Doubling Down on the Peace Corps in Guatemala

Kody Gerkin is the founder and board president of Mujerave. He holds degrees from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver and Michigan State University.

Mr. Gerkin served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala from 2006 to 2008. (In the spirit of full disclosure, he and I were in the same Peace Corps training group.)

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Would you tell us a little bit about Mujerave?

Mujerave is a group of dedicated volunteers, board members and donors who are looking to support a different brand of development. Our primary goal as an organization is to listen to the stories and perspectives of some of the poorest women in the Western Hemisphere, and figure out how we can support them. Therefore, Mujerave doesn't have a fleet of cars, pay rent for expensive office space, or pay salaries. We take donations and carry out high-impact projects in a remote, landlocked province in rural Guatemala. Mujerave is a lean, nimble organization that listens to women in rural Guatemala and then works with them to develop, implement, monitor and improve sustainable development projects. We empower women to become more politically, socially, and/or economically active, if they choose to do so, and we inspire all community members to think differently about gender in rural Guatemala.

All of our U.S.-based work is strictly done by volunteers who don't receive a salary or compensation. Just yesterday, I met with an architect who is helping us improve our field-designed greywater re-filtration system. She does this in her spare time because she believes in our mission: to contribute to the alleviation of poverty, the eradication of malnutrition, and the reduction of preventable illnesses by empowering women through sustainable development projects in indigenous communities in the department of Totonicapán, Guatemala.

But, Mujerave is many things. Mujerave is a relationship that started about ten years ago, back in the trenches with Peace Corps Guatemala. It's an ongoing culmination of everything I have learned from rural women in Guatemala, and from my mother. Mujerave is also shaped and colored by my study of gender-based inequality, and by the critical perspective my partner Melissa Martinez brings to the table and to my daily life.

What's a typical day like for you?

Right now, I split my time between our base in Denver, our U.S. base, and rural Guatemala, where we operate. In Guatemala, I work with our Guatemalan board of directors to identify and prioritize projects, and continue to improve how we deliver services across our four programs: Income Generation, Healthy Homes, Family Nutrition, and Community Education. I am very hands-on once we begin implementing projects. I work side-by-side with our project beneficiaries, hammering nails to build greenhouses, mixing cement for improved wood-burning stoves, collecting data, and co-facilitating workshops with local women.

What's the most frustrating or challenging part of your current job?

Many, many people before me have lamented the fact that development work has done more to help study, quantify, and analyze poverty "over there, where brown people live" than it has to help rectify global inequality, human rights abuses, and other issues we are aware of.

Trying to be a humble little charity organization with 100% transparency in a field sadly dominated by headline-grabbing scandals, excessive administrative costs, cynicism, and what I call misplaced vigor (the over-intellectualizing of well-understood human suffering that detracts resources from meaningful and urgent action), that's the multifaceted truth of what's most frustrating about this path we've chosen.

Who funds Mujerave?

To date, we have received about 20,000 USD in direct public support. Our donations average about 150 USD, and we have had several thousand dollars of support through corporate partners who value social responsibility in addition to their bottom lines. My wife and I, and several of our board members, have been generous as well. What we have accomplished with that, and where the money has been spent, is remarkable. We've spent less than 5% of that money on all of the administration costs associated with opening and running a business, bank fees, domain name fees, etc. Over 50% has been spent funding our projects, with another 25% earmarked for income-generating greenhouse and greywater re-filtration systems we'll build in October. Anybody who wants an up-to-date full financial history of Mujerave can email "info@mujerave.org" with a request. We are fully-committed to financial transparency!

How is the U.S. presidential campaign being covered in Guatemala? Broadly speaking, do find that Guatemalans are interested in the race?

Where Mujerave works, people don't really follow politics. These are subsistence farmers eking out a living in extreme poverty, so naturally international politics doesn't take up too much of their mental space. Local soccer or evangelical pastors are likely on the radio. If a home has a television, it is likely for kids to watch cartoons or bootleg Rambo DVDs on repeat.

I will say, however, that at a minimum, the gender-based compositional diversity of candidates does allow me to ask men and women in rural Guatemala, if a woman can become president of the U.S., why can't she be elected local mayor here in this town or village. It is a question that I have found causes rural Guatemalans to ponder gender norms in their own community, and that is always a positive for us.

People who I speak with that are following politics can't believe some of the things Donald Trump has said and advocated, or that he is taken seriously in the U.S. However, I have never met a Guatemalan fan of Hillary Clinton, either.

How has your service in the Peace Corps informed or influenced your current work?

Peace Corps taught me how to live low to the ground in Guatemala. It also highlighted the importance of relationship-building in community-based, grassroots development work. This is exactly the brand of development Mujerave engages in, and that was really built on a Peace Corps framework.

Post-Peace Corps, I had a professor at grad school, Dr. Matthew Taylor. "Mateo," as he's known in some circles, practices what his colleagues have called "fruit stand diplomacy." You have to hang back in an area, float around as a tourist almost, ask people questions, use the tools you have to open doors towards understanding, and listen to what people are saying. I've gained as much valuable information following Mateo's lead as I have from our data-gathering and number crunching. His style and mentorship have allowed Mujerave to retain its Peace Corps roots while honing our academic chops and staying legit for future grant funding from all kinds of foundations and government agencies.

What would you tell a young person who's thinking of joining the Peace Corps?

It fundamentally altered the trajectory of my life. It exposed me to differences in a way that has forever changed how I think and how I live. As it is happening, however, it can get weird. Also, the number one challenge many volunteers face, believe it or not, is boredom. Culture shock is intense. Living with a host family in a small community, experiencing the "fishbowl" of being the only foreigner in a small, isolated village can be soul-crushing. It can bend your identity, change the way you view cultural constructs like race, gender, and class.

I will give the same advice a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer told me just before I shipped off to Guatemala in 2006. She grabbed me by the collar, gravity burning in her eyes, and said "you have to leave your room and your house at least once every day. Or, you can go mad."