Profile of Keithlin Caroo – Founder of Helen’s Daughters
by Yello Mar 8, 2019
In honour of International Women’s Day, we spoke to Keithlin Caroo, founder of the non-profit organization, Helen’s Daughters, which aims to provide support for rural women farmers of St. Lucia and shed a spotlight on the challenges they face.
I caught up with Ms. Caroo at the end of another long work day to discuss the impetus for the creation of Helen’s Daughters, what motivates and drives her and her hopes and future goals for the organization
- First, how did you come up with the idea and concept for Helen’s Daughters?
I was going through a bit of a “personal life crisis”, where although I was happy that I’d achieved my goal of working at the UN Headquarters, I realized the work I was doing did not really focus on St. Lucia or the Caribbean region and therefore I wasn’t really helping my own community. A call for proposals went out by UN Women’s Empower Women Champions for Change Program, where I pitched the idea of rural women economic empowerment. I got accepted to the program and from that point on, the idea of Helen’s Daughters was born. We started the organization with the focus on rural women because through our research, we found that they are some of the most neglected in society, despite the fact that in rural districts, women head 40% of the households. And regarding farming, when you visit the Castries market, 90% of the vendors are women but the traditional thinking is that women just sell the products but don’t produce it, which is simply not true. All of these factors played into my mind in the decision to establish Helen’s Daughters. My mind-set was that “by investing in a rural woman you’re not just investing in her, but in her whole family”.
- What attracted you to the non-profit sector?
I always had a feeling of wanting to stay connected to home, to St. Lucia and more importantly, to give back and feel like I was playing a role in our island’s development. Growing up in a rural community myself, and having grandparents who were farmers, it just felt like a necessary and important fit.
- How would you define the Helen’s Daughters brand?
I would define the Helen’s Daughters brand as changing the face of the agricultural landscape of St. Lucia. We want to promote the belief that there is beauty in farming and every one of these rural women farmers have a special story to tell.
- What is a typical workday like for you?
A typical workday for me is long. It starts at around 5:30 a.m. and ends around midnight. I have a long commute, so I’m often posting on the Helen’s Daughters social media pages on the train ride to the office. At UN Headquarters, I’m handling my usual daily tasks, such as, meeting co-ordinations, working on any upcoming projects/programs, etc. During my lunch breaks, I always check the Helen’s Daughters social media pages to respond to any comments, questions, etc.
- What do you find to be the most challenging and most enjoyable part of your work with Helen’s Daughters?
For me, the most challenging aspect of my work with Helen’s Daughters, is the disappointment and frustration of not being able to help everyone immediately. Yes, I know you can’t help everyone but knowing it and accepting it are two different things. In terms of the most enjoyable, I get very excited seeing the engagement and traffic of the Helen’s Daughters social media pages. That’s because when we created them, I was sure that no one would care or even get the point and it would simply not appeal to people. So to see the enjoyment some get from it and the levels of engagement, is very exciting.
- What are the biggest challenges you face with running Helen’s Daughters?
The biggest personal challenge I face is trying to fund all the projects we have, while finding a sustainable way to come back home as often as possible, without being a financial burden to my parents and others. The other challenge is the concern that when we roll out our tourism agricultural linkage proposal, we may not get the buy-in we’re hoping for from the hoteliers. And finally, one of the biggest challenges we face is the negative response by some because of the focus of the organization being solely on rural women, as opposed to women and men.
- What is your vision/goal for Helen’s Daughters in 5-10 years?
Ideally, our goal is help cut the St. Lucian food import bell by at least 5-10%, and that’s with the involvement of rural women, as well as helping other co-operatives and farmers island-wide. The second goal is for our model to be replicated in other islands facing some of the same high food import costs as St. Lucia. And finally, I would like for Helen’s Daughters to have the first smart farm (i.e. combining traditional farming approaches with agricultural technology) in the Eastern Caribbean.
- What motivates you the most?
What motivates me the most is telling an authentic story of St. Lucia and the Caribbean as a whole. I feel like there is this “paradise paradox”, where what we show the tourists is this ideal, laid back utopia but nothing of the ways we locals are intelligent, hardworking and innovative people. And I want to play in part in helping to move away from that.
- How do you define success?
Success for me would be attaining a certain economic sustainability, not just for myself but also by empowering those closest to me to do the same. It also means being one of those who redefines the Caribbean narrative/image.
- What are some of the biggest professional mistakes you’ve made and what did you learn from them?
I once decided to work with a donor agency despite certain stipulations in the funding agreement that went against our belief. I thought it was an issue that could be negotiated. However, mid-way through the negotiations, I realized they would not budge and so we walked away from the deal. What I learned from the experience is to always trust your gut and not always go where the money is. Find partners who want to help fund and implement your programs while also understanding the best practices for your organization, as well as theirs.
- What other organizations, if any, do you most admire and why?
The first is Girls of a Feather, which provides a mentorship program for teenage girls, particularly those in secondary schools, to connect with older professional women. It also covers a range of topics and issues affecting young girls, such as, sexual and reproductive health, gender based violence, dating, etc. Another organization I am very impressed with is Herstoire, which like Girls of a Feather, focuses on a number of issues young women deal with. However, it is an online platform, which affords individuals anonymity, if they are unwilling to publicly discuss these issues.
- What piece of advice would you give someone who wants to create their own organization?
I would say it is two key things to remember – one, be fearless and two, get used to rolling with the punches. There will be challenges, particularly in receiving program funding. There will be many rejection letters, closed doors, but you always have to keep striving and keep pushing. Do not let failure define you.
- If you could recommend one piece of art (book, movie, song, etc.), what would it be and why?
The first would be 4:44 by Jay-Z. I would recommend this album because it covers so many topics ranging from black love to generational wealth. But most importantly, it sparks your mind on the idea of legacies and the idea that whatever individual actions you take or relationships and partnerships you have, can literally set the trend for what will happen 50, maybe 100 years down the line. Even if you’re not a Hip Hop/Rap music fan, this album is worth listening to. The other work I would recommend is Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It’s a book I think every black woman who is not American but living or wanting to live in the U.S., should read. It perfectly captures how a black woman feels outside of the African American context.
- In honour of International Women’s Day and the mission of Helen’s Daughters, tell us who are some of the women who have inspired you the most?
I of course have to start with my mother, who I describe as “not of this world”. She has held so much on her shoulders, never complained, put the desires of others, particularly mine, above hers and sacrificed so much to help others succeed. And she did it all with grace and poise. The other of course is my grandmother who is strongly tied to the Helen’s Daughters spirit, as a rural woman who was also a farmer. And finally there are so many St. Lucian women, too many to list, who all believed in me and helped me along my journey. I am so grateful for them all.
- And finally, what is your favourite inspirational quote?
“No race can prosper until it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem” (Booker T. Washington)
To learn more about Helen’s Daughters, visit the website.