July 8, 2014 by Debra Gittler


It’s one of those things I never would have anticipated: three years into running the organization, and getting t-shirts becomes a serious inflection point.

I’m taken back to the day, nearly four years ago, when I first presented the idea for ConTextos—launched it’s name in public—in front of my classmates in the Social Entrepreneurship and Education course cross-listed at Harvard Graduate Schools of Education, Business and Government. It never would have occurred to me then how a simple task like getting t-shirts could become an entrenched conversation about mission, culture and future goals.

The new Polos aren’t the first time we’ve created shirts. After an 18-month debacle to finally define our logo (which we love!), we printed a first round of t-shirts for a public event that we participated in.

But two years later— the t-shirts well-worn, iron-on logos peeling gently away—printing new shirts became a surprising challenge. I’m not talking about the actual logistics, but the “why?” behind the action.

A few weeks ago, violence and instability seemed to peek in El Salvador. Or maybe that was months ago. Or maybe it’s always.

As the gringa leader, I try to be compassionate and empathic about what my staff—all local—experience in the field. But the reality is, I’ll always be a foreigner. The violence and extortion that permeates Salvadoran reality targets the average person and especially the poor; an attack upon someone like me (foreigner, expat) would draw international attention, whereas an attack on an average local would be run-of-the-mill.

It had never occurred to me that a t-shirt would provide dignity and safety to my staff. I come from a (liberal snooty?) world where t-shirts with logos on the breast represent a lack of professionalism—places like Applebees come to mind.

But for the staff, not only does the shirt provide dignity—this is my uniform!—but it provides safety. The logo is an identity, a passport to explain why this stranger is in this community, neighborhood, school. Handing a business card to a School Director isn’t the same level of recognition as walking in well-adorned with the logo and colors of the institution represented.

Of course, we immediately agreed that each staff member must get various shirts and pronto. But then the style became an issue.

We are building ConTextos—me, the board, the staff—to honor and encourage the individuals that make up our team. We invest in professional development, honor the personal as well as professional growth and time of our constituents. So of course, I felt it was important that they have the right, the dignity, to dress with an individual style.

So I insisted that everyone should pick the shirt that they preferred. Something flattering. Especially for the women, a “one-size-fits-all” didn’t seem the best way to allow them to be themselves.

And once again, I was wrong. No matter how hard I pushed, they pushed back that individuality wasn’t that important.

So yesterday, after three months of struggling to define what our uniform policy and procedures would be, what the culture of dress and presentation would be, we settled exactly where we had began: polo shirts with the logo across the breast.

And the staff is thrilled! It provides dignity, safety and a sense of collaboration amongst individuals.

And it teaches the Founder a lesson: I create culture with my team, not for them.

Debra Gittler
Founder and Executive Director

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