Write a blog post has been at, or near, the top of my list of ‘Things to do Today’ for at least the past couple of weeks. Yet whenever I set my mind to finally crossing it off, I balk at the first question that pops up: where do I begin? Do I start by telling you of the utter relief that filled my heart in my initial interactions with the women’s group members when they happily welcomed me back into the fold? Do I open with a reflection on the anguish I felt short days later when my intentions were questioned and my plan was shaken to its core? I could certainly write pages about the difference between thinking you are ready to face criticisms and negative feedback and what it actually feels like when you hear the words, “So this is going to be another one of those projects…” In short, it feels a lot worse than you can imagine in any mental exercise. Or, I could skip ahead to the questions that have rolled around in my head as we have moved past the introductions and into the thick of things. My reflections on walking the talk when you say you believe development should be community led could certainly fill a lengthy post as well. The challenge of ‘trusting the process’ enough to let go of the desire for control is an ongoing part of my experience.
All this to say, it seems that I am too far into this experience to start from the beginning, lest this post turn into a novel. Yet, to jump somewhere into the middle of it – the muddle of small successes, big learnings, and constant renegotiation of expectations that I find myself in now – risks you, the reader, being at complete loss for any sort of context that would give meaning to these words on your screen.
So the question remains: where to begin? I hope you have read the great pieces shared by my colleagues thus far. I can tell you that rarely does a day go by where I don’t experience at least one of the sentiments they have so articulately expressed. Oftentimes, I go through the whole range of emotions and thoughts in one 24 hour period. Rachel’s words freed me from the guilt I felt, sitting at my desk contemplating the meaning of my actions, paralyzed by self-doubt to the point of inaction. I am filled with the sense of home Maddy writes about each time I am introduced to someone as another member of the family. Yet, in that same interaction I might also be stung by the word ‘gringa’ – the equivalent of Aaron’s ‘azungu’ – a word that hurts each time I hear it because I am reminded of the ugly legacy behind its origins. Amongst these battles against harmful precedents set and triumphs in forming empathetic connections, I am reminded by Asia that I am the hero of this story.
Where does that leave us now? Let’s recap. I am one of twelve OceanPath fellows, learning more from my peers than I ever would have thought possible. I am living in the rural community of Bola de Oro in the Chimaltenango region of Guatemala. Three years ago, I was in this exact same place – at least physically – as part of an internship with a local NGO from my home town of Camrose, Alberta. However, I was not in the same place mentally, emotionally, nor in terms of my maturity and general preparedness to undertake such as initiative. I learned a lot from my first time here and was inspired to imagine the possibility for partnership that might exist in the future.
And that’s where this post finds me: a month and a half into a 9 month Fellowship with the Coady Institute,
where my primary objective is to work with three women’s groups (comprised of approximately 15 members each) to achieve their own development goals – be they personal or collective. I know this is alarmingly vague in comparison to your standard development initiative outline or proposal. But to me it’s not that radical of a thought. I am a member of a community. In fact, I am a member of many different communities. I can say with certainty that my reaction to someone coming into one of my communities with an idea on how to improve things is not something that I would welcome, unless that person was able to demonstrate a sincere desire to work with community members.
The most simply profound words of wisdom I have received act as my guiding compass through this journey: “don’t think that you have the burden to change people’s lives, for it is people who change their own lives. When in doubt, put yourself in their shoes, and chances are you will get a few pointers.” – Anuj Jain
This is more a development journey than a development project. Following the values that guide the work I am doing, I hope at the end of my time in the community, each participant, myself included, will have developed personally and grown in their understanding of what community development means in her context. Supported by the staff of the Coady Institute and the OceanPath Fellowship, I am not only learning practical skills related to designing and implementing a development initiative. I am also on a personal journey to learn what motivates me to set goals and what helps, or hinders, me in my efforts to confront obstacles that I face along the way.
What does this look like in the day-to-day, you ask? It means that while I am facilitating a meeting in one of the villages, I am trying to put into practice the tools I learned during my Fellowship training. At the same time I am monitoring my responses to participant feedback. I then reflect on these experiences and incorporate the learning into the action I take moving forward. Oh, and within that textbook definition of adult learning’s action-reflection cycle, I take time to have fun and be part of the community where I am living too. That means I am also a neighbour, a friend, and an adopted member of numerous families.
The level of familiarity I have with some does not erase my outsider label or undo my version of the azungu effect. But it does provide me with tangible examples of the positive effect focusing on relationship building can have within the context of community development. I am just one more conversation away from becoming Odessa – the friend, neighbour, slightly odd Canadian – instead of the gringa. And I know my fight against the precedents set by Outsiders Past is never aided by taking personal offence to the stereotypes and assumptions placed on me.
Where to begin? I’ve found that relationship building is a good place to start.