by Julia Barrero
This time of year inspires us to give thanks. This year, in addition to my health, my loved ones, my home, and my job, I’ll be giving thanks for something I realized during my summer volunteering with Friendship Bridge. This something lies at the center of Friendship Bridge’s work and has the potential to change lives. It’s the gift of empowerment.
To explain, I need to tell you a story. The story starts with América Chiyal.
América Chiyal is the Artisan Coordinator for Friendship Bridge’s Artisan Market Access Program, but when she first started in the organization, she was a client facilitator. She guided groups of anywhere from 7 to 25 women in the initiation and repayment of a shared, group micro-loan. (Learn more about how this Grameen-style model of microcredit works at Friendship Bridge.) Every month, she would meet with her group, or “Trust Bank,” leading women in a training session on health, business finances, or personal development, and ensure that each member was on track for her payment.
One day, at the end of that month’s repayment meeting, América asked one of the women in her group if she would deposit their collection at the bank. The woman took the envelope sheepishly, and América rushed off to visit her next Trust Bank for the afternoon. Two hours later, América came back through town, passing by the bank. Outside the doors stood the same woman, holding the same envelope.
América approached her. “What’s wrong?” she asked, “Why are you standing out here?” The woman explained that she had never been to the bank before, but she was too ashamed to tell América when she gave her the job of depositing the money. She made her way to the bank, but was too scared to take the next step. The doors were unlocked, but the woman couldn’t bring herself to push them open and step inside.
When América told me this tale, I realized something. I had grown up believing that I can be anything I want to be. I’ve walked through open doors without thinking twice. The woman in the story reminded me that I am not the norm, I am lucky. So many others, near and far, do not waltz through thresholds with a sense of confidence and control. They come up against closed doors, and they have to push their way through. From this story, I realized why organizations like Friendship Bridge aren’t just nice, we need them. Masses of people around the world need them.
With América’s help, that woman took a step toward empowerment, toward control, and made her first visit to the bank. Through Friendship Bridge’s work in 2017 alone, almost 27,000 women around Guatemala have been coached in health, business, and personal development lessons, giving them greater authority over their own lives.
As for América? She grew up near Friendship Bridge’s Guatemalan headquarters surrounded by examples of women with limited opportunities. They didn’t get a good education and they stayed confined to their parents’ or husbands’ homes.
América, however, carved out her own path. Now she’s got her dream job as the Artisan Market Access Program Coordinator, helping artists and artisans develop the skills they need to be independent entrepreneurs in global markets. América offers other women a different model of what’s possible.
In this way, Friendship Bridge’s empowerment work comes full circle. A sense of pride and ownership from within the organization begets the same traits in the women and the communities that Friendship Bridge serves.
I’m carrying América’s story with me this holiday season. As I give thanks, I’ll be thinking about Friendship Bridge. I’ll be thinking about the thousands of women who have gained more control over their lives. I’ll be thinking about all the doors that Friendship Bridge has helped open, both for its clients and for me.
Julia Barrero was Friendship Bridge’s Field Writer and Kiva Intern, traveling throughout Guatemala collecting testimonials from the inspiring women in the microcredit, artisan, agriculture, and health programs. For as long as she can remember, Julia’s favorite line has been, “Tell me a story.” She’s been chasing stories ever since. Julia graduated with a B.A. in History from Stanford University and also discovered her love of journalism on The Farm. After graduating, she combined her passion for people and stories with a knack for business as a marketer in the San Francisco startup scene. As a native Spanish-speaker with Colombian and Cuban heritage, she was thrilled to be spend 3 months in Guatemala, her first experience abroad in Central America.