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…