Vilma Saloj: Creating an Educational Path for Indigenous Girls in Guatemala
Welcome back! Spiffy here, your interplanetary journalist reporting from Planet Earth with an eye on entrepreneurs making gender inequality a thing of the past! Today I’m honored to talk to Vilma Saloj, the executive director of MAIA Impact School, who has been working tirelessly to provide her fellow community members to pursue a life of education and equality.
Spiffy: Hola Vilma! I’m so excited to hear about the work you are doing! Can you tell me how you are crushing inequality for indigenous girls in Guatemala?
Vilma: Sí, Spiffy! Did you know that Guatemala has the worst gender equity gap in the Americas? Less than 20% of indigenous girls will graduate from secondary school, and fewer than 1% continue to university. The severely substandard Guatemalan educational system compounds this problem. Even when families can and do invest in the promise of education, the school system is failing them. Predictable cycles of early and frequent pregnancy create shackles of intergenerational poverty and exclusion that have kept this talent on the sidelines for centuries. Indigenous women and girls such as myself suffer four forms of discrimination in Guatemala: we are poor, we are women, we are indigenous, and we are from rural villages.
Living within a society and culture defined by machismo, women and girls are expected to marry young and have children, work at home, and stay in the shadows. Men and boys leave home to study and work, and they get to be visible. Despite having the same dreams and aspirations, we do not have the same opportunities.
A growing body of data shows a cascade of positive outcomes associated with girls’ education. Literally every area of development – from addressing climate change to world economic prosperity – is dramatically improved when girls participate fully in society. For too long, this population has been perceived as the problem, while all evidence shows that it is actually the solution.
At MAIA we focus on this population — the ambitious young indigenous woman from a low-income family in a traditionally marginalized community who has the talent and desire to succeed but lacks access to opportunity. We call these promising young women “Girl Pioneers” because they are blazing a new path towards prosperity and equal opportunity.
Our holistic approach combines rigorous academics with a culturally attuned, community-focused school environment that integrates daily mentorship sessions, monthly home visits, family engagement, and ongoing peer support. Our team of local leaders knows that if she can see it, she can be it. By investing in and developing staff, mentors, and educators who are from the same communities and backgrounds as their students, we assure that each Girl Pioneer is surrounded by role models who deeply understand her context. The combination of local leadership and deep engagement with families creates an eco-systemic support system that effectively meets the unique needs of marginalized indigenous girls in rural Guatemala to create a long-term, sustainable impact.
Spiffy: Wow. There are so many moving pieces! What motivated you to tackle this issue?
Vilma: Well, Spiffy, I am passionate and motivated about education and my work because I come from this excluded population. I have struggled with the same discrimination and lack of opportunity as my students. I, too, am a woman. I am indigenous. I come from a rural village. I was born into poverty. I have witnessed — and experienced firsthand — the transformative role education plays in ending these cycles. Poverty and violence force women to view personal, family, and community development through a particular lens.
When we first began working to empower women in Guatemala back in 2008, we worked with single mothers with many children who came from broken families. They developed money management skills that helped them open their own businesses and educate their children. I fell in love with witnessing the positive development of my own people. What began as a vision to help empower an invisible population led us down a new path. What if we invest in quality education for young indigenous girls? If we help open doors and remove barriers, how far could they go? We uncovered our very own “Girl Effect” — the idea that, when given the tools to succeed, young women and girls not only succeed but flourish. This empowerment affects a positive change in themselves, their families, and their communities.
Through the “Girl Effect” we can create a more just society for women — a society with less violence and a greater understanding of gender equality. This is why I value my role as Director of the MAIA Impact School. We provide an education in Guatemala that is very un-Guatemalan. We have three times the amount of schooling hours as a normal school, one of the country’s first extracurricular programs, and Central America’s first and only secondary school for indigenous girls, led by indigenous women. Most importantly, we work off the “inch wide, mile deep” philosophy: investing in providing the highest quality education possible and offering the most resources possible to a select group of indigenous girls who have the drive and determination to become the transformational leaders that Guatemala needs for justice, equity, and development in the 21st century and beyond.
Girl Pioneers in front of the MAIA Impact School. (Photo courtesy of Vilma Saloj)
Spiffy: This Girl Effect sounds powerful! Can you tell me a bit more about how MAIA is working at bridging this equity gap?
Vilma: MAIA is working towards a more equitable world by focusing on four organizational goals: 1) Economic autonomy — earn a minimum wage salary, 2) Lifelong learning — average 15 years of formal schooling, 3) Her family on her terms — make informed choices to prevent early marriage/motherhood, 4) Empowered to empower — become leaders to create a more equitable society. To achieve this we use a holistic education to build and strengthen socio-emotional development, celebrate culture, and work with their entire family.
Spiffy: Stellar! And what kind of milestones have you reached lately?
Vilma: MAIA's belief in the "Girl Effect" has equipped hundreds of Girl Pioneers and staff in 100+ communities with the knowledge and know-how to lead during these difficult months. To address food insecurity, we have proactively engaged with over 180 families to plant their own gardens. Prior to the pandemic, only 3% of students had access to the internet at home. Now 100% of our students are participating in virtual classes with data-loaded tablets. Finally, we have achieved a 100% retention rate this school year.
Spiffy: Do you have any experiences of a time when you experienced failure and didn’t give up?
Vilma: We recently organized a state-wide, week-long online training course for members of Guatemala’s Ministry of Education and local educators. We wanted to shed light on the deficiencies of the Guatemalan education system — more so due to the pandemic — by sharing best practices, and training regional educators in professional development and learning techniques. We expected around 200 virtual participants, a majority of which we hoped to be local educators. But only 50 individuals participated. Of those 50, only five were local educators. Participants mentioned that educators were skeptical of learning innovative teaching methods. Educators were also skeptical of a woman-led initiative. It is hard to describe in words my disappointment. In a society as complicated as ours, with social stratification, gender inequality, and resistance to change, I thought to myself: when will I ever truly see the results of our hard work?
But change takes time. Change takes effort. Systemic change takes determination and focus. As a team, we understood that we are here to help open doors and opportunities for the Girl Pioneers. They will one day be the real change-makers in our communities and society. Every step, no matter how small, is a step towards a more just and equal future and we will continue taking those steps. So we continued with the virtual training course. We not only continued but also had one of the most interesting, positive, and productive weeks with the educators and participants who chose to take those steps with us.
Spiffy: I believe you can learn from anyone and I love lessons from kids. I’m wondering if any of your students have taught you anything amazing lately?
Vilma: One of my students, Dilma, taught me how important resilience is. Despite her parents’ unemployment, Dilma chose to plant an organic garden to alleviate her family’s food insecurity. Despite limited access to the internet and electricity, she chose to participate in an international effort led by Girl Rising to help show the world that young, indigenous girls are persevering. Despite her grandmother’s illness, she chose to participate in virtual conversations with changemakers and empowered women to have her voice and ideas heard. Despite all the difficulties and challenges she has faced during these past months, she continues to find ways to be resilient and I admire her so much for this. I remember Dilma, during one of her conversations with people older than her, with more life experience than her, and more well-known than her, say with the grace and resilience of an adult: “Life will not be the same after these months, and that is ok.”
Spiffy: This has been a great interview. Is there anything you’d like to share with our audience before we sign off?
Vilma: When asked, “What is your biggest dream?” I have heard my students answer, “Be the next Guatemalan president,” or “Travel to the moon,” or “Become a lawyer,” or “Participate in a woman’s sports team.” Big or small they all have dreams. And big or small they are all ambitious. They only need the opportunity and tools to succeed and they will achieve their dreams. In doing so we will have a better, stronger, and more just and equal Guatemala.
Spiffy: I have a feeling you are going to see a lot of your graduates reach their dreams! Gracias, Vilma. It’s been an honor speaking with you today.
Vilma Saloj is the Director of the MAIA Impact School in rural Guatemala. Vilma is Maya Kaqchiquel and has recently learned English. She is one of six children and lives in the same village where she was born, and where many students who attend MAIA Impact School also live.