Spotlight: Karen Isabel Guevara, President, Equanimity Foundation
Updated: Dec 11, 2020
When Karen Isabel Guevara began working in international development and policy reform, she noticed that most organizations, despite their vast experience, had little understanding of local community needs in the places where they worked. Many organizations designed programs in Washington, DC and changed them very little once they traveled overseas and began implementing them. Many of these same organizations struggled with local buy-in and sustainability, in large part because they had failed to consult and leverage local ideas and expertise in the first place. Karen saw that pattern repeat again and again and wanted to change it.
Launching Equanimity Foundation (EQF), a nonprofit that specializes in locally tailored global development solutions, was both a labor of love and a reaction to the negative practices she saw in the field. Rather than treating communities as problems to be solved, Karen wanted to leverage their expertise and ideas, consulting them in initial program design. Rather than using a cookie cutter approach, or assuming the same intervention developed in Africa would work in Latin America, Karen wanted to consider local realities and approaches and develop more flexible and tailored programming, designed for each region. She was disappointed in the missed opportunities and waste she had witnessed in programming and their negative effects on communities. So, Karen established EQF to pioneer a new approach, lending an experienced and locally contextualized perspective to prioritize the needs of underserved communities and establish lasting change.
For Karen, this labor of love is not just about excellence in implementation, it is about addressing root causes to poverty, crime, and other challenges communities face. To this end, EQF is supporting underserved communities in different locations. For example, in El Salvador EQF is providing disaster relief assistance to families impacted by Covid-19. As part of its food security initiative, EQF is delivering food supplies, masks, and other goods to destitute communities. At the same time, EQF is providing children who live in areas with a high gang presence and violence, art therapy workshops that integrate trauma-informed care practices that help to build resilience so that these youths can thrive even in adverse conditions. By focusing on both the needs of adults and children, EQF’s holistic approach ensures that its interventions address the entire societal ecosystem by attacking poverty, crime, and other root causes at varying levels.
Another factor that led Karen to establish EQF is the lack of diversity and representation in international development. Karen recalls sitting in countless roundtables, panels, and policy-making forums, where key decisions were being made about underserved communities without a single member of that community in the room. Despite their academic and practical knowledge, many experts did not reflect experience with the people in the communities where they worked and demonstrated limited understanding of cultural nuances. Repeatedly, Karen saw that there were not many people who looked like her leading these discussions, let alone at the heads of organizations. Karen designed EQF with a diverse team to view old development problems with a fresh lens and to develop programming that is inclusive, sustainable, and transformative. For Karen, diversity and inclusion matter because they result in better, more creative, successful, and sustainable programming to develop long-lasting solutions to development needs. For this reason, a key goal of EQF is to elevate the voices of practitioners of minority backgrounds to have a seat at the table and have a say in decisions affecting underserved communities.
Karen was born in El Salvador and grew up seeing entire communities decimated by civil war. She recalls having to cover her brother's ears to prevent him from hearing the sounds of war and gunshots outside their home. By living through conflict, Karen learned not only about the dynamics of state conflict up close, but also about the power and resilience of communities who survive, overcome conflict, and manage to build back up. It gave her a stubborn belief in the power of communities to overcome and the desire to partner with them as they do so.
Before founding EQF, Karen worked across the U.S. government, nonprofit, and the private sectors, in the Americas, Africa, Asia, and elsewhere. As an expert, she oversaw a security sector reform program in Bamako, Mali; United Nations Peacekeeping Operations program in Fiji; and conceptualized capacity building programs for the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Mexico, and Kenya. Karen has also managed strategic communications training in Thailand and Information Technology records management assessment in Nepal.
Karen also worked at the United Nations, promoting dialogue and peace through cross-cultural exchanges, from Ghana to Russia, and other locations throughout the world. She has developed curriculum and conducted trainings. Karen has worked for both the U.S. Departments of State and Defense. During her tenure at the Office of the Secretary of Defense, she led strategic initiatives to recommend policies concerning resource allocation and developed metrics to improve organizational performance. She also served as the Department of Defense representative to the White House Council on Women and Girls. In this role, she developed strategies to promote female leadership, empowerment, and advancement.
In addition, Karen’s years of private sector experience working in finance, government contracting, and management consulting will inform EQF’s data-driven approach to development. In the private sector, she led IT, digital products, and digital platforms projects to measure the true impact of programming by using objective and methodical metrics as well as rigorous data-driven insights and analytics. And she has built a successful team within EQF to work with her and complement those skills, with team members from U.S. government, nonprofit, and private sector backgrounds as well as different countries around the world such as India.
Karen believes that successful organizations must develop interventions with diverse perspectives, as well as a range of public and private sector tools to maximize success, conduct monitoring and evaluation, and truly improve program implementation. Karen knows that breaking into the field of development and policy reform is an uphill battle for any new organization but believes that experience, innovation, and excellence are truly needed to achieve greater impact, and EQF’s team is poised to do so. More and more, a fresh perspective is needed—people who truly understand the challenges of communities living in dire conditions, worrying about whether they can feed their children the next day—organizations that can respond with urgent and effective action. Karen believes that everyone creates solutions based on their frames of references and lived experiences, and without people in the room who have lived in these communities and experienced these conditions, critical perspectives are lost. Through a combination of expertise, tools, teamwork, and years of hard-earned experience in the field, EQF’s team is poised to partner with local voices and change this dynamic for a new generation of global development.