Staff Retreat Reflections
Last week, the entire team of Inclusive Action for the City went to Mexico for our annual staff retreat.
To be honest, it was the first time ever we had a week-long staff retreat. Every year we talk about the need to pause and plan with each other, but our various projects cut into our time. I think the longest retreat we’ve ever had was a day, and we stayed local. Competing priorities.
How did we land on going to Mexico?
Our micro-loan clients invited us! A handful of clients who benefit from the Semi’a Fund, our micro-loan fund, happen to be from Puebla, a state a couple of hours away from Mexico City. When they visit our office to make a loan payment or receive some business coaching, Puebla often comes up. It’s a centerpiece of inspiration and culture for their businesses, and their love for Puebla often ends up with them asking, “when are you going to visit?”
This year, we ended up going. The idea came from our Deputy Director Azusena who discovered that we’ve accumulated quite a bit of points on our credit card. She calculated that the points can buy all our flights to Mexico City which would leave us just a two hour bus ride from Puebla.
With these points, combined with the financial award I received last year from LISC’s Rubinger Fellowship, we were able to cover the costs of our entire trip to Mexico City and Puebla.
The goal of this retreat was to spend some time away from the office assessing our initiatives and planning their future. With Mexico being the home country of many of the entrepreneurs we serve in our micro-loan fund, we also sought to dive into what makes their businesses work by immersing ourselves in the country and culture.
It was a unique opportunity that upon return, made me think about how trips like this shouldn’t be this rare. The nonprofit sector is not recognized for valuing its workers, paying for trips, giving them time off, or catering lunches for them weekly…instead our sector is known for severely underpaying staff, inducing panic attacks because of the work on our plate, and penalizing risky moves that may fail, but could also have a huge return for the communities we serve. At our organization, we try to push up against these norms.
The trip was restful and super productive. Every time I have the opportunity to travel, I think about how much we can learn from other cities domestically and internationally. Like the US, Mexico has its challenges, but there are areas where the country is more advanced than we are. Our time together in Mexico was a short opportunity to observe how communities work in Mexico and what lessons we can take back with us to Los Angeles, but it was an important time for us to connect about work. I was surprised how easy it was to launch into a robust discussion about our projects, their strengths and weaknesses, and the direction they should take in the future. Even when I felt our surroundings were too loud or distracting for us to have a meaningful discussion, the IAC team proved me wrong. We were all eager to connect with each other professionally and personally.
We had a full schedule that included work meetings at coffee shops and taco stands, as well as breaks that allowed us to explore on our own. The first half of the trip was spent in Mexico City where in addition to team meetings, we got to spend time at a food systems conference hosted by Ethos at Huerto Roma Verde, and visiting with Lugares Publicos, a nonprofit organization that activates public space, and learning from the cooperative, Colectivo Zacahuitzco. The second half of the trip was spent in Puebla, two hours away by bus. That piece of the trip had a calmer pace (dictated by the pace of Puebla itself), and was capped off by a meaningful visit with Merced, the owner of Los Originales Tacos Árabes, one of our Semi’s Fund clients. Her and her family hosted the seven of us for a delicious dinner in her hometown of San Pedro Zacachimilpa about 30 minutes away from Puebla City.
Each of the team members spent some time noting some reflections from the trip. I think it’s amazing how we all experience the world uniquely. When we combine our perspectives, it makes for a powerful voice that can have an impact beyond any one of us by ourselves.
-Rudy Espinoza, Executive Director
Click below to read their thoughts and see their images.
México! I always welcome any opportunity to visit the Motherland. Unlike many folks, I can’t point to a specific place in México to call home or stories to share about childhood summers there. Instead, I am in constant search for magical connections to practices, places, and people that help me piece together my history.
This trip couldn’t have come at a better time! We were all working well over 50+ hours the past few weeks to successfully execute the announcement of our new name, produce PLUS2, and launch a new website from scratch. If the points didn’t pay for this trip, I would have sold a kidney to go.
Our team retreat to Mexico exceeded my expectations. On top of learning about my co-workers in a space outside of the office, I discovered more about the entrepreneurial spirit, resilience, and economic challenges our neighbors south of the border face. From internal conversations that engaged all of us in each others’ work to the locals’ stories we gathered along our trip, the experience brings new energy and greater motivation to achieve our mission.
In the nearly 10 years I have been in the workforce, I have never been on a staff retreat to talk about what the future of the work holds. In that time, I have always worked in very small teams, ranging from 4 to 12 people - meaning everyone was always running around putting out a fire or figuring out how to best use their 40 hours each week to get everything done. So a retreat felt almost impossible - it is never a good time to step away from the work.
About eight months ago, Azusena jokingly said it would be cool to go to Puebla to check out some of our clients’ hometown and see what we can learn from them on their home turf. Well, they made it happen. We started the trip in Mexico City. My first outing was at a small ice cream shop. Just in the walk from the hotel to the ice cream shop, it was clear that the use of public space by the public in CDMX was far more sacred that we find here in LA. The sidewalks were filled with people grabbing lunch from street vendors, people chatting, riding bikes, playing music, and even lovers just existing together. It was Thursday at 2 in the afternoon.
Inclusive Action took that to heart. Many of our productive conversations were held in Puebla, over excellent food and drinks. We felt the community there, and strengthened our own. I learned more about each of my colleagues’ programs and how I can be a better colleague myself (reminder - checking in isn’t usually a burden to those you are checking in with!). Most importantly, though, we were able to have real, candid conversations about what it is that was burdening us and then how we could productively move forward from that.
We were lucky enough to have many moments of laughter and openness with each other. I have found that the older I get, the harder it is to have these moments with people, especially those you only know through a work setting. This trip was an absolute treat. I learned more about how we can look to places such as Mexico for inspiration on policies, but I also got to know my colleagues in a way that wouldn’t have been possible in the office. I think that makes our work stronger, and our “why” more clear. The mission is much easier when you have others who understand and uplift you. At Inclusive Action, we have exactly that.
Azusena said it in our closing remarks - we spend more time with each other at the office and at meetings than we do with our family and other friends, so how do we build this relationship more and keep these conversations going? Perhaps time away is just as important as time in the office.
Each time I visit Mexico, I’m struck by how much there is to see, feel, and learn (and eat). I feel extremely fortunate to have experienced these cities with my colleagues from Inclusive Action, who cannot walk a single city block without asking a question about their surroundings, starting a conversation with a local street vendor, or trying to understand the city we were exploring. Walking the streets of Mexico City and Puebla with these intelligent, curious, and passionate individuals was enriching filled with lessons.
The retreat gave our team a chance to reflect on our work and map out a path towards the future of our organization. We were open and honest with each other about how we can improve. And we were able to be curious together and share a lot of laughs. Now, it’s time for us to put our ideas and reflections into action.
Maribel Garcia, Economic Development Associate
Our staff retreat was my first time visiting Mexico City. From day 1, I could not stop but think that Mexico City felt more like Los Angeles to me than other areas in Mexico that are familiar. The similarity makes sense. We were reminded by Guillermo Bernal from Lugares Publicos that Los Angeles, besides being another large city, has one of the largest Mexican populations outside of Mexico. This naturally has had an impact in Los Angeles. Yet in those similarities, I felt the deviations in our perceptions of street vending. I manage Inclusive Action for the City’s Semi’a Fund program and approached this trip, and this project, with that lens.
Lastly and most importantly, I learned the importance of working collectively to improve our programs. In our day to day we sometimes forget to step back, review our programs and ensure that we refine our goals and processes. Our retreat allowed us the time to review and improve our work and also made it clear, to me at least, that our work is transferable. Our programs have value not only in Los Angeles but also across the border.