Submitted by Jorji Knickrehm, Grants Manager at Washington Community Alliance for Self-Help (or Washington CASH).

Figuring out how to foster new small businesses in low income communities is an ongoing passion here at Washington CASH. Yesterday, all twelve of our program staffers packed themselves into a small conference room, and tinkered for 4 hours with the curriculum of our core business development class. Maybe if we add a weekly lab to each of our classes, it will help more of our clients build businesses that will be around five years from now — businesses that will provide them with a living wage income and the happiness that comes from being self-determined. We’ve helped a lot of people, but we know there’s more out there with unfulfilled hopes.

Many times it is people who are new to the U.S. who encounter barriers as they try to get their feet under themselves financially. Tri Nguyen, for example, moved to Washington as a refugee from Southern Vietnam when he was 22 years old with his parents and two older brothers. “Before coming to America, we went overseas from Vietnam to Malaysia where we lived in a refugee camp for 7 years. We were then sent back to Vietnam for two more years, where we continued to await acceptance into the United States as political refugees. Finally, the United States government opened its doors and welcomed us to America, a free country we had been seeking for almost half of our lives.”

After spending two years learning English, he attended Highline Community College where he received his Associates degree before transferring to Washington State University and graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in education. While an undergraduate, Tri worked for two years with a cleaning company where 99% of employees were Vietnamese. His fluency in English allowed Tri to take on a management role within the company, which ultimately provided him the experience and knowledge necessary to start his own venture. “I started my own business to help fellow Vietnamese people by providing job opportunities here in America.”

Tri completed Business Development Training with Washington CASH in June 2009 and has since entered Business Groups, a program providing business support and access to capital in the form of peer loans. His new business, Tri Mountain Cleaning Services, Inc., offers both commercial and residential cleaning services, using only non-toxic products to create a safe environment for pets and children.

The name of his business, Tri Mountain Cleaning Services, Inc., stems not only from his first name, but for the three mountains he says complete his business: himself, family & friends, and Washington CASH. “My company cannot stand by itself. Before CASH, I didn’t know how to do the things necessary to open a business. Now I’m ready to go.”

While he currently has about ten regular customers and employees as needed, Tri envisions expanding to include about five new customers every month, opening more commercial accounts, and hiring more employees. “I was so excited when I got my first customer with Tri Mountain. In that moment, I knew I was going to be successful. Even though it was a small contract, it was a big moment. Owning my own business has given me confidence I never knew I had.” Figuring out how to help more people get that great feeling of empowerment; that’s what gets us out of bed in the morning at Washington CASH.

This post was contributed by Ian Anderson, Machik Intern and Summer Enrichment Program Coordinator

A mixture of excitement and uncertainty hung in the air as the volunteers for the Machik Summer Enrichment Program (SEP) met in Chengdu for the first time before students arrived and classes began. We were volunteer teachers and facilitators from diverse backgrounds: Tibetans, Chinese, Canadians, and Americans. We were high school, university, and graduate students as well as working professionals. Students came not only from the Chungba Schools and Litang County, as in the past, but from all over the Tibetan plateau. This was the first summer for the scaling up of the SEP, and this time the program incorporated almost a hundred volunteers and students in total.

With such a large number of volunteers, our programming opportunities were virtually limitless. Each of the volunteers had a unique background and skill-set. While some volunteers taught English and Chinese classes, some turned out to be expert seamstresses who taught students how to fabricate pillows and clothing in a North American style. Others shared their knowledge of yoga, painting or dramatic improvisation. I was lucky enough to be one of the leaders of a music section, where the students learned how to perform basic songs on the recorder. To teach this class was a joy. The students were excited and engaged, absorbing the notes and melodies with ease. By the time the end of the week came and our small group was ready to perform, all the students had obtained the fundamental skill of reading music and were able to transform the notation they saw on the page into something beautiful.

Teaching is not a one-way street. The students who arrived from various communities on the Tibetan Plateau brought with them different backgrounds and experiences that they were eager to share. Through day-to-day interactions and chats, visits to local museums, and Tibetan sites, the students took great pride in instructing us, the volunteers, in multiple aspects of their cultural heritage.

The students, who came from very dissimilar and often remote parts of the Tibetan plateau, would also often compare notes about differences among each other’s experiences, underlining the richness and variety of Tibetan culture. I think the magic of the SEP came from the sharing of these unique experiences. Volunteers and students alike forged friendships and new connections that not only enriched and changed how we perceive the world, but also created new channels to engage in the important task of talking and thinking together about how to create a better future.

What Machik does–and does well–is to open the door to a new and hopeful future by helping to build the capacity of communities on the Tibetan plateau. The Summer Enrichment Program is an important part of Machik’s efforts to help improve education in rural Tibetan communities, and will touch the lives of an even greater number of students as it continues to grow in the future. I’m so proud to have been a part of this amazing and important work.

I’m heading out for Peru tomorrow to check out Cusco and Machu Picchu, completely sans guilt about missing a week of class.  Being an anthropology major allows me to justify just about any sort of travel as “experiential learning,” especially in this case since I have a test on Incan culture and religion the day after I get back, so what better way to prepare than by seeing the Sacred Valley in person? Right? Right. Anyway, I’m feeling economical today, and so before my somewhat feisty Internet goes out again I want to start a conversation about the economic situation here, especially as related to poverty and inequality. The following information come from the 2008 United Nations Human Development Report website, so pop on over and brush up on your global statistics if you are so inclined.

  • Using the UN’s Human Development Index (a combined measure of education, life expectancy, and income), Chile ranks 40th out of 179 countries, just between Poland and Slovakia
  • There is a high degree of income inequality: using the UN Gini coefficient as a measure, Chile ranks 40th in the world (as in, 39 countries have less income inequality than Chile).
    • A Gini coefficient of 0 represents absolute income equality, while 100 represents absolute inequality. Chile’s is 54.9.
  • The GDP per capita is $12,997 (56th in the world), compared to $41,890 in the U.S (2nd in the world).
  • According to a study on socioeconomics conducted by the Chilean government in 2006, 13.7% of the population was living in poverty as compared with 38.6% in 1990 and 45.1% in 1987 during Pinochet’s military regime.
  • The minimum wage is $144.000 pesos per month (about $260 US dollars)

The Concertación government, a center-left coalition that has been in power since 1990, has made significant social and economic progress since the end of Pinochet’s regime, and Chile is one of the most economically and politically stable countries in Latin America. However, it still faces significant problems with poverty and inequality. One article I read for my Chilean Politics and Economics class (“Chilean Economic Policy under the Concertación: The Triumph of the Market?” by Lois Hecht Oppenheim if you want a bit of policy analysis) holds that the “Chilean miracle” that resulted from a decade and a half of militant neoliberalism under Pinochet, followed by only minor adjustments has left a market-and-export based economic model that has overlooked other areas of social improvement like education and access to it, gender equality, and classism. Furthermore, Chile’s economy is almost entirely based on primary products: fruit, wine, copper, and nitrates. Unless Chile can eventually diversify it’s economy to include services, it is unlikely to see much more economic growth.

Along with this, chilenos I’ve talked to have mentioned a fairly rigid system of social classes. The other day, my host mom was describing the difficulty of moving up from lower middle class as a direct product of a lack of educational access. College tuition is prohibitively expensive for many students, even those with great academic potential. Scholarships exist, but are limited. Families that can afford it send their children to private schools, though public schools and state-subsidized private schools (similar to charter schools in the U.S) are more common, and suffer from underfunding and overcrowding. Classism is a much bigger problem in Chile than racism or ethnic discrimination, since 90% of the population shares Mestizo (mixed European and indigenous) heritage. Friends that volunteer at Cerro Navia Joven, a nonprofit community organization that serves the a poor area in the western sector of Santiago, reported that many of the people at the center need to lie about where they live in order to get hired anywhere. To admit to being from a bad neighborhood would doom them to unemployment.

Much, much more on these topics to follow. I just wanted to put a few themes up for now, so stay tuned!