Take a Step Back

We don’t know anything.

We don’t know what it’s like to be someone else. 

We can’t hear each other’s thoughts.

We can’t feel what others feel.

We can’t possibly understand what it’s like to be another person.

Our experiences are too different. Our character and personalities are unique.

 

We are not virtuous.

We are human and by nature are flawed.

We are impulsive and short-sighted.

We are judgmental and distrustful.

We are insensitive and overconfident.

 

We are wrong.

About our choices.

About the “good” we are doing.

About our ability to affect change. 

About our role in the world. 

 

Why do we believe that we can lead others to change their behavior? Why would we think that we can change the world? Why would an affluent white person from the suburbs know what is best for a black man from South East DC, or a poor Honduran woman, or a Ghanaian child?

We don’t. None of us do.

We have the power to change ourselves. We have the power to sacrifice. We have the power to be kind. And, we have the power to forge honest connections.

But we don’t have the power to save others.

Do-gooders fail to understand that generosity is not a substitute for justice. Sometimes what is required is to say who is in the wrong because at the core of poverty is an original sin: an injustice. Our legacy with slavery and discrimination, our history of interfering in other countries’ affairs, the very companies who we support through our consumption who then take advantage of the poor and powerless, make us complicit in the causes of poverty.

We need to own up to it.

We tried fintech, we tried cookstoves, we tried the Millennium Villages, we passed law after law, we have welfare and foreign aid, and we are constantly looking for the innovative and sexy “silver bullet.

It’s not good enough. Not until we stand up and say it’s us, the privileged elite of the world, the 1% who own over 50% of the world’s wealth: we play a hand in the existence of these injustices. So now it’s time to step aside.

 

Healing begins with listening.

When you listen;

When you sit back and observe;

When you let others make decisions;

You start to build trust.

You allow others to make progress towards their potential.

You endorse their power and you open the path towards understanding.

It requires discipline and trust. It requires patience and faith.

But above all, it requires belief in human potential. That the less privileged can find their own way. That despite the odds, they can take control of their destiny. That, in many ways, they already have.

 

Thinking like this changes our role.

Instead of doing more good, let’s do less harm.

Instead of making suggestions, let’s listen.

Instead of being nice, let’s be honest.

Instead of doing for others, let’s act with others.

 

At the end of the day we are all broken. We yearn for meaning in our lives and often we search for meaning in our work. We can still find meaning as sidekicks.

Lilla Watson said, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

To find liberation, we need to be honest with ourselves and with each other, we need to make uncomfortable sacrifices, and above all, we need to take a step back and listen. 

 

Santiago Sueiro, co-Chair of La Ceiba MFI
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Those Among Us

There is a small group among us. When these people speak up, they are judged. When these people say something wrong, they are punished. When these people step out of line, they are questioned. Not from without, but from within. This group doesn’t know what they are feeling inside. They are different in that way.

These people are misunderstood. These people are underdogs.

Its overwhelming to feel like you shouldn’t be doing something all the time, to go out in the street and feel the weight of the world on your shoulders, to feel the gaze of a stranger pierce through your chest, to sit in public and feel the spotlight on you, to show up to work and wonder if your colleagues respect you, to order a coffee and sense the annoyance of the cashier, to tensely scurry by those who are older and more powerful and wonder what they think of you.

Every moment, every detail, every step is filled with doubt. That is what being an underdog is.

Imagine your default state: you wake up every day and you find yourself in a hole. But the day doesn’t have to be about that. You can fight your way through the day, slug your way through self-doubt, and inch towards a sense of belonging. It requires everything. It initiates a raging battle inside. You muster everything you have, your pride, your confidence, and your integrity, by any means necessary. You write in your journal, you read about other underdogs, you create rituals; you remind yourself what is meaningful in your life. And even after all of these efforts, it’s still not enough. At some point in the day you lose focus. On good days it happens just once or twice for an hour or two. By the end of it, you are exhausted. You come home thinking about that position you took, that suggestion you made, that moment of vulnerability, and you wonder whether you did right.

Walking alone in the world with this burden can break the strongest among us. It will happen not with a thud, but with silent compliance. It happens when we stop speaking up, when we realize that our questions fall on deaf ears, when we succumb to the pressure to conform, when the expectations of your peers is too much to bear, when the voices of our better angels are shouted down by our demons. During these moments we lose sight of our purpose and capitulate. And everyday we wonder if its time to drift into quiet anguish.

But underdogs don’t have to walk alone. We can find each other and support each other, not through superficial positivity, but through vulnerability. We can find a common cause, one that connects us and brings out the best in us. We can pick each other up when we think we have had enough, we can make each other understand that we are not alone, we can challenge each other, and above all, we can be honest with each other.

This is what La Ceiba means to me. It is the cause that inspires meaning. It is the place where we form our ranks and get to work. It is the group of people I trust most.

 

Santiago Sueiro, co-Chair of La Ceiba MFI (www.santiagosueiro.com)
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Step Into Chaos

La Ceiba forces you outside of your comfort zone and makes you choose: you can go back and be safe, where research papers and professors define the struggle, or you can face some hard truths about yourself and the world.

This reality is full of chaos.

Chaos can be jarring and raucous at first, but out of chaos arises beauty, a natural occurrence of serendipity and depth in human interaction.

Something curious happens when you step into the chaos. You don’t have the benefit of your system, that system that taught us why our world is the way it is. That world doesn’t exist in the chaos. How do we behave in this space? How do we make sense of things we don’t understand?

It starts with humility.

To be humble is to be honest about what you are and to consider how we affect those around us. When we step into the chaos we don’t understand what is around us, at first, but we can understand what we are.

I am a male from Washington, DC. My mother is a Peruvian immigrant; my father is of Spanish decedents. I am a college graduate. I went to a private school for middle and high school. My family doesn’t have wealth or status, but they gave me everything I needed to be healthy and happy. It’s because I was given those opportunities that I have a degree of privilege that clients don’t.

To understand requires honest, sometimes uncomfortable, discussion about our circumstances.

  • It’s uncomfortable to ask why a grown woman, mother of three, never finished 2nd grade.
  • It’s uncomfortable to talk about my home feeling that the client wished she were there instead of Honduras.
  • It’s uncomfortable to feel the anger and frustration of clients emanating from their stifled goals.
  • It’s uncomfortable to communicate my mistake in assuming the client was something that she isn’t.

When I think about chaos I envision a dark room. I envision a person standing in the middle of this room and objects of all shapes and sizes whizzing by at random speeds and from every direction. I like to think that if you stood there long enough and stared into the space in front of you, eventually out of that randomness, patterns emerge. Eventually you see the same object more than once. Eventually those movements, those objects, and that room become familiar. Eventually you start to appreciate that chaos. Eventually you find beauty.

When I started my work in Honduras, I was a boss, a director, and a savior.

By the time I left, I became an equal.

I know this because I stopped receiving preferential treatment. When I did something to upset someone, I heard about it. That is the act of an equal.

Clients weren’t clients anymore, they were neighbors, mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, feisty, shy, religious, indifferent, angry, generous, petty, honorable… they are complicated and whole individuals.

If my work were just about Microfinance, I would not be the person I am today and I would not have found meaning in my work. La Ceiba is more than microfinance. It’s about something else:

 

Creation by disruption with question

Struggle for meaning against fear, the tribe as my ally

Listen with empathy to understand

 

Let’s move away from the idea that we are here to help and that microfinance will eradicate poverty. Let’s define a new role. One where our purpose is to learn, listen, and take our cues from the people we serve.

We are here to get yelled at when needed, to receive hugs when needed, to be present through thick and thin, to understand each other, to love each other, to walk through the world together and stumble upon beauty in the midst of chaos.

Santiago Sueiro, co-Chair of La Ceiba MFI (www.santiagosueiro.com)
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Common Struggles

Why am I doing this? Should I be here? I’m not good enough. I’m not qualified. I am causing more harm than good. Students think I am doing a bad job, clients aren’t happy with my work. I thought I could do it but I am just naïve.  

These thoughts are always with me. When I am feeling most sensitive they practically control me.

It’s not just the job; I’m a sensitive person. But It’s true that our insecurities are amplified when we are doing something that is important and new to us.

I’m skeptical of people who say that they “just do it” when they are in a bind and feeling down. I don’t know how everyone doesn’t feel some measure of insecurity and self-doubt when they are doing something important yet scary.

But self-doubt is good. Self-doubt allows us to connect with others, it makes empathy possible, and it deepens the meaning of a relationship.

There’s a client, Norma, who I can tell when she is feeling vulnerable, she has a tendency to say insulting things.

“I don’t want to go to your stupid classes. Why would I want to do that? They are a waste of time.” Norma yelled this at me after I asked her if she wanted to come to our financial literacy classes. I walked away and we didn’t talk to each other for a week.

I understood Norma’s outburst had nothing to do with the classes or me. I know that Norma gets judged a lot by her neighbors. Part of Norma’s charm is her quirky, absent-minded sense of humor. She is self-deprecating and often plays dumb to get a good laugh. Sometimes people will take her humor to mean that she must be unintelligent. When the joke is over, people don’t take Norma seriously. I’ve heard neighbors and clients smile when Norma’s name comes up and dismiss her as another old crank.

When I was in school I had a tendency to play the class clown. I would play dumb or do outrageous things to get attention. I felt the frustration of not being taken seriously. My peers didn’t come to me for help on schoolwork or ask for my opinion on interesting topics and they were surprised when I made intelligent observations and comments.

My frustration expressed itself quietly and critically. I had a hard time understanding why I wasn’t taken more seriously and I would beat myself up. I would sulk and shrink away from friends. I would ignore my academics and fail to participate in class. I would sabotage my own efforts to change my situation.

I can’t pretend to understand Norma’s situation, and its not fair to look at her troubles as if they were the same as mine; they’re not. But we can connect with each other by tapping into those vulnerabilities to find common themes in our struggles.

I don’t have answers for Norma, or a way of making her feel better. I thought it best to treat her the same way that I would want to be treated, with respect and seriousness. Because next week I could be the one who is feeling insecure and frustrated with the world around me.

In the end we are all still searching for salvation, and while no one else can save us, we can walk down the path together. A wise woman said, “If you have come to help me you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

The next week Norma showed up to the first day of class. She walked through the entrance of the complex where the class was held. “Over here Norma!” I yelled for her to come to class. She slowly walked towards me. I walked out to meet her. As she approached I extended my hand to shake hers. We shook hands silently and smiled. Norma went to class and I went back to work.

Santiago Sueiro, co-Chair of La Ceiba MFI (www.santiagosueiro.com)

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A Team Struggle

There was a sharp pain in my lower back, my feet were sore from standing all day, and my stomach felt woozy from too much caffeine and not enough food. “Let’s put these tables over in the library.” James and Sepehr were lugging tables around with me. We were preparing the space for our closing ceremony. It was 2:30pm and the ceremony was supposed to start at 3:30. I was worried that we wouldn’t get it done in time.

The closing ceremony was the culmination of the La Ceiba student trip. It is where Kristen and Aashna, of the Education Team, would celebrate the participation of clients in financial literacy classes. We had invited over 20 clients and their families in addition to 15 colleagues from Student Helping Honduras.

“Ok tables are done what’s next.” Sepehr began to organize the plastic chairs in a specific sequence while James, Jessica, and a few others collected more chairs from the library and around the school.

When the trip started and the group arrived, things didn’t go as planned. The challenges we faced included a missed flight, delays during breakfast, a door that wouldn’t open, a sick teammate, and a broken printer. No one got upset, no one lost their patience, no one blamed me or bad planning, we simply took on the challenge and kept working.

“What is that squiggly line called?” Sepehr and I were finishing the programs for the ceremony. Sepehr had stayed up with the Education Team until midnight on the night before to get a start on the program. In the late hours of the night we all felt loopy from exhaustion and sleep deprivation. Jokingly, we would remind Sepehr to do his job. “I’m doing this for you guys as a favor. I hope you understand that.” Sepehr would respond. The next day I couldn’t help but remember what he said. Finding the “enye” sign was probably the least efficient thing Sepehr did all day but he was determined to find it. I thought about how capable and talented he was, and yet he was willing to do this unflattering, and unexciting task.

With 30 minutes left before the ceremony was set to start, I began to worry. We hadn’t printed enough programs, we didn’t have enough chairs, the food table wasn’t in the right place, and the Education Team was missing. But as I looked around I noticed James was in the computer lab printing more programs, Courtney was putting up string to cordon off the reserved section, Sepehr continued to organize the chairs, Jeff was setting up his go pro, and everyone was doing something or was offering to do something to help. When Education Team showed up, I understood that they had their own preparations to finish. Their gifts for clients were organized, they changed into business casual attire, and they had speeches prepared.

It could have gone differently. We could have succumbed to our anxieties and insecurities; we could have done exactly what was asked of us, we could have worked to impress Dr. H instead of working toward a collective goal. Instead, everyone took ownership of the ceremony and of their task, no one waited to be told what to do, everyone went beyond what was expected and we all supported each other.

Underlying our efforts is a commitment and belief in our ability to change things. It’s the idea of client-centeredness. And, while at times it can be difficult to define what client-centered really means, on that day we all agreed that the ceremony formed part of that purpose. It served as a reminder of the power of La Ceiba: we put aside our individual needs and devoted ourselves to a collective goal.

That moment in the library, when my back hurt most and my feet felt like cramping, watching Sepehr and James go about their work reminded me that we were a team, that they had my back and I theirs. Like a basketball player after a sweet bucket, I quietly pumped my fist and got back to work.

 

Santiago Sueiro, co-Chair of La Ceiba MFI (www.santiagosueiro.com)

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Poverty Is and Poverty is Not

Working in microfinance, aid, and development more broadly, obviously requires talk about poverty and change. Too often though, we set out to find answers to poverty without actually knowing what it is. Gaining a clear view of reality, of what it means to be poor and what our role is as partners in the struggle for advancement, is the first step towards changing things for the better. It’s a dynamic process, a constant evolution that requires patience and understanding.

So here is my attempt at understanding what poverty really is:

Poverty is not an unpaved road. Poverty is the business that has to spend extra money to fix their truck because the roads aren’t fixed.

Poverty is not hot weather. Poverty is not having anything to fall back on when drought withers away your harvest.

Poverty is not frequent power outages. Poverty is the business that grinds to a halt and loses its customers because of the outage.

Poverty is not a room without furniture. Poverty is living on land that’s not yours, not knowing for how long you’ll be able to stay.

Poverty is not trash-strewn streets. Poverty is a lack of garbage pickup and a faulty sanitation system.

Poverty is not a choice or a lifestyle. Poverty is feeling trapped by a shortage of jobs and opportunity.

Poverty is not an open-air classroom. Poverty is a mother who is unhappy with her child’s school, unable to put her child in another. Poverty is a failing school system that doesn’t give teachers the resources they need to succeed and the teacher who hits his students instead of talking to them.

Poverty is not a shortage of family values or love at home. Poverty is a single mom whose parents weren’t around when she was young and has to learn, on her own, what it means to be a parent.

Poverty is not a tourist attraction or an act of solidarity. Poverty is the lawyer who gets shot for representing the underprivileged in the face of powerful interests.

Poverty has nothing to do with the look of the place. Poverty is feeling unsafe in your home because of a robbery that occurred down the street the other day knowing that the police never showed up. Poverty is petitioning your local government for a police presence only to get turned away.

Poverty is not a business opportunity. Poverty is choosing between funding your home business (which pays for everything else) or sending your child to school for a year.

Poverty does not define the poor. Poverty is just one part of a poor person’s life. That poor person is also a father, a mother, a husband, a wife, a soccer player, a musician, a jokester, a card player, a dancer, and so much more.

Poverty is not just about income and material needs. Poverty is a generation who loses their culture and traditions because they look up to the foreigner, and his way of life, instead of learning about their fathers and forefathers from their past.

Poverty cant be neatly defined on a website or encapsulated in a picture. This post doesn’t even come close to defining what poverty really is. What we can do is understand that there’s nothing we can read, see, or experience that can give us accurate insight into the problems of poverty. This understanding serves to challenge our assumptions and put our relationship with poverty into perspective. The complexities of poverty make it impossible for an outsider to fully understand the problems of a community. Maybe outsiders do in fact have a role to play, but it’s not the part of “hero”. The heroes of this story are the poor.

I am still learning about what it means to be poor, what it means to be Honduran, and where I fit into that narrative. I do know that it’s not up to me to fix things. Its up to the poor to understand their condition and advance their cause. And if in the meantime they ask me to stand with them, I’ll be ready to help.

 

Santiago Sueiro, co-Chair of La Ceiba MFI (www.santiagosueiro.com)

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Two Santiagos

There are two Santiago’s. Santi the student and Santi the Program Director. They are on the same team yet, like all teammates, at times they are odds with one another.

Santi the student employs self-doubt. He was given the space to explore his insecurities and his fears, and to create something from nothing. He did it with the support of his teammates and guidance from his professor. In the end he learned to engage with his fear and use self-doubt.

Santi the program director is confident. If there was little structure in La Ceiba class there was even less in Honduras. No supervisor, no professor, no teammates, it was Santi, on his own, trying to figure out how to deliver loans to 40 clients. There was no time for self-doubt, and confidence wasn’t a choice, it was a requirement.

Santi the student faces an abstract consequence. The consequence of his conscience. He isn’t worried about disbursing loans on time. Santi the student is refining his moral compass, is thinking about what is right, about what he wants to stand for, and about what he wants to do, not now, but 15 years from now.

Santi the program director feels tangible consequences. He is where the clients are, available to them almost 24/7. If a loan fails, if the service is bad, if the product isn’t good, he hears it in person, face to face with no filter or buffer. And, if clients aren’t happy, if the Board isn’t happy, then his time with La Ceiba could end. He isn’t worried about next year; he needs to get through this year.

Santi the student is an idealist. He believes we should be wholly responsible for tackling injustices. He rejects historical precedents. He has a fresh take, a creative flare, and a habit for questioning authority. He wants to talk about the merits of loans, not the practical matters of loans. He wants to discuss the culture of credit, to challenge our assumptions and create new, more fair, products.

Santi the program director is an idealist too but he understands how hard the fight is. He’s seen first hand how capable clients are and believes they can do more to achieve their goals. He’s also seen how difficult poverty is. Clients should do more, we should do more, its complicated. He values the practical and pragmatic, the efficient and institutional. He wants to create checklists and procedures. He is good at getting from point A to point B. He doesn’t have time for new ideas; he’s busy making the machine to run on time.

Santi the student has a life. La Ceiba is a top priority but it’s not the priority. He has lots of friends, an active social life, he’s interested in other subjects, he loves sports, and he has a family who he loves. Sometimes he misses deadlines or forgets to respond to an email. “It’ll be there tomorrow,” he says.

Santi the program director is La Ceiba. He lives a block away from his office. He visits clients almost daily. He thinks about La Ceiba all day. La Ceiba is the top priority. It’s what he’s working on when no one is looking. Its what he works on when he turns down invitations to go out. It’s what he thinks about at night before going to bed. He never misses a deadline or forgets an email. “Lets set a time table for this,” he says.

Santi the student doesn’t take himself too seriously. He understands the world beyond La Ceiba. He knows that he’s in this for the long haul. He’s planning something big that takes time and space to take flight.

Santi the program director understands that this isn’t a game anymore. This is for keeps. The stakes are high and the challenges in our way don’t sleep or rest. If I don’t deliver, the consequences are real and I don’t get to party this weekend.

Both the student and the program director understand that sometimes its necessary for them to work together, sometimes the student has to lead, and sometimes the program director needs to take over. In the end they both have their role to play. Sometimes I need to be Santi the student and sometimes I need to be Santi the program director.

The same is true for the organization. At times we need the students to take over, at times we need the program director to take charge. The difficulty is in deciding when.

 

Santiago Sueiro, co-Chair of La Ceiba MFI (www.santiagosueiro.com)

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More of my blog posts at: laceibamfi.org