Thursday, January 30, 2014

Social Entrepreneur Alias: Undercover Anthropologist ...AKA Detective of Local Context

A key concept that I’ve learned in my program is that much of the success of a social enterprise is tied to how well the concept works within the local context. This is one reason why professionals in international development strongly encourage that programs be led, or co-led, by locals.

Among many things, locals tend to know how to avoid the typical pitfalls of previous projects and are attuned to community dynamics that can make or break a venture. This is just one of the many reasons why it is so important to have locals co-creating, in some capacity, whatever the social enterprise is working on.

So far, I have engaged, and plan to further engage, Costa Ricans in my project (this has been gradual as I wait for my Spanish to catch up with my intensions ;). Working face-to-face with local people is by far one of the most interesting and rewarding parts of this experience!!

However, another way of building my personal understanding of the context here is by that old familiar beast... research. But it’s not as intensive as it sounds. It’s actually kind of fun - I promise!

I get to play anthropologist (studying a specific community) and sociologist (studying social behavior)…basically a detective! This means that I’m constantly trying to absorb information about this community (of Potrero and of Costa Rica) – the culture, economics, education, social structure, lifestyle, health, and more. Painting a detailed picture of the context here – where the social enterprise will operate and hopefully grow.

This information about the social enterprise’s context is so important! For example, if bikinis are culturally unacceptable here (aka not popular), a storeowner may not want to sell them in their shop.

However, a social entrepreneur has to be careful not to run away with the picture they are painting and start to generalize and stereotype everyone around them. It’s best if to double-check one’s notions with at least a couple of people – “I noticed that people don’t really think it’s ok to wear bikinis. Is that true?” … “Oh no, only the older generation finds them immodest. Young people would wear them if they were sold somewhere.”

So as I walk around Potrero, I’m constantly observing my surroundings. Among many things, I’ve noticed:
  •  the boys play soccer from 5 pm until dark each day;
  •  many people here seem content (as my neighbor’s laughter carries through the night air into my backyard);
  •  and some skinny children pick up only the basic necessities at the supermarket.

Soccer in la plaza every day for boys from 5-6pm.
Yes, its common for the plazas in small towns here to be a soccer field!

It's common for multiple generations to live on the same property - 
currently three generations live on our property. 
This is an old house in the back that used to belong to 
our landlord's parents (which would make 4 generations).

Aside from physical observations, I’m constantly jotting down notes in meetings and after conversations about…who owns businesses, and who is the character in town, and when the school will reopen for Spring.

And at home, I’m reading two books, two studies of Costa Rica. Since I haven’t started the second, I’ll just give you the first for now.

Mavis Hiltunen Biesanz, Richard Biesanz, and Karen Zubris Biesanz. The Ticos: Culture and Social Change in Costa Rica. Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc., 1999.

When I share their insights, I’ll be sure to cite them. Although this one is a little dated, I think a book is by far the easiest and quickest way to gain a summary about the culture, history, and way of life of a place (if it’s available). This one’s full of quotes from interviews and focus groups… Someone’s years of research at my fingertips J Thank you Mavis, Richard and Karen!

What I really wanted to write about today were my insights so far on Costa Rican leisure habits. But it’s best to understand this role of anthropology and sociology in my work beforehand. Why? Because it’s one of my favorite parts of this project and because it’s so important to social enterprise!!

What do you notice when you start to open your eyes to the nuances and details of your town, city or country? Do you also like to play anthropologist/sociologist?

Sunday, January 19, 2014

La Primera Semana (The First Week)

After living just one week here, I understand what Costa Ricans mean by their famous phrase "pura vida" (which translates to "pure life" but really is a way of life that's "full of life" or "real living"). I'm already feeling adjusted to the slower pace, constant sunshine, beautiful spanish language, and tropical habitat (probably due to the fact that I'm on this adventure with my supportive and spanish-speaking husband, Gabriel :).

Just as a recap, we've left Washington, D.C. and are here in Potrero, Guanacaste, Costa Rica for a few months testing out life in Latin America. A major reason for this adventure is to complete my practicum project for my Master's in Social Enterprise at American University. For this project, I'm conducting an assessment for the nonprofit, Abriendo Mentes (AM), to see how they can enhance the social enterprise model for their Women's Empowerment Program, Mujeres Activas de Potrero (MAP)

I've created this blog for two reasons
       1) to keep friends and family up to date on our adventure (yes, we know you're living vicariously through us ;)
      2) to share some of my experiences working on the community development side of social enterprise (I hope this can aid your own work in some way or simply help you learn more about what social enterprise really is)

Abriendo Mentes, which means "Opening Minds," is a non-profit community development initiative that empowers rural Costa Rican communities by providing educational,technological and social programs. These programs include computer and english classes (for children and adults) as well as fitness activities and the women's empowerment program, Mujeres Activas de Potrero ("Active Women of Potrero").  

We all helped out with the Playa Potrero Community Beach Cleanup which helps the beach keep its well-known national Blue Flag certification (this is 2 blocks from our house :).

Mujeres Activas de Potrero (MAP) is a program created by Abriendo Mentes that aims to empower the local women in Potrero, Guanacaste, Costa Rica through economic, educational and health programs.

The women's advanced sewing group: Damaris, Yerlande, Tina and Gladys


We got settled into our new house which is not as rough as we expected! It's a 3-year old two bedroom, we have AC units in each room, internet and a beautiful view of our family's banana farm from the bedrooms. The best part about our apartment (aside from the low rent) is the family that owns and lives on the property. Carlos and Marlene live in the main house (with guard dog Osa and Rocky). They are super sweet people that are always chatting with us and have been super helpful teaching us about Costa Rican home life (including cooking beans on the outdoor fire and hanging our laundry on the lines). Laura and Donni (the daughter of Marlene) also live on the property with their two children Chianti and Josueya.

I've had LOTS of Spanish Class!! Getting up to par to be able to work with the women's group in Spanish. I love my teacher, Ivette, who is super sweet and encouraging.

Loving the small town simple life! Outdoor laundry, see the same folks around town all day long, gorgeous flora and fauna surrounding me instead of concrete, biking and walking everywhere in t-shirts and shorts (goodbye work suit), rising at for cool mornings and humming birds at 6 am and asleep by 8:30 pm.

I was pumped after my first project with the sewing group - creating a flyer for the upcoming beginners sewing class. Rather than drafting one and then getting their approval, I decided to use a white board to get the women to come up with the content and layout (although I did end up adding a few graphics). I felt such a rush of satisfaction from actually working face-to-face with the beneficiaries of this program rather than from a headquarters office countries away. It was great seeing them take ownership of something on the business side of the project - showing their capacity to lead. I felt empowered watching them! :)

Life so far is relaxed and every day there's time for something fun and new :)

Trivia night fundraiser for Abriendo Mentes at The Shack - a big hit each month.
Go team Falling Scorpion (yes, there are scorpions here).

The view from Las Brisas Restaurant where we were checking our email last week.