Generation Innovation: Global Poverty & Practice Alumna Nikki Brand Returns to Community Development in Latin America


By: Andrea Guzman, 3rd Year Media Studies & Political Science Major

Alumna Nikki Brand’s GPP Practice Experience in Panajachel, Guatemala, inspired her to pursue a career in community development in Latin America. Here, Brand (seated, center) listens as her Guatemalan co-worker, Juana, tells students and interns her incredible life story while Juana’s sister Marcela demonstrates traditional backstrap weaving. Photo credit: Nikki Brand

Alumna Nikki Brand’s GPP practice experience in Panajachel, Guatemala, inspired her to pursue a career in community development in Latin America. Here, Brand (seated, center) listens as her Guatemalan co-worker, Juana, tells her incredible life story while Juana’s sister Marcela demonstrates traditional backstrap weaving. Photo credit: Nikki Brand

April 17, 2014 – As a freshly-minted Cal grad starting her first job in rural Guatemala, Global Poverty & Practice (GPP) Minor alumna Nikki Brand stumbled into two old friends and realized that her UC Berkeley experiences had come full circle.

Originally from Washington, D.C., Nikki came to Berkeley hoping to explore her interests in international relations. In her first year, she attended a talk by President Bill Clinton on student engagement in global development that was sponsored by the Blum Center, inspiring Brand to take Ananya Roy’s GPP 115 class entitled Global Poverty: Challenges and Hopes in the New Millennium.

“I was an idealistic young freshman who was trying to figure out what an appropriate career path is in international relations, and I took Ananya’s class and was so inspired by it and decided to declare the minor,” Brand said.

Although she majored in Peace and Conflict Studies and also minored in Spanish, Brand describes the GPP Minor and Blum Center as a defining part of her experience at Berkeley. Brand served as a peer advisor and conducted research at the Center, and describes being very engaged in the community.

“It [the GPP Minor] is more than just classes. You become part of an amazing peer group and become engaged in a community where everyone is interested in the same things you are,” Brand said. “For me, the Blum Center became a home away from home.”

In the summer of 2012, Brand conducted her practice experience—a mandatory fieldwork component of the Minor—with the organization Thirteen Threads in Panajachel, Guatemala. The organization supports cooperatives of indigenous Mayan weavers, empowering them to sustain themselves and their families. This experience was fundamental in cementing Brand’s desire to work in Latin America.

During her practice experience, she conducted field research in Panajachel and the surrounding communities. One of the most memorable experiences during her formative time in Guatemala was five days she spent with two of her Guatemalan co-workers, indigenous young women near her age. She was able to connect with them on a personal level despite their different cultures and backgrounds. Instead of just being co-workers, they became close friends.

Brand (front right, holding sign) poses with student volunteers from a local high school at "Un Dia Con el Agua" (A Day With Water) in Panajachel – an educational event about the importance of water and to promote water filters. Brand made many lasting friendships during her Practice Experience that she rekindled while working with Community Enterprise Solutions. Photo credit: Nikki Brand

Brand (front right, holding sign) poses with student volunteers from a local high school at “Un Dia Con el Agua” (A Day With Water) in Panajachel – an educational event about the importance of water and to promote water filters. Brand made many lasting friendships during her Practice Experience that she rekindled while working with Community Enterprise Solutions. Photo credit: Nikki Brand

After graduating, Brand returned to Panajachel to work as a Field Consultant for Community Enterprise Solutions, a non-profit social entrepreneurship organization that trains local “microentrepreneurs” to market and distribute products with social and environmental utility, such as eyewear, water filters, solar lamps and chargers, and improved wood burning stoves. The organization provides the training and products to the microentrepreneurs free of charge, eliminating the usual need to take on a large financial risk to start a micro-business.

Brand says that it was her previous work with Thirteen Threads and the skills she learned in the GPP Minor that helped her find the job. Moving to Guatemala just four days after graduation, Brand found the transition to be less difficult because of her background in critical poverty studies. She was the only member of the Community Enterprise Solutions team with a direct academic background in development, so she brought a unique contextual understanding and critical perspective to the work. Despite being new to the job and having to lead student interns just one or two years younger than herself, Brand felt comfortable thanks to her strong academic knowledge and previous experiences working in community development.

“That allowed me to hit the ground running when I arrived here and contextualize the work that I am doing,” Brand said.

In her first week back in Guatemala, Brand had an unexpected but joyful reunion with the two young women she befriended during her practice experience and is now training them to work with Community Enterprise Solutions as microentrepreneurs, an experience she describes as her journey coming “full circle.”

Brand advises students in the Minor or those who are interested in declaring to take advantage of all the opportunities and mentorship that the Blum Center offers.

“The most important thing that you get out of the Minor outside of the classes is the network,” Brand said. “Being part of the GPP and Blum Center community, there are so many amazing speaker events, opportunities to network with current GPP students and alumni, professors and practitioners, and for me, that was the best part.”