“Small Changes Make Big Impacts” — Highlights from Our First Social Innovation Experience

Derk Norde

Derk is a co-founder at MovingWorlds.org, a global platform connecting people who want to volunteer their expertise with social impact organizations.

Lake Atitlan, Social Innovation Experience

This March, NuMundo, Caracol Consulting, MAYA COSMOS Transformational Journeys, and MovingWorlds co-produced the first “Social Innovation Experience”, a week-long learning-and-doing project at Lago Atitlan (Guatemala), with a group of 12 students from the Masters in Social Entrepreneurship at the University of Southern California.

header-organzing partnersThe purpose of this Social Innovation Experience was to:

  1. Support CONSORCIO, a cooperative of Indigenous Women Artisans from Santiago de Atitlan, develop products and connections to move into more international markets
  2. Help students connect learn about the realities of running a local social enterprise, as well as different cultural aspects of life & entrepreneurship in Guatemala

After weeks of preparations, on Friday March 11th, all the partners and students met up in Antigua, Guatemala, and set off to Lake Atitlan by bus. Upon arriving in Panajachel, we took a small boat to the other side of the lake where we would be staying for the week.

social innovation trip guatemala
Group boarding a lancha to cross Lake Atitlan to Santiago

‘Atitlan’ means “at the water” in the native language of Nahuatl. The lake is renowned as one of the most beautiful in the world, and is Guatemala’s most important national and international tourist attraction, with a long history with foreign visitors. In 1934, Aldous Huxley already raved about the beauty of the lake one of his books. The region also has a turbulent history of violence and human rights abuses, and more recently is facing some serious environmental problems. Today, 95% of the population is indigenous, and most of them live in poverty; 29% in extreme poverty. During the week, we were graciously hosted by the Women of CONSORCIO. The cooperative has its office in Chukmuk, just outside the village of Santiago de Atitlan, including a workshop room, a kitchen, a vegetable garden and a sacred site for fire ceremonies.

CONSORCIO’s compound at Chukmuk

Upon arrival, we were greeted by Elena, one of the cooperative leaders and our main hostess for the week. Elena transmits warmth and took the time to chat with us all personally, making us feel welcome and a part of the group. Other women were also present but more shy, and most of them stayed in the kitchen. The first day one of their most respected elders conducted a sacred fire ceremony to bless the project.

A sacred fire ceremony was held to bless our project

After that, we were offered a delicious lunch consisting of homemade tortillas and other local delicacies that the women prepared for us with much love and care. After eating together, we all split up to meet with the families of the women in the cooperative, which because our hosts for the week. Even with over 15 years of experience living overseas, I couldn’t help but wonder would it be like for us co-live and co-create with a group of Indigenous Tz’utujil women for a week…

food prepared by women
The women prepared delicious local food


Breaking the Ice

As the experience was intended to building a working relationship between the women with the students, we decided the break the ice first by connecting in a more playful, non-verbal way.

Social Innovation Experience
Students and women of CONSORCIO breaking the ice

In the spirit of social innovation, we went outside for everyone to invent and show off ‘innovative walks’, each next one iterating on the last one. Innovation soon became hilarious and laughter erupted and bonds began to form. While playful and entertaining, the act of playing together set the perfect stage for more serious work to be done.

In the next exercise, the women and students sat together, and everybody was given a prompt to answer one question, and then share it with the group:

“At 13 years old, what was your dream?”

Some answers of the women (translated from Tzu’tujil):

  • “My dream was to go to school”
  • “To have my own business – so I could support my parents”
  • “To study graphic design and be a professional – but unfortunately I never could”

The environment soon become emotional, as most women told us their dream was to go to school and study, but almost none of them had been able to do so.
In stark contrast, the students shared things like:

  • “I wanted to be a pediatrician”
  • “My dream was to be an actor or dancer”
  • “To be a famous rock singer”

Some of the students had achieved their dream (in part), but most of us had changed plans along the way, maybe to pursue a slightly different dream successfully.

A cooperative leader sharing in the session
A cooperative leader sharing in the session

Under the inspiring and emphatic leadership of workshop facilitator Zachary Towne-Smith of Caracol Consulting, using the HAPI methodology that he developed during many years of facilitating intercultural workshops, we first looked at everything that CONSORCIO and the women had achieved so far. Together we listed all the good things, the opportunities and the risks they are facing. This participatory process lead us to the central objective for the collaboration:

“To establish a better connection between the market and the products & services that CONSORCIO offers (e.g. artisan products, gastronomic experiences, tourism), while maintaining their cultural values and identity, and receiving a fair price.”

Listing our challenges and opportunities together

To propel new ideas and designs for products & services that better connect to the needs of today’s market, we needed some extra creativity. Often times, our own internal fear inhibits us from entering in the free-flowing state  — aka ‘lunar thinking’  that we need to be creative, which is represented by this cycle:

USC-vicious circle

We decided to break this vicious cycle created by fear, and focusing on the creative driven cycle, starting with “Do”. The best way to “Do” is to start doing… so we took out a pair of scissors, paper, tape and glue and started prototyping!

Rapid Prototyping New Products

CONSORCIO is a cooperative of incredibly skilled craftswomen specializing in weaving, painting, and embroidery, making things like jewelry, art, clothes, and other crafts. The products they create generate extra income for their families, in some cases doubling their daily income. In this community, with many people living in extreme poverty, a successful product has the potential to double their income, so the importance of doing so can make profound differences on them, and their families.

products made by the women

However, creating a successful product has many challenges:

  1. There is fierce competition for similar goods throughout the region, resulting in very low prices
  2. There’s a disconnect between the producers and the market: the women often don’t know what products or designs the market will reward, so they guess or stick with old designs and leave new potential opportunities untapped

To tackle the second issue, we wanted to use rapid prototyping to unleash new ideas fast. Rapid prototyping is all about “doing” with the objective to get from as many “Unknowns” to “Knowns” in a relatively short period of time. This is best done with a single learning goal in mind, like “design the most easy-to-use corkscrew that you can think of”. Then turn on the creative “lunar mind” and create as many versions as you can come up, being careful to not judge them by turning on your “solar mind”. By doing so, you can “rapidly prototype” a product.

The combined creative minds of the students and the women yielded some great and surprising results, with new product line ideas such as:

  • A minimalistic ‘murse’ (aka man-purse)
  • An artistic iPad sleeve
  • A multifunctional picnic basket

After the prototyping, the women proudly showed us their work, and made an effort to teach us some weaving, dyeing, knitting and crafting skills. We all got tinkering, but it was quite sobering to learn how something that looks easy, can turn out to be so difficult!

The women also tried to teach us their craft...
The students also tried to master the art…

Putting a Face to Poverty

The students also assisted CONSORCIO to design a census targeting their estimated 3,000 members. To pilot the design, we went door-to-door in small groups and interviewed different women about their family, living conditions, income, health, and other personal questions. Some of these visits were very immersive and had a profound impact on most of us, evoking a range of emotions from sadness to laughter to introspection to feeling of community.

woman of CONSORCIO at home, with 5 of her kids
Woman of CONSORCIO at home, with 5 of her children

For those of us born fortunate enough to have had opportunities to go to university, most of us have heard about the sobering statistics of people living in poverty and without access to schools, healthcare, and economic opportunities; but to actually experience this up close — to hear, see, touch and befriend people who have had little or no access to these basic services, who often have been discriminated and have had heart-wrenching atrocities committed against them… that puts a face to poverty, especially when you live with and share meals with them as equals.

It made most of us reflect and realize we’re so lucky to have the opportunity to travel, and able to meet all these wonderful people. At the same time, the realization that in a week we would all be traveling back home again, was also saddening: knowing that we were leaving everything behind as it is, while we go back to worry about things like our career trajectory or length of our work commute…

How Can We Make a More Lasting Impact?

That night after dinner, the whole group in silence watched the documentary: “Living on one Dollar” about a group of NYU Students living on this very like, on one dollar per day, for 56 days.

Now we saw the physical and emotional hardships they faced from a western perspective, even more up close. How it is to live in uncertainty about what tomorrow brings, exacerbated by vulnerability to disease because of bad nutrition. We also saw the beauty of simplicity, of the joy brought by sharing, even with almost nothing. For me, personally, the most valuable takeaway of it all is that direct human connection can bridge every cultural or socio-economic barrier, as long as you are open to really see and experience the other. In most societies, things start to go wrong when relationships between people start getting institutionalized, and are suddenly submitted to scrutiny, politics, hierarchy, or scale.

The fact that over 3 billion people in the world are still living in poverty today means that 5 billion people do not. If only each person from the wealthier half would establish a relation and support a less fortunate person — maybe by giving them an opportunity to access education, a loan, or a job… then small changes can make big impacts.

The team in a moment of uncontrolled craziness!
The team in a moment of uncontrolled craziness!

We didn’t expect to come home with all the answers to poverty. In fact, most of us probably came away with more questions, and a more complex understanding of the social, economic and environmental realities facing the people of Lake Atitlan. It was a humbling week, and many of us experienced moments of being deeply moved. Perhaps also because we had to face some of our own fears and repressed feelings. It was a week that I would not have missed for the world!

We’re deeply grateful to the Women of CONSORCIO for their immense hospitality and grace, and to all who helped organize and participated in the Social Innovation Experience 2016, thanks for making this possible.

We hope that we can keep continue to collaborate, and nurture an environment where values are exchanged and new opportunities can continue to arise for all involved.

Here’s a video impression of the Experience, thanks to Pilar Marroquin – you’re awesome!