Through the Christianson Grant, I was able to collaborate with the Mariposa DR Foundation on La Heroína de Mi Vida Propia (Heroine of My Own Life), a project I designed to widen the scope of leadership skills among impoverished adolescent girls in the Dominican Republic. The goal was to foster a strong sense of self and direction, so these young women enact change in their lives and communities. Through trauma stewardship, personal development and transformation work, and a hands-on study of conscious social change, the young women of Mariposa live out the program’s core tenets of confidence, agency and purpose.
Throughout the academic year, I worked with two groups of 20 girls three times per week. One group ranged from ages 13 to 15, the other from 16 to 18. I taught mindfulness, coping strategies, and provided mentorship to the girls.
I saw marked differences in the way the girls problem-solved between the project’s inception and its completion. One 13 year old, who, at the start was easily distracted and very energetic, noted to me in May that with her mindfulness practice she was able to shut out all the loud noises around her and just hear her breath. Small moments and successes such as this were innumerable and encouraging.
There were many challenges too. Adolescents, by nature like to push limits and challenge authority. The added dynamic of these particular girls’ exposure to trauma, unnatural amounts of stress and grief from familial deaths, which are all closely associated to a life in poverty, sometimes resulted in a demeanor of anger, spite and resistance. Persistence was key and slowly but surely a solid groundwork of trust and collaboration formed. I saw great transformation within myself, my relationships with the young women I worked with and my colleagues over the course of the year. Each month brought more confidence, trust and progress.
In addition to La Heroína de Mi Vida Propia, I also co-taught a comparative study of Dominican, Haitian and American female activists and leaders alongside a Dominican staff member. Fourteen of the oldest girls participated in the project from start to finish, but in many instances all 120 Mariposas had the opportunity to learn and engage with the study.
In the beginning, the girls had a challenging time relating to the lives of these female activists and making connections between each of them. However, over the course of the year, they began to feel great pride and allegiance with the women from the study, including: Ancaona, Harriet Tubman, Salome Ureña, Alice Paul, Mama Tingo, Minerva Mirabal, Maya Angelou, Aniana Vargas, Margo Suriel and Julia Alvarez.
Although each woman is distinct in her own way, the Mariposa girls saw how despite time period, nationality or political beliefs, they all displayed great resilience, spoke out for truth and justice and surmounted many obstacles. With spear, machete, or lantern in hand, these women had grit and their fearlessness saved lives and brought about transformative change.
The project culminated with a spectacular presentation by the oldest Mariposa girls. Each girl represented one woman from the comparative study and used a combination of spoken word, poetry, music and dance. It brought together rich elements from several generations and three countries. The manifestation of the presentation solidified the girls’ understanding and enthusiasm of the many connections that weave together the lives of these women, as well as how the lives of Maya Angelou, Miriam Merlet, and Solange Pierre, and others, are not so different from their own.
One of the greatest learning experiences that emerged from my time working with Mariposa was the understanding that patience is perhaps the most important tool in grassroots development work. My partnership with this small NGO was invaluable. They have extensive relationships with the families of the girls they work with and are held in high regard within the community. My association with them granted me respect and trust, a privilege I did not take for granted. Without this infrastructure in place, the project would not have been possible. Nevertheless, this is a young, in-demand non-profit organization with limited resources. Understandably, things move slowly because the staff is small and there is much to be done. More acutely, however, things move slowly because deliberate, conscious action creates more lasting and impactful change than anything done with haste.
A cultivation of humility and gumption allowed for spaces of growth and sharing and mutual learning. I am so grateful for the Christianson Grant and the great generosity of the InterExchange Foundation and all that is has allowed me to do.
I am very pleased to report that I will be returning to Mariposa fall of 2016 as a full-time staff member!