The following is a conversation between Ken Baker, co-founder and CEO of Glasswing International, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.

Denver: In 2007, Glasswing International was founded based on the knowledge that communities in Latin America face health and education challenges on a grand scale. Their mission is to address the root causes and consequences of violence and poverty through programs that empower youth, mobilize communities, and strengthen public systems. And to learn more about how they go about this work and the impact that it has had, it’s a pleasure to have with us, Ken Baker, the co-founder and CEO of Glasswing International.

Welcome to The Business of Giving, Ken.

Ken Baker, co-founder and CEO of Glasswing International

Ken: Thank you, Denver. Really appreciate you having me.

Denver: Glasswing started some 15 years ago. Tell us how this all began and what your mission is.

Ken: About 15 years ago, my wife and I, Celina de Sola, who’s a co-founder with me,  we were living in the US, and I was working for a nonprofit, and she was getting her Master’s in Public Health. And I had worked in the private sector and in the public sector and also in the nonprofit sector. And we had most recently worked at AmeriCares, a foundation in Connecticut, based in Connecticut.

And we were doing a lot of work around the world. And we decided that what we wanted to do was be closer to where the problems and the challenges that we wanted to address were. And Celina, being Salvadorian, it made a lot of sense to go to El Salvador and see what was up and see where we could help.

And when we got to El Salvador, along with her brother, Diego de Sola, we ended up founding Glasswing to address some of the things that you briefly mentioned. But also to try to, at least from my side, to try to create and build a strong NGO in the developing world that could do the work directly on the ground, make the decisions, put its objectives together, hire leadership locally.

And so for me, a lot of what I was hoping to accomplish was to create an organization that was on the ground and making decisions locally in the developing world, where businesses and nonprofits– a lot of times they are directed from the US or Europe or the developed world. So I really wanted to change that paradigm or at least give it a shot.

Denver: Mm-hmm. Glasswing is an interesting name. What’s the significance of it?

Ken: Celina and I were trying to find something that was symbolic of the area. And a glasswing is a butterfly from Central America and Mexico and Southern Mexico, and it has translucent wings. And so it represents obviously the regeneration and change, positive change, and to a butterfly, the trajectory that a butterfly has. And it also represents transparency and that you can see through the wings that you can see right through. So we found it very appropriate. It’s a little bit of a different name for a nonprofit. When you choose a name like that, it’s not quite clear what you do.

Denver: But at least you’ve got a story. So you’re giving your take with it and stuff like that. Yeah, I think it’s a great name, I think in terms of being indigenous to the area, the whole concept of metamorphosis. And these are strong little guys; they can carry up to like 45 times their weight. So there’s a lot of things that really become symbolic of the kind of organization that you want. 

When we think about Latin America, we think about these levels of violence. And I know they’re among the world’s highest. Give us some statistics that illustrate that level of violence.

Ken: At different times, you can say that this has the highest homicide rate in the world, even in urban areas. Glasswing is in 10 countries, but a lot of our work is in the Northern Triangle, which is Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. And when you talk about the Northern Triangle, you are talking about violence that is pretty consistently really difficult and difficult to deal with.

And so you’re talking about some of the highest in the world, and the youth mortality rate, highest in the world. You’re also talking about misogyny and gender abuse and things… they have really high, statistically, ranking in the world. So you’re talking about an area with a lot of positives going for it, but some serious challenges ingrained into the infrastructure of the society.

Denver: Yeah. That’s interesting what you said about gender and domestic abuse, because I think a lot of people are thinking about gangs. And that certainly is part of the equation, but as you say, it’s even more widespread than that. I saw a stat on your website which was startling– I think Central America has about 8% of the world’s population and 37% of its homicides. Would that be right?

Ken: Probably Latin America. Yeah.

Denver: Latin America, I meant to say, yes.

Ken: It’s surprising. It surprises me still. Yeah.

“…if you can provide a caring adult in a child’s life, I think that is a cornerstone. And we try to do that through mentorship, through volunteers from the business community and the community itself, to go into the classroom and teach after-school programs. And so if they see someone believing in them and taking them seriously and a safe space, that’s a big way to at least bring some stability and some positive outlook into life.”

Denver: How does exposure to violence change the way people think and the way people behave?

Ken: As you can imagine, look, I look at myself, and I haven’t been through much. And then I’m not sure if you have, Denver, that you could point to with violence and other things. So it’s really hard for me to personally say, other than to empathize and everything.

But what we see, we work with youth every day that are, at a minimum, exposed to this violence and that potential for violence in the reality that they live in. And it makes you more defensive, less believing. And the other things that it brings along, we really try to counter by bringing them hope in a safe space and somewhere where they know that they can go where they will not encounter violence. And typically, that for us is in the public school systems.

So in the education area, a big part of what we try to do is provide positive role models and really a caring adult in their life, because when people talk about migration in the US, they kind of focus on the fact that, oh, this must be benefiting the people that are coming. It must be benefiting the home countries because they’re getting remittances. And that’s where the political and all the different debates go.

But what really happens is: it really weakens these countries when guys leave their… whether it’s parents leaving their children or contributing members leave their communities, and it creates a vacuum. And so a lot of our focus is on providing that caring adult in a child’s life, because that’s really in the end… we have a lot of different programming, a lot of technical approaches, but in the end, if you can provide a caring adult in a child’s life, I think that is a cornerstone.

And we try to do that through mentorship, through volunteers from the business community and the community itself, to go into the classroom and teach after-school programs. And so if they see someone believing in them and taking them seriously and a safe space, that’s a big way to at least bring some stability and some positive outlook into life. So that’s on the education side.

And then the violence, on the health side, in the Northern Triangle especially, we have a program called Sanando Heridas which is really trying to… in the hospitals and clinics where victims of violence come in, we try to counsel them and help them understand what they are going through. And it’s almost like violence, a lot of people see it as one of the biggest public health challenges and a disease, really. And when we are asked what it does, it does massive damage, and it takes a lot to get through.

And another thing that happens here is you want  mental health; mental health services, obviously, they don’t exist to a large extent, and there’s a stigma attached to it. So we try to, on the health side, really bring in mental health, and also counsel and help victims understand what they’re going through. And also try to slow down the tit for tat which happens when someone’s a victim; they go out and they respond and they stay involved in it. And we try to slow it down, that cycle of violence which we’ve seen and had some success with.

“… if you’re not trying to include a mental health approach, it makes it more difficult for them to buy in and to make a transition into a more productive path.”

Denver: Yeah. Well, it is. I think with this violence as you’re suggesting, your brain is actually rewired. And when you see something, it goes to the amygdala, which is going to be your fight-or-flight response, and it’s not going through the frontal lobe. So essentially, you take everything as a threat.

I am just stunned how you seem to have been so far ahead of so many others as it relates to trauma-informed mental health care. Now I think even in America– somewhat enlightened you would say– we’re just catching up to that with COVID right now. But you had always put that at the center and also put it into the center, probably in a society which could look at that as being weakness. As you said, I think a moment ago, there’s a stigma attached to it.

Tell us how you thought about this and not only did this for young people, but again, you’ve done it for the ecosystem. You’re doing it for police officers. You’re doing it for nurses. You’re doing it for everybody. I can glibly say that, but then I sit back and I’m, “Wow!” How did you orchestrate that in El Salvador and other parts of Latin America?

Ken: I personally volunteer every week in a public school and in a difficult area here in San Salvador. And I’ve been doing it for about 14, 15 years. And so while we have experts in mental health on a team that really talk how we approach things and what we do, you can see it in that if we address academic things, provide them with support in different ways, if you’re not trying to include a mental health approach, it makes it more difficult for them to buy in and to make a transition into a more productive path.

And just for one example, I was teaching… English is typically what I do, is teach English to youth between 14 , let’s say 12 and 17. And I was going to take them on a field trip, and then the school needed some permission slips. And I remember a few of them I couldn’t get the permission slips from. And the reasons they had were like… holy cow, one of them was a 13-year-old girl, and she couldn’t get a permission slip because her father had killed her mom, and her father was in prison. They didn’t know who to go to to get it.

The stories that we have that happen in these public schools are crazy. And so we can’t just expect to help by traditional approaches of being supportive and in trying to get the skill sets and the life skills. But we need to incorporate into our program at a minimum an approach to build up the trust and find these ways that they can feel that they’re allowed to share.

Now look, our staff and the volunteers we’re bringing in are not psychologists. We’re not trying to have sessions with these kids, but we’re trying to have them  in a nonclinical way. There are amazing ways that you can address these things. And we learned a lot from, in the US, programs in Philadelphia and other cities where there was violence… and there is violence, and how they dealt with it and the mental health approaches that they brought to the table. We learned a lot from those as well.

And over the last 5, 6, 7 years, we’ve been putting them into practice here and obviously making them very local because the situation is so intense, and it pervades every part of society, every part of the communities here. And we’ve seen success. The success that we’ve had with it has been tremendous in our eyes.

“…we find that we can really change the mentality of kids when they have something that’s a little bit of a goal-oriented activity in their lives, representing their communities in competitions, a little bit of drama that’s not the drama they deal with.”

Denver: Yeah. No, I hear you. There’s been trauma, and there has to be healing as a result of that trauma, and you just can’t give them a book and say, “Learn to read.”  You have to realize there’s a lot that’s gone on before that. And sometimes, I know in this country, often we just want to run right to the solution and bypass that, but you can’t bypass it and be successful.

Let’s talk a little bit about your model. You’re rooted in community engagement, and you believe that that is what leads to lasting sustainable change. So tell us a little bit about, we talked about the mental health aspect with it at the center of it all, but tell us about some of the programs you have, particularly in the schools.

Ken: Yeah, so Glasswing, again, we operate in 10 countries, which is Central America. And we have offices in New York City, and we have programs in migrant high schools in New York City. But the senior leadership staff and programming design is all based in El Salvador and in Latin America. And we essentially have a thing called Community Schools, which is a known approach probably throughout the world, trying to make a public school have a community wrapped around it and build it up.

And for us, what that means is providing… kids are only in school for four hours a day. They go home to empty, and a lot of times, empty houses and difficulties. And so what we try to do is extend the school day, either with professional staff or teachers staying on, or having the volunteers that come from companies and others… to have them provide these after-school programs, which can range from, anything from glee to football, to debate, to leadership programs, to community investment programs.

We have a lot of different ones that these kids can latch onto, and we find that we can really change the mentality of kids when they have something that’s a little bit of a goal-oriented activity in their lives– representing their communities in competitions, a little bit of drama that’s not the drama they deal with, you know…

They don’t really have school teams. They don’t have school programming like they would in the US, and we know how important school programs are in the US, and that’s what drives kids. I know that I was never a great student, but I kept going to school and doing enough because I was going to play soccer, and I had to play soccer.

So yeah, that mentality really served us well in these schools, and it builds up the communities. And when we talk about us being community-based, again, the program is different from school to school. We don’t design the program, a lot of times a year or two ahead of time, and then land it in a whole country and across 50 schools, a hundred schools, this is what we’re going to bring. It really takes time.

And in school, I would say, it really takes about a year until you get the confidence of the school itself because a lot of programs come and go; a lot of support comes and goes. And when we pick a community school, we are there for the long haul. And so it takes some time to build up. And once you have that, it’s really amazing what you can accomplish. And when the schools themselves are a big part of the program, whether it’s teachers or the subdirectors… and of course the parents and the community as well, and then our volunteers and staff, we’re really able to make a difference in these schools.

“…a sense of belonging is something that is critical, and it’s something that gangs can provide. And if you don’t try to counter that and don’t try to understand that, you’re not going to be able to address a lot of the challenges because the gangs are really a part of their communities. They have their fingers in a lot of different things, so what we try to do is provide a sense of belonging.”

Denver: Oh, I can imagine. And just listening to you and thinking about these kids, is probably for some of them the first time they’ve really ever had a sense of belonging, and that being on a team or something like that, that you belong. And that is so important for all of us, but I would think particularly at that age.

Ken: Yeah. And that’s a great point because a sense of belonging is something that is critical, and it’s something that gangs can provide. And if you don’t try to counter that and don’t try to understand that, you’re not going to be able to address a lot of the challenges because the gangs are really a part of their communities. They have their fingers in a lot of different things, so what we try to do is provide a sense of belonging.

And again, we believe everyone has a right to migrate. And believe me, what we see, there’s a lot of reasons for it, and a lot of it has to do with the violence and what they’re experiencing. But our goal is that they can thrive here, and their sense of belonging and ability and hope is strong enough and their opportunities are strong enough that they will stay here because it makes the communities, it makes families, and it makes the country stronger.

Denver: Yeah. As a matter of fact, I think the first school that you and Celina got involved with was right on the border between two rival gangs. And somehow you thrived and had no incidents of violence in a place where it was almost hard to believe that would not occur.

Ken: Well, it’s interesting because it has really made me… I was here for about a year and a half. We were volunteering in this school in one part of town. And exactly like you said, the biggest danger is when two gangs don’t know who controls something. That one’s great; if that gang controls an area, it’s pretty much, it’s organizing it.

But what happened was, I would say there was conflict there. And one really interesting story, I was here for about a year and a half, and we had a teacher who was working for us. She would work a couple extra hours a day for after-school programs, and she came to us with a letter saying that if we didn’t pay the gang $1,500 the next day by four o’clock, that they would kill her.

And at that point, I was in the country for about a year and a half and I’m like, well, I’m just a small boy from Connecticut. This is way above anything that I want to deal with in my life. I really want to help; it’s what I’m about, but when my personal security or someone else’s and make a decision, really threw me… threw the organization for a loop. And we were like, Wow, if gangs are going to extort us and do these things, where are we going?

We rely on volunteers. We get really close to the communities. This could be a death note for our model. And so what happened was, working with the attorney general’s office… or the prosecutor’s office here, they helped us along in this, and we realized that she was in on it, and she had a boyfriend.

And the really interesting thing is that the gangs, through the school, because we don’t directly talk to the gangs, but through the schools, like we had nothing to do with this. The gangs were like, no, that’s not what they do. So we’re in hundreds of schools in many countries, and we’ve never had an issue because they want what’s best for their kids, and they understand the value these things have to the communities.

And they’re not… obviously they do a lot of things, but not one of them that would attack, unless we would come at them in any way. And we’re not interested. Now we have gang members in our schools. We have gang members’ kids in our schools. We don’t know, we don’t care, we don’t want to know because we don’t want to have information or anything like that. But it is a way of making change and to me, that was a fascinating moment in time for us in the organization.

Denver: Well, no, you’re absolutely right. Gang members are like all parents or older siblings, they want the best for their kids. They want the best for their younger brothers and sisters. And they’re probably looking at the lives they’re leading saying, “Oh, there’s probably a better way than the one that I’ve taken and a better road, and let’s support this and have those kids have an opportunity to take that different path.”

Ken: Yeah.

Denver: So you’ve been at this 15 years. Over $75 million in funds have gone to support all this work. What kind of impact have you been able to make over that time, Ken?

Ken: You could look at numbers and say that we’ve mobilized over a hundred thousand volunteers during that time in a region where volunteering has not been huge culturally, historically. And I’m really proud of that. And that could be anywhere from going out a couple of times a year to fix up schools, to weekly… we have hundreds of weekly, thousands of weekly volunteers that are in the schools. So that’s something that I’m very proud of.

And we also have shown that the kids that participate through the University of Chile and World Bank released study, the kids who take part in our community schools, their grades go up, their attendance goes up, their belief in their future goes up.

And not all our programs, not all our clubs really focus on academics necessarily. Some of them do, of course, but they have an impact on the academics. Their reading and their math scores have gone up because they take more pride; they have more belief, and more interest in school.

And sometimes even parents who a lot of times want their kids to get out on the street and sell, this is a different reality that many live in than we do, and so they need their kids’ support economically. But when they see them enjoying competing in these things, in various competitions, or being in these programs, a lot of times they’re like, “Hey!” They support the education a little bit more and are more supportive of that, which makes a difference.

Denver: Yeah. Glasswing International has scaled in several different ways. You’re now in 10 countries. You’re reaching many, many more people, and we’ve touched on this breadth of programs that you offer. It’s not  one- dimensional. It is an ecosystem all along the continuum. What have you found to be the keys of successfully scaling up an organization?

Ken: We’ve been fortunate to grow organically. So we started in El Salvador, a budget of $300,000, three people. I would say that by the next few months, we’ll be at about 600 staff members, and as you mentioned, in 10 countries. One of the keys is we’ve grown organically where we’re able to learn as we go, and implement slowly but surely, and make changes slowly but surely as we go over that 15-year period.

And that is helpful because your programs are more informed. And also as an organization, you don’t make big mistakes that you can’t overcome. You don’t overextend. We were actually fortunate to have the US government take a real… through  the US Agency for International Development… take a real interest in us as a local organization.

And again, I’m from Connecticut, but everyone else in the organization is pretty much from Latin America, Central America, and the leadership of the organization,… but they really took an interest in building up a local organization. Because my firm belief is to make change, you have to invest in the local infrastructure, local organization…

Denver: And that’s how you started it all. So that was in your DNA back 15 years ago.

Ken: Exactly. And we live, Celina and I still live in El Salvador, and that’s where it is. And our senior VPs of anything from programs to CFO, to HR, they’re all down here. And so the US government saw this and saw us as a case that can really build and be able to implement a lot more programming.

And now, we still have a very close relationship with the US government because their interests are like our interests. They want to see people thrive here, communities thrive, and the programming elements that we work with with them, so having a key part. And they really helped us establish our administrative operational capacities because to handle the bigger money, you can’t be mom and pop about it. And no one’s going to give you big money if they don’t trust that you can control the financials and all that. So that was a key part.

And we’ve evolved over that time period. We’ve added a lot of technical capacity which has been instilled into our programming, but also a lot of monitoring, evaluation of our work as we go along. And we’ve had some studies done on our work. And also we have a pretty big department of monitoring evaluation that has helped to guide us where things are working, where it might not be working. So it’s really been able to guide our programming as we’ve expanded.

Denver: Yeah. Let me ask you about money since you brought it up. What is your business model and your sources of revenue, and were they impacted in any way because of COVID?

Ken: So our business model, essentially, any nonprofit should be able to generate income. And at the beginning, it was us providing support and guidance, consulting essentially for corporations in their corporate social responsibility and programming, and we help design them. And their volunteering program, because volunteering is very important to us. As you can imagine, we’re part of Points of Light, a network out of the US, and we have some things that are modeled after Habitat for Humanity where a corporation would come in, instead of fixing up a house, they would fix up schools.

And we’d do team building with the employees and everything, and that was able to generate income. That’s how we got started. Since then, we’ve been able to get bigger support through donors, through a gala that we have, but also through support from US government, the Inter-American Development Bank and many other organizations and corporations… Samsung and others, that will provide us with generous funding so that we can implement programs.

So we’ve been able to do that through that support. And now, our budget is growing from about $18 to $20 million to about $40 million this year. And for us to keep it that way, and that is we have a couple of different bigger donors that have helped us to get there, we need to find a way to be able to sustain that, and that’s what I’m working on now.

Denver: That’s your job. Well, we won’t make this go on too much longer so you can get back to it. Let me close with this, Ken. You have brought hope to so many young people, and you can never overvalue how much hope means to these people. Can you share with us a story of someone who you’ve encountered, who’s been through your program, and the impact that it has had on their life and their future?

Ken: Yeah, so I, again, I did the Big Brother program in the US and which I really enjoyed. It’s not always easy, but coming down to El Salvador, I would teach weekly in the public school, probably about 12 to 15 kids.

And what I have done is through the years that I teach these kids, I would always have a few of them that I would mentor onward. And there’s a lot of different stories, some successful, some less so, but there’s one where… you could tell in kids if they have an interest in kind of getting somewhere. And of course that happens at different times as we know with our own children. There’s different times when that happens, but I could tell on him, he was coming from a very difficult situation. His parents were not around. He was in one of the reddest, lived in one of the reddest zones in the country.

And obviously, all the offerings of gangs and other things that were around him were there. And I could see a glimmer of light in him that I kind of put it to him. And he was in my class for about two or three years, but if he could choose and focus enough to get through the high school and everything, that I would help him with his college.

And I would say that there were different times where I didn’t think that would happen. But it did, and he really made some tough choices at different times, as you can imagine in these environments at certain ages what that could be. And he made it through college, in marketing and graphic design. It’s one of those where I… and this is something we try to do on scale, of course, to get everyone to cross over into this world, to volunteer and change lives like this. Anyway, so that is one, in my personal world, that I’m really happy about, that he’s doing well.

Denver: And as you said before, it’s a difference a single person, a mentor can make to  one of these young people’s lives. For listeners who want to learn more about Glasswing International or financially support this work so you can stay at that $40 million level, tell us about your website and what they can expect to find there.

Ken: You could find more information and probably articulated better than I may have done it here about our programs, and also there is a page where you can donate to our work. We’re obviously always interested in people partnering with us and believing in us, and we appreciate that of course, and that helps us to reach more kids.

Denver: Fantastic. Thanks, Ken, for being here today. It was such a delight to have you on the show.

Ken: All right. Thank you, Denver. Really appreciate it.

Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Strategic Advisor and Executive Coach to NGO and Nonprofit CEOs and Board Chairs. His Book, The Business of Giving: The Non-Profit Leaders Guide to Transform Leadership, Philanthropy, and Organizational Success in a Changed World, will be released in the spring of 2022.

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