WWT’s bi-annual trip to Guatemala to support our sister organization, Mujeres Trabajan Unidas is well underway. We will be here in San Pedro Sacatepéquez for one month, focusing for the first two weeks on an in-depth evaluation of our current programs and spending the last two weeks leading workshops with teachers, parents, and MTU staff members and leadership institutes with girls enrolled in our programs. Wendy and I have been in San Pedro Sacatepéquez for nearly one week, visiting a different village each morning and afternoon.
My goal for these two weeks of program evaluation is the establishment of a baseline against which we can measure the impact of each of our three projects (Family Reading Hour, The Life of My Mother, and Little Sisters) on girls’ choices to stay in school. To do this, we need to know about the specific family situation of each girl and her experience with our projects. It’s necessary, though not easy, to measure social change, as Bill Gates explains in his 2013 annual letter http://annualletter.gatesfoundation.org/#nav=section3&slide=0. I am confidant, however, that through the use of a series of quantitative and qualitative tools to learn both the outputs and outcomes of WWT’s campaign to send and keep girls in school, we will determine the best route toward ending the cycle of poverty in Guatemala.
Each day, our team climbs into the back of a pickup and travels into the mountains to meet with the girls and their parents. In each school, MTU personnel meet with the parents of girls who are just entering básico (junior high) in order to explain the benefits of the projects and to get their permission. They also administer a survey to all of the girls, which creates a program registry and solicits household socioeconomic status information, such as the jobs of their parents and what types of homes they live in. We can compare this information to larger community-wide statistics gathered previously in order to understand the living conditions experienced by the girls in our programs.
While the MTU staff focuses on the parents and registering girls, my focus has been on learning what the girls themselves think about the projects. Their insider perspective is fundamental for learning how we should iterate the projects to encourage greater participation and deeper comprehension of the importance of staying in school. When I speak to the girls, I tell them that it’s rare for someone to ask teenagers for feedback. I ask if their math teacher ever solicits their advice on how to teach better, to which the girls cover their faces with their hands in embarrassment or giggle. In Guatemala it’s common for teachers to ask students if they liked something, and for the students to respond in unison that, yes, they liked it. I joke that I don’t want to hear yeses from the girls, I want to hear specifics—what they found to be difficult or boring or hard to understand, as well as what they enjoyed. They are the experts in these projects, I explain. They are all my assistants in creating a better project. Then I tell them that WWT is planning to take these projects to girls in other communities. The new girls depend on the girls with experience to speak up about what worked well and what didn’t. I want the girls to be leaders of their lives, I say. Leaders have opinions. Leaders aren’t afraid to speak up and ask for change.
I section the girls into small discussion groups, each with a staff member who takes notes. As a group, the girls discuss not only the good and the bad about the project assigned to them, but also the effectiveness of their teacher in supporting their efforts, the support expressed by their families, the interest of their peers, and the knowledge they gained regarding leadership, gender, and education in connection with their specific project. Often it takes a little effort and a few jokes to get the girls to realize that they can offer their experiences and honest opinions without rebuke, but after a few minutes the girls nearly always start brainstorming things that would make the projects more interesting or effective.
So far the results have been astounding, and not at all what I had expected in some cases. In one village, the girls flat out said a project was boring. Together we worked to determine the underlying reason and potential ways to make the project more appealing. In another village I learned that the girls spoke eagerly and regularly with their parents about one project but not at all about a different project. Finally, in a third village the girls suggested an entirely new way to structure a project, which has sparked excited discussion between Wendy and myself.
Ultimately, it has been a week of reckoning for me. I am seeing the projects that we developed fifteen months ago in action and changing girls’ lives. For instance, there are eighty-five girls involved in the Little Sisters project, and of those eighty-five, only two dropped out of school last year. This is an incredible success! I have also had the good fortune to observe our MTU staff in action, and each member is as passionate, hard-working, and thoughtful as I could hope for. Wendy and I have one week of program evaluation left, which means days filled with bumpy roads, delicious chicken soup lunches, and girls who use their own free time to walk for miles just to speak with us. It doesn’t get any better than this.