When I meet new people and they find out I’m living in Guatemala, or I reconnect with old friends who know that I’m there, they always, always ask something along the lines of “so…what are you doing there?” In the last few weeks, I’ve been asked this question probably more than 100 times. Usually, when one is asked such a question, over and over again, the answer gradually becomes less enthusiastic, more rehearsed, condensed, routine, perhaps with a twinge of boredom or even annoyance in the tone of the response. That has certainly been true for me before.
But now, when people ask what I’m doing in Guatemala, I’m excited to tell them! Every. Time. I never bore of sharing the great work of Unlocking Silent Histories and my part in it, of telling people about the inspiring youth I work with, about the project’s theoretical background and practice methodologies, about the importance of the work we’re doing and the real impact I see it make. It’s work that I truly believe in, and that challenges and fulfills me and allows me to be creative and grow.
I just had such a conversation with the two men I sat between on a flight from New Orleans to Houston. And I realized that not only do I get excited in talking about my work with others, they’re always always interested in and excited about it too. Further proof to me how valuable this organization is, and how meaningful the work we’re doing. I’ve received such encouragement and enthusiasm from friends and strangers alike when they learn what it is I’m doing in Guatemala, and that is such a motivator for me.
So, I want to share with you all the opportunity to become a part of the Unlocking Silent Histories story, to further support indigenous youth in Guatemala through this work, and to learn more about what we’re working daily to accomplish. Today, we launched a fundraising campaign that includes a wonderfully informational video explaining this project – and I hope you’ll all check it out here!
Now, I’m sitting at the airport in Houston, awaiting my flight to Guatemala City. I’ve been here in the U.S. for almost a month now, visiting, attending to family matters, arranging some logistical things now that my time in Guatemala will be extended, and spending as much time with loved ones as possible – all of that will be for a separate post, so for now, suffice to say it has been an emotional and wonderful time.
But now, I’m anxious to return to my life and work in Guatemala. When I return, I’ll be moving out of my apartment in Santiago Atitlan, and living instead between two places – with a friend in the remote area of Tzununa, and another friend in the bustling main port town of Panajachel.
The students and leaders of Unlocking Silent Histories will be wrapping up the editing process on their first two films shot as production teams, and we’ll be preparing for screenings of these new documentary shorts in San Juan La Laguna and Antigua, Guatemala. I’ll be meeting with our Youth Leaders on Friday to get up to speed and plan out our next month together. And I’ll be working with our administrative team on strengthening our internal processes and building the future of our programs. I’m excited to begin!
I want to thank everyone who’s supported me in this transition process, in the discovery and continuance of this work. Thanks to you all for validating my decision, recognizing my happiness, and encouraging me in following my path.
So, I began my work with Unlocking Silent Histories in October, a whirlwind time for the organization and for me! My Dad had flown in from Texas to visit for 10 days at the same time that Donna, the organization’s founder and director (and my new boss, who I had yet to meet in person!) had flown in from Boston, and the first-year program participants were wrapping up their final films under direction of the youth leaders, and we had a screening planned for the end of the month!
My first initiation to the project and my role within it was to participate in a meeting with Donna (via Skype), Erin, and the four youth leaders – Carmen, Chema, Carlos, and Franklin. It was my first day meeting the leaders I would be working with, and I was nervous, and still not too sure what they thought of me that day, but everything went alright. I’ve gotten to know them, and they me, a whole lot better since then, but I think they were critical of me at first. One of these days, I’ll ask them about their first impressions of me, but for now I suppose I can say, at the very least, that I didn’t totally blow it because they still talk to me (and, as I’ve been visiting family in the U.S. for the past week, tell me they miss me when we Skype, so yea, they think I’m cool.)
Unexpectedly, I ended up staying the night in Panajachel (with my lovely Swedish friends!) so that I could meet Franklin and Carmen very early the next day to go into one of the communities and work. It was a great first experience. I met Franklin at the dock in Pana and we rode the camioneta together, sharing a cinnamon roll and talking about music, while lugging our production equipment around. Then we met Carmen at a bus stop and got into a colectivo van together, got off at a dusty downhill path and descended into the community of Chuacruz where I mostly observed and offered some technological support while Carmen and Franklin worked with three young girls – Mirna, Anna, and another Carmen – to complete their films.
The second day of “work” I remember as sort of a surreal blur. My dad was with me and we got a boat to the beautiful little village of San Juan, where I was going to meet Donna for the first time over lunch. Jim, a retired Hollywood film producer who lives in Guatemala and has been volunteering his time with the project, also joined us, and we enjoyed some delicious food and drink at San Juan’s lovely Wine and Cheese establishment. It was so refreshing to meet Donna and Jim, who were both so open and warm, easy to talk to and pleasant to be around. It didn’t feel like a first meeting – more like a gathering of like-minded friends.
From there, we went over to Carlos’ house. Three of our youth leaders – Carlos, Chema, and Franklin – are from San Juan. Carlos is the one who works in the community of San Juan, and leads his group of students out of his home. There, it was a flurry of activity. I had the opportunity to watch more of the students’ films, and Jim and I gave feedback, talking over strengths and weaknesses with Carlos, Chema and Franklin.
Soon after this, I felt more comfortable working with the project, after having gotten to know everyone a bit. We were still in screening preparation mode, and spent long hours at Jim’s house sub-titling, sound correcting, and exporting the students’ videos in preparation for the show. The night of the presentation at an Art Gallery in Panajachel was a great success – it was a wonderful way to recognize the students and their hard work! I interpreted the entire event, which was a healthy challenge, and the kids spoke beautifully about their processes in creating these works of art and cultural preservation. The turn-out was great, and Donna and I were bursting with pride.
After a couple of months working with USH, I remember having a conversation with my best friend Lauren in New York and telling her – for the first in my entire professional/working life, I feel fulfilled by the work I’m doing. Really truly fulfilled. And it’s still true. I’m excited at every opportunity I get to tell someone about my work with USH. I’m proud of this organization, its mission, philosophy, practices, partners. I’m proud of my role within it. But mostly I’m proud of these youth we work with, and feel privileged, truly honored, to have the opportunity to do this work with them. They have accepted me into their lives, welcomed me as a mentor and a friend, and I’m so, so grateful, and excited to be able to witness the amazing things they’re doing and will continue to do!
The last few months (my first few months with the organization) are probably best told through photos, but here’s a brief run-down of what the youth accomplished:
- A screening of three of the youth leaders’ films in Santiago Atitlan, where the next chapter of the program will soon be formed
- A two-day workshop with Adobe Youth Voices educator Javier Borrayo, focused on advanced story-telling and production skills they have the opportunity to use in a national and international film competition
- Many days of continued production with youth participants
- Leadership development, taking on new roles and responsibilities and preparing to teach new skills
- A two-day Advanced Production workshop mostly led by our youth leaders, focused on strengthening interview techniques, learning new technologies, crafting narratives, and working in production teams
Now the students are in production in their teams and have just wrapped shooting two new films that will be screened in Antigua on March 15th! But more of that to come in Part 3…
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…
I work with these two beautiful souls, Carlos and Chema. Both are from San Juan la Laguna and are proud of their heritage. Carlos, the youngest of 11 siblings, is actually Chema’s uncle. These two could not be more different, but I end up spending a lot of time with just the two of them in our work with Unlocking Silent Histories and we always have a blast. Working with Carlos and Chema, among other indigenous youth, to create documentaries that tell their stories from their perspectives is the most fulfilling work I’ve ever been a part of. They’re a constant source of inspiration.
Work here in Santiago Atitlan has only just begun for me, but I am already eager to begin my initial assignments! The wonderful thing about working in a fellowship position (and for an amazing, transparent, small, non-hierarchical, and dedicated organization) is that many of my work experiences will be tailored to my personal interests. I, of course, have a job description and certain duties and responsibilities required of me, and will also fill additional roles based on my existing strengths and skills, but there is also ample opportunity for me to focus on learning those aspects of international non-profit, development work with which I am less familiar. And to pursue some of my creative passions as well!
Many of you have been asking what, exactly, I will be doing as a Natik fellow. I should be able to provide a much better answer to that question after a month or so. But to provide a general overview, I am providing support to the local leaders who are currently running these programs, and also assisting in program activities and interacting with participants.
My main contact here is a woman named Dolores, who I had the pleasure of meeting in person for the first time today! I will be getting to know her much better in the coming months, but my initial impression of her is already extremely positive. Dolores is a very radiant woman, her passion for the work she does to alleviate poverty in the community is very apparent, she has a unique understanding of the situated-ness of the indigenous people of this region (intersections of race, class, culture, politics, past trauma, language), and even when talking about such serious topics, she never seems to stop smiling.
I will also be working closely with the Executive Director of Natik, Anita, who is based in Chiapas, Mexico. I have heard only the most wonderful things about Anita from all those who have worked with her, and although I have yet to meet her in person, she has already demonstrated herself to be someone I know I will soon come to admire greatly. Anita is truly committed to this work, is a very creative and collaborative thinker, and despite all that she has on her plate, has paid close attention to ensuring that I am well-oriented to my role. She and I have, so far, been corresponding very closely via email, and she will come to Guatemala at the end of this month to work with me for about a week. The plan is for she and I to alternate trips to the other’s location; so, she will come here every couple of months, and I will go to Chiapas every couple of months.(I’m especially excited about having the opportunity to visit my former home of San Cristobal de las Casas, which is in the state of Chiapas and much of Natik’s work takes place in its surrounding Mayan communities!)
So, after discussions with Anita and Dolores, these are the first couple of projects I will be working on as a Natik fellow:
- Just Apparel Fair Trade Orders – a woman from the Netherlands has placed an order with the women artisans of the Just Apparel collective for some custom embroidery pieces, due in just a few weeks. I will be working with Dolores to coordinate this order between the buyer, Natik’s U.S. volunteers, and the artisans here in Santiago. This will continue to be an important part of my role while I’m here, and this effort enables indigenous women to put their skills to work for fair wages to support their families.
- Working with the Scholarship Students – Natik has a group of 35 students who have received scholarships from U.S. sponsors in order to continue their education (since in Guatemala, everyone has to pay tuition beyond the 6th grade). As a part of their scholarship requirements, the students must commit to studying outside of school hours at the learning center for 8 hours and doing 4 hours of community service. They meet every Sunday morning. This Sunday, I will be joining them and leading them in activities that will culminate in writing letters to their U.S. sponsors, which they do a few times per year. I am told that many of the students are shy (partially because Spanish is a second language), but they need to learn public speaking and eloquent writing skills to perform well in school and beyond. For the letters to their sponsors, we are aiming to elicit stories from each of the students that are a little more descriptive regarding how the scholarship program impacts their lives, beyond the usual “thank you.” My plan is to have the students work in groups of two initially and conduct interviews with each other, using open-ended story-promoting questions that I will provide (i.e. Tell me about a time when…) We will also talk about what makes a good story (detail, personality, voice, structure). Then, using each other’s notes from their interviews, they will choose one of the questions they answered and put it into writing for their sponsor letters. Hopefully, this will go as planned…
- Making a Video! – Natik has an online fundraising effort coming up, and part of my job is to provide stories and photos to our social media coordinators for this purpose. I have also volunteered myself to make a video! Videos tend to get a lot more views (and hopefully donations), so this was a desired project, but no one had the video editing skills to put one together – until me! So, I’m going to make a short video that will include a montage of the students reading the sponsor letters/stories they’ve written, as well as some footage of Natik’s various programs in action! This will be either onNatik’s blog or Natik’s facebook page, or both, so be on the lookout for it in a few weeks!
- Meeting the Women of Just Apparel – on Saturday, I will go with Dolores into the communities where the women who are artisans in the Just Apparel group live (and work). According to Dolores, their communities are rather far from the town center, as is commonly the case, since these are the most impoverished populations. I am excited to meet these women, and will be taking photographs of them as well, for Natik promotional purposes!
Exciting things ahead!