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March 12, 2018 by

Sandinistas and the Upper West Side

Members of the Women's Network feed children in Tipitapa, Nicaragua. The Women's Network is run by Nicaraguan women and is aiming to become self-sustaining—and not rely on international donations.

Members of the Women’s Network provide meals for children in Tipitapa, Nicaragua. The Women’s Network is run by Nicaraguan women and aims to not rely on international donations.

For more than 30 years, social justice activist Donna Katzin has participated in a Sister City project that links Manhattan’s Upper West Side and Tipitapa, Nicaragua. The relationship has primarily involved raising money for programs that help impoverished children eat at least one nutritious meal per day. It’s a daunting undertaking, since between 25 and 30 percent of the country’s residents live on a daily income of less than two U.S. dollars.

Even more challenging, Katzin and Tipitapa Partners understand that Nicaragua’s feeding centers need to reduce their reliance on international largesse. This is why they are working with the newly formed Women’s Network/Red de Mujeres to establish a sustainable model that will feed and educate Nicaragua’s most vulnerable children into the foreseeable future.

Katzin, one of three volunteer co-chairs of Tipitapa Partners, spoke to Eleanor J. Bader from her office at Shared Interest, a New York City-based organization that helps small enterprises and emerging farms combat unemployment and poverty in Mozambique, South Africa, and Swaziland. She had just returned from a five-day trip to Tipitapa.

Eleanor J. Bader: How and why did the Sister City relationship with Tipitapa begin?

Donna Katzin: In the 1980s, the U.S. funded numerous efforts to stop socialism and communism. Our tax dollars supported the Contras in Nicaragua and supported reactionary forces in other parts of Central America and in the Middle East. Because of these policies, a group of progressive, pissed off people on Manhattan’s Upper West Side came together and formed The Committee for Non-intervention in Central America. It was very grassroots. We had many committees, one of which suggested that we not only do solidarity work, but also begin a people-to-people relationship. The Nicaraguan government at that time—the Sandinistas—had created a special office to normalize Sister City relationships and we wrote to the newly formed government ministry to express our desire to be paired with a Nicaraguan locale. We heard nothing for a really long time. Then, after many months, we received a letter telling us that we were now the Sister City of Tipitapa.

None of us had ever heard of Tipitapa so we got out a map and discovered that it is located on the Pan American Highway, near Managua. If you fly into Managua and go right when you leave the airport, you’re in Tipitapa. The letter came to us in early 1987, and in May four of us went down and were received by the government. Within the next few years, we twinned 10 Upper West Side schools with schools in Tipitapa and raised between $10,000 and $20,000—I no longer remember the exact amount—for special projects.

EJB: How did Tipitapa Partners go from aiding schools to funding nutrition programs?

DK: First, let me backtrack and tell you a bit more about the history. In 1990, after almost three years of working together, we brought 10 people to Nicaragua to monitor the national elections. We were devastated when the results came in and we learned that the Sandinistas had lost. But the day after the election, the Deputy Mayor of Tipitapa came to see us. He told us that the people in Tipitapa would not let the electoral defeat sweep away the social programs that the Sandinistas had created, and he wanted to encourage us to continue our efforts. Shortly thereafter, a core group of people who had been involved in Sister City work in the region formed a nonprofit called COMPALCIHT, Asociacion Coordinadora Municipal del Proyecto de Ciudades Hermanas de Tipitapa, and we determined to keep doing the work we’d begun in 1987. Since then, we’ve raised approximately $60,000 a year; we also send groups to Tipitapa every two or so years. When we go, we meet with people to see what is happening, assess the need, and hear what people have to say.

Most residents of Tipitapa are extremely poor and hunger is rampant. Since the early 1990s, our fundraising has primarily gone to help four feeding centers, located in four distinct areas of the municipality, that provide meals to kids who are between the ages of three and five. Schools and pre-schools now feed older kids and the government recently assumed responsibility for feeding the three-to-five-year-olds. But we learned that there was absolutely nothing for the very youngest kids, those under the age of three. Of course, the feeding centers often provide food to older children, too––kids who fall through the cracks, who may not go to school regularly for whatever reason––but the general mission is to serve the littlest kids.

In addition, the money we’ve raised has also been used for a few water projects, providing clean drinking water in communities where none had previously been available. 

EJB: Is Tipitapa Partners still raising money for these types of projects?

DK: Yes and no. Needless to say, this work has been incredibly gratifying but it is also unsustainable if it is totally dependent on grants. Worse, over the years, we’ve seen the need for support programs grow, not shrink. This is because Tipitapa’s population has mushroomed; people move to the area thinking that there are jobs, and to some extent they’re right. There are Free Trade Zones in Tipitapa that employ about 30,000 people, but the wages are so low that the workers still need the feeding centers to provide meals for their sons and daughters. And although other groups—such as World Vision and Convoy of Hope—also work in Tipitapa, we’ve worked with COMPALCIHT to develop a model that we think will make Tipitapa less reliant on donations from outsiders.

About a year ago, COMPALCIHT decided to organize a network of mothers, called Red de Madres, to give young moms the technical support to care for undernourished kids in their neighborhoods. They wanted to create a plan to get the kids fed. Every one of the women in leadership knows what it means to be a low-income woman in Nicaragua. That’s who they are; this is not a top-down project. During our visit to Tipitapa last month, we were able to witness the opening of the Gracias a Dios / Thanks to God feeding center in the Oronte Centeno neighborhood of Tipitapa. It is one of 10 neighborhood-based programs, all of them feeding kids highly nutritious, delicious, soy-based foods from recipes that the mothers developed and taste-tested.

 EJB: Tell me a bit more about the Women’s Network.

DK: Ten neighborhoods are part of the Women’s Network. Each includes a committee that elects three people to the Network’s General Assembly. Nine communities have already selected 27 women; one more community still has to hold elections. In total, the leadership body will be 30 women. There are also subcommittees that are focused on health and economic self-sufficiency, among other things. The Network has a strong feminist consciousness, and several weeks ago they launched 10 feeding centers in each of the 10 participating neighborhoods and have fed a total of 567 kids one hearty, tasty meal a day. They do this five days a week.

All told, 90 women are involved; almost all of the leaders are young, and many of them had never before been part of an organization. Some older women who’ve been in the Sandinista movement are working alongside them.

Right now, almost all of the feeding centers are located in people’s homes, but before they opened the women were able to take advantage of classes and training programs to teach them about sustainability; there were programs run by COMPALCIHT in market assessment, creating a business plan, and financial management. This is intended to ensure that the feeding centers are as self-reliant as possible—with the ultimate goal of complete financial independence so that they can move out of people’s homes and into freestanding community-supported buildings. So far, all of the businesses they’ve established are food related—selling traditional Nicaraguan delicacies—but they are likely to expand and diversify their offerings, perhaps selling hand-made textiles or hammocks.

This whole enterprise is new. The Women’s Network came together about a year ago, and it is really exciting. Everything officially launched on February 19th. For me, after 30 years of working with Tipitapa Partners, it’s gratifying to see our companeras recreating themselves in a completely grassroots way; in the process, they’re building women’s power. Many organizations like ours, after a 30-year run, operate more or less on automatic pilot. By working through COMPALCIHT, Tipitapa Partners has helped catalyze a movement that is led by 90 mothers who are taking their survival into their own hands. It’s been amazing.

We all recognize that times have changed. In the U.S., we know that we have to do solidarity work that goes beyond same old, same old. Tipitapa Partners is strategic, looking at ways that empower women in a time of extreme income inequality and climate change. We know that we have to be flexible and creative.

The Sandinistas came back into power in 2007, and they are trying to improve conditions for the poor. Still, to see new life, a new expression of solidarity with women finding their voices and power—and organizing themselves independent of us and independent of all political parties—has been incredible. It has encouraged members and supporters of Tipitapa Partners to think about how we can recreate ourselves to be as effective as possible at this exciting time.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.