Curt Bowen ’08 speaks about Semilla Nueva, non-profit work

Dylan Tull

Whitman alumni Curt Bowen ’08 and Joseph Bornstein ’08 work with farmers in rural communities in Guatemala, one of the most malnourished countries in Central America, and in three short years built from the ground up a successful non-profit organization called Semilla Nueva. Bowen and Bornstein, executive director and associate director of Semilla Nueva, respectively, collaborate with small communities of farmers to improve farming technology by introducing no-till conservation tillage, agro-forestry and green manures to their volunteer communities, which have already begun to see higher crop yields.

Contributed: Curt Bowen

Bowen and Bornstein developed their interest in sustainable agriculture while at Whitman where they founded Whitman Direct Action in 2005.   They have since continued to work with current club members, overseeing summer projects in one of the organization’s volunteer communities.

Bowen will be visiting Whitman on Friday, Dec. 9, at 4 p.m. in Olin 157, to speak about Semilla Nueva and engage students’ interest in sustainable development and non-profit work. Bowen will also address the challenges of starting a non-profit organization in a third-world country and the fun and satisfaction that can be found in the work.

The Pioneer had the opportunity to speak with Bowen and hear more about Semilla Nueva and how he started such a successful organization just three years out of Whitman.

The Pioneer: Can you tell me what Semilla Nueva is, and what the goals of the organization are?

Curt Bowen:   Semilla Nueva is a 501(c)(3) non-profit based out of Oregon, and we do sustainable agriculture and community organization in Guatemala. What we basically do is we work with small communities of farmers on the Pacific Coast to create groups of farmers that experiment with new technology. So we’ll go into a community and try to find maybe between five or ten volunteers that are interested in trying new technologies, we’ll introduce those new technologies, and we’ll work with the farmers so that they can actually try them on their own land, learn how to run experiments to see how well it does economically and environmentally, and then we help train them in ways to effectively communicate and share those new technologies with their community.

Pio: How widespread is Semilla Nueva? How many villages do you work with?

CB: We currently work with ten communities in Guatemala. Each community has anywhere from 100 to 250 families, and those are big families. Most families have around fifteen people in them. These communities . . . they may look small: they may not have many houses: but they have a huge amount of people, and so affecting one community can make a difference in thousands of people’s lives.

Pio: How many volunteers are a part of Semilla Nueva? Are they from the United States and Guatemala?

CB: Our field team is mainly Guatemalan and American, and we normally have between two to five international volunteers that are helping out with the project. And then we have three to four paid staff depending on what time of year it is. In terms of community interaction, I’d say we have about sixty farmers who are engaged in the program right now in those ten communities.

Pio: Why did you decide to found this organization? And when?

CB:  We pretty much started it right after graduation. Basically through Whitman Direct Action, we had a chance to work with a lot of different non-profits, and we realized that there were a lot of problems with most of the models that we interacted with: either poor accountability to communities [or] bad technology choices. We just weren’t that stoked on what they were doing, and we realized if we wanted to do something, a really good place to start would be to just build our own organization. And luckily we also had experience of doing WDA projects, where we tried to do developments in India [and] in Central America, and learned from a lot of those mistakes, and that helped us feel pretty confident that we’d have the ability to build a good foundation for a non-profit. So really it came from being very passionate about development work, having a chance to try it at Whitman, and then realizing that we could do a pretty could job at it, and then wanting to continue with that and really run with it.

Pio: How were you able to create this organization within three years? It seems like a very short time to create such a successful organization.

CB: A lot of hard work. That’s the key. I think the most important thing is that a lot of our first year, which was 2009, was spent learning, trying different things, and actually figuring out what worked and what didn’t and getting an idea for how we wanted to build the organization. Semilla Nueva’s programs, like the really formal programs, didn’t begin until 2010. And so that first year we had a lot of chance to try different things and really figure out what worked. But I mean, really it just came down to a lot of really, really hard: oftentimes not paid: work by the people who put the organization together and the volunteers that supported it.

Pio: Do you have any advice for students going into the non-profit field?

CB: Yeah, try it! That is the most important thing. If you’re interested in it, if you can get a summer internship, if you can find a program where you can volunteer or get a paid position, that is the most important thing. I think that the best thing we had running for us, Joseph and I, was that during our undergrad, pretty much every summer we had a chance to go try a new activist project and then come back and reflect on it. I think that before you have a decent idea of the field and what good non-profit work is, you have to go through that process for a number of years; where you go try stuff, you see where it goes well, where it doesn’t go well, you have to go through that process through a number of years.

Whitman is a really good environment for that because you do have time off, and you also have time to come back and study. That’s the most important thing: just realizing that people go into development with this mindset that they can make this huge change right off the bat. And really, development is like any other career: It’s something that takes a long time to get good at and a long time to be able to reflect on and have a chance to actually hone those skills so that you can make a real difference. There’s going to be problems with agriculture, farmers, climate change or legal rights for indigenous people: all these things we’re going to have problems with for the next 50 or 60 years, and so it’s having the mindset that you need to take the time to do it well. And to learn to do it well, and to care about it enough that you can actually spend a decent chunk of your time doing it. Otherwise people try really hard and they just burn out.

Pio: What are the current goals of Semilla Nueva?

CB: We’re hoping to continue the work with the 10 communities that we have and getting our model to be more effective. I think what we’re looking for in the long run is getting to a point where we know that there is significant environmental, social and economic benefits to the work that we do. We want to know that, if a dollar gets donated to our organization, that that means many, many more dollars for the farmers that we partner with. And we also want to know that it’s making a real difference in the farmers’ lives. And so looking at that over the long term, we want to continue developing our model because it’s something that’s in progress right now.

And secondly, we’re really looking at getting more Guatemalan staff and turning into a more Guatemalan organization. That’s something that you can only do over a long period of time because you have to learn how to manage people from a very different culture and a very different community, and actually raise enough money to pay them, and also find the right people.

Pio: Is there anything else you want to mention that I didn’t necessarily ask?

CB:  Yeah, I think that it’s really important that students at Whitman have a really good opportunity to learn about development and that getting your hands dirty is the best way to supplement all the theoretical learning that you are doing right now.

There’s a lot of people I know who did study abroad and got to spend some time going through Spain or Africa or wherever, and partying with friends and taking courses, but some of the best ways you can really learn about another culture is actually living there in a non-academic setting and then reflecting on that later. So . . . I think Whitman should develop more opportunities for that.