Notes From the Field: Interning in Women’s Micro Finance, with En Via

Beginnings are funny. I start from square one, born in a new environment. I had gotten so comfortable in Guatemala that it felt like a second home, and now I’m here in Oaxaca, Mexico figuring it all out again. Though it’s geographically close and some aspects are shared with Guatemala, Oaxaca is extremely different and you can feel it fundamentally.

The slang is foreign, the variation of street foods is new, and people dress, even carry themselves differently. There’s a whole other history and narrative among the people that I am slowly starting to pick up. The indigenous population is Zapotec. There are unions that regularly protest in the streets forming bloqueos. A spicy chocolate sauce called mole negro and this agave liquor called mezcal are all the rage. And art oozes from the region in countless different forms, from printing to hand woven rugs to political street art and more.

I’m interning here for Fundacion En Via, a non-profit microfinance organization focusing on women’s empowerment. En Via gives interest free loans and business classes to women in various pueblos of the Tlacolula Valley, east of Oaxaca city. In doing do, women are empowered to lift themselves out of poverty thereby bettering their communities with sustainable change. Additionally En Via offers English classes to those same pueblos.

The majority of funds are generated by socially responsible tours. Tourists visit the communities to connect with and see businesses of women who borrow from us, and our borrowers get to present their hard work to visitors from all over the world. It’s truly a wonderful exchange.

Beginnings mean ditching expectations and embracing reality.

I committed four months to En Via as an impact assessment intern. Because of my limited technical knowledge in measuring impact (running regression analyses, control/experimental groups, etc.), I figured I’d be helping to administer surveys, collecting data in some form about microfinance for someone else to analyze. Turns out the surveys they were using were scrapped because they assessed poverty as opposed to our stated focus, women’s empowerment. Therefore I’m currently working on a literature review of how to directly measure empowerment. Additionally, as the English program is growing quickly and has never been assessed, I’m helping to develop the first attempt at evaluating that as well. I have to be more self directed and responsible than I thought which surprised me at first, but now I’m grateful of the skills I know I’ll gain by the end.

A lot of my time is spent in the office, researching online and writing reports. But because I speak Spanish, I also get to go out to the communities and help collect loan payments. Through these excursions, I got to meet most of the borrowers, the women who are the heart and soul of En Via. Businesses vary from weaving carpets, comedores (like a restaurant but less formal), embroidery, convenience stores, and more.

The organization is the opposite of patronizing. When the women come to pay their loans, there is a strong sense of pride among everyone that we are working towards the same goal. That’s how non-profit work should be: people, no matter if you’re receiving or giving, together striving for a shared vision of a better reality.

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