We’ve all been told that mother knows best. Lorena Aguilar Revelo is the perfect example of an activist and leader who draws on her mothering skills. She was born in San José, Costa Rica, and is an anthropologist with a major in Cultural Ecology. After a decade of intensive field research in rural Central America, Lorena has gained recognition as an international messenger for a new way of working with communities. Her mission is demonstrating that true grassroots participation, particularly by women, is a vital step in achieving sustainable development worldwide. She is helping policy makers and technicians understand that projects and conservation efforts should be created, executed and evaluated by local people in order to make real progress.
Her colleagues told me that beyond Lorena’s many accomplishments, this mother of three is truly appreciated for her personal style and warmth. Lorena shared that in her dual roles as mother and advocate, she has learned alternative means of exercising power, to value different methods of negotiation, and also the importance of a smile. I saw these qualities up close meeting with her, along with her husband and son, at a seaside town in Costa Rica. Lorena’s genuine concern for others (she was late for our interview because they stopped roadside to pick up some lost German tourists) and her infectious laugh, made me feel right at home. Our first meeting felt more like a reunion with an old friend.
When I asked what led Lorena to her field of work, she told me when she was a very young girl, her father had a coffee plantation and required that she pick coffee beans to earn money. In the fields she met many people who didn’t have shoes, or even homes. She questioned this stark difference to her own situation and began to understand that not everybody has the same possibilities in life. She saw these were kind people and hard workers, yet they had few opportunities to improve their living conditions because they didn’t have assets for better education or access to credit.
When Lorena became pregnant with her first child, she realized she would work in rural development because she wanted other mothers to have the options she did to raise their kids in a safer environment. “My life has been good, so I’m doing this because I want other moms to have the happiness I’ve had raising my own children,” she said.
Through her work with the World Conservation Union, Lorena sees many global poverty initiatives not able to fulfill needs because they’re putting money in the wrong pockets. She remembers, “When I worked with women in El Salvador, whenever they had income from their activities they were always so proud to declare, ‘I’m going to put my kids through school.’ You never heard mothers say, ‘I’m going to buy a new piece of land or I’m going to build three times my house.’ No, they would put their children in school.” Lorena points to studies they have conducted in Latin America, Asia and Africa that show when the same amount of money goes to women, 75 to 95% of the resources are invested in improving life quality for their family. “Mothers are always thinking about their kids first in general, and that’s worldwide. I haven’t met a mother- well, a few of them- who doesn’t put her kids first in the agenda,” she explained.
Lorena says her biggest challenge is the environmental sector has not recognized women, even though they continue to use women in many ways. For example, recycling campaigns: women manage and operate them in most rural communities. Yet when programs and policies for recycling are developed, women are often absent during the process. Lorena knows women play a vital role in the management of natural resources and so her major task for the World Conservation Union is to convince authorities of the importance of involving women in policy development, and at the same time, help women in developing countries acquire the necessary advocacy skills and have access to resources that will improve their living conditions.
To achieve this goal, Lorena is mobilizing women and mothers in Costa Rica and around the world to use their voice and become part of the environmental agenda. She works with thousands of women at the community level, organizing through friendships and the most basic networks. “We work with women in the field, bringing them to speak, teaching them how to speak and to not be afraid of speaking. The key is, they don’t speak for themselves, they speak for the needs of their families and children,” she said. Lorena adds, “When you help them to speak out, at the beginning, it’s very difficult. A lot of them are damn scared of talking or expressing themselves. But then, they break the ice and become very, very powerful women with their voice. Later on you can’t stop them! And by speaking, they don’t lose anything. They lose the most by remaining silent.”
Lorena tells me that through her life, mothers have touched her in many ways and they have taught her that life is about enjoying what you have, fighting for it and doing the best you can. “If women can walk every day eight hours to bring home a pail of dirty water, how can we complain about what we don’t have? I haven’t enough time? I have to run from work to this and that? No, I can’t complain about those things with my new parameters in life,” she says. Lorena believes what has changed her is the raw courage of women around the world.
I ask Lorena to share her advise to busy mothers who feel overwhelmed by their sense of domestic responsibility, yet want to be contributing more to the world outside their home. “One thing I would tell those who are looking to make a difference is that as a mother, you have a tremendous amount of activities that you conduct within society. You don’t have to be outside the household to be seen. I think that mothers have to understand that they do work,” she says emphatically. She finds it funny, yet sad when she asks women in rural areas if they work- mothers with 11 kids, doing everything in the home- and they say, “No, I don’t work. I help my husband.” And how many hours? “Eight hours. He needs help.” She reminds me how many hours of work women put in to maintain our society within households. “If someone had to pay for it, most families wouldn’t have enough resources to pay for taking care of kids, washing, cooking, cleaning, driving to schools and doctors, and the rest. Even if they’re not in the public sphere, there’s so much that women do,” says Lorena. We discuss how most societies have not given true value to the work of being a mother.
Lorena also believes reaching out to someone makes a mother’s life easier and more rewarding–so find the time. “Find the time to do small things like recycle, plant a tree, play in the grass with your kids, ride a bike–but stop complaining about how much you have to do. There’s no use in complaining. I stopped it many years ago because I realized this is it, I have no choice. I’d better get accustomed to it, enjoy it and try to get the best out of it. If life gives you lemons, make lemonade or a margarita!” chirps Lorena.
When I ask how she does it all, Lorena gives much credit to her husband Eric. “I know Eric has been a fundamental part because we’re a functioning unit. Sharing the responsibility of parenthood, in the cases that it’s possible, is the best way for families to thrive.” she says. She is grateful that Eric is teaching her son Sergio that things can be different-that doing household chores is not a woman thing, that being soft and sweet is not just a woman thing- that it’s okay for men to be like that. This is our balance.”
Lorena tells me the force that drives her efforts for the environment is her children and grandchildren. “You need to think about the future and act because it doesn’t end when you die. You leave a legacy and want a better life for those who are coming. I don’t want my grandsons to say, ‘Why are the forests destroyed, why didn’t your generation do anything?’ At least I can look at them and say I did, I tried.”
By: Amie Nelson