Ippolita di Paola, a long time member of the Natik family, shares her story below.
In 2004, when Natik was still International Humanitarian Foundation, and I was a member of the Haverford chapter, I began my international development journey in Latin America. As an anthropology and peace and conflict student, I studied the 36-year genocidal internal conflict in Guatemala, and the experience of Mayan widows. With guidance from fellow Haverford student Heidi Jutsum (McNally-Linz), later the president of International Humanitarian Foundation, I planned a service learning trip to Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala with our IHF partners: a widows handicraft cooperative, and a youth education and recreation group. I was deeply impacted by the resilience, strength, and warmth of the women and children. I developed a strong bond with several families and the soon to be local project manager, Dolores Vasquez Reanda. It was a summer of invaluable international field experience that forever changed my personal relationships and career path.
In the years following we learned many invaluable lessons as we returned each year to build the relationships and projects that continue to make Natik uniquely positioned to effect real change on the ground. The years of dedication has made all of us — the Tz’utujil Mayan women who became the organized artisans of Just Apparel, the students of Puerta Abierta and the scholarship program, myself, and Natik board members Heidi McAnally Linz and Ian Ramsey-North — better community development professionals and grassroots advocates.
It was a proud, reflective, full-circle moment for me last week when I returned to Santiago Atitlán for the first time in over 2 years, the longest I’ve ever been able to stay away. I joined Natik Executive Director Anita Smart for four intense days of meetings with the goal of building important partnerships and re-involving myself in the work of Natik and Just Apparel. Ten years of working in Latin America, and now nearly four with Waterkeeper Alliance, I continue to learn valuable lessons on grassroots community activism and development work from the amazing Mayan women, youth, and men that participate in and lead Natik’s projects.
Strategic grassroots solutions are not easy to achieve, and yet, I am confident that they are the best method out there to achieve sustainable and meaningful empowerment and development in communities like Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala and Chiapas, Mexico where Natik continues to build on its years of impact. Now that I have had the honor of also connecting and collaborating with Xonka and Yoli of Natik’s Chiapas partner Mujeres Sembrando La Vida, and Dolores Vasquez Reanda’s Natik project colleagues Candelaria Esquina Damian and Jenn Miller, I am even more confident and reinvigorated to work within the successful model of Natik.
I’ve never watched a dollar stretch further and I am thankful to have been a participant and witness to ten years of amazing impact in the lives of the Mayan women and children of Santiago Atitlan, building a new social fabric with more skills and access to resources. I hope more people across our networks will join us in supporting these communities and the invaluable education and economic empowerment provided through Natik projects. The joy of participating in the educational advancement and capacity building of future Mayan leaders, or from sharing exquisite handicrafts with your friends, families and colleagues, made by Mayan women for several centuries, all while contributing to their personal, professional, and economic empowerment, is invaluable.