MDG J-Term Trip: Guatamalan Development

By Shasta Webb

Over J-Term, Alexa Wilcox ’13, chair of the Macalester Development Group, led 10 Mac students to Guatemala. For two weeks the students volunteered with US- and Guatemala-based NGOs in Antigua and San Juan. The Mac Weekly interviewed Wilcox to find out first-hand how the journey went, from early planning to the students’ return to the Macalester community.TMW: Over J-Term you went on a trip to Guatemala. Can you tell me about it?

Alexa Wilcox: It was a two-week trip and we went to San Juan, around Lake Aticlan, for one week and then we went to Antigua for another week. It was ten Macalester students and it was part of the Macalester Development Group. We worked with the US-based NGO called Rising Minds that connected us with all-local partners.

TMW: What made you decide to go to Guatemala?

AW: I had been to Guatemala with Rising Minds for a week over Spring Break [2010] and I really struggled with how to bring that experience back to Macalester. And I thought the best way would be to bring part of my Macalester community to Guatemala so I could build a larger base of people to discuss issues and build a larger presence around those issues within our community here.

TMW: What were the steps involved in planning the trip?

AW: The primary objective was to make the trip affordable for everyone who wanted to go, so there was a lot of grant writing involved. Fundraising was very important and everything that logistically goes into planning a trip from tickets to health insurance as well as navigating the school process, which isn’t actually there. Many meetings were involved. It was a very large learning process and I hope that planning this trip makes it easier in the future for students to plan self-initiated trips.

TMW: Once in Guatemala, what did you do?

AW: For the first week, for example, we stayed in Lake Aticlan, which is a really indigenous community. We did home-stays with women at a women’s cooperative. We did a weaving class where we would learn how to weave scarves. Mine was just pitiful. We really learned the value of the time and money and people that go behind a product. So much of this trip wasn’t just volunteering, it was learning and really appreciating the non-mutual exchange.

TMW: Describe some of the days you were there or one of the events you were involved in.

AW: The first week we spent in San Juan, we did home-stays with women in the local cooperative. Each day was unique and different. Some days we were learning weaving or how to make bracelets. Another day we did a language exchange where we learned Tutihil and taught English and that was without monetary exchange. We worked with a local cooperative that made shampoo out of herbs. We worked with a fishermen’s cooperative that was planting tulle beneath the water as a filtration system to clean the lake. We also worked to remove invasive species. We worked mainly with a lot of different cooperatives and different efforts within the community.
The second week was very different altogether. We worked in Antigua, which is the colonial capitol, with a local non-profit called Semillero. They have this cooperative, which was originally just this dump of trash but they completely cleaned it out and now it has four fish pools, a compost pit, and a chicken farm. They pay women in food to work there and we worked with them in the morning. We then worked with the after school program in the afternoon and we did what are called Mano y Mano projects where we shared a skill or passion [of ours] with the kids. That was basically the structure of the two weeks.

TMW: Did anything not go smoothly on the trip? Or during the planning process?

AW: Well, getting money is harder than you think. The trip went really smoothly and I don’t think I would have done anything differently. In the planning process I think there needs to be assistance for students at school to go through to plan a trip.

TMW: Can you tell me more about Rising Minds? What’s the mission statement?

AW: Rising Minds is a US-based NGO and its mission is to bridge cultural gaps and facilitate meaningful exchanges between international parties and local people. It works in the areas of tourism and makes meaningful connections with local people and helps them facilitate their own projects.

TMW: Now that you’re back at Macalester, what are your plans as far as MDG goes?

AW: For our introduction meeting, everyone is going to do a presentation and then open it up to a larger discussion about themes we saw. And everyone will be doing a transference project, which means they have indentified something they feel they can give back, because I feel like in a volunteer immersion trip, the work is really not done when you’re there. It’s done when you come back to your community, so it’s a much longer process.

People really identified a range of things. One person is selling women’s cooperative bracelets in St. Paul local stores and another person is doing grant writing. Another person is going to start a student scholarship program with one of the communities we worked with. Everyone has something that they really saw and are going to work on. Two people are already planning [the trip] for next year. Hopefully it’s going to be something that’s really incorporated.

TMW: When you talked about the themes you learned about, how have they changed you or your actions here at Macalester? What did the trip teach you about [development] work?

AW: I definitely think it has made me more passionate about development and what development means. It’s very slow and it’s very complex and its very much based on building relationships with individual people and really understanding individual needs of communities. All of the community groups that we were working with were already making change for themselves. No outside force had come in and told them.
For example, the fishermen’s cooperative was not told to clean up the lake. It was something they had already seen as a problem. In part, I think there needs to be a sort of change in dynamic in what we deem as important and where we can come in and really support actions that are already happening and listening and really appreciating the value of people.

TMW: Is there anything else you’d like to say about the trip? Or the people or process?

AW: I would say that if students are interested in becoming involved there are plenty of opportunities for students to help with projects. There are plenty of opportunities for students to become involved in the trip.