Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Doing Business with the “Gringa”

Visiting the field in Peru once annually is not a simple indulgence for me, although it certainly brings me back to quintessential reminders about why we do what we do by being close to the women we serve. Organizational leadership is more than often assumed by men, and is generally very formal and scripted in Cajamarca Peru. For example, in the U.S., DHF holds a lot of first time meetings to talk about our work and make introductions in casual coffee shop settings. I’ve suggested meetings with potential partners in Peru in coffee shops who don their full suits and pick me up in a car at my hotel to drive me 5 blocks (a car is an unusual commodity and likely takes some major finagling to borrow from someone). I think the business men are usually surprised I am a 30-something woman who looks very “gringa” (white lady) and is dressed pretty relaxed. They seem to stumble at first when they meet me, “Magdalena Miller? Executive Directora?” (Magdalyn Miller, Executive Director?). This is a nonverbal communication dream to watch them try and act unsurprised and professional. I really love people dynamics, so it’s kind of fun to dissect.

The business men usually have scripted introductions that are very ceremonial and feel like the beginning of a seminar; they have mounds of documents to prove their significance. I listen to them and sip on my coffee powder. Because Peru is generally a patriarchic society (especially in less developed areas outside of Lima), I always wonder about the tension the may be feeling between me being a woman and the fact that as a potential partner (with funding projects), I am in a business power position. I do my best, as I do here, to help people relax through laughter.

I don’t find joy in ego power struggle, but there is another layer that is about being from the “United States of America.” It’s like a palpable layer that NEVER goes away, even as you form friendships. With that label, there is so much innuendo that will take me other posts to even scrape the essence (the good, the bad, the ugly of it). One thing stands…USA=$ in business situations. This can be tricky to shed this as central when you are talking about nonprofit work, whereby charitable work is at the core. There is a lot more to be said on all this, and I promise, I don’t see myself as some innocent bystander in all of it. I am very much a participant, even when I don’t like what that means.

Because of these business formalities, there is something very culturally powerful and important about the “Director” showing up to check on things, sign new contracts, talk through new ideas etc. Those of you who know me will know that that kind of CEO complex is not what I live for or really how I do my own business, but it sets the context of things for my journey. My favorite part of the journey is getting into the field and being with the women, who are so thankful for opportunities and the level of gratitude is so immense that it just helps me know that we are doing exactly the right thing. They humble me with their strength.

So, on the eve of the journey I am pulling together many things. What’s in the ol’ suitcase? Literacy supplies for our classes (Nora suggested we get them and that the ladies will be SO happy to receive crazy patterned erasers and pencils etc as recognition for their work); The “Medicine Cabinet” for Nora (all the over-the-counter stuff you wished you had there if you don’t); warm clothes for the mountain air since Caja is at about 8500 feet; some gifts for old Peruvian friends; and a stack of paperwork assignments from DHF since printing out things can be a challenge at times. Favorite items in the bag? My raincoat…and waterproof laptop carrier, since it is wet season and the beginning of Carnival holiday season (which lasts 1.5 months there, ugh.) This means that you must watch out at all times for flying balloons smacking your face and body that were launched from somewhere. This is an old tradition there, but it hurts, is embarrassing, and can ruin your cool expensive electronic stuff like the digital camera. This is where standing out as a white gringa is not to your advantage!

I will keep you posted tomorrow on travel day.
Always Hope, MM

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