About ten years ago, my husband, Bill Eichner, and I started a sustainable coffee farm called Finca Alta Gracia (www.cafealtagracia.com) in the Dominican Republic, where my family is from and where I spent my childhood. We also started a school there when we realized none of our neighbors knew how to read and write.

Through these experiences, I have learned that there's a kind of—moral arrogance is maybe too strong a word—but a sense that you want to see change. You've rolled up your sleeves and given it all you've got … and you want some results. But there have been centuries of underdevelopment and oppressive conditions and lack of education in the Dominican Republic and so many other places. So why should you expect that because you've given something, everything's going to change during your watch? And if not, you give up and it's been a failure.

You become part of an ongoing tidal wave that you hope will, at some point, really change things. But it's slow and evolving.

It's helped me to realize that you just become part of an ongoing tidal wave that you hope will, at some point, really change things. But it's slow and evolving. We like so much in our American culture to think of ourselves as agents of change. We measure things by the success rate. But if each of us gives up because it's not going to happen for us, then it doesn't ever happen.

I remember when Bill and I were starting to feel overwhelmed by all the obstacles. But then one evening we were upstairs reading, and some of the local kids were playing on the floor all around us. Suddenly it was really quiet, and we looked down and there were two of our goddaughters writing their names on sheets of paper. Our jaws dropped, because the teachers had come and gone and here was the harvest: The children were writing their names! That seems like such a small thing, but remember, none of their parents know how to write their names. This is how change happens, one tiny seed sprouting at a time.

—Julia Alvarez, award-winning author and honorary chair of the Dream Project (www.dominicandream.org)