SocialEx Episode 12: Dr. Tessie San Martin, CEO of Plan International USA
In our first episode of SocialEx this year, Director of Marketing & Communications Caitlin Holland enjoys an in-depth conversation with Dr. Tessie San Martin, President and CEO of Plan International USA.Tessie has had a career-long focus on advocating for those with less power in society, including women and girls. In this conversation, they cover Tessie’s early career motivations, concerns regarding the global migration to online as a result of COVID-19, and raising awareness of deeply embedded gender norms. They also dive into the importance of diverse and inclusive leadership and the need to let go of our old ways of working, embracing the new.
Below is an excerpt from the full transcript - watch the video or listen to the podcast recording for the full episode!
Caitlin Holland: When you landed on advocating for girls and children, was that something your personal life helped you shape and form—your passion for that particular area? Or is that something that naturally progressed as you were focusing on economic empowerment and gender equality?
Dr. Tessie San Martin: To tell you the truth, there’s never been a time in my life where I don’t recall being interested in the topic and what is happening elsewhere. I was born in Cuba—my parents left what they thought was an oppressive regime with literally nothing to start all over again. Perhaps in part, because of that, I have always been interested in—so how do you get opportunities to those that don’t have as much? What are barriers to , and how can we ensure that every child, to a certain extent, has all the opportunities that so many of us have had to fulfill their dreams and aspirations? That is always what has driven me. And I have to say, even when I was in high school, I was involved in programs at community levels in central America, which sounds really wild, but it is an organization that is still around called “Amigos de las Américas.” They’re based in Houston, and they give young people an opportunity to lead and get engaged in community development activities. And from there, I actually learned that just because you’re young doesn’t mean that you don’t have a lot to offer and that you’ve got a lot to give.
Caitlin Holland: Safeguarding is a major initiative and focus for the entire sector, but certainly at Plan USA—it’s something you’ve talked and written a lot about. What are some lessons learned that you can share when trying to embed this into Plan?
Dr. Tessie San Martin: People ask me what’s key for safeguarding—is it a good, strong internal audit/system? Is it a really good training? Is it good regulations? I think what really matters is having a culture of transparency and inclusion in an organization. A culture that makes it safe for people to talk about what has happened and feel that they’re going to be ok coming forward. No amount of training or regulations—all of that is important but working on the cultural aspects of it which are maybe a bit more ephemeral and harder to quantify, is what matters at the end of the day.
Caitlin Holland: You wrote in a recent Humentum blog about the global migration online— the concerns over digital poverty. That affects everything: safeguarding efforts, gender equality efforts. And you really highlighted the different opportunities and risks posed by this by the migration online for girls and women. For anyone who has yet to read that, can you talk a little bit about this?
Dr. Tessie San Martin: You’re right. There’s been a huge migration online but remember there was a large gap or catechism that existed before in terms of those who have access to it and those who don’t—that piece hasn’t been entirely addressed, and honestly, we see it here. When schools in New York close and all of the learning goes online, not every child is going to be able to keep up. Because even here in the United States, not every child has access to the internet or laptops/tablets that enable them to keep up. We need to deal with that gap. But in addition, we need to deal with the fact that if you’ve been less online, but now you’re migrating more online, your ability to keep yourself safe is going to be less, just simply by the fact that you haven’t had an opportunity to be living online all the time.
There was a survey in 2018 that really talked about the access that young people have—I think ages 15-19. It asks children, “how often have you have been online over the last three months?” And so, what we see is that it really ranges from 6% of those 15-19 in Benin to 95% in the Nordic countries. That’s huge, and that’s the world we live in. Now imagine if you’re in Norway and you’ve kind of been living online all the time, you understand how to use it and what to watch out for. What are the things you should do? What are the things you shouldn’t do. If you’re in Nigeria or Benin, where the proportion is much less, you haven’t been. Maybe you find yourself online now, so do you know all of these things—what to be watching out for? Or how do you protect your own information, your own security? What should you expect? If we start doing more programming to be available for remote delivery, what are the things we need to make sure are happening to safeguard children, and girls in particular, who are migrating online?
We should also not forget that there are a variety of lower-tech options. Radio is pretty much available everywhere—it’s sexier to maybe develop an app that going to help you do something cool and that may attract a donor’s eye. But for last-mile delivery in so many places, thinking about how we deliver some of the programming, messaging, education, pedagogy through things as low tech as radio becomes hugely important, and we shouldn’t forget about them.
Caitlin Holland: In 2018, Plan conducted some research, and 50% of the girls surveyed said they didn’t have famous female role models in their lives. Representation is obviously one way that you help see progress for girls and young women globally, but what else besides representation is key to making sure that divide can be closed when it comes to women reaching their goals?
Dr. Tessie San Martin: One of the most interesting things in that survey for me is the views. It was a survey of US adolescents, and we were asking them their attitudes about gender equality. I was expecting young people’s attitude about gender equality to somehow be more enlightened than older people, because in part to your point there are more role models—aren’t we making progress? Well, it turns out that young people’s attitudes to gender equality are just as conservative as adults. They don’t change very much. And the reason is because where are young people getting their cues? From the adults in their lives. From their coaches, from their teachers, from their parents, from the media. Everything is reinforcing norms—what girls can do, what women can aspire to. It’s just a constant reinforcement, so changing that over time is more than just a law or regulation.
I think one of the things we’ve seen with young people here in this country and around the world is there’s an increasing number of young people that are willing and engaging in hard conversations about their own reality and what is right and what isn’t, and are taking leadership on important issues from climate change to gun control.
We have had equal pay laws in the books for decades, and nothing has changed very much, so it’s more than just laws or regulations or having the US soccer women’s team win the World Cup. It’s about changing conversations that we’re having with young people and that young people are having with themselves. And raising that awareness that gender norms are truly deeply embedded and are potential obstacles for girls and boys to be able and willing to dream beyond the current constraints. I say boys because the other thing that comes out of that survey is that there is an expectation that is very clear from the survey responses that boys need to be aggressive, that they need to be strong. Those are expectations that bind boys to certain ways of acting, whether that’s the way they want to act or not. So, we’re all sort of prisoners of our own constructs, and this starts to change when we’re willing to have conversations that question those constructs. I think one of the things we’ve seen with young people here in this country and around the world is there’s an increasing number of young people that are willing and engaging in hard conversations about their own reality and what is right and what isn’t, and are taking leadership on important issues from climate change to gun control.
Caitlin Holland: What more can we be doing in the global development space to reduce barriers to women’s leadership?
Dr. Tessie San Martin: I think organizations like mine need to take a long look in the mirror and consider the ways that we we’ve been operating before COVID-19 to continue to be relevant today. And among the things that we need to consider is whether to your point, we have the type of diverse, inclusive leadership and culture in our organizations that is necessary to not just retain our credibility and relevance, but to continue to be able to deliver impact. I think we need to examine our own implicit biases in the way that we design, technical assistance, and monitoring and evaluation. All of that represents giant blind spots in our organizations. We need to change how we do things.
Our community has been working and talking about local ownership forever, and it’s time to really start walking the talk. What are we each doing? And are we doing all we can do to strengthen local partners because the name of the game is local entities across the board, in my opinion.
I will also say one other thing. If there’s one thing we learned during the COVID-19 response is that what really mattered were local organizations. When none of us could move around—we went into lockdown, and we couldn’t move. Even our teams in Kampala, Nairobi, or Hanoi couldn’t move out of the capital. What made it possible to deliver relief, assistance, and programming were the local organizations on the ground. Our community has been working and talking about local ownership forever, and it’s time to really start walking the talk. What are we each doing? And are we doing all we can do to strengthen local partners because the name of the game is local entities across the board, in my opinion.
Caitlin Holland: You’re touching on so much that we’re exploring in our OpEx365, Humentum's virtual year of learning, where we’re having these weekly solution sessions and three retreats that span over the next year. The main focus of the first one was what are the new ways of work we need to embrace, and also, what can we leave behind that is no longer serving in this world? Is there anything you would like to add?
Dr. Tessie San Martin: We’re having the same conversations, and I think so many of us are, and part of what we need to leave behind is our attachment to how we’ve been doing things to date. I get that that’s hard because that’s safe. Are we ready to let go of how we’ve been doing things and how we’ve been operating? We’re not entirely sure what we’re driving to. We need to let go because whatever got us to where we are now, in my opinion, is not going to going to get us to where we need to go. We all know this intellectually. And it’s great that there are these vaccines out there, and we’re eventually going to get them out to everyone around the world. We need to keep everyone safe, but wherever we get to after that is not going to be to where we were in March. Never. That’s gone. We need to let go of existing constructs, approaches, operational models, and be willing and able to embrace something new, as scary as that is. I don’t have the answer, and I’m not pretending that I’m without trepidation, but I think it’s what we need to do.