and I am starting to see the beginnings of lifelong friendships.

Questioning Empowerment

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P1020665_2Elliot Williams was a Natik Fellow from January 2012 to July 2013. His work included establishing service learning and internship programs as well as partnerships between universities in Chiapas and the US. Elliot has a Masters of Arts in Sustainable Development and has worked in the non-profit arena for 10 years in both Latin America and the US. He is currently looking for new challenges and opportunities in Denver, CO.

As a Natik Fellow this past year, I had the opportunity to be involved wholeheartedly in the organization’s transition from The International Humanitarian Foundation to Natik. This included a complete rebranding, new website and facebook pages, developing promotional materials and countless other projects, large and small.

One of the most discussed projects was updating the mission statement and organizational tagline. In graduate school I learned how critical language was within the development field. The words an organization uses to describe itself can be a good indication of the work it does – or more accurately the work it thinks it does – and also its understanding of the power of language itself. It not only broadcasts this message to those outside the organization but also affects the culture within the organization. So, when Natik (at the time IHF) began these discussions I was particularly interested in the outcome.

At the time, I had been working with Natik from the US the previous six months but had just arrived in Mexico and later Guatemala. Though I had a good sense for some basic aspects of the organization, I had little experience of what this looked like on the ground. As a result, rather than try and define an organization I did not yet know well, I focused on the meaning of the specific language that was being considered.

More than any other word, I was concerned with the use of “empowerment” in Natik’s new tagline cultivating community empowerment. Like so many other terms before it (see Ann Conway’s post on sustainable development), “empowerment” has become a catch phrase. It has fast become a cliché throughout the non-profit field. In fact, just as I was writing this post I saw a commercial for empowerment.com on CNN. Furthermore, as someone once pointed out to me, if we say we are empowering somebody, that implies that they were lacking power before. This fails to recognize the power we all have as individuals, regardless of our present situation.

As I learned quickly though, Natik’s use of empowerment does not ring hollow. Rather, Natik works with communities to utilize the tools they already have in order to improve their own lives. The organization is not bestowing or giving, rather fostering this awareness and pre-existing ability of communities.

This approach permeates the entire organization and all of Natik’s partners. It is evidenced in the emphasis on personal accompaniment with all Veredas microloans. It is demonstrated by not just providing scholarships through the Secondary School Scholarship program, but also requiring the students to contribute service to their community, many choosing to do so with Puerta Abierta. It has been clearly shown in the development of the artisan-directed work of Just Apparel.

Finally, the encouraging and participatory attitude by the Board, volunteers, advisers and Fellows further demonstrates the validity of Natik’s cultivation of community empowerment. If anyone in the Natik circle has the initiative and volition, you will find nothing but support and assistance to empower you to make your inspiration a reality.

 

From Conception to Reality

perkins_rebecca-234x300Rebecca Perkins is the president of Natik’s board, and has been involved with Natik/IHF since its earliest days. Rebecca grew up in Stratham, NH, went to Dartmouth, then was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal, West Africa working with small businesses. She then went to law school at Cornell and practiced briefly in both New York City and Washington, DC. She always wanted to come home to New Hampshire, and she is passionate about her home state and contributing to its healthy and happy future. Rebecca now works with small businesses in New Hampshire as they start up, grow, and expand. 

I remember my first days with the IHF (now Natik). Dave Morse and Amish Parashar had just gotten back from Costa Rica, and they had an idea. They had worked with our partner in Costa Rica, and saw opportunity. Opportunity to connect bright, talented students to communities that could benefit immensely from their help. They got started.

At the first meeting, there was a small group of us – maybe 15 or so. Dave and Amish spoke about their vision – about a partnership, a pipeline, a way for effective and motivated leaders of tomorrow to create an attachment to other parts of the world.

To me, this was an inspiring idea. My family had been helped tremendously by the kindness of others – their financial generosity, surely, but also just their time: their advice, their expertise, their perspective. Lots of people were funneling money to places that needed it, but this was something different: we were funneling talent. It was an opportunity to give back that almost anyone on the Dartmouth campus could get involved with, regardless of their means or their major. We just needed their commitment and their brain.

I told Dave I wanted to be involved. I was good at organizing and recruiting, I told him; he said, let’s see what you can do. At our first meeting (in the basement of Casque & Gauntlet, as some “old-timers” will recall), we had a good crowd – Trevor was there, and Jake, Nate Cardin – people that would make a tremendous contribution to our organization and help it grow.

Over the next year, it was exciting! We had no idea how to go from conception to reality, but we did it – one volunteer, one committed student at a time. We held elections, we got college recognition, we figured out what worked for our students. We structured roles and duties around our members, accepting what people had to offer.

This is what continues to inspire me about Natik. 10 years later, we are still about accepting what people are willing to give, about connecting people who want to connect, about enabling people with talent and goals and ambition. Today, there are lots of organizations who have begun to realize that each person has useful gifts. But back then, this was a new idea, a new incentive structure – let’s give talented students freedom and opportunity, and see what they can do.

Today, we are more mission and goal focused, and this is good. We’ve matured, we’ve learned what works and what doesn’t. We still have our spirit of entrepreneurship, finding and connecting committed and talented people in the U.S. and overseas. Because together, these people are powerful. By now, we’ve seen great things happen over and over (and over) again.

After all the hurdles, starting chapters, the training, the fundraising, weathering the global financial crisis, rebranding, hiring fellows, I am excited to see that the idea of a handful of folks in a basement has become an enduring reality.

 

Border Crossings

Ribbon Cutting Ceremony for new community center. Dos Ceibas, Guatemala

Ribbon Cutting Ceremony for new community center. Dos Ceibas, Guatemala

Rebecca-6-199x300Rebecca Galemba is a Lecturer at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. She received her PhD in anthropology in 2009 from Brown University and currently teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on International Development, Globalization, Illicit Markets, and Qualitative Field Methods.  Rebecca has been a member of the IHF/Natik board since 2009. In this blog, she reflects on how she and her husband, Dan, became involved in the IHF.

I first officially got involved with the IHF during my anthropology dissertation fieldwork at the Mexico-Guatemala border from September 2006 to September 2007. My husband Dan and I had been close friends with the IHF’s founders since Dartmouth College, but this was our first experience working directly with the IHF to help a community meet their self-stated needs.

While doing fieldwork, we witnessed the frustrations the community of Dos Ceibas, Guatemala experienced in realizing their long-awaited community center. The community is composed of Guatemalan indigenous former refugees who fled the counter-insurgency violence in the Guatemalan highlands in the early 1980s. After living as refugees in Mexico for over a decade, they negotiated their own return to Guatemala and bought a parcel of land at the border.

The community center was their vision to bring the new community together and to revitalize their indigenous heritage, much of which was lost during many years living in Mexico. While many organizations and government authorities had promised funds (and these were more forthcoming in the immediate postwar period), the community had been left hanging with this project. They even already had plans drawn up, down to architectural design and electrical wiring.

Dan and I decided to team up with the IHF to help the community to raise funds to build the cultural and community center they envisioned. This was our first experience seeing the rewards of connecting the drive and passion of a community with the resources, networks, and enthusiasm of the IHF. While the amount of funds we were able to raise through the IHF was small, we realized the synergies that could be created by collaborating with many committed individuals across borders.

A few months later, on a visit to San Cristobal, Chiapas (about a 2 hours drive from my fieldsite), I met Anita Smart. My mother had been suggesting that I contact her due to our common interests since Anita’s mother was very friendly with my mother’s close friend in Philadelphia. After hearing about the amazing grassroots work Anita had been doing in Chiapas, we began talking about ways to merge our mutual interests with the work of the IHF. Much of the rest is history. We have realized it is indeed a small world.

Construction of community center. Dos Ceibas, Guatemala.

Construction of community center. Dos Ceibas, Guatemala.

Gratitude and Impact

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Since 2007, the Scholarship Program in Santiago Atitlán has provided financial assistance to academically motivated junior high and high school students and encouraged the formation of young leaders who aim to improve life for themselves, their families, and their communities. The program commits to funding students through graduation and provides tutoring support to ensure they succeed. Hear what some of the scholarship students have to say about the experiences provided through the Scholarship Program:

Francisco Coo Mendoza

Francisco lives in Santiago, with his parents, two brothers, and sister. He is in his sixth year, and wants to go to university to study finance.

Francisco Coo Mendoza “My dream is to go to university and be a professional auditor, to help my family and my country. Thank you for the support you provide each month for my school. I am quite thankful that you have given me the opportunity to fulfill my dreams, because by supporting me, this allows a professional future for employment and opens a better world.”

Jose Elias Quieju Lacan

He has three brothers and lives with his parents and brothers in Santiago. He’s in his last year of school, and wants to go to university to study math and physics.

Jose Elias Quieju Lacan

“I have big goals in my life, because I want to improve myself intellectually and help my family economically. My long-term goals are to save money for my own house, and help contribute to my family financially. I will be a candidate for mayor of my community because I want to contribute to my town, reduce corruption and violence, and make a real change in my community.”

Maria Elizabeth Mendoza Damian

She has two brothers and two sisters and lives with her family in Santiago. She’s in her fourth year, and loves math. She wants to be a math professor.

Maria Elizabeth Mendoza Damias

“I have always enjoyed new challenges and doing new things, yet what I enjoy most is solving different types of situations – either educational, social, or familial. In some ways, mathematics is very similar to this. One has to utilize logic in solving different operations.”

Juana Chiyal Cosigua

There are six people in her family, one brother and two sisters and her parents. She is currently in her second basic year, and has dreams to go to university.

Juana Chiyal Cosigua

“All my life, I have always dreamed of being a great dance teacher. I would really enjoy realizing this dream and sharing this dream with others. I would also love to go college, and I hope that I can accomplish this dream soon.”

The Journey Continues….

Tamil Nadu, India, 2004: IHF Improved Cookstove project needs assessment

Tamil Nadu, India, 2004. IHF Improved Cookstove project needs assessment

TrevorTrevor Jensen (M.D. M.S.), was a member of the Dartmouth IHF chapter as a student and worked on projects India. He continues to be involved in Natik as a board member. 

 

 

It’s been quite a journey.

My involvement with the IHF began nearly ten years ago as a freshman in college. I had just returned from a spring break service trip to Costa Rica where a group of Dartmouth students and I had gone to build a clinic. It was an incredible experience, but it felt somehow incomplete. I came back tan, healthy and with new construction skills, but was left with so many questions. Was this the best use of my particular skillset? Did someone have a plan for finishing the clinic once we left? Who would pay to staff the clinic, and for how long? Was this clinic what the community wanted or what we thought it needed?

It was at about that time that I heard about these few upper classmen who had started a new NGO called the IHF. Im not sure who contacted whom, but after a few conversations I found that they were asking the same questions as me.  They had created the International Humanitarian Foundation to make sure these questions didn’t go unanswered.

In keeping with its original organizational color scheme, those involved with the IHF started off pretty green. On my first site visit to India I was swindled within minutes of stepping off the plane. Many of our early volunteers (and perhaps even some of our founders) have similar stories.  But both the IHF and its volunteers have grown, evolved, and gotten more expertise. What began as a bunch of idealistic students with a mission to create sustainable community driven change has now grown to a network of adults with skill sets to act on that mission.  During Natik’s ten years it has It has rebranded itself, its board has grown, the structure of its involvement with universities and students has changed, and it has paired with different organizations in different countries. The organization has assisted with education scholarships, stove installation, library building, textile production, and micro loan programs – to name just a few.  And it has done so while remaining as lean, agile, and value driven as ever.

For me (and probably many others), Natik has been a guiding force for so much of life. It helped drive me toward a career in medicine, and it helps inform my daily work as a clinician and researcher. I view my role in both pursuits as the same–to help people live the life they want to. I want to help tear down the barriers that keep people from doing this–whether they be related to health, education, employment or infrastructure. And I want to do it as thoughtfully, responsibly and as efficiently as possible.

So thank you to all the communities that we have worked with that have helped improve and refine both our mission and our operations. We only hope our collaboration has been as meaningful to you as it has been to us. And thanks to all of those who have made this journey possible – the donors, volunteers, parents, spouses and friends who not only put up with, but feed our passion.  Here’s to many more years of purpose-filled journey!

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Tamil Nadu, India, 2004. IHF Improved Cookstove project installs its first stove!

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Lira, Uganda, 2007. Uganda Malaria Surveillance Project. Project staff computer training.

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Kihihi, Uganda, 2010. Uganda Malaria Surveillance Project. Surveillance site visits.

Coming Full Circle

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Ian Ramsey-North was a member of the Haverford University Chapter of the IHF from October 2005 toDecember 2006. He volunteered in Santiago Atitlán during the summer of 2006 and participated in the Santiago Atitlán Youth Scholarship Program and general disaster relief efforts after Hurricane Stan in 2005. Ian currently works in International Development and is a Natik adviser. He will be in Santiago in October with his wife and looks forward to reconnecting with old friends and finding new ways to integrate his expertise into the programs in Santiago Atitlán.

Below Ian answers several questions:

What surprised you most about your work with the IHF?

Natik empowers young people to take action while working in close partnership with the communities they hope to benefit.  Many organizations would never allow college-aged students to take such a substantial role in the design and execution of development projects, preferring more seasoned “development professionals.” But Natik has such strong working relationships with its local partners that it is able to provide its student volunteers with substantive opportunities to live and work alongside communities in Guatemala and Mexico, with confidence that good work and experiential learning can go hand-in-hand. This is rare in the field, and Natik’s model constantly surprised both local partners and colleagues in the field of international development who had gotten used to less organic ways of working.

What has stuck with you? Has anything you learned through your work with the IHF shaped the way you have worked since?

Natik taught me the importance of remembering that the heart of every organization is its people, and its success is based on human relationships.  Natik is grounded in long-standing relationships that Natik’s leadership has maintained in good times and bad, helping local partners to trust in Natik’s commitment to their community.  Natik may be small, but its presence in its focus communities has outlasted that of many larger organizations.  My experience with Natik helped me to learn that sustaining lasting relationships is the core of good development work.

Night Time Alfombra

Describe a moment of joy and satisfaction that you experienced through your work with the IHF.

My work with Natik was full of moments of joy, particularly when working with a fantastic group of students in Santiago who were provided with scholarships and school supplies by Natik. The students gathered together on the weekends for service projects, study sessions, and games of soccer and basketball. Over the course of the school year that I spent with the scholarship program, I watched once timid participants grow into outspoken leaders within the group. The young women, in particular, thrived.  One week, we had gathered to paint a mural on a Santiago school’s wall.  The students were given materials and a wall and told to take it from there.  At first, a small group of boys dominated the planning, with the young women in the group standing back.  But as the boys found it more difficult than they anticipated to make their vision a reality, the young women in the group gradually stepped forward and in short time they were driving the process, high up on ladders painting the upper reaches of the wall, instructing the boys on which sections to paint, and painting a beautiful panorama of Santiago’s surrounding lake and mountains.