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From margins to momentum: unlocking the talents of female leaders to foster peace, prosperity and environmental stewardship Guatemala

Leapfrogging incremental change through synergizing diverse sectors of society around the Girl Effect

Photo of Travis Ning

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Explain your project idea (2,000 characters)

It is no secret that Guatemala is struggling. Basic data reveals devastating levels of inequality, corruption, violence, environmental degradation, and malnutrition. Problems seem to be everywhere. There are no silver bullets in a context like this. However, one solution stands out for its ability to impact every one of Guatemala's major challenges: the unlocking of its female talent. Annually, Guatemala ranks at/near the bottom of the Western Hemisphere's gender equity index. Is it a surprise that the country struggles to find solutions when half of its population is outside the margins? Mayan females represent roughly 25% of the population, but nearly 80% reside in poverty without access to the opportunities of the 21st-century. There are complex reasons for this: centuries of oppression, machismo, no access to power structures, weak infrastructure in rural areas, etc. As a result, there is a pervasive and insidious false belief at all levels of power that Mayan girls are incapable of full participation. With precious few proof points, Mayan girls are too often railroaded into predictable cycles of poverty and exclusion. Starfish exists to refute this notion and to do so in a radical way. We are prototyping a platform of innovation designed to be a quantum leap over what would otherwise take 4-5 generations. We believe we have the key ingredients to create an innovative and replicable talent pipeline, including: -A system to identify highly motivated girls and families who will be pioneers. -Powerful local leadership and staff (90% Mayan, 95% female) that is "all in" on changing the status quo. The mirrored race-gender dynamic between staff and Girl Pioneers adds essential empathy and context while nurturing an empowering and equal power dynamic. -A network of national-level, private sector entities eager to provide input on workforce readiness. -A new facility, designed to share innovations -A committed body of external innovators

Who are the beneficiaries? (1,000 characters)

Our beneficiaries are adolescent girls ages 11-25 born into situations of quadruple poverty (female, rural, Mayan and poor) in rural villages of the Department of Sololá in Guatemala. These Girl Pioneers and their families are carefully selected over the course of a year based on their aptitude, drive, and level of family commitment. Girl Pioneers are frequently the most-educated members of their families. Each will enroll in the Impact School, a secondary school (grades 7-12) designed specifically for them. The school goal to leapfrog incremental change is defined by four areas. Each Girl Pioneer graduate will be: -Economically autonomous, defined as a middle-class income (and upward mobility). -Lifelong learners, defined as going beyond high school graduation and into university. -Capable of a choice-filled life by avoiding early marriage and motherhood. -Empowered to empower others by accessing and influencing power structures.

How is your idea unique? (1,000 characters)

Several key factors make this idea different: 1) Designed around urgency: Guatemala does not have time for incremental steps. This project is meant to achieve a quantum leap in ONE generation. We are guided by the belief that the outliers that this school creates will have infinitely more impact than one organization. 2) Open-source, iterative innovation- as a responsive organization, Starfish is continually integrating global best-practices into its unique Mayan context. At any given time, local staff is implementing and contextualizing the innovations of over a dozen sources. Starfish is a gateway for others to also access these gems. In the past year, over 30 organizations have received trainings via Starfish. 3) Depth not breadth- we go "all in" on Girl Pioneers, which includes a powerful family engagement process to sustain the unparalleled trajectory. 4) Inclusion of traditional "enemies"- We welcome private sector and like-focused NGOs to be a part of this project.

Idea Proposal Stage (choose one)

  • Prototype: I have done some small tests or experiments with prospective users to continue developing the idea.

Tell us more about your organization/company (1 sentence and website URL)

Starfish is among the handful of organizations in Guatemala that is led and implemented by women from the SAME communities ahat it serves.

Expertise in sector

  • 7+ years

Organization Filing Status

  • Yes, we are a registered non-profit.

In 3-4 sentences, tell us the inspiration or story that encouraged you to start this project.

How far can she go? That question drives us. First, it was microcredit where a woman gets a launch but too often cannot fly due to a low ceiling (she is often illiterate, already has a large family, etc,). Then we proved the impossible (previously, we designed a program that secured unprecedented rates of public high school completion among Mayan girls). We seek to answer this question again, now through a school designed specifically with her in mind.

Please explain how your selected topic areas are influenced, in the local context of your project (1,000 characters).

Guatemala is only one generation removed from a 36-year civil war. The majority of the country did not experience this war (70% is under the age of 30), but they are confined by divisions left behind by the conflict. The core user of the school is the Girl Pioneer and her family; however, Starfish's design aims to consider other essential users: future employers. Peace is achieved through partnership between the two major groups (urban/non-Mayan and rural/Mayan), who unite over a shared commitment to the unlocking of girl talent for common good. When the Girl Pioneers complete their education, they will access previously unseen levels of tertiary schooling and employment. This upward mobility and prosperity is fueled by workforce readiness and higher wages. As outliers/role models, these women illuminate and support future generations of Mayan female leaders. Planet is impacted through girls' education, widely considered as one among the top interventions to reduce climate change.

Who will work alongside your organization in the project idea? (1,000 characters)

The transformational effects of educating girls allows for a diverse collection of partners. In additional to the foundational partnership with girls and families, this idea considers: -Private sector employers: In a context where traditional schools are broken, companies are eager to expand markets and access talent that is workplace ready. Starfish has access to companies that view this talent not as a nice-to-have, but rather a must-have. These companies are on the receiving-end of the talent and have expressed interest in helping to mold workplace competencies. -External innovators: The school is designed as a laboratory. In Guatemala, convening adolescent girls into a consistent space is difficult. Through the empathy-based work with girls and families, innovators share their best-practices through the training of the school staff. This formula of training local, Mayan staff (who contextualize the innovation) has proven effective, especially with family work.

Please share some of the top strengths identified in the community which your project will serve (500 characters)

This project maximizes opportunities, such as - A motivated private sector that is currently struggling to find talent - An international movement to embrace and evidence the power of educating girls - Families in rural Guatemala gaining an awareness of alternatives to marginalization through increased access to information - An awakening of Guatemala's society, which has seen unprecedented levels of civic engagement in the past 3 years - An HCD-informed organizational culture

Geographic Focus

Rural, indigenous Guatemala is the epicenter, with ripples reaching out across the country.

How many months are required for the project idea? (500 characters)

The Impact School is running a middle school for 150 Girl Pioneers. In 2020 we will open the high school. We have 18 months to design the high school. This process requires rigorous consultation with private sector employers, families of Girl Pioneers, and the Girl Pioneers themselves. The physical building will be completed in October 2018.

Did you submit this idea to our 2017 BridgeBuilder Challenge? (Y/N)

  • No

Attachments (1)


Join the conversation:

Photo of Ashley Tillman

Hi Travis Ning great to have you in the Challenge, can you share more details about the platform you are prototyping and your approach to developing it? Also curious if Gayanjith Premalal or Luz Gallo have any questions?

Photo of Travis Ning

Hi Ashley- thanks for reading about the initiative. The "platform" is both a physical and metaphorical space. We see it as a school that is integrating the world's best educational innovations but doing so with a unique empathy-angle since all educators are same-gender/race as the students they teach. This is challenging since we are investing in human resources (both students and teachers) that come from what is arguably the most marginalized population in the western hemisphere: rural, Mayan, female, poor. With the right intervention, can this group access spaces of power and decision-making in ONE generation? The approach consists of enormous amounts of design thinking since many external ideas and innovations require significant levels of contextualization. Girl Pioneers in the school come from families that are often illiterate and from remote Mayan villages. Most do not speak Spanish. Even the most (seemingly) simple possible solutions to emerging challenges require intensive and continually iterative processes. The idea of local women determining the philosophy and approach to engaging girls and families was best described to me through a recent story:

A 7th grade Girl Pioneer showed up to school with a broken sandal. It is understood that this is her one pair of shoes, so this presents a real challenge to her. The immediate impulse from someone not from the context is to simply get her a new pair of sandals- done deal, right? However, the response from her teacher that morning was one of empathy: "Oh, that is rough- I remember when that happened to me a few times. Come sit with me and I can show you a trick to put it back together again"). It is a micro example of the approach. Can this empathy coupled with amazing educational innovation unlock the talent that Guatemala desperately needs? We believe so.

Photo of Melinda Kramer

Thanks for sharing your idea. I'm curious about the long-term iteration of the school. Will, and if so, in what ways, will lessons learned be incorporated from the first graduating class and from future classes to continue to be responsive? Also, what will the school curriculum look like -- will it differ from traditional schools? Looking forward to learning more!

Photo of Travis Ning

Great question. Right now, we are firmly in prototype phase with grades 7-8. Iteration at this point is relatively easy and immediate, but we know it gets more challenging when we have grades 7-12. One big area where immediate feedback loops are in place is on the selection of students. This is occurring right now (we are halfway through the school year in Guatemala). We select students from 6th grades now, and they will be onboarded from July-Dec.

As we grow out, we hope to sustain the org culture that celebrates innovation. The network of external innovators is a big asset since they can help identify areas where we can tinker.

As for curriculum, we do not have a single source but rather draw from around the world. We found that adopting a curriculum or methodology wholesale (like IB or Expeditionary Learning) did not fit our context. This certainly makes it more difficult in the short-term, but it fits the needs of our users.

Thanks for the comments and for the support!

Photo of Vicky S.

I love your idea! Female empowerment and self-sustainability--especially in developing countries--is super important.

In many communities, basic survival needs greatly outweigh a desire for traditional school-setting education, etc. If a significant life event (death of one or both parents, pregnancy, etc.) were to occur, what steps would you take to help girls who suddenly quit the initiative come back?

Photo of Travis Ning

Hi Vicky

Retention is a big pain-point for this type of intervention. Since the amount of schooling is almost 3x more than a public school, it is impossible to replace students who drop out. I could not find the space to discuss the selection process in this description, but our approach is to take 1 year to select students and families for the school. We select girls based on their drive, but also take into equal consideration the motivation of her family (especially her father). This is vetted throughout her 6th grade year, and she formally matriculates in our school for 7th grade. Once a girl is "in" we go all in on keeping her and her family engaged.

Family emergency is something we have already had to confront (death of father, for example). The mentor's connection with the family and the commitment we made to the family has been enough to overcome these challenges.

Pregnancy is a real and probably the biggest threat. Obviously, prevention is a big piece but we all know that accidents happen. We have experience with this via our previous model (girls going to public schools). We find that pregnancy does provoke school drop out, but that a large percentage of these young moms do eventually come back to pursue their education. Given our school's intensity (180+ school days, 7 AM - 4 PM daily), it may be challenging to reintegrate a mother-student, but not impossible if she has sufficient family support.

Thanks for the insightful question!

Photo of Vicky S.

I’m curious to know how much of your current leadership is comprised of women. Since your target population is young women, it would make sense that quite a few women were part of the anchor of your initiative.

Also, regarding the motivation of parents, machismo culture is very prevalent in Latin American countries. Does this account for determining the eligibility of the girl due to the motivation of the father, or is it something else (father has higher education, is moneymaker in the family, head of household, etc).

Photo of Travis Ning

The current leadership is 95% female and 90% Mayan. We find that this is critical for creating strong relationships with girls and their families. I wish there were more studies to show the impact of same race/gender educators on students, but there is limited information out there that I can find.

As far as machismo, its a huge deal. Mayan culture around gender roles adds to the challenge. This makes local staff even more critical (since most of the parents do not speak Spanish). We filter families looking for outliers. It is not nearly as difficult to find a mother who is willing to deviate from social norms to support her daughter. Finding fathers who will endure the potential community gossip is harder. We have learned (the hard way) that often the dads with the most blustery talk are the ones who are ultimately unwilling to accompany their daughter on this journey. During selection, we have a serious of observations we do, a lot of them taking place in the home of the family. For example, if a dad responds for the mother or daughter when they are asked a question, or if a father is unwilling to take the daughter to a nearby health clinic for regular treatments for a skin fungus. We are looking for dads who are willing to go the extra mile since this is such a difficult journey. We believe that these outliers can inspire others to follow. Thanks for the question!

Photo of Vicky S.

Thanks for replying! I've thoroughly enjoyed learning more about your initiative; and I am finding your information to be very eye-opening. Have you ever considered asking the dads of girls who are already part of your initiative to become volunteers? Like you said, involvement on their part would be very beneficial in helping other fathers come around to the idea.

While re-reading your proposal, I became curious about something else: do you offer any type of university or post-secondary vocational opportunities for the girls?

Photo of Travis Ning

Hi Vicky- We do ask experienced fathers to share their experiences with prospective dad's, but this tends to be only in meetings rather than a formal role of any kind. We do believe that another dad vouching for something is significantly more impactful than Starfish doing so. Great point!

As to your other question- We have 4 organizational goals, and one of them pertains to "Lifelong Learning." We set this as 15 years of formal schooling. To that end, we do have an active program for alumni seeking to continue studies beyond high school. We operate a limited scholarship fund that currently supports around 30 university students. We also work hard to network our girls into other scholarship programs (either directly with universities or with third-party providers). For the graduates of the Impact School, one of the academic metrics is that all grads will be able to pass the public university entrance exam. This would ensure them free university tuition.

Photo of Erin Burba

This is a great idea and important cause - it's so important that the mentors in the program are from similar backgrounds to the girls being mentored, it makes a bright future so much more realistic. Working with other NGOs and the private sector also opens great opportunities. I would especially emphasize the inclusion of experiential learning and community involvement, as this aspect empowers the girls with experience and perspective while also normalizing their presence and inclusion in professional settings. Well done!

Photo of Travis Ning

Thanks so much for your feedback! I wish I could find more data on the impact of same race/gender educators. I'll look into how to weave in more emphasis on the experiential/hands-on aspect of the education. Gracias!