The STEP signature project I was lucky enough to take part in was an international Buck-I-SERV trip taking place in Managua, Nicaragua. The trip was focused on primary health care and a community based approach to health in small, rural areas. The project on which we worked directly was heavily focused on drinking water quality. The group worked with the non-profit group AMOS as participants in their global health practicum.
This experience has shaped my global perspective in many ways and allowed me to see myself as a more realized global citizen. Along with this more international perspective, that likely accompanies many first time trips out of one’s home country, I began to consider the abilities of an individual to create real, impactful change. Whether this change be in small ways at the level of another individual or community, or in larger, more sweeping organizational changes, I have learned that it is possible for one group or individual to be an agent for change. I believed before my signature project that for the most part my efforts would go largely unnoticed in the grand scheme. Although I often thought the work in which I was partaking was important to my own personal growth, to those immediately surrounding me, or to my own world, I was usually unable to see the long term or lasting effects on the worlds of others or on systems that were of major importance to others. During the classroom portion of our trip, described in more detail below, we discussed how many volunteers have a ‘white savior complex’ meaning they believe that since they are from a more developed nation, they have the power and the know-how to impart their wisdom and create change in communities that they see to be of lower standing in the world. This mindset I have continued to avoid, as it has unrealistic and harmful assumptions of power imbedded within. Instead of this, I thought before the trip that I was not talented or knowledgeable enough in any manners to be of much use to anyone in these communities. This experience has taught me that I, or any individual who tries, can be of use to help create systematic changes. The way I reconcile this idea while avoiding the ‘savior’ mindset that some people who set out to create this change fall victim to, involves seeing myself as part of a whole. It is extremely important to note that each person is a global citizen and the changes that occur in one place have rippling effects that cause change, which can be positive or negative, throughout the entire world.
During the course of this trip, many interactions and situations allowed me to open myself more fully to a commitment to service and an awareness that my actions have meaningful outcomes beyond what I can immediately see. During our first week, the group was organized into classrooms to learn the basics. We were introduced to concepts such as global health, community based primary health care, vertical systems, community based research, neoliberalism, and the structure of NGO’s and their work with governments and individuals. We also studied further into concepts of hegemony, history and culture of Nicaragua, and the methods used by AMOS to effectively work within communities in need. During this process we began to learn and understand not only the way that our sponsoring organization went about reaching their goals, but more generally the role of non-profit work in underprivileged communities. These lessons always centered around group discussion and allowed for a free flow of ideas between a group of college students with like-minded goals and visions, staffers who have committed years to the same sort of work, and locals who understand the needs of certain communities and have seen the good done in the past. For example, one activity the class took part in was dubbed ‘the privilege race’. This race allowed those with recognized advantages of parentage, economic well being, racial and gender bias, and other social matters to start a foot race at a clear and measurable distance forward. This event then sparked classroom discussion of power and privilege, with many participants recognizing their advantages that were not chosen or fair; although many participants understood these advantages before the race, it was more clear to see their effects and commence thoughts on what can and should be done about the unfair structures we all deal with on a day to day basis. All throughout this week we were also able to experience the capital city and appreciate many of the things it had to offer as far as culture, history and people. Our group had amazing experiences learning salsa dancing from a couple who seemed legendary in the one of few clubs we danced at. We were able to interact with local merchants at a marketplace where we tested our Spanish skills and cultural understanding. I personally experienced lots of attention from strangers due to my long hair, which I was informed was extremely abnormal for men in the area. Because of this i was often touched and prodded, although I was happy to be able to use this as an in for conversation with someone who may have otherwise gone unnoticed in my limited scope. Through these interactions I was able to see a slice of daily life for many of those who lived in Managua.
Many of the interactions and happenings I found most impactful though, were outside of the classroom training setting. For the second week of the trip, the group lived and worked in a small rural community in the Matagalpa region. Many of us could tell this portion of the trip was going to be an extremely valuable experience just from the ride there. We took the several hour bus ride in a vehicle that AMOS had especially for this sort of transport, which looked like a cross between a school bus and an open cattle car, out from the bustling city. As we drove, we entered beautiful mountainous areas where each view was more amazing than the next and several times expected to have to get out of the bus and help move it through a rougher wet patch of thin, steep road. All of this showed me and the participants that we would be headed into unfamiliar territory and be put out of our comfort zone. This thought only seemed to persist when we arrived in the village. Stock animals surrounded the road and people curiously gathered to see the foreigners outside the small schoolhouse. Our week consisted of community meetings, traveling through and surveying homes for water filter usage, conducting a clinical day for all children under five, and spreading information regarding vector borne illnesses. All this was end capped by sleeping in the clinic that had been cleared out to make room for cots and mosquito nets hung from the rafters for the sleeping volunteers. Throughout this process we were forced to operate in circumstances that we had never seen, and to do things that we had not seen before. With this constant stretch outside of my comfort zone came a sense of ability that I hadn’t expected. I was surprised to see how well myself and others were able to do work in which we had no expertise, communicate with others in a second language, talk to others about extremely important subjects of health and wellness, and work for the direct improvement of a community. I had thought because of this week that although the help we were able to provide may have been fairly minimal, due mostly to the constraint of only staying a week, but one was able to see the physical improvement in the functioning of water filters, the sharing of knowledge from medical testing, and the sharing of knowledge between our group and the community members. This sharing of knowledge came forth most evidently in the community meeting toward the end of our stay. During this meeting, the volunteer group made large posters of our findings that were tallied from the surveys taken both in and around the homes and during the clinical day. These results included suggestions for children’s diets, actions to take for continuing use of the water filters, as well as precautions to take in the prevention of Zika virus. The community members were receptive to the information, but often pointed out things that we had not considered when drafting our suggestions. Many of the community members were unsure what mosquito repellent was and were fairly certain they didn’t need it, or certain they had none. This came as a surprise to many of us but they insisted that long clothing was enough to prevent them from being bitten by mosquitoes. Many in our group found this idea surprising, but in my mind, I was made to think they likely had far more experience and local knowledge, and it was probably unfair to push a perspective that we believed was best. This was true not just of mosquito prevention, but also many other issues brought about in the meeting, including nutrition, health, and other matters.
This idea of change on a large scale due to the actions of an individual is extremely important for those impacted by the changes, but in addition it is very important to my own personal development. Along with this shift in perspective to realize that my actions are helpful, I have tried to use this view to push toward its greatest uses. Since I believe that I am not special or unique in the fact that I can help others, I have had the general thought that this power to help others should be used as often and as purposefully as possible. Through this I have found a personal commitment to service in knowing that service organizations are able to create positive effects in the world as a whole. For this, I have continued my life in service to an important level.
This term, I am serving as a member of AmeriCorps NCCC. The National Civilian Community Corps is a national service organization comprised of 18-24 year old members who, in small groups of about 10 members, are sent throughout the United States to complete community improvement projects through a need based system. I am particularly excited to be a part of this organization as I have seen the positive effects possible with groups of concerned, impassioned young people attempting to help those in need.
The idea of personal commitment to serving others and an understanding that the actions of an individual can affect broad change are extremely important to the world as a whole. If everyone had an understanding of their ability to use service to help create these sweeping benefits, I believe many more would choose to put their skills to action. This mindset is valuable in the way of shaping minds to understand the difference that could be made by their help.