I want to emphasize yet again how remarkable the attention to detail is on this program. The AJWS staff that is with us (Lilach Shafir, Director of International Education and Jewish Engagement; Adina Mermelstein Konikoff, senior organizer; Ruth Messinger, president; and Megan Thomas, Guatemala in-country consultant) is a dream team of care, warmth, brilliance, dedication, heart, and soul. As I said yesterday, the profundity of the texts, readings, exercises, and ensuing conversation is painful and piercing and healing all at the same time. Our morning reflection session today was on the topic of “The Story of Self,” a concept elaborated upon by Marshall Ganz, a leader in the field of community organizing. Ganz based his work on Hillel’s adage “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now when?” Apparently, President Obama’s powerful “narratives of self” that came through in his pre-presidential speeches were influenced by Ganz’s work and may have been what won him the election.
Among the many homework assignments we were given before we came on this trip was preparatory work on preparing our own “story of self.” The story needed to convey a value that connects me to social justice work and that required real risk or challenge. This morning we had the opportunity to share that story with two other colleagues, and receive feedback. Telling that story and being so fully heard by others whom I trust was deeply moving for me. The exercise is used by community organizers to build relationships, and to inspire others to join a campaign and take action.
Our first (and only) meeting with a grantee today was with Mayan women from an organization called Asociacion de Mujeres Campesinas Q’eqchies Nuevo Horizonte (ANH – New Horizon). Since traveling to them was not feasible for the length of time we are in Guatemala, they travelled to Guatemala City (several for the first time), probably a 4-6 hour trip. Some of them even live hours from each other, as the areas in which they reside are mountainous. Unlike the Mayan women we met yesterday who primarily live in the city and had education, these were rural woman, most with little education, with cell phones but no running water. One of the women was 24 with a 12 year-old daughter. The organization promotes the rights and health of Q’eqchi women, a population that suffers high rates of sexual and gender-based violence. While some of their work is to educate each other about women’s rights and their sexual and reproductive health, some of it is to educate men about their own masculinity/machismo. They said that the men used to come to control the women, but more of them come now to participate for themselves.
Another important piece of ANH’s work now, however, has to do with defense of territory and pollution of the land due to the planting of African palms (used for Palm oil). When I flew in, I had a lovely conversation with the Guatemalan man sitting next to me. I told him a bit about my trip and because he seemed both genuinely grateful (and on the same team vis-vis the need for women’s rights, human rights, and land rights), I mentioned the documentary “Gold Fever” that I had watched as part of my prep for this trip. He knew the film and told me that mining wasn’t the only contributor to land and water pollution, but that plantations were, too. He mentioned a river in which all of the fish had died, the water polluted, devastating the indigenous communities for miles and miles. I didn’t quite understand what he was talking about until today. These trees, used for biofuel, are not only polluting, but it has meant that the indigenous peoples no longer have crop diversity. ANH has been advocating for crop diversification and food sovereignty in 16 different communities, as the pollution is affecting the health of them and their children.
After our meeting and lunch, the 12 women from AHN accompanied us on the city tour in which we saw an amazing topographical map of Guatemala created in 1904-5 that is not only to-scale, but has withstood a number of earthquakes. It seemed to occupy what would be at least one, if not two New York City blocks. After the topographical map, we saw the old palace, the large public square, and had a very short time for retail therapy at the city marketplace.
Tomorrow we leave Guatemala City for Quetzaltenango.
For more reading about current issues in Guatemala, read this article, http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/article/33179768/we-need-to-talk-about-Guatemala whose tag line is “Guatemala has been described as the worst place in the world to be a child”
(By the way, I apologize for the empty post that was accidentally sent out this morning due to technical difficulties. I am working from my IPad and not from a laptop on this journey, and there are things I can’t seem to do or figure out, like putting the above news story into a clickable link.)