Tuesday, January 26, 2016

A woman who earned her big check

Back in the 1980’s during Mexico’s high inflationary years I had lots of experience writing big checks.  It took careful planning to squeeze the written-out amount in the tiny space provided on a check.  Occasionally, I’d write two checks because it was the only way to get the words “millions” and “hundreds of thousands” to fit.  

But there’s another type of big check I’ve never had any experience with.  The big-in-size check.  What do you do with a meter-long (three feet) check printed on foam board?  You see them when people win the lottery or game shows.  Until recently I’d never personally known anyone experienced with this type of check.

Last year at Puebla’s City of Idea Conference, 30 “Gifted Citizens” competed for US$100,000. They were invited based on programs they’d developed designed to improve the lives of at least 10,000 people within six years. It’s a stellar group.

I met Shanyn Ronis, a sparkling young 27 year-old idealist from Virginia, U.S.A. wearing a “gifted citizen” nametag at the coffee bar during an intermission.  She told me a bit about her program.  I was impressed.

The last day of the conference all 30 “gifted citizens” were invited on stage to be presented to the 5,000 City of Ideas attendees.  The curator of the event, Andres Roemer, announced the 10 finalists and Shanyn was one of them.  To my delight two were chosen to share the grand prize.  Shanyn was presented with a $50,000 “big-check”!

Last week Carol Hopkins and I interviewed Shanyn and learned that the actual “big check” is proudly affixed to the wall in her office.  Laughingly she told me she didn’t know anything about cashing a “big check.” The money was conventionally wired into the account of the NGO she heads and is already helping implement programs she designed.

“In 2013 I founded E-Gap (Educational Global Access Program).  Our mission is to develop programs and materials that sustainably enhance the impact of teachers serving vulnerable populations in conflict zones and other at-risk areas.  Teachers and existing NGO’s are key to our vision of forging a global cadre of highly qualified and dedicated teachers who can enable their students to achieve full potential.”

Most of E-Gap’s work right now is in Africa. Shanyn, who is bi-lingual in Spanish, is working hard to bring programs to Mexico.  She’s already implemented a program in Ecuador and is searching for a Mexican NGO partner for a similar program in this country.  She did college fieldwork in Peru, Guatemala, and Mexico – with archeological work as well as social anthropology research in Oaxaca.    

Beginning as an undergraduate, Shanyn wrestled with working in social-inequality cultures, learning to implement “upside down” programs. “Most of the work we do is upside down.  I take what is, even accept social inequality, because if we wait for that to change nothing will ever happen.

“The people who actually carry out our programs are from Nigeria, Cameroon, Ecuador – and other countries in which we work.  They’re the folk who provide the missing pieces.  With their input we tweak our programs to work in their country – not the other way around. 

“Most educational funding in Latin America is for basic education – elementary reading and writing. But what’s next? There’s a lost age-group, 16-25, falling through the cracks.  They’ve completed mandatory primary education but don’t have job-related skills or computer competency.”  Shanyn has listened and heard them say, “In order to succeed we need more than education.  We need connections and experience.  Otherwise we’ll never get our foot in the door.”

And so, Shanyn’s Gifted Citziens’ award is being used to finance the training of 3,000 teachers in areas of extreme poverty and conflict zones by 2017.  “It is by far our biggest program. The video-based curriculum, designed for independent learners, combines with a written text and assessment. It can be used in rural areas – even those without access to internet and includes entrepreneurial training.

Shanyn told us how she came to be invited to The City of Ideas as a “Gifted Citizen.”  “Last year I was a guest lecturer at a conference in D.C. for young entrepreneurs.  There were several Mexican participants. One, an organizer for the City of Ideas, suggested I apply.

“The City of Ideas was an extraordinary opportunity to meet people with similar goals and visions.  We can supply support to one another as needed.  My gratitude for the opportunity to network with such an amazing group, not to mention the prize itself, is boundless.”

I still don’t know how to cash a “big check.”  But then, I don’t have one.  The internet says “big checks” are legal tender but I guess I’ll have to win one, or earn one, to find out if this is true.




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