Seattle International Foundation x Nordstrom: What Elaine Raymond Learned in Bolivia and Beyond with the Seattle Ambassador Program
In partnership with the Seattle International Foundation (SIF) and as part of the Seattle Ambassador program, Nordstrom’s Elaine Raymond traveled to Bolivia last month to work with Etta Projects, one of the nonprofits supported by the foundation. Here, she shares her adventure.
As a marketing specialist at Nordstrom with a heart for world travel, I understand SIF’s motivation to raise awareness of the work being done to alleviate global poverty. And as a Seattleite, I was interested in an organization that gives people access to clean water. Here in the Northwest, we’re surrounded by it. The rain, the Sound, the lakes—but also with clean drinking water from every tap, faucet and hose. It’s easy to forget this isn’t the case everywhere in the world.
Hiking through a village on Isla del Sol. The island is located on Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world. Image courtesy Chris Megargee.
In addition to clean water initiatives, Etta Projects has sanitation improvement projects and a health promoters program. Simply put, the majority of their work involves getting safe living practicalities, health care and education to families. As often happens when you set out to help others, I ended up learning a lot about myself and the world in the process.
Here are the three things that resonated most.
1. It’s important to ask questions about “development.”
Development work just for the sake of it isn’t always good or welcome. It’s important to ask if the help is wanted. How will it impact the way of life? Will the improvements be sustainable? It’s critical to be cautious and curious before jumping to conclusions, to ask questions and observe the communities you wish to serve. How can we know if we’re doing the right thing? It’s a tricky question with probably an even more complex answer—an answer I don’t have, but something worth thinking about.
Fortunately, I saw very positive examples of this with Etta Projects. They are clearly wanted in the communities where they work. They have the support of the residents and the local government. Their relationships are personal and loving, and their work is culturally responsible and sustainable. EP does not install their projects and simply move on; rather, they become integrated into the community.
Residents of Isla del Sol. Approximately 4,000 people live on the island. Image courtesy Chris Megargee.
2. Clean water and sanitation go hand in hand.
When I started this program, I thought of clean water and sanitation (or bathrooms) as two distinct issues. I was interested in clean water, but wasn’t totally comfortable with the (dirty) topic of sanitation. After spending time in the communities, I now know the two cannot easily be separated. Before EP’s arrival, the “bathroom” was a hole in the ground in the backyard. During the rainy season, these pits would flood and contaminate drinking water. To solve this, EP helps build eco-latrines. The latrines are raised off the ground to prevent flooding and, when used correctly, produce safe organic compost. The second piece of the puzzle is safe running water. The communities’ new water systems provide clean drinking water, a safe alternative to hand pumps, contaminated wells or other potentially harmful water sources.
Visiting Bolivian community La Reforma. This clean water system was installed with the help of Etta Projects. Image courtesy Chris Megargee.
3. In a “machismo” society, women’s entrepreneurship is key.
In addition to seeing how Etta Projects’ health promoter programs were empowering women, I also had the opportunity to meet female entrepreneurs from the Women’s Entrepreneurship in the Americas program (WEAmericas). This program is funded with the goal of increasing women’s economic participation and addressing common key barriers faced by small businesses. At the U.S. Embassy in La Paz, I visited with women whose businesses ranged from making alpaca scarves to high-end jewelry, each employing between eight and 600 females.
Despite the variations between the businesses, there was a common thread: the desire to support local women by providing jobs. These business owners are successful entrepreneurs, but their motivation is more than just money. They see value in helping their community by creating opportunities for fellow Bolivian women. After spending only a short time in Bolivia, I saw that the need for this work is clear.
One young woman, Valessa, owns a small jewelry business. She currently has one shop, but her ultimate goal is to sell to the United States. However, exportation is one of the biggest obstacles these entrepreneurs face. Bolivia–U.S. relations, a lack of trade agreements and variations in exportation regulations complicate this. Programs like WEAmericas are designed to help female small-business owners navigate these challenges.
Workshop of Bolivia-based company Nanay, which employs approximately 600 local women and exports around the world. Image courtesy Chris Megargee.
Reflecting on my trip got me thinking about my way of life back in Seattle. In rural Bolivia, priorities are different. Life can be tough, but it’s relatively simple. Concerns are for health and well-being instead of deadlines and traffic. During the trip, author Bill Powers explained to us the social movement “vivir bien.” The concept is to live well but stop striving once you have what you need. Cut out the extras. It’s not asking you to live in poverty, just comfortably. Have what you need; nothing more, nothing less. For me, this likely isn’t a switch I could flip, but rather a conscious effort to be aware of the choices I make—and to choose with care.