From Guatemala to the US Midwest: Connecting Indigenous Women and Girls to Each Other to Build Long-Lasting Change

Native American and Mayan Indigenous girl mentors come together in dialogue to build mutual understanding between the U.S. and Guatemala in their first ever virtual exchange.

by Gabriela Lehnhoff

On Tuesday January 19, 2021, the Indigenous Adolescent Girls’ Empowerment Network (IMAGEN) co-hosted a Virtual Girl Mentors Exchange with Guatemala’s Abriendo Oportunidades© (AO) initiative. The meeting brought together mentors from reservations in the U.S. and rural communities in Guatemala, who are exposed to different cultures, languages, experiences, and ideas, to discuss long-lasting social change through the projects they implement with girls, as well as the unique challenges they face.

Building off of decades of programmatic research and lessons learned, IMAGEN and AO bring locally-led indigenous organizations together to propose innovative ways to reclaim female social infrastructure and matrilineal traditions. Through this framework, girl-centered programs adapted to the local context are built to impart important skills, safe havens, and mentor networks to American Indian and Mayan girls.

Both organizations foster girl-centered programming and help build and strengthen girl societies, and participants were able to share the culturally-relevant programs they lead and participate in, designed specifically for indigenous adolescent girls.

Kelly Hallman, executive director of IMAGEN, welcomed participants to this first exchange and invited them to discuss the assets that their ancestors have passed down to them and the unique challenges they face. “We hope this is the first of several exchanges.”.

“Mentors in Guatemala know about the amazing work IMAGEN is doing in the U.S., but this is a great opportunity for us to listen firsthand,” added Ángel Del Valle, Country Director for the Population Council.

A significant day

According to the Mayan calendar, B’atz’ is the thread of time and destiny. This special date symbolizes the umbilical cord that links us to our mother as well as the thread with which traditional clothes are woven with the story of the people.

Elizabeth Vásquez, mentor and Maya K’iche’ social worker who leads community-level girl societies in rural Guatemala, began the meeting with a traditional invocation, a prayer performed before important meetings and rituals that acknowledges seven directions (east, north, west, south, up, down and center) through different colored corn husks, flowers and candles placed on a table that symbolized the red of sunrise and beginnings, the black of sunset and rest, the yellow energy of heat and the life-giving green of nature.

Participants then used significant objects that speak to their culture to introduce themselves and connect to each other. They shared beautiful traditional clothing, inherited treasures, and family photographs, and recounted personal stories and anecdotes about themselves and their communities.

Rural girls and economic independence in Guatemala

To tell the origin story of AO in Guatemala, Elizabeth Vásquez shared her experience with REDMI Aq’ab’al, an NGO formed by women graduates of the program who expanded their education and life skills mentoring work and deepened it by providing a small production co-op for older girls, so they can develop new skills and earn money to invest in their education and improve their financial literacy.

Photo Credit: Mark Tuschman

The 30 community mentors, aged 20 to 35, who formed REDMI establish girl societies that meet in local communities where knowledge and skills can be passed on to the next generation of girls, an evidence-based approach that has garnered positive results throughout the years. “Without these spaces we wouldn’t be able to reach rural women, adolescents and girls”, shared Vásquez. “We motivate girls to keep studying and they in turn advocate for education among their peers and family members.”

The Population Council, in collaboration with local and international partners, launched AO in Guatemala in 2004. The program increases Indigenous girls’ program support networks, connects them with role models and mentors, builds a base of critical life and leadership skills, and provides hands-on professional training and experience. AO makes critical investments in girls to help them successfully navigate adolescent transitions.

Guatemalan mentor Karla Rax told the story of another NGO founded by AO graduates. “We founded Na’leb’ak in 2016 after working with the Population Council in 50 rural communities from 2013 to 2015,” she remembered. “After learning about the specific problems Indigenous girls and women face in our communities, we founded Casa Productiva, a space for girls to learn, grow and create.” Women and girls sustain their girl society by producing and selling free-range chicken eggs and cultivating eight different traditional plants.

This women-led economic initiative seeks to prove that investing in girls can foster economic independence and drive change for new generations of women, equipping them with skills to lead healthy and productive lives. “Because economic independence is not the end but the means to reach more girls,” said Rax.

Virtual solutions for girls’ empowerment and resilience in the U.S.

IMAGEN network member Meagan Mahtushquah, Registered Nurse for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention at the Oklahoma City Indian Clinic, shared her experience with MISS, and adolescent girl-centered program she initiated to provide knowledge, health literacy, and relationship skills to girls in urban areas with the threat of violence and misrepresentation.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, they began meeting virtually after school with groups of girls to also provide tools for safety and well-being through an inter-tribal approach. Separated by age to foster more in-depth conversations, the girls meet with mentors and participate in activities that focus on health, healthy eating and physical activity, and cultural teachings. “At the clinic we like to focus on healthy cooking and recipes. We provide the groceries, the cooking items and utensils, a cast iron skillet, and I think that’s probably been our most popular activity,” recalled Mahtushquah.

The Indigenous Adolescent Girls’ Empowerment Network (IMAGEN) is an initiative within Indian Country, housed with the Girl Innovation, Research, and Learning (GIRL) Center. IMAGEN seeks to strengthen the protection, safety, and resilience of girls in Native communities by rekindling matrilineal traditions through an evidence-based approach that establishes safe spaces for girls.

Aimee Pond, from IMAGEN partner Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation in South Dakota, spoke to mentors from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and shared their initiatives to impact and transform the systems and structures of colonization and oppression for Lakota people. “Due to COVID, we invite girls to the virtual platform and engage them in activities such as virtual boxing classes and culturally based arts and crafts,” explained Pond.

“We also have a food sovereignty initiative and a demonstration farm with chickens” that aims to create a local food system to increase access to healthy foods and increase economic opportunity through agriculture and create a healthier community. Pond added that the experiences in Guatemala that she learned about during the meeting gave her ideas she’s looking forward to applying with the girls she works with.

Colleague and mentor Mary Jo LeBeau explained that the name of the girl society, WWHY, is an acronym in her language for “strong, brave, energetic and to awaken the spirit,” a fitting name for a program that has awakened interest among girls.

Strengthening female social connections

Native American and Mayan indigenous girls face many challenges, distinct among other segments of young people. During the meeting, mentors were able to talk about the immense responsibilities women and girls carry in their communities and how their initiatives provide training and support to local girls. Participants discussed a wide range of topics and reflected on their experiences through dialogue with their peers, and committed to keep building mutual understanding between the U.S. and Guatemala with future virtual exchanges and plans for connecting through social media.

In her closing prayer, IMAGEN director Kelly Hallman thanked the Creator for the opportunity to share experiences with Guatemala, and with gratitude prayed for the health and happiness of participating mentors, women, girls and sisters. “This is such an honor,” she expressed. “It is a dream come true.”