Inching Toward Courage: A Book Review of In the Time of the Butterflies

Taylor is the 2015-2016 St. Joseph Worker volunteer for Mary’s Pence.

inTheTimeOfTheButterfliesThere’s little I love better than losing myself in a book, especially on a snowy spring day in Minnesota. I recently turned to the Mary’s Pence reading list from last summer for reading suggestions, and selected Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies. The novel stood out to me because I enjoy reading historical fiction and stories of women’s lives.

At its heart, In the Time of the Butterflies is about courage and family, the prices of freedom and regret, and the necessity of sacrifice. Alvarez’s story is a fictional imagining of the daily lives of the true-life Mirabal sisters, who lived in the Dominican Republic under the repressive dictatorship of General Trujillo (1930-1961). The Mirabal sisters were known within the revolutionary movement as Las Mariposas, The Butterflies. The novel switches between the voices of the three sisters who would eventually be assassinated on a lonely mountain road on Trujillo’s orders, and the reminiscences of Dedé, the sole surviving sister.

Alvarez depicts the voices of the sisters in varying stages of their lives, from teenagers in school to young mothers, from women pursuing careers and families to determined revolutionaries.

 “I got braver like a crab going sideways. I inched towards courage the best way I could, helping out with the little things.” – Julia Alvarez, In the Time of the Butterflies

Patria is very religious and family-oriented. She’s the oldest, the first to marry, and her experience as a mother is what leads her to finally risk everything, including her husband’s ancestral farm, to rebel against the dictatorship. At first, she tries to stay away from her sisters’ roles in the resistance movement in order to protect her family. But as her eyes are opened, she takes courage inch by inch and joins her sisters so her children can have a safer life.

Dedé is hardworking and nostalgic. She raises her sisters’ children and spends the rest of her life keeping the memory of Las Mariposas alive.

Minerva is the driving revolutionary force of the family. From a young age, she is drawn to stand up for justice. When she learns of Trujillo’s brutality from her school friends, Minerva realizes that, for all her hard-earned independence, she has “just left a small cage to go into a bigger one, the size of our whole country,” and she joins other young revolutionaries. In one scene, Minerva tries to free a caged rabbit, only to find that the rabbit refuses to leave its cage. Determined not to become trapped in her own mind by societal expectations, Minerva searches for freedom, first by leaving her family to study and create a life of her own, and then by agitating at the heart of the revolutionary movement.

Mate, the baby of the family, idolizes Minerva and follows her into the underground resistance movement.

“I asked Minerva why she was doing such a dangerous thing. And then, she said the strangest thing. She wanted me to grow up in a free country.” – Julia Alvarez, In the Time of the Butterflies

Alvarez doesn’t portray the sisters as martyrs on pedestals, their courage untouched by the trivia and struggles of daily life. Under Alvarez’s hands, the Mirabal sisters behave like real people. They are women in love, women raising families in less-than-ideal circumstances, women who make mistakes and disagree and do the work that must be done. They are feminist icons as well as revolutionaries, claiming important roles that generally weren’t open to women at the time. Acting in opposition to Trujillo puts their family in danger, threatens their livelihood, and requires tremendous sacrifice of each family member. They don’t always agree on what is the right thing to do, but they stand together.

In the Time of the Butterflies tells us that we can take courage in the everyday choices that we make; more than that, it tells us that we must take courage, lest our fear and silence prop up unjust systems.

The Mirabal sisters stand for many of the values that Mary’s Pence is rooted in: They were community-centered women leaders who dedicated their lives to social justice, worked for the common good and human dignity, and participated in creating change in unjust structures.

For more reading recommendations, check out last summer’s reading list here.

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New Grantees – Spring 2016

Mary’s Pence is proud to announce the latest Mary’s Pence Grantees:

Artistri Sud
Temuco, Chile / Quebec, Canada
Artistri Sud is a Canadian charity that microfunds female artisans in hopes of breaking the cycle of poverty. They work mainly with the Mapuche women of Chile to create a sustainable income out of the products they sell. Since receiving their first Mary’s Pence grant in 2014, Artistri Sud has continued to build capacity for women’s leadership development and economic empowerment through its Social Entrepreneurship Training and Train-the-Trainer programs. The women of Artistri Sud problem-solve in groups and spend some of their earnings towards the nutrition and education of young girls, who are often marginalized in the developing world.

Awamaki
Ollantaytambo, Peru / Savannah, GA
Awamaki centers its mission in rural Peru. Since 2009, it has given Andean women and families access to higher income by recycling the profits from artisan products back into local businesses and community. The hand-woven textiles, knitwear and spun products are sold both within the women’s communities and in the United States through partner retailers. Awamaki’s third grant from Mary’s Pence will help the organization send two of their Peruvian staff to present their cooperative model at a U.S. symposium on the textile industry in Savannah, GA. At the symposium, Awamaki staff will share their knowledge of women’s cooperatives and experience as indigenous artisans with an international audience.

Center for Women in Transition
Little Rock, AK
CWIT prevents recidivism by helping formerly incarcerated women transition back into society. Founded by a Catholic sister, CWIT staff mentors the women personally, teaches life skills classes prior to release, and supports them in completing education and finding steady employment once they re-enter society. The program empowers women and girls to advocate for themselves. In February 2016, CWIT expanded its life skills education program to include over 100 incarcerated teen girls. Since 2005, CWIT has helped over 2,000 women through its collaboration with community organizations and the judicial system, which often releases women to CWIT for probation in lieu of prison.

Genesis
Oakland, CA
A three-time Mary’s Pence grantee, Genesis was created in 2007 to advance economic, gender and racial equality in the San Francisco Bay Area. Faith congregations and unions serve as the project’s main stakeholders and decision-makers, and together they have successfully implemented measures such as the Youth Bus Program in a county where no public school transportation is provided. Among their current goals are campaigns to make criminal justice policies more restorative and better funding for programs aimed at people with disabilities. This Mary’s Pence grant will be used to train women with developmental disabilities in advocacy and the process of voter registration.

Kinship Care Campaign
Cincinnati, OH
The Contact Center’s Kinship Care Campaign is a community-based, women-led organization that deals mainly with economic and social justice issues pertaining to kinship care. Kinship care is foster care alternative in which non-parent relatives and close family friends raise children. Funding for kinship guardians is disproportionately low. Kinship Care’s current advocacy is focused on changing laws to ensure that caretakers, mainly women, who are raising relatives will receive the same financial support as foster care providers.

MAYA Organization
Pittsburgh, PA
MAYA (Me And You Always) began as a full-service adoption agency that provided counseling for incarcerated pregnant women who put their children up for adoption. Their experience of the prison system led them to expand their services to include pro-bono counseling for any women incarcerated in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County Jail. Every week, women attend individual 60-minute counseling sessions to address issues of loss, trauma and addiction. Counseling is available after the women are released to ensure continued progress and maintain previously achieved goals. MAYA aims to replace recidivism with community reintegration.

New Sanctuary Movement – Mujeres Líderes
Milwaukee, WI
NSM was started in 2007 in response to a challenge to publicly stand in solidarity with immigrants. NSM works for immigration reform and organizes immigrant communities and allied faith communities to support families facing separation due to deportation. Women often become the sole heads of households in the U.S. when their husbands are incarcerated or deported. The Mary’s Pence Grant will fund a series of leadership trainings called Mujeres Líderes, or Women’s Leadership, that will provide immigrant women with the communication and organizing skills they need to bring about systemic change in the U.S. immigration system and in their communities.

Welcoming the Stranger
Warminster, PA
Welcoming the Stranger provides immigrant and refugee populations with educational and training opportunities. Their mission is focused on the Christian value of welcoming strangers into one’s community. Funding from Mary’s Pence will support a class on work skills and language improvement in a large immigrant community. Lessons are personalized to best meet students’ needs, including practical lessons, such as navigating the healthcare system, applying for credit, and interviewing for jobs. Students form networks, working together as a community. Welcoming the Stranger education classes offer students, the majority of whom are women, economic empowerment and a voice in the education and healthcare of their children.

Wishwas
Queens, NY
Wishwas works with Bangladeshi women in Queens, New York to help reduce the cultural barriers of a new country by providing the space for women to work together weekly at a local community center and receive training in running a cooperative business. Wishwas offers vocational skills and training to women who have few job opportunities and are not involved in the making of financial decisions within their households and communities. Wishwas cooperative training empowers women who may be victims of domestic violence or emotional abuse. The primary goal is to create self-sufficiency in the women and increase their recognition in the community as financial contributors and valid decision-makers.

Workers’ Rights Center
Madison, WI
The WRC was created by the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice after an investigation into the working conditions of Latino/a immigrants. The mission of WRC is to help recover unpaid wages, fund basic worker training in multiple languages, and provide training in self-representation, leadership, and organizational skills in order to foster individual and collective action. A grant from Mary’s Pence will allow the WRC to form an advocacy and support group for Latina workers, who deal with wage theft and discrimination at work, and immigration issues at home. The group will be a space for women to share challenges and organize to take action in their community.

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Mother-Daughter Bond Strengthened by Funding Women Together

Former Mary’s Pence board member Pat Rogucki, SFCC has long committed herself to supporting Mary’s Pence, and sharing the cause with her mother, Jean. As a traveler herself, Pat experiences the mission of Mary’s Pence firsthand when she makes her annual visits to Central America.

“In July [2013], I had the privilege of returning to 2 marginalized communities on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa, Honduras. I had been part the Mary’s Pence team which first visited them in 2012,” she wrote in a letter. “One year later, the women spoke about their businesses and proudly showed off their products … Neri, age 31, came … bearing fresh ears of corn, a gorgeous squash, and a type of cilantro. With only a second grade education, she could barely write her name, but learned her craft of agriculture as a child.”

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Pat Rogucki, SFCC presenting on the recent history of El Slavador

Pat was drawn to Mary’s Pence in part because “it provides an alternative to an exploitative economy and makes the women’s impossible dreams possible.” Knowing that she and her mother are pooling resources by both giving to Mary’s Pence is important to Pat, who says, “It encourages me and strengthens our bond, that we are working for the same purpose.”

Mary’s Pence grants and ESPERA loans allow women across the Americas to succeed at running small businesses and in creating an economically sound life for themselves and their families. Pat’s mother Jean says that she chose to donate because of the transparency and mission of the organization. “You put the donations to good purposes,” she says.

Consider sharing Mary’s Pence with a family member or close friend and further our mission for the next seven generations.

 

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Supporting Generations

 

Marie Hogarty's niece, Kelly Creedon

Marie Hogarty’s niece Kelly Creedon

From the beginning, Mary’s Pence supporters have acted on the idea of sharing a cause they care about with a person they care about. Marie Hogarty is one such woman who ended up sharing Mary’s Pence with her niece Kelly, a woman who has been to Central America herself and spoken to Mary’s Pence grantees firsthand. Both are now repeat donors and strong supporters of Mary’s Pence and the ESPERA network.

Marie was the first to be touched by the influence of Mary’s Pence. Hearing about the nonprofit at a social justice event, she says that she was inspired by the potential realized by women who had received grants from Mary’s Pence. She has now been a donor for over ten years. After a while she began thinking of sharing the mission of Mary’s Pence with her niece Kelly Creedon, who has a penchant for storytelling.

Kelly Creedon chose to share her talents with Mary’s Pence by traveling to Central America herself to meet with women who had begun to benefit from the loans received into their community. While in El Salvador and Nicaragua, Kelly photographed and interviewed  many of the women who have received ESPERA loans over the years. She says now that “[helping] them share their stories was an honor I won’t soon forget.”

Marie and Kelly and supporters like them encourage Mary’s Pence to continue its mission of empowering women to form bonds of economic solidarity.

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Meet Mary’s Pence: Katie

Greetings granters, grantees and Mary’s Pence readers:

Katie Bowden

Katie Bowden

The second day of my spring semester marked my first day as Communications Intern at Mary’s Pence. I usually arrive from either my morning class at St. Thomas, where I am taking my capstone seminar in Communications and Journalism, or from St. Kate’s—the campus where I live and spend the majority of my time. The capstone course in English, my other major, will be taken this coming autumn, during my final semester at St. Kate’s. Both universities are located in St. Paul, Minnesota, a short drive away from my internship. The University of St. Thomas was originally a school solely for men, but St. Kate’s has been a women’s college since its founding by the Sisters of St. Joseph in 1905.

Everything I am doing right now in college is converging together, and could be seen as what led me to my Mary’s Pence internship. I gained knowledge on Catholic social teachings from my current student job at St. Kate’s, which focuses on the lives and experiences of Catholic sisters. Last semester, I wrapped up an internship at a human rights organization that works with refugees, and which has a mission statement similar to the values of Mary’s Pence: of protecting the underserved and guaranteeing basic human rights.

This semester, I am taking a course called “Global Search for Justice: Voices of Dissent,” which is led by a professor that hopes to use her Native American experience knowledge and a Spring Break trip to formerly Native American lands to allow us to see the experiences of minorities in a new light. This mini Study Abroad will be to southern parts of Minnesota, to experience the locations and landmarks that were a part of the Dakota War of 1862. My journalism capstone seminar at St. Thomas, labeled “Communication Ethics,” will be ending with the Ethics Bowl on May 7, an all-day competition for Communications and Journalism seniors that replaced the final 60-page thesis that was used in past years. The competition’s case studies will all be pulled from news that has been released over the past year, encouraging us to become more connected to the world outside of our universities.

Mary’s Pence has also had personal crossroads with events throughout my life. My sophomore year at St. Kate’s I considered becoming a novice with the Sisters of St. Joseph, but ultimately ended up documenting the lives of sisters from various U.S. orders instead. The Catholic sister I was partnered with introduced me to her copy of Laudato Si, a short book authored by Pope Francis and concerning care for our common home and planet. Without realizing it, prior to reading his work, my personal resolution to eat less animal products and buy only what I need had coincided with the Catholic value of caring for the Earth and others of God’s creation. Respect for creation and conservancy thus became a known and conscious part of my life’s work and education.

I am looking forward to figuring out my post-graduation life, which will begin this spring. I am working towards my own apartment, interning at different locations in different capacities in order to find a possible career move, and am considering the adoption of a rabbit fairly soon (so excited!) My nursing assistant position, journalism major, and internships have compassion and justice at their center, and pair well with my current position at Mary’s Pence. Those values will hopefully remain central to all of my future careers and experiences.

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Speaking Up Against Racism and Islamophobia

Joan Haan co-facilitates the active nonviolence curriculum Creating a Culture of Peace with Mary’s Pence Executive Director Katherine Wojtan. Last July, Joan and Katherine led a group of local and international Mary’s Pence staff and other local community members through this weekend-long nonviolence workshop.

Joan offers a guide of ways we might choose to respond to the racist comments and alarmist rhetoric that seem to be increasingly filling up our newsfeeds, happy hours, family get-togethers, workplaces, and neighborhoods. With Joan’s guide, those of us who can no longer remain silent can learn to respond powerfully and peacefully in these situations.

What do you do when you hear someone make a demeaning comment about a person, whether it reflects racism, religious intolerance, or an assumption about a person’s immigrant status? Often, we want to say something, but freeze. We might fear escalating the situation or we simply don’t know how to respond in the moment.

Like many, I have relatives, acquaintances and Facebook “friends” who say things that qualify, in my mind, as Islamophobic or racist.  What I know from the active nonviolence curriculum I co-facilitate, Creating a Culture of Peace (CCP) is how important it is to practice and rehearse!

The following came from that internal conversation and soul searching, participation in a study group, White Awake, and conversations with participants and colleagues after a St. Paul Interfaith Network (SPIN) event on Islamophobia with the MN Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR). May I grow in this practice . . . not perfection!

This is a brief guide to help you think about these situations in advance so you feel prepared to be an ally when the time comes, and speak up.

It is important to respond nonviolently, and to center prior to engaging.

Mahatma Gandhi described active nonviolence as “constructive work” which includes dialogue (and takes most of our time and effort) and “resistance,” interrupting and interfering. We may need to start with “resistance”.   Before responding, take time to center yourself. Take a deep breath. Say a prayer or mantra. Remind yourself that people are both wounded and sacred. Perhaps envision the offending speaker as someone you love but who you intensely disagree about an issue.*

Respond with the intent to disrupt the offensive behavior. Show solidarity with those who are offended, and respect for all.

Speak firmly. Be willing to walk away and not engage further unless hearts are softening. Some phrases that may be helpful:

  • “It’s important for me not to let that comment pass and give my tacit approval. I believe all people deserve respect.”
  • “Please stop,” or “Stop!”
  • “Peace”
  • “This remark/joke offends me.”
  • “I don’t understand what is going on here. Can we step back? This is hurtful to me.”
  • “I am standing in solidarity with [this person] who deserves respect and a sense of safety,” or “I stand with you” (Speaking and/or physically standing next to the person).

If you notice hearts softening, continue to respond with the intent to be in dialogue and deepen understanding, not argue or demean.

Be willing to be vulnerable and share yourself. Listen to your “opponent.” Without agreeing with their position, look for an opportunity to acknowledge and respect who they are. Find out what concerns them most, tell them a core value you hold, and try to connect on that level. Some phrases that may be helpful:

  • “My family came to this country as an immigrant/refugee/ for religious freedom.”
  • “My religious tradition teaches love of neighbor; welcoming the stranger.”
  • “I will not (we cannot) live in fear.”
  • “I need (we need) to get to know neighbors who are not like me (us).”

And finally, join in random comments and acts of kindness to Muslims, immigrants and people of ethnicities other than one’s own:  from a smile, “Salaam Alaikum” (peace be upon you) to “I am so glad you are part of my community!” Let friendship flow; not hatred grow!


 

*This idea is adapted from the CCP curriculum.

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Gaby’s Six-Month Update

Gaby Bandini is the ESPERA Business Facilitator for Mary’s Pence, hired in June 2015. Her first task has been building business capacity among pilot groups of twelve ESPERA businesses in Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador. Here’s what she’s been up to.

Working Toward a Community Economy

Visit one: Get to know the women. During her first visits with ESPERA businesswomen, Gaby built trusting relationships within the different ESPERA communities. She learned how the women were doing and how they chose to use the loans they received.

Visit Two: Assess the resources available to each woman and community. Gaby looked into accountability, income generation, and any issues that came up during this more structured look into how the businesses are run. The women with whom Gaby works all engage in at least three economic activities, all working very hard to earn money for their families. Most of the women’s businesses are in the informal sector, including agriculture, raising chickens or pigs, and selling food.

Gaby encouraged them to construct an economy using all of their resources, including human, physical, natural, financial, and social capital. Gaby worked with the women to analyze which resources they have access to and to work on expanding the resources they have.

A resource assessment for a woman with an egg-selling business could look like this:

  • Financial capital: ESPERA loan
  • Physical capital: chickens, containing crates
  • Natural capital: land to keep chickens on
  • Human capital: schooling, knowledge of market and raising chickens
  • Social capital: family and community support, involvement in ESPERA women’s group

Visit Three: Share the data analysis from previous visits with each businesswoman and create a basic business plan. During the next few months, Gaby will engage the women in the results of her observations from her first two visits. Then she will ask them to share their own ideas for improvement before she weighs in with her suggestions.

Eleazara, Dora, Misael, Elizabeth and their daughter with Gaby in Tepalcingo, Mexico.

(L to R) Eleazara, Dora, Misael, Elizabeth and their daughter with Gaby in Tepalcingo, Mexico.

Working with the Resources Available

Gaby found that while their access to financial resources changed with the ESPERA fund, the ESPERA women she surveyed didn’t know how much revenue they were making. They hadn’t recorded income or expenses, in some cases because they were illiterate, and in others for cultural reasons. One woman told Gaby, “I don’t want to know that it’s not working.”

“We don’t have to worry about the things we don’t have,” Gaby assures the women she works with. “How can we work with the resources we have? If something’s wrong, we’ll work it out.”

ESPERA groups have great potential to become resilient economic communities. Gaby examines the needs of individuals within the groups and develops strategies for women to work together to meet their needs, including buying in bulk, fixing prices on popular products like eggs, and taking turns transporting products to the market. The next steps for these ESPERA businesses stem from this question: “How do we put these resources together to create an economy as a community?”

Running a Business Amid Violence

The surrounding violence is a major factor that affects the women’s lives and their ability to run their businesses. In El Salvador, Gaby encounters stories about the effects of guns and gangs, the remains of war, and structural violence against women and rural people. It’s dangerous to move between communities or take the bus for fear of robbery, which makes selling their wares at the market very difficult. Domestic violence impacts self-esteem, making it even harder to run a successful business. Fortunately, one of these pilot groups, Concertación, has experience with supporting women suffering from the psychological effects of violence. Gaby would like to partner with Concertación to support these women. It’s a sign of the positive trust and rapport Gaby has built up with the women in the pilot groups that they are willing to confide in her about this part of their lives. Violence is an enormous problem for businesses. How can they take advantage of their resources if they are constrained by violence in their communities?

Committing to Change

After compiling all of this information about the businesses Gaby will meet with each of the women and ask for their ideas to improve their businesses. Then she will share her own insights with them. Together, they will work to create a plan. She will start with a basic business plan that asks questions like “Who are you selling to?”, “What need are you serving in your community?”, and “If your eggs aren’t selling, why is that?”

This pilot program is a learning process for Gaby and Mary’s Pence, as well as for the ESPERA women. Gaby was surprised by how well-organized all the women are, as individuals and as groups. Some six months in, Gaby is re-evaluating how she meets with the individual women. Meeting with them for an entire day, as she had before, was too intensive for them because they lost a day of work. Now, she will meet with them for a couple hours, three days in a row. Her approach is flexible, finding the best way to meet the women where they are. Working with these ESPERA groups is a positive experience for Gaby, who will capitalize on their willingness to work together by encouraging them to discuss their experiences in the pilot program as a larger group.

These ESPERA businesswomen made a commitment to work together as a group and change the processes they use. “They believe the work is worth changing their lives [for],” Gaby says.

 

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Income – A Solid and Growing Base of Support

Financial Report – Fiscal Year 2015

July 1, 2014 – June 30, 2015

By Katherine Wojtan, Mary’s Pence Executive Director

Mary’s Pence is doing well. We have grown our income by 216% and increased our number of supporters over the past five years. We have more than doubled our income from grants over the past four years. This growth and diversity of support ensures we have the capacity to grow our work.

Some members of an ESPERA group in Mexico

How are we growing? We believe it is a combination of programming and visibility.

Our work is, well, radical. Mary’s Pence Grants supports a rich array of projects across the Unites States and the rest of the Americas that are addressing real community needs based on the views of the local women affected by the issues. ESPERA is instinctively appealing – putting money in the hands of local women, and accompanying them as they grow their businesses and strengthen their communities.  Mary’s Pence Grants and ESPERA are a perfect match.

Visibility is key.  Together with volunteers we table at conferences, host local events, tweet regularly and have a very active Facebook page. Many individuals share Mary’s Pence with their friends and families, and with their faith communities. Let’s keep getting the word out!

Expenses – Managing Our Budget Closely

We have a track record of managing budgets closely – staying within 86% to 104% of budget over each of the last five years.

This track record of income growth and careful adherence to budget allowed us to hire an additional ESPERA staff person this past year to focus on business skills development, which will increase our impact.

Mary's Pence staff and board in discussion

Mary’s Pence staff and board in discussion

Good Stewardship

Good stewardship of funds means investing in the long term strength of the organization. In addition to direct program costs this includes:

Learning Opportunities

Last year Eva Martinez, a staff person in El Salvador, took a 6 month diploma program on Women and Salvadorian Economy.  This coming year Grace Garvey-Hall, our Development and Communications Liaison and a recent college graduate, will be taking a Fundraising Certificate at St. Thomas University. Staff regularly attend workshops and conference on nonprofit management and international development. These opportunities strengthen our work.

Infrastructure

Our number of regular volunteers is on the rise, including a yearlong St. Joseph Worker volunteer. We’ve increased our office space and upgraded our computers.  A donation from the family foundation of Mary Lee Fitzsimons supported these changes the past year.  We frequently have five staff and volunteers in the office, and we’re grateful for a productive space in Lowertown St. Paul.

International Travel

U.S. and ESPERA staff collaborate extensively. It’s a real gift to be able to work face to face, and for U.S. staff to see first-hand the work in Central America and Mexico.

Employees and Administration

We pay a living wage, have health insurance benefits and a Simple IRA. We register to fundraise (yes, send letters) in 39 states and we have adequate insurance. Our board meets face to face twice annually and we invest in practices of good governance.

Financial Oversight

We are annually audited by a CPA firm serving nonprofits, our 990 is available on our website, and we are certified by Guidestar. Our board sets clear expectations and our finance committee reviews monthly financial reports. We welcome questions.

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A Slice of Slovenia

Dr. Roxanne Meshar is a past board chair of Mary’s Pence. Dr. Meshar taught Catholic theology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota for nearly ten years. In September of this year, Mary’s Pence helped support her participation as the keynote speaker for the international educators’ conference “To Teach is To Build” in Slovenia. To read highlights from her paper, click here

Slovenia was not a country I expected to visit, but thanks to a grant from Mary’s Pence I attended the international educators’ conference “To Teach is to Build” at the Biotechnical Center in Naklo, Slovenia in October. Educators participated from Austria, Italy, Germany, Norway, Serbia, Slovenia, Spain and the United States.

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My paper, entitled “Curriculum Development: Political, Subversive, Dangerous,” explored the social justice implications of designing school curricula. It also included fast, easy classroom exercises to help students develop more compassion and empathy. After I submitted my paper, conference organizer Professor Sandra Žvagen invited me to be a plenary speaker and conduct a workshop. Meeting with other educators and attending their workshops taught me so much.

The Biotechnical Center is a holistic school that fosters curiosity and a safe space for over 600 students from various backgrounds – both rural and urban. Students can learn how to run a dairy farm in a way that is organic and cares for the environment. Other students focus on forest, wildlife and wild animal management. Many of the products students make such as cheeses, dairy products, produce, juices, local teas, floral arrangements and more, are for sale in their store and used in the school’s cafeteria.

Andreja Ahčin, principal of the Biotechnical Center with twenty years of education experience at the school, explained that she and her staff worked to design a curriculum that fosters a holistic integration of the student. This means integrating students’ values with their education and life work while understanding its impact on the environment and the community. This is the same reason I teach theology – to help students explore these fundamental questions; Who am I? What is my purpose? How will I make the world a better place?

My experience also included meeting with instructors and with students in the classroom. English class students were designing their own crossword puzzles, art students were using refurbished typewriters to create amazing pictures with meaningful words and other students were baking cakes and breads to use at school events.LG500 417

Demonstrating their well-deserved reputation for hospitality, school faculty drove us to the Lake Bled area in northern Slovenia near the Alps. We toured a green hotel, Garden Village, where all the landscaping was beautiful, edible and used in the hotel! Teachers Sandra Žvagen and Simona Zabukovec took me hiking in scenic southern Slovenia by the Adriatic Sea. Tina Križnar, who oversees adult education at the school, gave me a tour of the capital city of Ljubljana, existing since Roman times. Prior to working at the Biotechnical Center Tina was a tour guide for Russian and English speaking tourists so she knew well the city and its history.

The conference was an unexpected and amazing experience of another people, country and culture. Thank you, “hvala” in Slovenian, to the Biotechnical Center, conference participants and to Mary’s Pence for making it possible.

-Dr. Roxanne Meshar

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