Dream Job and Upcoming Life Changes (part 1)

I have so many words and smiles and radiant positive feelings just rushing to flow out of me that capturing all of it into one silly little blog post is a duanting task! So, this is the first installment of what will be a series of blog posts explaining my current work in Guatemala.

Back in September, I found that I had settled into my fellowship position with Natik and was looking for something more; after overcoming a relatively steep learning curve as Natik’s Guatemala Project Coordination fellow, I was feeling comfortable with my responsibilities, on top of my tasks and assignments, and perhaps ready for more of a challenge. Because the majority of my work centered on Natik’s fair trade artisan partner, Just Apparel, workflow was dependent on client demand and custom orders (since, after all, Just Apparel is a business), and I ended up having quite a bit of free time on my hands. It was quite wonderful having an ample amount of time to do what I please – I started running, went swimming most days, took up percussion again and singing, went out photographing, spent a lot of time with my crazy amazing group of international friends, traveled quite a bit to experience more of breath-taking Guatemala and some new places in Mexico. But, it wasn’t enough. I wanted more – more meaningful work.

I thought volunteering with another organization would be a great way to invest my time and energy, meet some new people, get connected with other causes and organizations – so I started browsing Idealist every now and again, beginning to familiarize myself with other Lago Atitlan organizations. And one night, while perusing through, I came across Unlocking Silent Histories. I immediately knew the search was over.

Those who know me generally know that I got into film/video production in high school and went to film school in Central Florida. I began working with social services and non-profits around that same time, and after completing undergrad studies, spent a few years working with at-risk youth in non-traditional educational settings, mostly. I eventually went back to school to complete a Master of Social Work, based on my interest in continuing to work in the non-profit sector, and a Master in Women’s Studies and Gender Studies, based on my love of academics, research and theoretical viewpoints on interlocking systems of oppression. In graduate school, I became particularly interested in international social work, indigenous populations, and immigration and migration – and chose to focus on those areas, specifically, later leading to a challenging and rewarding position with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.

Those who know me best know that a) All these years, I have continued to harbor hopes/dreams of one day being a filmmaker b) I’ve struggled with ways to bridge my seemingly disparate academic/professional interests for years and c) I have a deep belief in the power of film/media as a tool for social justice and community change.

Enter Unlocking Silent Histories…an organization that could not be a more perfect fit for me. Here is a brief synopsis (that I helped to write!) about Unlocking Silent Histories’ work:

We strive to create learning experiences that:

  • Amplify the voices and identities of indigenous youth and their communities by supporting them to direct and produce their own documentaries.
  • Invite youth to explore personally meaningful curiosities and concerns in order to connect learning to their lives.
  • Value and encourage using their local languages and draw on local knowledge to tell their stories and learn with their peers.
  • Share films with peers within and across communities to deconstruct visual expression and its local and historical meaning.
  • Develop local youth leadership to ensure sustainability of the project(s)

Our work is motivated by the arguments that:

  • Historically, foreigners have created media representations of indigenous peoples to construct and perpetuate stereotypes about them and their lives.
  • Current educational practices are culturally distanced from indigenous cultures, inhibiting them from critically and creatively expressing themselves.
  • Languages are being lost at a rate of one language every two weeks, and this threat is acutely felt by indigenous peoples.
  • Indigenous youth have limited opportunities to engage in educational experiences that honor their cultural and linguistic heritage.

Ok, if you actually read all of that, then I can confidently say that you totally get my reasons for feeling that I just HAD to work with this organization. In some way. In any way. I was going to make it work.

Well, as it happens – they were looking for someone to offer some on-the-ground support, part-time. Maybe it was an impulse decision, or maybe it was a divine calling, I don’t know, but I applied that night! I even said in my application that no matter the outcome of the application for the position, I wanted to be involved with USH somehow. The very next day, I believe, the founder and director of USH, Donna DeGennaro, emailed me saying she’d like to set up an interview. It all happened so fast and I was so excited, and totally unprepared, but excited! We scheduled the interview, and I went into it with enthusiasm and a genuine desire to hear more about this organization and how I could be involved. The interview was fraught with excitement, I think from both ends, which made for a bit of chaos, but positive chaos. Donna spoke very passionately about the work they were doing, the youth participants and leaders in the program, the plans they had for the future. At the end of the interview, Donna asked me to contact the director of their partner organization, Erin, for a second interview before they made a decision.

Because I’m me, I started pondering how seriously and fully I could commit myself to this opportunity – I started worrying. I had some reservations, after speaking with Donna, about the amount of time and level of responsibility the position required. I was afraid I would do a disservice to my role with Natik and to USH by trying to balance both positions. Both required some level of flexibility in scheduling, and I wasn’t sure I could coordinate the two schedules successfully. I still wanted to be involved with USH, I just began to think that perhaps I could better serve the organization as a volunteer with a very limited time commitment.

I spoke to Erin a few days later and we had a great conversation. After my initial interview with Donna, I had a better idea of how the organization operated, and I had formulated some more informed questions for Erin, which she answered with poise. Erin has a very calming energy, and I felt comfortable expressing my concerns about the time limitations to her, which she understood and responded to sagely, offering some potential options for reducing time expectations.

But because I’m me, I still had reservations. I was truly torn. I knew I wanted to be involved with this organization, and the fact that they and I existed in the same place and time, that they were seeking a person such as me at that very point in time, aligned almost too perfectly. I wanted it so badly, but I wanted to really be able to dedicate myself to it in the ways it deserved. A part of me knew that once I began working with this organization, it would consume my whole life – it would be the ultimate culmination of my skills and experiences and interests, just the right balance of social work and creativity, media and social justice, indigenous rights and work with youth, international development and activism. And really, I was scared. I think I was so scared of finally getting what I’ve always wanted, of not deserving it, of not doing it well enough, of trying and failing.

And there was, of course, guilt. I had come to Guatemala as a fellow for Natik, and I had committed to working full-time with them for one year. My supervisor at Natik encouraged me to become involved with other activities and travel, but she might not have meant a part-time job. Beyond that, I didn’t want to slack in my responsibilities to Natik or compromise my ability to support their work as I came to Guatemala to do. I sent an email to Donna expressing some of my concerns, and she seemed quite confident we could work it out, but I wasn’t so sure.

In the midst of these thoughts, Donna and I had scheduled a follow-up conversation and due to poor internet and some scheduling mishaps, had to postpone a few times before finally connecting again. While the conversation went well, the scheduling difficulties fed into my fears about my ability to balance the two positions. Donna sent me an email the next day offering me the position and asking to schedule another call to work out details and logistics – it was exactly what I wanted, but now I was wrought with fear and guilt around accepting.

In the end, the guilt and the fear won out. I gathered my thoughts by typing them out before having the conversation with Donna, in which I had more or less decided to decline the offer. I still have that document where I collected my thoughts at the time, and the way I articulated the crux of my reasoning was this:

“I feel that the scheduling requirements of this particular position will be a great obstacle to my ability to do my best work in this role. I deeply believe in the work of the Unlocking Silent Histories project and would have very much liked to have accepted this opportunity to work with you, but with my ongoing responsibilities in my current role with Natik, I feel I’d be unable to commit myself to the position as fully as I would like. So, in order to avoid taking on too much and having all of my work suffer as a result, I will not be stepping into the position at this time.”

Well, I expressed this to Donna, and thank the universe, she wasn’t ready to take no for an answer. In fact, the impression I got in a firm, but inviting way, was that she was determined that I was going to accept this position. She was so accepting and flexible, willing to work out the logistics of the scheduling and re-work the roles and responsibilities of the position. This was unfamiliar territory for me, but I see now that it was a very clear sign that I had met someone who really saw and valued what I had to offer and wanted to work with me, specifically. I will always, ALWAYS, be grateful for that conversation with Donna, for her encouragement and gentle persuasion, for her ability to think on her feet, readily change and adapt, and most of all, for her belief in me.

After a long conversation addressing my concerns and questions, working together to find the right solutions to any potential problems, and discussing the realities of the role, I officially became the Unlocking Silent Histories: Maya Traditions Chapter Ambassador! The organization’s first employee!

Within weeks, I was working with some of the most inspiring, resilient, creative, and brilliant youth I’ve ever met.

Here’s a brief clip of them rehearsing a part they wrote for an upcoming fundraising video – makes me smile every time!

There’s so much more to tell! But I’ll save that for Part 2…

Chiapas!

This weekend was inolvidable (unforgettable)! Accompanied by my dear friend Bryce (from Chicago), I traveled to San Cristobal de las Casas in the state of Chiapas, Mexico – the city where I lived for a summer while completing my first-level internship for the Loyola MSW program. This was my first time back, and it was everything I remembered! The city is enchanting and resonates with such powerfully positive memories for me. The weekend away was quite a luxury. Not only did I get to spend day after day in great company, I got to renew my love affair with this beautiful place and its wonderful food, culture, sights, and sounds. We ate amazing chocolates, walked all around the colorful artisan markets, drank a lot of mezcal, and even got to see some fantastic live jazz. In addition to the vacation aspect of this trip, I spent a morning getting to know Natik’s programs in Chiapas. Currently, Natik has 2 Loyola MSW interns working with them for the summer. I had the opportunity to meet them and go with them to their work site one morning – the home of two sisters in the indigenous village of Zinacantan where they run a Saturday educational program for students. These little ones were so much fun, and really engaged in their own learning. The experience was a great example of how Natik operates collaboratively with community leaders.

 

My Host Family is Amazing!

For my first month here, I am staying in the house of a couple who are of age to be my parents – Argentina and Francisco. I didn’t know anything about them when I moved in, aside from the fact that they rent rooms to volunteers, travelers, and other foreigners coming through. They have been exceptionally kind and welcoming, always willing to help out with whatever I might need. Staying with them, thus far, has been a real pleasure.

As I have mentioned before, there are quite a few others staying in this sort of boarding house right now as well. One of them is a physical therapist from Ireland who is here working for an organization founded by Argentina and Francisco. It’s called ADISA – which stands for (in Spanish) the Association for Parents and Friends of People with Disabilities in Santiago Atitlan.

I wasn’t surprised to find out that these two amazing people I have the good fortune to know are doing amazing work in their community. In fact, the two of them are very well-recognized community members who have been working for the rights and well-being of disabled persons for many years. More than 20 years ago, Francisco and Argentina had their third child, Nila Eliza. She  was born with developmental disabilities, and there were no resources in the area available to help Francisco and Argentina in raising and caring for a special needs child. Although Nila, sadly, passed away when she was just 9 years old, Francisco and Argentina (and their oldest daughter, Andrea) have dedicated their lives to ensuring that disabled people and their parents have adequate care and resources right here in Santiago. Actually, even the family dog, Mos, is involved in the organization as a trained therapy dog who goes to work 5 days a week!

ADISA is a special education school, but they do more than that as well. In addition to educators, they hire physical therapists, occupational therapists, and social workers who provide individual attention to the ADISA students every day. They also make home visits for children too young to attend school, provide interpreters for parents who don’t speak Spanish, teach the art of turning recycled materials into jewelry and other crafts that are sold to benefit the organization, and donate games and tools to families who have disabled children. It’s truly a labor of love, and I am fortunate to know such a caring and committed family!

Because she knows I am a social worker, Argentina invited me to come along with her today on a home visit to the family of a 3-year old girl named Cecilia who was born blind and with developmental disabilities. So, Argentina and I went with Maria, a Tzu’tujil-Spanish interpreter, to the community of Chuk-Muk – a large area of government housing that was built for families who lost their homes in the mudslide of 2005. There, we met with Ceci, her mother, and her older sister, and I was able to observe Argentina’s work with the family.

She began by doing some tactile exercises with Cecilia, to establish trust and promote her sensory motor skills. I got to do a bit of this with Ceci as well – she responds well to toys that make noise and was quite playful! Argentina brought toys for Ceci that she left for the family to keep, and explained what other objects would be suitable for her – things that were practical and not expensive, since this family does not have a lot of resources.

Then, Argentina talked with Ceci’s mother and sister (through the interpreter) to create a visual social history of sorts for Cecilia. This is basically a way to situate Cecilia in her environment in a visual format – it is a creative way to involve the family in a conversation about Cecilia’s strengths and needs. Argentina called this a “mapeo,” and from my own social work perspective, it is an excellent tool for capturing family information and creating a basic service plan in collaboration with the client. This tool contains all of Cecilia’s basic information – her family, her housing situation, her medicines and physical health and abilities, her caretakers and other support systems – as well as some deeper personal information for the whole family – what Cecilia likes and dislikes, what her family’s short and long term goals are for her, and the recommended service plan to help her advance  along that path.

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(I was playing with Cecilia while Argentina drew this mapeo with the family).

This experience really illuminated for me the work that Francisco and Argentina do, the great need that exists in this community for these services, and the tremendous fortune I have to be living with such big-hearted people.