“Understand your limitations.” With Penny Bauder & Vera Claire

Since our programs were temporarily shut down, we have redirected all of our efforts to support our community during the Coronavirus public health crisis. Our new project, “Manos Buenas”, is making a notable impact in our community through the building and distribution of portable hands-free devices for hand washing that are especially designed for rural […]

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Since our programs were temporarily shut down, we have redirected all of our efforts to support our community during the Coronavirus public health crisis. Our new project, “Manos Buenas”, is making a notable impact in our community through the building and distribution of portable hands-free devices for hand washing that are especially designed for rural areas where there is no running water. Our stations are operated by a foot lever and thus reduce the chance for the transmission of COVID-19. They can be built with locally available resources at a relatively low cost.

As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Vera Claire.

Vera Claire is an applied linguist, teacher, activist, and social entrepreneur. Vera is an accomplished academic with extensive experience in community-based education. Her research is focused on critical pedagogy, and empowering marginalized communities through language, literacy, and learner-centered pedagogies. In 2015, Vera founded Cosa Buena in Oaxaca, Mexico. Cosa Buena is a social enterprise with the aim of empowering local Indigenous communities to preserve their storied artistic traditions, and navigate the international tourist market without compromising the integrity of their identity and values.

Vera has been invited to present her curricular work at several national and international academic conferences. Her love of language and culture has taken her to over 40 countries, and helped her to acquire Spanish as a second language. She has lived abroad in New Zealand, Chile, and Argentina, and now resides in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?

Igrew up in a home with many languages, my father a bilingual immigrant, and my mother a student of languages. I’ve always had a passion for languages and cultures.

I was very fortunate to do a lot of traveling at an early age because most of my family did not live in the States. The experiences I had as a child in other countries observing different ways of life, landscapes, and cultures broadened my perspective of the world, instilling a curiosity for cross-cultural learning and sharing. I’m grateful that my parents encouraged me to travel, and take an interest in social and political issues. By the time I was in my early twenties I had traveled to nearly 30 countries and lived abroad in New Zealand, Chile and Argentina.

You are currently leading a social impact organization. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

I’m trying to change the way people travel and experience new places. As an organization, we understand that tourism, as currently practiced, can be damaging to some communities, and we believe that as a global community, we need to be more conscientious of the impact of travel on local cultures and ecosystems. Cosa Buena offers travel programs that foster authentic, equitable, and respectful cultural exchange. All of our travel programs address community-identified needs, through a simple yet effective model of reinvesting profits into initiatives in the communities we visit and partner with. These projects address a number of environmental, health, and social issues. They have included gender equity workshops, language and critical literacy programs, and teaching children how to build eco-stoves.

Since our programs were temporarily shut down, we have redirected all of our efforts to support our community during the Coronavirus public health crisis. Our new project, “Manos Buenas”, is making a notable impact in our community through the building and distribution of portable hands-free devices for hand washing that are especially designed for rural areas where there is no running water. Our stations are operated by a foot lever and thus reduce the chance for the transmission of COVID-19. They can be built with locally available resources at a relatively low cost.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

Before beginning my Master’s program, I traveled to Oaxaca, drawn by the region’s reputation for traditional folk art. I was fortunate to be introduced to local artisans; this had a profound effect on me and laid the groundwork for my growing involvement with Indigenous women’s cooperatives in Oaxaca. Because of the openness and warmth of this community of female artisans, I was able to observe their lives first-hand — their core beliefs, daily struggles, and aspirations.

For my Master’s thesis I developed a language and literacy curriculum that drew on the specific language needs of a female weaving cooperative in Oaxaca. This helped me develop a deeper understanding of the obstacles the women faced in securing financial independence while preserving their cultural heritage. As a woman, I felt a responsibility to support women in their efforts for gender equality and advancement. I was inspired by these women and admired them for their courageous and forward-looking approach to the challenges they faced as women, artisans and entrepreneurs.

When the pandemic reached Mexico, I knew that many of Cosa Buena’s community partners were amongst the most vulnerable populations. Indigenous communities are nearly three times as likely to be living in extreme poverty and are more likely to suffer negative outcomes from infectious diseases. Many Indigenous communities in Oaxaca are governed under a system called “usos y costumbres” granting them the authority to self-govern. While this system has many advantages in terms of preserving Indigenous autonomy, it also allows for the federal and state governments to ignore these communities’ basic human needs (such as access to quality healthcare).

In the city of Oaxaca where we are based, it became immediately apparent that many people simply did not have the privilege to stay home during the pandemic. About 60% of the workforce is in the informal sector, such as street vendors, who rely on their daily earnings to feed their families. The vast inequalities in access to health care and COVID-19 information (most of which was not available in Indigenous languages) inspired us to take action.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

I have always been a “doer”. I get this question often, and I think to some extent it has to do with your personality. You have to be incredibly driven and determined if you want to accomplish your dreams. If your dream is to begin a social impact organization, by definition, your existence will have a positive effect on the wellbeing of others. As a socially-driven individual, you are someone who wants to make a positive contribution to society, and that should be your driving force. For me, that was all I needed to stay motivated and continue pursuing my vision.

Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

One of the most important steps I took was spending time in Oaxaca meeting with communities to deepen my understanding of their needs. This was essential to get started. It was very important to listen, not impose my own ideas. If your organization aims to have a positive impact on a community, then the community members must be actively involved in all of the decision making.

Once you do a thorough needs analysis and understand the issue you’re addressing, you can work to identify the mission and purpose of your organization. This may not always be easy to identify. In my case, it wasn’t abundantly clear in the beginning. Cosa Buena has evolved, and will continue to evolve. You have to be comfortable not having all the answers in the beginning.

While many entrepreneurs may tell you that you need a business plan, a roadmap, etc. I did not have a business plan, or any formalized idea when I began, but I had a dream, and I went for it. I would argue that those are not prerequisites to begin the work you want to do and make an impact. I’m a firm believer in experiential learning — building knowledge through experience and purposeful reflection. In other words, learning through doing. Begin with the basics. What is the need? How am I going to address this? And why is it important?

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

During my last semester in graduate school I applied for a very competitive Fulbright grant. I was convinced that the grant was the only conceivable route to grow Cosa Buena (the money, the time, the prestige). I spent months drafting the same one-page grant proposal. My heart was set on the Fulbright, it was the only way forward.

When the first round of application reviews came in, I learned my proposal did not advance. I was devastated. I spent the whole day in bed crying. After a day of sulking in my own disappointment I knew I had to move forward.

Not receiving the grant pushed me to find creative ways to make my dream a reality. The many hours I put into preparing my proposal were not misspent, as they helped me focus my project and my goals. I applied new strategies for growth and they proved to be successful. Not receiving the Fulbright grant in essence propelled me to find another route to realize my project. As a result, my husband and I moved down to Oaxaca so I could pursue Cosa Buena full time. Cosa Buena continues to flourish, and we’re making an incredibly positive impact on our community.

As clichéd as it may be, “When one door closes another one opens” is the life of an entrepreneur. You may get caught up in how or why the door closed, and wonder what was behind it, but I’ve learned that what’s behind the next door may change your life.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

I once accidentally sent a silly selfie of me and a friend to a journalist when she asked me for photos for an article. I was texting the photos from my phone, and somehow accidentally tapped that photo! It was pretty embarrassing. I apologized profusely. She didn’t really acknowledge it. I am now much more careful when I send important communications, especially to the press. I am more diligent about emails too, making sure I don’t have typos, or spell someone’s name wrong. The overall lesson is to be attentive, take your time and don’t rush important communications.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

I’ve had many! Community members in Oaxaca, professors, family and friends. Without a doubt, my biggest cheerleader is my husband, Sam. While he prefers to stay in the background, Sam has been an essential part of Cosa Buena’s growth and success. He is my soundboard, my voice of reason, and my greatest support. Without Sam, we would not have been able to successfully build and deploy the hand washing stations for Manos Buenas. While the initiative was my idea, he was the key to getting it done. Sam built the first prototype, something that would have been impossible for me to do on my own. We now have twenty hand washing stations in markets and communities all over Oaxaca.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Octavio Morelos is the lead administrator of our local market La Merced. He was the first person we made contact with when we built the prototype station. We wanted to donate it to La Merced, and we had to get his permission to do so. Octavio was elated, and before we could even finish telling him about our idea he began thanking us and asking when we could drop it off.

La Merced is one of several markets we have supported through this initiative. Before installing our first hand washing station there, there were no precautionary measures in place to protect people in the market from COVID-19. Octavio was desperate to keep the market open, and overwhelmed by the sudden dangers posed by COVID-19. It is virtually impossible to social distance in any of the markets in Oaxaca. In Oaxaca, our markets are a way of life, and many people rely on them to make a living, and to purchase food for their families. There was a lot of pressure to keep the market open, and virtually no assistance from the local government (they hung a few signs in front of the market warning about the dangers of Coronavirus).

After donating that first station to La Merced, word spread quickly. My phone was ringing off the hook with requests for hand washing stations in local markets and communities. Octavio asked for two more stations for La Merced. He made it required to wash hands to enter the market, and even painted socially distanced x’s on the ground for people to line up to wash their hands. Other local markets soon followed suit. On average, Octavio reports that 2,000 people wash their hands a day at this market. This is a notable number, especially since the market is one of the smallest markets we’ve supported through this initiative.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

During the pandemic we have been told repeatedly by experts that hand washing is one of the most important ways to protect yourself and others. What does that mean in a country where 30% of the population does not have access to clean running water?

From the point of view of sustainability and social equality, the local, state, and federal government’s efforts are inadequate for the population’s needs. Access to clean water is a basic human right. The social, economic, health and environmental issues stemming from this are a source of stress and conflict. Government leaders and communities should focus on affordable technologies for rainwater harvesting.

Additionally, the government should ensure that resources and information regarding the pandemic are available in Indigenous languages. Our organization has been working to do this, and we’ve even developed graphic instructions for building hand washing stations in five native languages.

As individuals, we should constantly strive to reflect on our position in the world, and understand the power imbalances that we are a part of. When we start thinking as a global community, understanding the plight of others as our own, we can confront unequal power relations, social norms, and systems of belief that underpin inequality in our societies.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Understand your limitations, ask for help for when you need it. We all have limits. As a founder, it was challenging to relinquish my responsibilities and trust others to complete them the way I envisioned. When I finally started taking steps back, and allocating responsibilities I learned that working collectively we achieved more. It was a relief! Especially when I found team members who could complete the tasks that I wasn’t great at.
  2. You don’t need to be an expert to make a big impact. Even if you’re not an expert in a particular field, your outside expertise may be key to solving big problems within that field. A unique perspective or unconventional thinking may be just what’s needed, but you have to be brave enough to try. I have no formal training or experience in public health, but our initiative is addressing a vital need and has made an enormous impact in our community.
  3. Trust your instincts. Sometimes the cynics are the loudest voices in the room, and you have to be prepared for that. Last December I was presented with an opportunity to join a women’s summit hosted by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, in the militant-held portion of Chiapas, Mexico near the border with Guatemala. The summit was focused on one theme — violence against women. When I told friends and family members I was planning to travel deep into the jungle in a rebel-held territory, they were not enthusiastic or supportive. I began to doubt my own decision, but in the end I went. I spent four of the most transformative days of my life in the jungle at the summit. The experience was life-altering, and it inspired me to address gender-based violence through Cosa Buena. After attending the summit, I developed Project Luz, our gender equity workshops for young women and girls.
  4. Make sure you are prepared when you get major press coverage. The first time Cosa Buena received coverage from a notable media source, I was not prepared for the influx of interest we received. Hundreds of emails were pouring in each day, and I had no idea how to manage it. When you are expecting an article or feature to come out, be sure that you are prepared: your website, social media, is all up to date, and you are ready for all the emails!
  5. Don’t compare your journey with anyone else’s. It takes a lot to grow a socially-driven business and become a successful entrepreneur. Trying to compare your progress to other entrepreneurs who do similar things is not productive. Entrepreneurship is a personal journey. Your only “competition” is you, your goals, and your ambition.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

You are pure potential. You are the one we’ve been waiting for! Making change is never easy, but it is always possible. It will not come about if we sit around waiting for someone else to do it. One person can make a difference, and everyone should try.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would love to have breakfast or lunch with Paul McCartney. My parents are Beatles fanatics, and I grew up on the Beatles. I’m a huge fan! Aside from the music, I admire Paul for his support of animal rights and environmental organizations, and a number of humanitarian causes.

How can our readers follow you online?

Instagram @Cosa.Buena

Web www.lacosabuena.com

Personal Instagram @Vera.Claire

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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