My Days as an Intern

February 1, 2010 | 1:13 PM

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Written by Christopher Honess...

Moving to New York City from small Syracuse, NY was a huge step for me. I had seen the effects of poverty on people in my hometown, but stepping into New York City as a freshman in college really opened my eyes to a whole new world. I had seen poverty in the Dominican Republic but did not believe that it existed on a large scale in the United States. My first day as an intern at Grameen America, a microfinance organization serving New York’s poor, was an even greater shock. In my internship I would be working at Grameen America’s main office, helping in whatever ways possible, but as an orientation, we first stopped by the Jackson Heights office. This stop would clue me in on what really made Grameen America work and ultimately succeed.

Above a laundromat on Roosevelt Avenue, the Jackson Heights Branch is right in the middle of the “hustle and bustle” of Jackson Heights’ mainly Hispanic population. A walk up one flight of stairs reveals the key to the Grameen success worldwide. Business as usual at the Jackson Heights Branch consists of about five office desks positioned around a small room. Chairs were strewn throughout the room, people working, speaking Spanish to one another, and conversing with borrowers. The environment of the room was warm and inviting. As I introduced myself, they were very welcoming as they smiled and offered me a seat. After this encounter I recognized that this environment is what has made this organization so great and why they have had such an impact on people’s lives.

Borrowers are comfortable coming into such a setting. The group meetings that each borrower must attend usually take place in salons and borrower’s apartments. The few meetings that I have sat in on are informal and easy to attend. The branch and group manager are cordial with the ladies. Not only do they take care of money matters, but they ask each one how her business is going and how family life is. The branch is comfortable. It is a place where they can come in, off the street, and feel like they are “at home”. They do not need to be someone else. They can be who they are and ask for help from someone who is just like them, who has struggled in the same way and who has succeeded in fighting their own poverty. The center managers with whom they work are passionate about their work. They love to help others, just like themselves, escape from poverty. Most of all, these selfless individuals from Grameen America are thrilled to give people a chance to build a life for themselves.

Grameen America is expanding. They have over 1,700 borrowers and just over my quick Christmas break they have opened two more branches. This success, which I have seen, is from the unusual way with which they go about business. Grameen America finds that informality in the banking world is what brings success. Nobel Peace Prize Winner Muhammad Yunus founded Grameen on the idea of the “village” bank, and even in fast and formal New York City, they hold true to that value. They see community as the attribute that sustains their vision for the poor.

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