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The NGO as a working woman

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Paula Lucie-Smith


Alta stands as an example of what women working together can achieve, despite the odds being stacked against them. 


As a female-inspired and run organisation, Alta aims to be strong and independent, but to act from the heart. Have we been able to achieve these goals over the years? Let’s look at Alta, the NGO, as a working woman.


At Alta, some 300 volunteer tutors turn up twice a week, virtually every week for an academic year, with a core of tutors staying for five or more years. Two current tutors have served Alta for 20 years and counting. Both are female. What does this tell us? Women accept that work does not have to be paid to be valuable and valued.


A key motivator for women is their children. Many students have said to me, “My life was hard. I always feel left out—everybody else can read the words all around. I don’t want my children to be like me. So I have to learn to read and write to help them.” It is interesting that more men are coming to Alta saying this as well. 


Alta’s alertness to needs and responsiveness to them are what have made us strong, but equally important has been choosing the needs to respond to. Over the years, we have heard, 


“Alta should do classes for children.” 


“Why you all don’t do maths? or “What about having CXC English?” 


The short answer is this: check the first two words in the name of the organisation: adult literacy. As an NGO with very limited resources, it is vital to maintain focus and this too makes Alta strong. 


Acclaimed educator Richard Gerver recently came to Trinidad and in speaking about effecting change in education he said, “The vision must be powerful enough to engage others.”


This is Alta’s true source of strength: the high quality, committed people who have come as volunteer tutors…and stayed. Alta is strong because we respond to needs, we stay focused and we work together.


So Alta is strong, but are we independent? While Alta is independent in developing our programme, full independence is impossible when your clients don’t pay for their instruction. Alta has eked out a degree of independence by paying no teachers’ salaries. 


But that F word—funding—is the real obstacle to independence. Donors think like men and NGOs think like women. Donors look for the exciting, the glamourous, something new they haven’t tried yet—even if it is risky and may turn out to be all packaging and little substance. 


On the other hand, NGOs are looking to settle down with reliable, loyal partners so they can build something sustainable for the long term. If a donor gives Alta this year, that’s Alta done, who’s next? They need to share it around. Man talk. To consider Alta again, you have to give them something new—not the same old, the tried and tested. 


You have to re-create yourself just for them…and then they want ownership. But like Trini women, NGOs know that handing over ownership is tricky, especially when your partner has given no commitment, so NGOs do have to opt for multiple partners. 


So while Alta is strong, we cannot be fully independent. But reliable, long-term partners can make all the difference to us, to NGOs generally and to the society. 


Next week: Does Alta have heart?



Become a part of Alta. Volunteer, donate, spread the word. Alta volunteers are unpaid. Call 624-ALTA (2582) or e-mail [email protected] or find us on Facebook: ALTA Trinidad.


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