Social Entrepreneurs Corps, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala
Summer Entrepreneurial Internship Program
Social Entrepreneurs Corps
Even while sitting on the airplane to Guatemala, I knew the next eight weeks would be personally and professionally impactful. Reflecting afterwards, I am surprised by how much I underestimated my own growth. Based in the city of Quetzaltenango, nicknamed Xela (pronounced “Shay-lah”), my fellow nine interns and I worked officially as community consultants for Soluciones Comunitarias (an affiliate organization of Social Entrepreneur Corps nicknamed SolCom). My specific tasks included consulting a legal nonprofit, analyzing a new water purification technology, and creating a theoretical structure for a community with the goal of uniting the disparate nonprofits in Guatemala. While I provided my unique insight, work, and the rapport I built with my organization, I received knowledge on the needs of nonprofits in Guatemala, how to address the needs of these organizations, how to conduct a product analysis in a developing community, what it takes to begin a network of organizations, and how to effectively work on a team. I also acquired greater self-motivation and experience in overcoming various situational, oral, and cultural barriers. Informally, I was a daughter to my host families, a friend to my group, and a visitor in the unique region, history and culture of Guatemala. Ultimately, what made my time more than I could have imagined was meeting incredible human beings, working for dedicated organizations, and having the opportunity to gain first-hand insights about issues that afflict millions.
My personal work was primarily, with two other interns, to consult CEFAM (Centro de atención y apoyo familiar), a new organization founded by a group of lawyers and social workers to provide legal assistance, alimental support, and academic scholarship to women and children who are victims of domestic violence and familial disintegration. We met with CEFAM representatives three times to discuss their struggles, vision, and goals, and in between meetings we researched, brainstormed, and organized potential solutions. Unfortunately, CEFAM’s organizational situation was the most difficult of the four organizations our group worked with (The other three were Abriendo Caminos, which focused on young adults with special needs, Fomento para el desarollo integral (FDI), which provided academic scholarship and aid for 12 families, and Mentes para el futuro, which provided trauma care, academic scholarship, and tutoring for 12 children.) as they arrived to meetings late and, being less than a year old, they first needed help cementing their identity and creating an online presence. We focused on helping them create, maintain, and optimize social media pages (Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter), provided workshops on websites and applying to grants, and designed logos, slogans, and mission statements. When not working for CEFAM, I assessed the viability of the water purifier MadiDrop. MadiDrop is a bar that, when placed into 20 liters of unclean tap water, will purify the water within 10 to 24 hours. Along with two other interns, we went to public locales to explain MadiDrop and its relative advantage as a less expensive alternative to other water purification methods. We assessed community’s interest, reservations, and the price they would be willing to pay. Simultaneously, we conducted four weeklong trials with families of different socioeconomic backgrounds and sizes. Compiling all responses and reports on competing methods in the various Xela areas, we provided recommendations for improvements and market analysis of MadiDrop in Xela. My last project entailed serving as a point person for the creation of Socio-SolCom, a theoretical organization of organizations. While consulting our organizations, we recognized that each organization faced similar struggles and possessed useful skills. Take CEFAM for example; as a group of lawyers, their legal skills were insufficient to treat psychological trauma caused by domestic violence. CEFAM could not conduct grief counseling, however, Mentes para el futuro, started by a psychologist with twenty years of fieldwork, had just the expertise they needed. After exploring their level of interest, we collaborated with our regional coordinator, Alma Santos, to create a beta meet up of introductions, activities, and discussions, which she ran as the representative of Socio-SolCom. After this initial meeting, we brainstormed and outlined recommendations for the organization’s future.
Despite various barriers, our work, unique backgrounds, education history, and relationships with various organizations benefited SolCom. For the technology MadiDrop, each interest campaign and trial provided new and important insights. For example, after listening to a 40-year-old salesman in the Xela suburb of San Francisco lament about the pernicious trash problem in Guatemala, we noted MadiDrop’s plastic packaging would only exacerbate this issue. In our final report, we outlined this foreseeable problem and recommended eco-friendly wrapping that would be worth the extra cost. CEFAM’s leader was a busy lawyer leading CEFAM in addition to his normal workload. To accommodate this and the need to initiate his online presence, most of our consulting came in the form of workshops. He acquired valuable skills and resources to leverage his organization in much less time than it would have taken to research and implement alone. Additionally, these meetings and our enthusiasm built a close, trusting relationship between SolCom and CEFAM. This led CEFAM to join our more important project, Socio-SolCom, as our demonstrated goodwill overcame the typical atmosphere of distrust between organizations. He is now under the tutelage of similarly dedicated yet more experienced organizations in Xela. Before we left Guatemala, Alma independently managed a second meeting with our organizations, which more than we had imagined. Ultimately, we completed and exceeded the tasks given to us by SolCom by laying the groundwork for an unprecedented organization in Quetzaltenango while also improving current organizations in the area and introducing technology that could improve the quality of life of thousands in Xela.
In addition to the contributions I made, working for SolCom provided me with character building experiences and insights into nonprofit work and life in Guatemala. Working through various issues on our team, I built many valuable habits for healthy team dynamics by engaging in frequent, open, and honest conversations about respecting other opinions in word and deed. Our work was also an exercise in self-motivation. As an example, consulting CEFAM, our only instructions from SolCom were to help CEFAM in whatever way they needed. We coordinated meetings, created and asked them questions, and made plans to work on CEFAM’s social media, branding, funding, and website. My conscious decision to give myself longer hours not only made me made me more successful as a consultant but also gave me important experience in going above and beyond in my work. In addition, facing the disadvantage of having left my laptop at home, I was forced to find non-digital ways of working, whether that be brainstorming on paper or talking through a new idea. What was most rewarding was the ability to interact with development issues that I am interested in. I clearly remember one afternoon walking around a massive market in a Xela surveying for MadiDrop when a backpack vendor spoke passionately about Guatemala’s beautiful environment. He motioned helplessly to a pile of trash next to his uncovered stall and expressed a bitter frustration at seeing it slowly choked by pollution. Another afternoon, in Panahachal around Lake Atitlán, I met Manuel, a bracelet vendor who did not have enough money to get a degree in computer science. Through these moments and more, I witnessed a plethora of specific stories of how Guatemalan institutions are perpetually failing its people. Even speaking with our Guatemalan field leaders, I learned about how and why the Guatemalan educational system is broken, underfunded, and not trusted. These conversations and experiences have been fantastic food for thought as I think about education and what questions I want to research in the future. Throughout the experience, the qualities that were most valuable to me were staying open minded, saying ‘yes’ to new experiences, and being intentional about keeping my mind, heart, and ears open and putting my phone in my backpack – and leaving it there.
Outside of the work itself, our free time was as educational as the time we spent in the office. Many individuals in the group were immensely motivated and interesting and these personal relationships were formative. Many nights, we spoke about topics ranging from abortion to self-perception to processing the immediate problems with the group and the physical and emotional poverty we were encountering. On the weekends, we devoted time to exploring Guatemala. We hiked up the volcano Santa Maria and witnessed a marvelous sunrise, hiked through a verdant forest to a massive waterfall, ventured to a sacred Mayan lagoon in the crater of an inactive volcano, picnicked at a scenic overlook of Xela, kayaked on Lake Atitlán, wandered around the San Juan local parade and festival, made tortillas, wore the traditional huipui and corte of a Tz’utujil-speaking Kiche’ indigenous group, and more. Living during this time with Guatemalan families was an incredible gift. I only deeply connected with one of my four families, and then only due to personality differences, but even so I was able to practice Spanish and learn from them and their stories. One family took us to play soccer in downtown Xela every Wednesday night where we ran and yelled and tackled each other for two to three hours. It was a privilege to experience the joys and beauty of Guatemalan life: wonderful food, lively music, energetic soccer matches, and stunning landscapes.
A core takeaway from my time is that SEC is an organization that cares deeply about the Guatemalan people and providing them with services that ensure their dignity is upheld. They have strong connections within each community, which I believe allowed me to have more honest, open relationships with the Guatemalans I met. These relationships, in addition to those I made with my fellow interns, are the reason I grew in confidence and learned so much about Guatemala. Guatemala itself is similarly a beautiful country rich in culture, tradition, and beauty. Guatemala is still in the midst of many development issues that we see throughout the world, so as an International Development Studies minor, it is a good country to visit to learn about the problems that face development. When all is said and done, I would go back in a heartbeat.