Working alongside communities, rather than for them: sustainable development in Guatemala

The Mac Weekly

By Elizabeth Lieske ’15

I went on my first Rising Minds trip to San Juan de la Laguna, Guatemala as a relatively naïve sophomore in 2013. Rising Minds, a non-profit sustainable development organization, offers the two-week J-term trip to Macalester students as part of its ongoing work in the region. When I signed up, I had not previously questioned much the concept of volunteering — I assumed it was good — or how much those helped ultimately benefit. My main reasons for going on the trip were to 1) develop my Spanish-speaking skills and 2) push myself out of my comfort zone by spending two weeks living with a host family in a part of the world I had never been to before. While I definitely accomplished those two goals, I ended up learning much more than I expected—both on that first trip and on later trips when I returned to San Juan as a trip leader. On my first trip in 2013, our group of 10 Macalester students helped Rising Minds with a number of its ongoing community development projects. As I knew I was interested in becoming a doctor someday, the project that impacted me the most involved sharing lessons on various health topics at a community center in the aldeas (mountain communities). Before arriving in Guatemala, my project partner and I researched how to eat a nutritious diet, but hit a snag when we realized that we did not really know which foods the people of the aldeas had available or which recipes they liked to cook. It was difficult to answer these questions without talking to members of the community first. On the day of the health workshop, we met the women at the community center and shared what we had found, but we still felt unsure of how our information was received. We were white foreigners who spoke Spanish, rather than the local Mayan language with which the women were more familiar, and we felt somewhat disconnected from the women—sure, they were friendly to us, but how much did we really do for them? Yet one of the great aspects of Rising Minds’ trips is that you don’t simply do your supposed “good deed for the day” and then stop thinking about it. During our evening meeting after the health workshop, we wrestled with difficult questions, wondering what kind of lasting impact our health lessons would have. Courtney, one of the founders of Rising Minds, asked for our feedback and encouraged us to keep thinking about how health workshops could be improved in the future. Because Rising Minds does sustainable development work year-round and regularly seeks feedback from trip participants like us, as well as from the communities with which it works, there is always more to do and improve. And Rising Minds does improve itself. When I returned to Guatemala in 2014, I saw how Rising Minds had adapted the health workshop to make it more empowering for the communities served. For this year’s health workshops, Rising Minds found local community health workers who wanted to work with us and asked them which topics would be most helpful for the community to learn about. We then designed our lessons around these topics. After arriving in Guatemala, rather than giving the lessons ourselves, we shared our lesson plans with the local community health workers and asked for their feedback. Using the health workers’ knowledge, we shaped the lessons to make them more applicable to their communities. Then we worked alongside the community health workers as they delivered the lessons in Tz’utujil, the Mayan language more familiar to the community members than Spanish. In addition to these benefits, the health workers were able to continue sharing these lessons at future workshops, meaning that our impact continued beyond the two weeks that we were in Guatemala. My involvement with Rising Minds had a big impact on the rest of my time at Macalester — particularly in any situation in which I was a volunteer — as well as my life post-graduation. I now think more critically about the strengths and resources that I can truly offer to people. I question whether I am truly the best person to help and what gaps I may have in my knowledge. As a medical student, I still find myself asking many of the same questions that I started asking in Guatemala. Medical students receive extensive training on how the human body works at a biological level, but we often understand little about how each patient’s health is impacted by their particular life situation—financial or legal barriers to accessing services, whether patients live in a well-resourced neighborhood, how cultural beliefs affect their medical care, etc. Thinking about these factors helps me to consider whether the information I give to patients is ultimately beneficial for them or not. For instance, it does no good to tell patients just to eat healthier; one has to ask them about the resources they have available and which steps they can take — and are interested in taking — for their health. Empowering patients to use the resources they have and make their own decisions about their health is key to actually helping them. These were all concepts that I first started thinking seriously about through my experiences with Rising Minds, and I believe they are lessons one can take going forward into many different types of careers and life experiences. If you have the chance to go on a Rising Minds trip to Guatemala, I would highly, highly recommend it. Not only will you learn about grassroots NGOs and sustainable development work, you will learn lessons to carry wherever life takes you. You will get to volunteer your time and resources on behalf of a community, but you will also question your role as a volunteer, and, if you’re American, consider the dark history of US involvement in Guatemala. The trip will leave you with more questions than answers, but that’s really part of what makes it worthwhile. The other part? I know I’ve focused a lot on the hard lessons I took from the trip, but it’s also awesome just to enjoy getting to know a culture you may have never exposed yourself to before. It’s awesome to live with a host family and share life with them for two weeks, to learn to make tortillas, to laugh at your Spanish blunders (if you’re like me)–and maybe, to even find yourself going back again the next year. If you are interested in joining Rising Minds, contact us at [email protected]