This is a guest blog post from Zofia Freiberg, who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Over 200,000 people were killed and 83% of them were Mayan. Some called it a civil war, and some called it genocide. A United Nations backed report concluded that of all the human rights violations, 93% were carried out by state forces and military groups. With the war having only ended in 1996 and the continual political turmoil, three-fourths of the rural population lives in conditions of abject poverty.
In San Juan Comalapa, a mural spanning 182 meters depicts the town’s history. Teachers, artists, students, and other residents of Comalapa painted the history of their culture, not to reinvent a sense of belonging in their nation, but to reclaim their past. Much of the mural features the violence of war, cultural suppression, and building collapse from earthquakes. Contrastingly, the final panels illustrate children attending school, carrying books, and embracing their Mayan culture.
Matt Paneitz was stationed in Comalapa during his Peace Corps service. He decided that he wanted to be part of the positive force making the final few panels of the mural a reality. He founded a non-profit organization called Long Way Home.
Long Way Home both physically and conceptually built a school system called Centro Educativo Técnico Chixot. The curriculum focuses on student-driven, community-based projects that address genuine needs. What is called “Hero School” is a place of democratic education built upon the idea that self-determination and democracy are fundamentally linked. Ultimately, the goal of the school is to empower students to build their own democratic systems and arm students with critical thinking skills to better handle symptoms of poverty. Education facilitated by cultures of privilege and power often become an indirect form of colonization. LWH actively works to avoid this; the curriculum is developed and facilitated by community members and taught in the native Mayan language Kaqchikel.
Prior to establishing the school, Matt was struck by the amount of trash floating through Comalapa. Though people depend on the land to grow food as their primary source of income and subsistence, trash is routinely dumped in a ravine that floods and pollutes the surrounding watershed. This motivated Matt to use alternative building techniques that combine naturalistic building with waste mitigation efforts.
Over spring break, a group of Michigan Tech students, myself included, travelled to Guatemala to volunteer with LWH and learn about their community impact and the Green Building Techniques used to build their campus. Equipped with sledge hammers and shovels, we learned how tires that were previously headed to the dump can be packed with sand and trash to create retaining walls or a structure for a home. Plastic sacks are placed on the bottom of the tires to hold in the sand that is packed down. Miscellaneous pieces of trash are also placed inside the tire.
As we unlaced our shoes and grabbed buckets of material, we learned how to make cob: 3 buckets of clay earth, 2 buckets of sand, 2 buckets of water, straw, and a funny foot feeling later we made our first batch of cob. There were many more to come, since cob is a staple material on-site due to the similar properties it shares with traditional concrete. It is used on-site to fill in space around tires for interior and exterior finishes as well as to build walls between concrete structures.The volunteers on the campus tuck their single-use packaging into plastic bottles to create eco-bricks. These-eco bricks are used as fillers in cob walls. Liter sized plastic bottles are cut into shingles for roofs to protect structures from both rain and sun. Using trash as building materials is especially effective because it minimizes what has to be brought to the site and elongates the useful lifecycle of items already on site.
In addition to the school for the local community, Long Way Home runs a Green Building Academy where participants come to learn about sustainable building methods while simultaneously contributing to current projects on the campus. The profits from the academy go towards funding the school. LWH demonstrates a model of service where contributions towards community development goals are not a zero-sum game where what is given up by one actor is gained by another. Instead, the transfer of value from one to another is a reciprocal exchange.
This was certainly true for the experience of the MTU students. Sitting in the airport waiting to depart, we discussed our expectations for the week. The consensus was that we had no clue what to expect. Yet in true Husky style, we were eager to put in hard work and help another community. Sitting in the airport waiting to return, the conversation had flipped from what we thought we would be giving to all the value we had received.
What I found to be most valuable from the trip was a newfound understanding of what makes for effective volunteerism and foreign aid. Ultimately, I don’t think we directly helped another community so much as we became a part of the LWH community and their collective efforts towards positive change. Offering up what you have to give as an empathetic outsider may be generous, but it is more efficacious in the long term to first become a member of the community you intend to help. Then, you no longer have to guess at what a community’s needs are because your needs and that of the community become one in the same.
On the final panels of the mural in town, once just a vision, there is an illustration of the existing LWH school. Though LWH has a Hero School, they do not try to be the heroes of Comalapa. Instead of attempting to uproot and recreate existing social and economic systems, they build upon what already exists and give locals an avenue to become the heroes of their own community.
Attempts to decipher the best mechanism to make humanity better can be dizzying to the extent of paralysis. To make matters worse, incremental progression is easily diminished with a glance to the news. When the news becomes an omnipresent noise, it can be comforting to just accept that people around the world live differently. However, cultural acceptance shouldn’t be used as a justification for global inequalities. It is a heroic act in itself to acknowledge what incremental good you can do in the face of all the bad. Let a focus on what it is you do have to contribute strengthen your will to act.