Stories, Musings & The Vision Thing

Tag: social change

2 women + 1 innovative idea = 7,500,000 lives transformed

Where does an innovative idea come from? Do you wake up one day and say, “okay, time for a change?” Does it come in a flash of inspiration? Or blossom like a desert flower?


photo by Moyan Brenn

I think innovative ideas come from struggle tempered by experience. They grow from the desire to meet a challenge, solve a problem, make a difference. That’s what happened to two women teaching in El Alto, Bolivia, one of the poorest countries in Latin America.


photo from the Pro Mujer site

In 1990 Lynne Patterson and Carmen Velasco were teaching young children in Bolivia. They realized to really help the children break out of the cycle of poverty, they would have to help their mothers.


Carmen and Lynne from the early days of Pro Mujer

Most of the mothers struggled with poverty, couldn’t read or write, were plagued by disease, abuse and often lived without hope. Lynne and Carmen clearly saw the need for change, but how to do it?

They also saw hard-working women who would do anything to make a better life for their children. They needed opportunity and a support system. In what they call their “kitchen table” effort, Lynne and Carmen decided they would find an innovative way to pry open opportunity’s door.


Pro Mujer photo

They set up a training program where the mothers could learn, support and encourage each other. Lynne and Carmen taught basic skills in business, health and leadership. They soon realized that these women needed access to capital in order to put what they were learning into practice.


Pro Mujer photo

With a small grant from USAID, they added financial services and micro-lending to their health and human development teaching – taking a holistic approach to helping the women and their families. They called their efforts Pro Mujer (For Women) and  today it’s one of Latin America’s most successful development and micro-finance organizations for women.


photo from the Pro Mujer site

Here’s a video from the Pro Mujer site that shows how one woman’s family was helped by their efforts:


Pro Mujer builds solidarity, the women help each other and learn from each other. It has a loan repayment rate of 99+%. Lynne and Carmen built the organization to a certain point, then turned it over to professional management so it could offer a greater variety of financial help to the women.

The video below is a striking example of what their innovative approach was able to accomplish. While the first video is more folksy, more immediate, this one is more elegant and yet strangely distant. Still, both of them leave you with similar feelings and both get their message across.

If you want to learn more, here’s a podcast presentation with Lynne describing the origins and goal of Pro Mujer.


photo from the Pro Mujer site

Perhaps it all comes down to determination. Lynne and Carmen just kept moving forward, taking a simple idea, building on it, nourishing their vision until it developed a life of its own. I’m sure they are forceful, committed people. I’m sure they also have a bit of the dreamer in them. You have to think big and push to make things happen. But when you do, and keep at it, you can surprise yourself with what you can accomplish. That’s the power of their dedicated partnership and devotion to the innovative idea that became Pro Mujer – it’s transformative.  Millions of people can attest to that.


Lynne Patterson and Carmen Velasco in a photo from Pro Mujer

Lynne and Carmen are not unique. There are other people in the development community who have traveled a similar path, made similar discoveries, found similar solutions. But this story doesn’t end with them.

I’d like to leave you with one last image. Because beyond the rhetoric and the statistics, it all comes down to helping one generation make a better life for the next. That’s something any parent would want for their child. And perhaps that is the greatest gift that these two women have left to so many others.


JR Is Changing the Way You See Things

Street artist JR creates work on a grand scale, putting a human face on some of the world’s poorest communities.  He might show up in a shantytown or favela, photograph people he finds there, blow up their images and paper their neighborhood with the results.  Where Christo would wrap buildings and bridges to recast a city as a surreal abstraction, JR creates a different cityscape, working with photos of people to construct a heightened reality.  His images celebrate his subjects while insisting on your attention, bringing new meaning to the phrase “larger than life.”  There’s an enormous sense of humanity there.  

NYT Photo JR in his studio

In a recent NYT article he talked about why he does it:  “I think it comes from several things.  Firstly, a real curiosity about the world.  Then there’s the fact that one of the things that touches me most is injustice.  I’m of mixed origins – North Africa, Eastern Europe, Spain – and this generation today, we’re all a little bit from everywhere.  I was born in France, but I feel comfortable everywhere – I don’t see the borders.”

He recently opened his expressionistic film in France, Women Are Heroes.  The trailer is hypnotic as it juxtaposes scenes of daily life in some of the world’s most forlorn communities, moments spent with the people who live in them, and speeded-up footage of JR’s gigantic photos being affixed to the structures that populate those places.  

He’s recently won a TED prize, $100,000 for “one wish to change the world.”   Here’s a great blog and another where you can see some images of JR’s Work.  His work reminds me of James Agee‘s profiles and Walker Evans‘ portraits of sharecroppers from the book “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.”  Although separated by years and genres, each found a way to bring attention to people hidden from view.  As JR sees it, “To change the way you see things is already to change things themselves.”