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Valiant and Creative

Empowering rural communities in Central America

Archer Dodson Heinzen ’64 eventually got used to taking a car or truck to a certain point and then being met by someone with a couple of mules to ride the rest of the way.

The founder of Co-partners of Campesinas, a nonprofit focused on women and youth in El Salvador and Guatemala, knows that staying flexible is a key to success. The organization cooperates with community groups in rural corners of Central America to fund scholarships, vocational classes, and leadership programs.

Its motto: “Learn, earn, lead.”

“Trips to visit the communities that the women come from are always fascinating,” says Heinzen, who was honored in June at Alumni Weekend with Swarthmore’s Arabella Carter Community Service Award for her work with Co-partners. “Visiting one house, the woman went out to her garden and picked a papaya. Then she pulled a machete out of the house’s thatched roof—over the centuries the blades were stored in the rafters—and cut the papaya with a machete.”

A very normal, if unexpected, culinary storing practice for rural life. Heinzen’s passion for working with campesinas (rural women)—and for Latin America—dates to her start with the Peace Corps after graduating from Swarthmore. As an art history major with an interest in Asian art, she’d had her heart set on going to India. But the Peace Corps had other plans. A Latin America initiative to help people earn income from their craftwork was starting up. Despite the fact that she didn’t speak Spanish, Heinzen was asked to go to Peru.

After the Peace Corps, Heinzen earned a doctorate in counseling psychology from Michigan State University, and she and her husband, James—whom she met in Peru— bounced between the U.S. and Latin America for James’s jobs in global development. After a total of 12 years in Latin America (the couple had two of their three children there), the family moved to El Salvador in 1992, just as the country’s civil war had ended.

In El Salvador, Heinzen worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development doing ex-combatant training. One day a co-worker, a young man, extended an invitation to meet his mother. “I was so impressed with the women who were poor,
but so creative and so valiant, that I went back the next Saturday and the Saturday after that. That was the same inspiration that made me not want to leave them when we left El Salvador but to continue supporting them.”

Heinzen founded Co-partners in 1997 after moving to northern Virginia, where she still lives. Working with three local organizations in El Salvador and one in Guatemala, Co-partners has provided more than 3,000 students with scholarships for school supplies or transportation, and helped more than 2,000 women and youth enroll in vocational courses. More than half report making an income from their new skills, Heinzen says. In one case, a group of women who completed dressmaking and tailoring classes formed an unofficial co-op and successfully bid for a contract to produce uniforms for an entire school. One of the women, Aracely Guevara, became the main seamstress for her town and now teaches dressmaking.

Heinzen, who gradually shifted her career focus to development consulting, considers Co-partners to be “almost an unofficial project of the Class of ’64” because of the support she’s received from classmates. “Multiple class members have been very generous in their contributions and consistent over the years,” she says.

Elizabeth Morrow Edwards ’64 and Lydia Razran Stone ’64 have volunteered on trips to Central America and served on the organization’s board. “Archer took care of these women,” Stone says, including offering classes and apprenticeships.

For Heinzen, who volunteers all her time to the organization, Co-partners remains a passion project. “This work has provided in some ways a structure for my life for the last 25 years,” she says, “... to try to solve things that need solving.”

“This work has provided in some ways a structure for my life.”