Learning to Live It, Love it, and grow…

It is amazing how time flies. Standing here at the brink of Autumn, heading into my senior year at Macalester, I find my mind wandering backwards to contemplate this summer as much as it surges forwards,  pondering how these lessons, connections, and ideas will inform my work in the future. My experience with the Live It project has taught me lessons I definitely didn’t anticipate, and allowed me to forge connections that hopefully will remain for years to come.

Pilot Colonel Jose Antonio in front of plane with A Tu Lado members

I started this project in January while working as an intern for A Tu Lado, grappling with understanding the scope of the vision of the organization, while simultaneously struggling to keep my footing on a constantly shifting field of immediate priorities and concrete necessities for the organization. Lesson number one:  small NGO’s may have big visions, but the everyday realities of funding, logistics, and communication take up the majority of staff time. Big accomplishments are possible, but it’s necessary to buckle down and take care of the nitty-gritty work (while not getting completely subsumed in it).

This project also taught me that even if you have a big, beautiful vision that seems to make all the puzzle pieces fit and is guaranteed to improve a situation, as a global citizen, you have to recognize that your individual analysis of the situation is not the only important one. A week ago, after two months of increasingly spotty communication from our Bolivian partners, we received the news that the project was being put on hold, due to a miscommunication over a proposal for the electronic medical record system. This shocked and saddened me; although some of our point people had been not as engaged on this element of the project, I had no idea there was so much confusion within the organization as to cause a major hold-up in the process. Reflecting on the development of the proposal, and the project in general, I realized that the A Tu Lado team, and I personally, analyzed, discussed, and dreamed to put together a plan for how the service could improve, and it seemed, in general, to be a good plan, incorporating evidence-based self analysis, tracking of performance, and improved communication. But although we were constantly updating our partners in Mano a Mano and discussing these issues with them, somehow the vision ended up not being shared or understood fully by each side. Or if it was, the implications of such, and the responsibilities and commitment it entailed was not understood by members of our partner organizations. In short, although there was always enthusiasm expressed for ideas and plans we brought to the table, it often seemed that we were left enacting them on our own, unsure of how dedicated our partners were to the idea. Some of this was cultural difference at play: we moved fast, and didn’t take into account the bureaucracy and need for processing time that our partners had. We also didn’t count on the fact that perhaps there is a cultural tendency to avoid expressing difference of opinion, and in the future, I will be exploring ways to ensure that when I am working with people from different backgrounds, we create space for discussion that is more open and sensitive.

Fortunately, from recent conversations with our partners, it sounds like the project will be back online after Mano a Mano completes an internal review. The lessons learned from this incident were the hardest I have faced yet, but important ones to learn for a student interested in international work.

Maps with David, member of SAR Bolivia. Credit to Will Chilton for the photo

Despite these setbacks, reflecting on my summer I am so glad I had to opportunity to carry out this project. In teaching the course, I forged relationships with truly inspirational citizens of Bolivia, who are dedicated to developing themselves to better serve their neighbors and communities. I also had the opportunity to learn so much about the potential and drawback of technology in development, the benefits and difficulties of working with a small NGO, and the beauty and frustration of networking with organizations and individuals across cultural and geographical distance. The relationships made and the lessons learned will stay with me for many years to come, and have definitely influenced how I see my role as a citizen of the world.

The graduating EMT class and instructors.

Finding Power in Community

Ten people gather in a circle to discuss a mutual problem. They work together to discuss the situation (naming oppression) and create a collective consciousness in empowerment and understanding of the complexities of inequality. This scenario occurs through multiple methodologies of social change work, from the power-focused organizing of Saul Alinsky to the popular education of Myles Horton in the US and Paulo Friere in Brazil. This work goes towards the goal (keeping our eyes on the prize) of ending homelessness across the country as well; this is the community and tradition that we tap into at Peace House during our advocacy meetings.

The advocacy group at Peace House has come a long way since my last post: we now have a name (The PEACE Connection, which stands for People Empowering And Creating Equality), several new facilitators, and have already taken action within the community by hosting a “know-your-rights” training during meditation. And the group has already formed an identity that derives power from an understanding of multiple, pluralized histories of homelessness and how allies (such as myself and other volunteer coordinators) can participate in the group without co-opting its true purpose of empowerment.

This group, and other such efforts at Peace House and other organizations that work with people experiencing homelessness, have arrived at a crucial moment in the long-running fight against the constant purge of the rights of those who use public space for “private” needs. Last week, Minnesota’s Supreme Court ruled that the Voter ID referendum must remain on the ballot, and that the ballot initiative must reflect the original title (“Photo Identification Required for Voting”) instead of Secretary of State Mark Ritchie’s title (“Changes to In-person & Absentee Voting & Voter Registration; Provisional Ballots”). Right now, education remains central: making sure that people know the stakes of this seemingly harmless ballot question, and continuing to empower people affected by the issue to make their voices heard. Soon, the focus shifts to organizing for the actual election itself: making sure everyone is registered, and figuring out how to get everyone to a voting booth on November 6.

For me, the end of the summer is less of a stopping point than a transition towards a more concentrated moment of activism against the voter ID amendment, one with a very specific expiration date attached. But I remain forever grateful to Macalester, the Institute for Global Citizenship, and the Live It! Fund for going out on this limb of empowerment and education with me this summer. My experience at Peace House this summer reinforced my belief in the power of reflection and critical connections between injustice here and injustice everywhere, and in global citizenship as a crucial frame for understanding these links. I’ll try to keep posting updates on my work at my blog (goldfischbites.wordpress.com). Stay connected, stay informed, vote NO in November, and keep thinking and educating!