Inspirational Woman Interview: Vilma Saloj Chiyal

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Vilma Verónica Saloj Chiyal is a 25-year-old indigenous Guatemalan woman from the village of Chaquijá, outside of the city of Sololá. She has three sisters, two brothers, and supportive parents who believe in equitable education. Vilma has been working with Starfish since 2010 in the mentorship and education program. She is now the Director of the Starfish Impact School, an innovative all-girls school providing one-of-a-kind education to young indigenous girls from Sololá. Vilma’s passion is education. She believes that if all people, especially women, have education, then we can transform our country, our lives, and future generations.

Translation by Nami Patel, Communications Coordinator at Starfish

What is your background?

Vilma Saloj Chiyal: One of the biggest changes I experienced in my life was to have access to middle-school education in the largest city in my community. One male friend and I were the only two children from our village that were studying in Casco Urbano, and thus we were given the opportunity to interact with teachers who could speak very good Spanish and we got to know the ladino (non-indigenous) culture. It made me want to interact with people from different cultures.

I didn’t have many options after finishing middle school: it was agriculture, cooking, or textiles. In high school, I studied education. I originally wanted to be a doctor, and I wanted to get a scholarship so I could leave the country and study medicine in Cuba. That’s how I first came to Starfish: in search of a scholarship. However, I came once I had just graduated high school and Starfish offers university scholarships as part of their wraparound program — for girls that have been with Starfish since middle school. I spoke with Norma Baján, the In-Country Director, about other opportunities and she mentioned that they had some positions available. So at 18, I became a mentor. I wanted to work with young people as an educator or study medicine. During my career, I discovered that I loved watching the transformation of young people and I loved being involved in their growth.

I loved Starfish’s philosophy because it was all about women and it was a really structured plan outlining how to form female leaders. It caught my attention. In my first month here, we visited 100 houses to select 30 girls for the mentorship cycle. It was incredible to hear parents say, “My daughter is not going to study, she’s fine with just  5th grade education”, negative things like “She can’t do it.” But when you talked to the girls, you heard different words: “I want to study”, “I want to be a teacher, or an accountant.” These girls had their dreams but they were very hidden. It was like, “my parents decide whether or not I am going to study, or marry and stay at home.” After selecting the 30 girls and seeing the reality of many communities — even in my community I never saw anything like this —where you have families with 12 children and none of them have gone to school, communities so rural that they don’t have access to transportation, school, technology…after seeing this, I realized I wanted to work directly with the students.

In my first session as a mentor, I remember making a girl cry but just asking her name and where she was from. I didn’t know what to do, so I told her she could go home as I was worried about her wellbeing. I also worried she wouldn’t come back…but next week, she did. Something inspires these girls. I love what I do. So even though I’m not a medical doctor, I feel like with my personality and my empathy and my leadership I can “cure” many prejudicial norms and heal families. These girls are so resilient and can find positivity in something so difficult…I feel that they are my patients.

I feel so proud to see the metamorphosis in my girls. Now they are young women with diplomas, studying in university, able to make their own decisions.

You are the Director of the Starfish Impact School, a nonprofit organization in Guatemala with the mission of unlocking and maximizing the potential of young women to lead transformational change. Can you tell us more about the Impact School’s programs and its impact?

Vilma Saloj Chiyal: We have 3 fundamental pieces: the community, culture, and academics. We have created a strong network in the communities with local leaders and community groups so that there’s trust in our work and opportunities for our girls to seek leadership positions. We also work closely with families so that they grow with their girls, so that they can learn and change habits together. This work is important because the girls come from these families, these communities, and it’s important they are able to remain a part of them. The Starfish Impact School also has a specific culture that emphasizes high expectations, celebrates achievements, focuses on developing 6 competencies (vocal empowerment, an intercultural and collaborative support network, entrepreneurship and innovation, resilience, excellence, and critical thinking), and celebrates our identity as women, as indigenous peoples, as Mayan Kaqchickel, and as part of the Mayan cosmovision. Finally, our academics are based on the aforementioned 6 competencies and a mix of different curriculums, borrowing from the KIPP model and others, so that our students can compete for national and international scholarships when they graduate. Our educators are the backbone of our academics— that’s why Starfish invests so much in their staff and their professional growth.

Our impact is also threefold: the present, the short-term, and the long-term. The present impact we want to see is the creation of a culture of  confidence, security, and order for our students and a change of habits (this encompasses hygiene and health, but also personal values and communication).

Short term, we want to see development in their abilities to listen, write, read, and speak in Spanish, and we want to see a command of the 4 basic functions in mathematics.

Long term, our biggest dream is to be a model school on a national level and have an impact on the national education system. We also want our students to be eligible for scholarships at the best universities in Guatemala, and be able to take the TOEFL and access international scholarships too. Finally, we want our students to be local leaders and bring support and growth to their communities.

What do you enjoy the most about your work with Starfish?

Vilma Saloj Chiyal: I love the personal connection and attention we give our girls. I’m here, I listen — a world opens up when you listen to a girl — I can figure out how to help an abused mother, how to deal with a machista father. I love the involvement we have with families. It’s a very dynamic…dynamic! I feel so connected to my community through this work.

I also love that my job invests so much in their personnel. The capacity building, the follow up in the field — you don’t see that anywhere else.

On a personal level, why does women’s empowerment matter to you?

Vilma Saloj Chiyal: I was raised to see that there were no barriers for anyone, regardless of gender. So I loved that at a young age, my father took us into consideration when making household decisions, he would listen to our ideas and ask for suggestions. I very much like that I had a voice in the decision-making process. And then I’d see the world that exists right next to my world — the world where a woman is just a figure, a cultural symbol, something to use as a marketing tool. I think it is so important that every woman has her own voice, her own thoughts, and her own opinions. What I want is to break cycles of poverty in this way, and end traditional attitudes that dictate a woman should be quiet, shy, and have limitations.. And I think it is very important that a woman sources her power through her own thoughts.

In your opinion, what are the biggest structural barriers to girls’ education and women’s empowerment in Guatemala?

Vilma Saloj Chiyal: I think there are many. One of the biggest structural barriers is politics, where women don’t have a voice and a vote. In many communities, what the man says goes, so many women will vote as they are told even if they don’t agree with their husbands. Community organizations are almost always run by men and only the men go to meetings. If a woman goes, it is just to relay information back to her husband without having any choice in what happens in matters of infrastructure, etc. But if you go to a school, you’ll only see mothers. Why? Because the mentality is “oh, it’s just school, you can take care of that.” There’s no value placed on education, it’s always in second place, and fathers rarely come to check in with teachers. By the way, that’s also why we require both parents to be involved in their child’s education and attend mandatory parent meetings. The other thing is that when there is a female leader who is super empowered, she can have a lot of impact in the communities. But then comes along a machista man and he automatically overshadows her and tries to take her voice away.

Being from a rural area is a double challenge. We are also indigenous, so that’s another barrier.

For me, another structural barrier is the use of uniforms in schools. We discussed this a lot when we were planning Starfish Impact School: do we use uniforms, yes or no? Because in many schools you have to buy a uniform to get in. I think what happens then a lot of times with poor families is that they don’t have the resources to pay, or they feel that their cultural traditions aren’t being respected. Women here in indigenous communities wear traje (traditional clothing). So I think it should be each individual’s decision if they want to wear a uniform or not. From there, we can empower girls to take their own decisions with regards not only to how they dress but how they retain their identity.

Another barrier is access to quality education. Many times, especially in rural areas, the schools there are set up as semi-private so there is a fee but there are no resources. You have nowhere else to go and your only option doesn’t have access to technology, teachers have no training, and it’s not free. And so, what you have – I just looked up a statistic on this — you have let’s say of 15 girls that graduate elementary school in a rural community, 5 will drop out after that and the remaining 10 will have an opportunity to study. Of the 5 that drop out, there are different reasons as to why they leave, but that means 34% of girls in this community are not going to continue studying after elementary school.

So it’s very difficult in Guatemala. The other thing is that when girls share a classroom with boys, the boys stand out, the boys speak up, the boys are participating because there is this culture that encourages girls to stay quiet. When there are boys nearby, the girls are quiet. They prefer that Juan or José speak rather than Roxanna or Marisol. So, this part is really difficult and it’s very noticeable in elementary schools. There are very few all girls schools, particularly for indigenous girls and low-income girls.

Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?

Vilma Saloj Chiyal: For me, it’s my mother and my grandmother. My mother lost her father when she was 10, so she dropped out of school then to help my grandmother — it was just the two of them alone in the house. She was always a very hardworking woman, whether that meant working in the fields or being proactive and entrepreneurial. When she was 19, she learned jaspeado (a labor-intensive type of weaving), she sought support, and she was able to make a living. She and my grandmother travelled to nearby markets to sell her products, they went to the forest and cut down wood for the house, they worked in the fields tilling land for corn. They did everything.

My mother, as I mentioned, left school at a very young age but she always had a knack for math. She is super quick with math, I see her running numbers in her head when she’s doing business and I find it very impressive. She’s also constantly innovating — innovating herself, her products; she is a tireless woman.

My mother also has her voice and vote in the house. This is really important to me. My parents have always had good communication, and there’s equity between them. My father, a teacher, washes his own clothes because my mother is almost never in the house. My brothers too — they sweep, they mop, they cook, everything. There’s nothing like, “You are a woman, so you do this. You are a man, so you have certain privileges.” We continue promoting this idea that there is no difference between a man and a woman in terms of what you can do, what position you can hold, and what your role is in the house.

My grandmother is also so impressive, especially as of late. After my mother had her business set up, my grandmother began to accompany us to the markets and support the business. This is a woman who has only spoken Kaqchikel (a Mayan language). Now she can say thank you in Spanish, she can say up here no further, good day, good afternoon, what would you like to buy? We have many clients who only speak Spanish and so she has been learning phrases on her own and I think it’s beautiful. My sisters and I are in awe, sometimes wondering, “How is it that grandma can get home when the bus drivers only speak Spanish?” but she does it! It’s really interesting how much she has learned by just watching and listening. Now she has about 10 phrases she can say in Spanish. She is 71 years old and still learning new things.

What advice do you have for people who want to empower women through education?

Vilma Saloj Chiyal: I’d say the first thing is to make sure you have great passion for education and your work. There are people who will say things like, “You want to change the world? You alone?” or “How long will that take? You’re not going to do it just because you believe in education.” There will be those who devalue your work because “it’s just education.” My advice is to believe in what you are doing, believe in your work, and believe in the people you work with. For me, it’s seeing how they are part of a greater network of allies that can make this huge change happen. In this moment, we are seeing so many people talking about women’s empowerment and education around the world. So when we can make connections as an organization or as a country, we can create real transformation. Right now we are working on an individual level, so I’d say if you want to help connect us! Connect us through education, through women’s empowerment. Help create a space where we can all talk together about new strategies, about what’s happening around the world. I share the same belief as Malala when she talks in her book about having a magic pencil that can make anything come to life, just by drawing it. I think education is that magic pencil.

What are your favorite books, films, websites and resources related to women’s empowerment, education and social impact?

Vilma Saloj Chiyal: I love books about strong young girls, like María by Jorge Isaacs, Esperanza Rising, I Am Malala. Some websites I love for either resources or inspiration are: The Malala Fund, Mujeres Lideres, He for She, and Jess Weiner.

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