Mayama: Using systems change to empower underprivileged children

Madlen Popignatova 17
Article by: Sophie Poulsen
Mayama: Using systems change to empower underprivileged children

In October, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Alejandra Peña Pous, the General Director of nonprofit organization Mayama and THNKer from THNK Class 14, during FSTVL, THNK’s annual event for THNKers.


She had just presented a series of photographs of some of the children her organization has helped, taken by Dutch photographer Alex Zeverijn, whose work focuses on key social issues in everyday life. As I spoke to Alejandra, her warmth and compassion for these children became palpable. "This is a problem that the whole world faces but nobody wants to look at," she says. "More than 20 million children in Mexico live in poverty, five million of them in extreme poverty. If we don't let our children have healthy childhoods and growth, we are not going to be able to solve climate change and many other issues we are facing."

Mayama: Where transformation starts

Established in 2008, Mayama aims to transform the lives of children and their families living in high marginalization and violent conditions. Mayama has three programs: one focused on development, one focused on family, and one focused on rights, where they address key issues like registration, abuse, violence, and schooling. “These three programs have really helped the children become agents of change in their own communities,” Alejandra explains. The approach is breaking new ground; where traditional aid addresses symptoms, Mayama focuses on the root causes and empowers children to grow into healthy self-sufficient adults.

While the children are at the core of their programs, Alejandra makes it clear that involving their families and the government is the most effective way to enact systems change. “Their families are used to violent conditions,” she explains. “They’re not aware that their children have certain rights. They are not aware that their children need to go to school or don’t have to work under certain labor conditions. So, we make sure that through different techniques and a loving approach, the mothers and fathers are aware of these wrongs and that they can change that. And that’s where the transformation comes.”


THNKer Alejandra and photographer Alex Zeverijn, standing in front of photos of some of the children Mayama has helped.

Child development comes first

Seeing that their method was working, Alejandra decided to join the THNK Executive Leadership Program to amp it up: “We came to THNK to understand how we can improve this and how we can scale.”

When I ask Alejandra which THNK tools and takeaways she found specifically helpful, she simply answers: “Everything.”

Not only did she return to Mayama and immediately implement THNK tools and concepts, but she also found new collaborators in her classmates and fellow THNK alumni. With her team at Mayama, Alejandra conducted Sensing and Prototyping, the first two components of the THNK Innovation Flow comprised of deep exploration of a topic followed by reframing beliefs and creating breakthrough interventions. As the organization is currently building a new learning center, Alejandra was also inspired by the concept of biomimicry – a topic we spend ample time on at THNK – so the center will be designed like a beehive. “It’s going to be 100% sustainable,” Alejandra confirms. “We have received a donation for solar panels so we only use renewable energy.”

'Sustainability is a chain and a commitment. Only after human development can there be sustainable development.' – #THNKer Alejandra Peña Pous, Director of @MayamaAC Click To Tweet

For Mayama, “Sustainability is a chain and a commitment. Only after human development and social development can there be sustainable development. It’s not the other way around. If we want to commit to solving environmental issues, we need to address poverty and children first.”

Alejandra is also enlisting the help of her classmate Dino Torrisi, who runs an innovation design agency called Futureberry in Milan, to build the organization’s first branding strategy. She has also started to work with Designathon Works, a nonprofit organization founded by Emer Beamer that uses its own unique method to help children design innovative solutions to global challenges. These serendipitous connections in the THNK community have fueled Mayama’s mission beyond the Executive Leadership Program.

With all these new ideas, perspectives, and collaborators, it is no surprise that Mayama is on a fast track to scaling, using its innovative education model to bring children around the world out of poverty and transform their lives – and therefore their families and communities – for the better. As Alejandra says, “It’s just a matter of adapting the model.”

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Since 2015, Mayama has maintained a special status on the United Nations Economic and Social Council, helping to make policy recommendations towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals in favor of underprivileged children. Donate here to help empower and transform the lives of thousands of young boys and girls and their families in Mexico.

To harness the power of systems change to make a real impact, join the THNK Executive Leadership Program.