Fundacion Paraguaya, Social Enterprise and the Poverty Stoplight

Martin Burt, ED of Fundacion Paraguayan and Eduardo, director of Poverty Stoplight

Asuncion         Our first successful contacts in Asuncion were with the Fundacion Paraguaya.  After weeks of sending emails without answer and puzzling over our problems, Martin Burt, the Executive Director of the Fundacion immediately answered my email, and almost as quickly we were having a lengthy Skype call, and he was offering his help, including the support of his super-efficient assistant, Sarah Hopper.  It turned out that Burt had a PhD in international relations from Tulane University in New Orleans and in his words was a “wannabe Cajun.”  It’s a small world!

The Fundacion Paraguaya is a huge nonprofit though with a major footprint in Paraguay and operations in a number of countries in the world from the United Kingdom to the United States to Argentina and various countries in South America and Africa.  The bulk of its $20 million annual budget, according to one of their 500 staff members, is its $16 million microfinance operation in Paraguay.  They also have integrated their operations into the Paraguayan educational system with social entrepreneurship programs in all 7000 schools in the country.  They registered a charity in the United Kingdom which also specializes in such programs.

When the Organizers’ Forum delegation met in the Fundacion’s offices most of our time was spent discussing a unique and interesting tool they had developed called the Poverty Stoplight.  The Stoplight focuses on an effective and blunt survey method where families, usually accompanied by some representative of the Fundacion or one of their partners, assesses their own relationship to poverty across fifty indicators by choosing red, yellow or green on the stoplight for each question.  A green assessment is a positive indicator of no problem, no poverty in that area, essentially.  A yellow indicates progress in ameliorating the poverty indicator, and red is the signal for a significant poverty issue.  The indicators are obviously not just financial, but include family violence, dental health, access to clean water, personal hygiene and sanitation systems, decent housing, and social capital, like knowing neighbors.  The Stoplight is in use in upstate New York, Stockton, California, Newcastle, England, South Africa, and Nigeria among other countries through their work with their partners.

Burt described the tool as allowing the “poor to own their own poverty,” meaning that it was a bottom-up assessment tool rather than a top down determination.  He also argued that the tool led to action, though that was harder for the delegation to follow closely.  The Fundacion argues that 80,000 people have used the tool with the bulk coming from their credit representatives interviewing families of the borrowers in their microfinance operations.  With their microfinance clients they have determined the rate to “get out of poverty” is three times faster using the Stoplight.  In some ways it seems the Stoplight is as effective as the partner’s ability to intervene depending on where the red lights are indicated.  Though there was a claim that the Stoplight could trigger necessary collective action and organizing, the delegation generally had difficulty in connecting the dots to see how that might evolve from simple use of the diagnostic tool, but we were all intrigued by it.

Martin Burt, unlike Mateo Balmelli, didn’t start the conversation by asking if we knew who he was, but at one point he mentioned something about having been mayor.  Later we googled his resume to find that he had been Commerce Minister in one government, chief of staff to the President in another, and Mayor of Asuncion for a number of years before returning again to direct the Fundacion.  From the awards and prizes he and the Fundacion have won in the social entrepreneur development world, they have clearing focused a bright beam from Paraguay to the rest of the world.

Martin Burt, Myself, and Willie Cosme listen to questions from the Organizers’ Forum delegation


Beulah Labostrie

Panama City, Panama     If it is possible to be a star of a documentary, Beulah Labostrie, the great national ACORN leader, as well as queen and inspiration of the organization and its successor in Louisiana and New Orleans, was just that. Having watched The Organizer in its festival releases and in groups of organizers, leaders, members, and other activists thirty or forty times all over the world, I’ve learned whole lines and paragraphs of the film by heart, but few of those lines both enliven and carry the weight of history as several of the interviews with Beulah reveal.

Early in the film she talks about coming into the organization not long after organizing began in New Orleans in the middle 1970s and how exciting it was to her to become a community activist and in her words learn about “city, state, and national government.”  Later in the documentary she says that “voter registration was the thing” she “likes most.”  Underlining that point, she smiles revealing that an example of how close it was to her heart was her willingness to “spend ten days on a bus for voter registration.”  The footage behind her voice shows ACORN leaders and members in the process of registering voters with the smile of Helen Miller, former president of SEIU Local 880, saying it all as she comes away from hitting the door of a future voter in the rural South.  Beulah with a shake of her head and a smile follows the bus comment by saying that after all that time “people were getting wild” and then with a breath adds, “and crazy” and in the background there is a picture of an African-American Chicago ACORN leader embracing an older white woman leader from Minnesota ACORN in front of the bus as they shouted and shook their fists.

Every audience loves this piece, and it shows the magic and mastery of Beulah Labostrie as a leader.  She listened and she offered her wisdom.  I never heard her raise her voice, though I have seen her calmly dress down many politicians and scores of others who violated her moral and organizational compass.  Neither was I exempt.  She was unsparing.  If she thought that I had gained a pound, she made sure to mention it to me.  For years we would make the drive to various board meetings together in Arkansas and elsewhere.  She would never sleep, keeping an eye on my driving, and from time to time offering me advice on maintaining my life with my family from dealing with my partner to raising our children.  What’s more, when she offered advice, I took it, and when I needed advice, I went looking for Beulah Labostrie.  Among ACORN and Local 100 leaders and staff, I was certainly not the only one.

Her leadership of the successful New Orleans campaign to raise the minimum wage in 2002 was epic.  We stood together when we stopped the Sewerage & Water Board privatization.  Her role in the organization in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina was a model of rock solid mentoring of new leaders and relentless conviction and courage.  Beulah had retired from traveling, but we sat together in New York City in the Fox News studios when we were interviewed by Megan Kelly.  I could tell Beulah Labostrie stories all day and every one of them would end with words of thanksgiving.

In the documentary there are scenes from her younger days giving an ACORN chant at one of the national conventions.  Every time I see these shots, I smile when I see the joy on her face as she rhythmically claps wearing an ACORN t-shirt as regal as unusual for her.

Towards the end of the documentary, she looks straight into the camera as she talks about the attacks on ACORN in 2009, and as she speaks she talks of her heartbreak at the media onslaught that “was mostly lies” and the way it was tearing down “our work,” but she stands strong in defense of ACORN, as she always did, and after a pause, poignantly says, “but that’s the story of us.”  Her words have the weight of mountains as the camera moves away.

When it comes to ACORN, Beulah Labostrie is “the story of us.”  She passed away at 96 and almost 97.  She was ready to go, but the rest of us weren’t ready to see her leave.  She will be greatly missed, but her spirit, her commitment, and her wisdom will always be here in our hearts and minds.