By Nikki Brand
August 26, 2014 | Four days after graduation, I found myself on a plane to Guatemala. I had taken a dream job in Panajachel, or “Pana,” as the locals call the tiny, bustling town on the shores of Lake Atitlan, known for eternal spring weather, volcano-framed sunsets, and charming streets (okay, single street) lined with stands of brightly colored textiles sold by Mayan women. With a strong ex-pat culture and high quality of life, Pana is a Guatemalan hub for international development nonprofits like the one I was working for: Community Enterprise Solutions (CES).
But I didn’t go to Pana or Guatemala to loll in touristic charm. I was there to see what I could do to help. Almost two decades after the end of the country’s 30-year civil war, Guatemalans—especially indigenous Guatemalans who make up the majority of the country’s population—face persistent violence, inequality, poverty, and corruption. Roughly half of the country’s population lives in poverty, and Guatemala is the second most unequal country in Latin America—second only to Haiti—with most of the national wealth owned by a small and almost exclusively ladino (non-indigenous) upper class.
My job was to foster small businesses, and to generate income for poor women. The idea, based loosely on the success of the beauty company Avon, was to give local people products to sell with health, environmental, and economic benefits—products like eyeglasses, water filters, and cookstoves—and offer them a percentage of the profits from their sales.
At CES, I worked side-by-side with a Mayan woman named Juana Xoch. Despite our different backgrounds, Juana became a friend and confidant. While I had a comfortable childhood in a DC suburb, Juana at age 10 became a nanny in Guatemala City after the Civil War destroyed her community. She had no formal education, but she had taught herself to read and write, and was supporting her four-year-old son Jonathon through her work at CES.
Juana and I led charlas (educational presentations), piloted a referral program, and held guest lectures at schools to drive community interest. Slowly, we made contacts, sold a few products, and honed our marketing skills. Yet I often found myself frustrated.
At Berkeley, I was used to throwing myself into my studies and seeing immediate results. Now, I worked 15-hour days and traveled up to eight hours on rickety, undependable public transportation in torrential downpours—often without much to show for it. An example: Juana and I would try to sell water filters in an area where another nonprofit had already given them away for free. And despite the fact that the filters no longer worked, the families wouldn’t purchase something, even at a low cost, that they previously hadn’t paid for.
Halfway through the year, I reached out to UC Berkeley Lecturer Khalid Kadir, a mentor and member of the Blum Center’s Global Poverty & Practice faculty, for help. I explained that my work was not succeeding as I expected or wanted. Khalid commiserated with me over the challenges of development fieldwork. Then he encouraged me to think of success not just as end goals and long-term plans, but as a process. Even if I couldn’t take something from A to Z immediately, just getting it from A to C might be an accomplishment.
I began to retrain myself, to see that, in the long term, the contacts we made and the skills we learned were valuable. In the short term, however, Juana and I knew that for the sales representatives in our region, income was directly tied to product sales; lower sales would mean lower pay, regardless of what was learned in the process. And so, we sought to achieve a balance: we found ways to boost sales in the short term, while thinking about long-term ways to help Guatemalan communities facing hard challenges and ongoing conflict.
Now, I look back to see that my initial desire to get from A to Z was absurdly idealistic. Change, especially when dealing with issues of poverty and inequality, is slow. Yet I came to learn that this desire was both understandable and necessary, because without the energy to foster change, I would have found myself completely paralyzed.
Nikki Brand graduated from UC Berkeley in 2013 with a B.A. in Peace & Conflict Studies and minors in Spanish and Global Poverty & Practice. She spent her first year after graduation as a field consultant in rural Guatemala for Community Enterprise Solutions, and currently works at USAID’s Global Development Lab in Washington, DC.