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6 posts from February 2012


Grassroots on a Larger Scale

Guest Lecture by Julia Sanchez on the Inter-American Development Bank

After working in the Peace Corps for almost three years, one volunteer, Jean, told our group that one of the biggest lessons she has learned is that “development and poverty are based in relationships.” Looking at different paradigms of development as part of our poverty and development class, this statement made me think: what kinds of relationships does she mean? Sure, it involves people's relationships with money and resources, but it also goes deeper, to relationships between groups, between individuals and people in power, and between entirely different cultures. In other words: grassroots development.

When we think of grassroots development, we generally think of small nonprofits that help bring change from the “bottom up,” starting with the community. But, how do we reconcile this with the globalized system we have? Is it possible to have grassroots change at a higher level? Perhaps not. But, I would argue that building the relationships necessary for change are not necessarily confined to local, grassroots organizations. Also on our excursion to look at development paradigms, we spoke with a representative of the Interamerican Development Bank (IDB). This bank differentiates itself from other financial organizations by striving to provide direct help to those who most need it. In other words, the IDB tries to cultivate relationships between the lenders and the receivers of aid, requiring visits to the sites and concrete records of what kind of development has been done and where the money has gone.

Julia Sánchez, a Dominican representative of the bank for 30 years before retiring in '92, told us about more than just the bank's set-up and process, but how it developed her relationship with her own country, by showing her what conditions people were living in and what she could do to change them. I think that too often we think of large organizations such as this one as impersonal and unidimensional. The IDB is an example of how, even at the larger level, it is possible to focus on the people and look beyond the dollar sign. In contrast to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Sánchez argues, the IDB only gives small loans at one time, waiting for the follow-through to see where the money went. Furthermore, the interest rates are lower then the IMF's and countries are given grace periods to pay back the loan. In other words, the bank seems to make a conscious effort to work with its members as opposed to merely throwing money at the problem and expecting to be paid back all at once.

Now, clearly, the IDB is not perfect, but, then again, what is? Our responsibility is to ask tough questions and keep working with the bank so that it can be better. How can we ensure that the bank maintains the personal relationships with loan receivers? At a community level, what can we do to make the most of IDB loans? The goal here is to continue cultivating these relationships at both the community and international levels. Community development does not exist entirely out of international development, nor the other way around. It's a hard balance to hit, but organizations like this one are at least trying, fairly successfully, to feel the waters of this new combinations of ideas.

As service learners, human developers, and people, our challenge is to cultivate these relationships and learn from our exchanges. In anything we do, we must remember to work with people instead of for/in spite of them. For me, that was the take-home message this weekend, the paradigm of human development. Only by empowering ourselves and others can we enact change, because, truly, it's all about the people.

Zoe Ingerson

Whitman College


A Racial Repercussion of Trujillo’s Rule

Vika 1

The group and I in front of the Memorial where Trujillo died

 My host mother was one of the first Dominicans I spoke to about Dominican-Haitian relations who told me “everything is rooted in history,” and then spoke a lot about Trujillo. Before coming to the Dominican Republic, I learned some information about the dictatorship of Trujillo in my spanish class. I learned that his rule lasted from 1930-1961, and that because he was determined to “whiten” the Dominican race, he brought Europenas and Japanese into the Dominican Republic, and killed a massive amount of Haitians who are of darker skin. However, what we didn’t learn in my spanish class was the extent to which the actions of his dictatorship had, and continues to have in  shaping the mentality of race of Domincans today.

 Since being here one of my biggest percetions about how Dominicans view race is the disparity in how they identify not only themselves, but others as well. There is a spectrum of terms such as indio (indian), negra (dark skin), blanco (white skin), morena (brown skin), and a plethora more of combinations to identify a Dominican. Unlike in the United States, where a person can be of mixed heritage, but perceived as a general race, such as black, white, hispanic, or asian, here I notice Dominicans are very specific in the way they identify a person. While skin color might be a main determing factor of a person’s race, Dominicans also take into account physical characteristics of the face such as the width of the nose, and eye color, and even the length and texture of hair. Overall, I have noticed that lighter skin and longer straight hair are favored characteristics.

 I have found that a lot of the way that Dominicans identify themselves is heavily based on the idea that lighter skin and straight hair is the standard of beauty. This mentality has also influenced the relations that Dominicans have with Haitians, especially in that the majority of Haitians do not fit those characteristics. Unfortunately this was a mentality created during Trujillo’s rule that affected the way Dominicans viewed race.

Vika 2

Another monument where Trujillo was assassinated

But how could one man have infected a country with such a poisonous anti-Haitian mentality?

There were a lot of factors that allowed Trujillo to create that mentality, and perhaps one of the biggest factors was fear. Trujillo was an absolute dictator in that if you opposed him or his rule you would be killed. This fear caused people to accept his ideas, such as Haitians being inferior people because they were of darker skin. This mentality not only caused the murders of over 25,000 Haitians during 1937, but repercussions of that mentality are felt today on different levels from racism in the street, to the complex situation of Haitian-Dominican migration and citizenship in the Dominican Republic.

 Another repercussion is a racist mentality against Haitians. The racism that Trujillo enforced against Haitians and darker skinned Dominicans of Haitian decent during his time is unfortunately, still affecting the Dominican Republic today. This is not to say that every Dominican has a racist opinion toward Haitians, but there is a stereotype that Haitians are less than Dominicans and are looked down upon because of how they were treated during Trujillo’s rule. In the same manner, Haitians have their opinions about Dominicans and how they think they are perceived in this country. Although this racist tension did not being during Trujillo’s dictatorship, he was one of the main catalysts in promoting this thought of inferiority.

 Trujillo’s dictatorship did not just span for more than three decades and simply stop. The repercussions of his decisions are still seen today, between Haitians and Dominicans in the Dominican Republic. The multi-faceted history of the Dominican Republic and the repercussions of Trujillo’s “anti-Haitian” ideology is still a prevelant issue. History not a clean-cut linear process, but rather a series of interconnected events that have, and continue to shape the present by the interactions between people. It would have been ideal for that racism and anti-haitian mentality to end with Trujillo’s death and the end of his dictatorship, but it is neither easy nor simple to undo the ideologies that were enforced during Trujillo’s thirty-one year rule, and throughout the history of the Dominican Republic.

Davika Parris

Clark University

“I am not my hair, I am not this skin”

Vikas hair(1)

I grew up in a diverse, urban area in the United States, so I am accustomed to being surrounded by many people of different races, ethnicities and economic classes. My observations and experiences have told me that the there is a general sense of pride, exuberance and confidence in the black community in the Washington D. C. metropolitan area. Despite this seemingly unanimous expression of self-worth, I have repeatedly heard the same sentiments about skin color and hair texture expressed by African-Americans of all walks of life. Many of my peers that identify as African-American or black have made a point of mentioning the rank and quality of the hair and skin of other African-Americans. So often I have heard that a black girl or woman is more beautiful because she has “caramel” skin, or “good hair.” While my peers appear to embrace their race, somehow they still seem to find that more white equals more beautiful. Conflicts of identity and racial hierarchy exist all over the world, and long standing paradigms have left their indelible marks in the minds of people everywhere.

Fortunately, I have never lost pride in my physical features nor wished that the African aspects of my heritage were less apparent on my exterior, despite the negativity I’ve come up against. I have been told before that I have a big nose, or that my hair is “bad” because of its kinks and tiny curls. That being said, the widespread desire to reject one’s African ancestry does trouble me. Prior to my studies in the Dominican Republic, I had heard very often that the issue of identity was a touchy subject for many men and women living on the island. Is there an identity crisis in the Dominican Republic in general? Or is there merely a strong desire to move away from “blackness?” Rather, what is the greater dilemma in terms of identity in the Dominican Republic: being black, or not knowing how to categorize oneself?

During the first week in Santiago, the students and our program coordinators traveled to two ingenios, or plantations, called Engombe and Boca de Nigua. In the midst of dilapidated stores and residences, stood two distinct properties, each bearing the indescribable pain of African enslavement through a deafening silence. It was incredible to stand where slaves once stood, and to feel so close and yet so distant from the horrors that once occurred in a now desolate and obscure place. Historical events that occurred in the Dominican Republic have had a large effect on the perception of race and identity throughout the country. Spanish and French colonization of Hispaniola led to a division between the two sides of the island, leaving one side with much more Spanish influence, and the other side with more African influence. In later years, Trujillo’s dictatorial regime pushed for a rejection of African culture and for Dominicans to identify as “indio”, or as people of indigenous ancestry. Whether the blame belongs to colonization, Trujillo or any other historical influence of the past, the negative perception of negro has been passed down from generation to generation without fail.

While we toured Engombe, we discussed the issue of racial labels on Dominican personal identification cards. Both the Engombe and Boca de Nigua plantations are tangible evidence that slavery took place on the island, and yet most Dominicans will identify themselves as blanco, indio, mezclado; anything is better than “black.”  Nevertheless, there have been some positive movements in recent years that are moving towards an altered consciousness regarding identity in the Dominican Republic. Many women are beginning to embrace and flaunt their natural hair, and are calling for other women to follow suit. Others are opening themselves up to their African ancestry, and changing their ID status from indio to negro. The large migration of Haitians after the earthquake and the rapid aid response of the Dominican government has helped in changing perceptions of race as well. The inevitable intermixing of Africans, Tainos, Spaniards and other groups has resulted in a richly diverse, physically and biologically heterogeneous country of people. The challenge for all of us is to understand who we are, without limiting ourselves to only some parts of our being. Furthermore, we shouldn’t be forced to choose one all-encompassing label, because all humans are far too colorful to settle for one single crayon from the box.

 Talia Brock

Denison University


Same History, Different Reality

From January 6—8, my CIEE Service-Learning group visited Santo Domingo, the capital city of the Dominican Republic. Expecting a city of sunburned American tourists and tacky side-street stalls selling key chains and postcards, I was surprised to find instead a wealth of history, culture, and perspectives I hadn’t considered before. The trip really helped me reflect on the realities of being Dominican and how different people can see the same history in different ways.

One of the most thought-provoking sections of the trip happened before we even arrived in the city. Along the way, our guagua (bus) stopped in several spots, most notably two former slave plantations called Engombe and Boca de Nigua. Boca de Nigua, a former sugarcane factory, made a huge impression on me.

Isabelle 1

Boca de Nigua

 Here, slaves processed sugarcane from the plantations. Downstairs in the ovens, they pressed sugarcane to liquefy it, and upstairs, they heated and stirred it until it crystallized. Seeing the actual sites where these slaves worked and suffered, I could scarcely imagine the hell they lived through. At one point, Marcos (our Resident Coordinator and guide for this part of the trip) told us that slaves that worked downstairs in the ovens would last at most three months, so awful were the conditions. It reminded me of those drawings in some history textbooks, of the arrangements of bodies on a slave ship, and how each person was placed precisely where they would take up the least space so that the ship could be truly packed. To drive this connection home, Marcos showed us the sleeping quarters where the slaves slept, literally one on top of the other, so that they used the least space possible. The reality and the horror of these places—the plantations, the factory, and the slave ships—is something that can only be understood through images. As people who did not live through it or even have a direct connection to it, I believe modern people (including myself) often lose this connection to reality in favor of a shallow and vague knowledge of history.

Isabelle 2

The ovens at Boca de Nigua

This visit to Boca de Nigua really resonated with an experience I had on the last day of our stay in Santo Domingo. During a tour of the Zona Colonial (the Colonial Zone of the city), our tour guide took us to a number of historical sites, many of which were related to Cristobal Colón (Christopher Columbus). The guide showed us the home where Colón stayed while in Santo Domingo, the home of his brother, a huge statue of Colón in the main square of the city, and many other sites related to him. He and other Dominicans are intensely proud that Colón discovered the Dominican Republic before finding the North American coast, and they are especially proud of their Catholic heritage, which the Spanish brought to the island natives. But in my opinion, Colón did more harm than good, almost extinguishing the native population of Hispaniola through his quests and discoveries and initiating the importation of African slaves. I thought of the ovens at Boca de Nigua and imagined the slaves there, worked to the bone, and it seemed to me as though the conquests of Cristobal Colón were at the root of these atrocities. It seemed to me that many modern problems of race relations, poverty, and underdevelopment originated from this critical point in history.

So I asked the tour guide, as politely as I could, why Dominicans were so proud to be associated with Cristobal Colón, considering his crimes and legacy. His answer shocked me: “Cristobal Colón didn’t kill anyone. He discovered us.” He went on to describe the religion, modernity, and development Colón brought to the island, and fiercely argued that his beloved Dominican Republic would not be the same without Colón’s influence. His perception of history was so far from mine, it seemed we weren’t even living in the same world. It seemed to me that he was living this shallow knowledge of history, ignoring the awful things that Colón brought in favor of the good.

But history is not black and white, and it can be interpreted by a hundred different people in a hundred different ways. Our tour guide’s response shocked me, but if he ever heard me rant about the crimes of Cristobal Colón, he probably would feel just as shocked. And although I might not agree with his point of view or even understand it, I can still value it for what it is—a different perspective.

Isabelle Jaffe

Clark University


Keep It Personal

Development work is “based on relationships” said Jean, a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic. In our weekend in Santo Domingo we spoke with representatives of a number of organizations to get a broad perspective of development efforts, and what that concept of “development” means, in the Dominican Republic. Two Peace Corps volunteers presented their experiences giving us a sense of American international efforts at grassroots work. Jean, a third-year volunteer, knows what she is talking about in this realm and her words speak to me of the importance of personal connections between individuals. When the supposed "helper" enters the community, their role is only effective when they have a relationship of trust and mutual caring with the individuals. We see this directly in service work conducted by the Peace Corps and the work that we will undertake this semester, but I also saw these relationships in an unlikely place: la Zona Franca (free trade zone). I want to discuss an eye-opening tour with Alta Gracia Project, a company of people making change through the free market.

 Alta Gracia Project is a T-shirt fabrication company that pays its workers a living wage. Through talking to proud representatives of the organization, I was most struck by the passion they had for their organization and it was clear that this would carry into the organization's operations. As a well-developed organization with a comprehensive website ( it is not a traditional grassroots organizations, which you might expect to center on personal relationships. However, what you can't see on these websites is the pride and passion with which the members speak of their organization. For myself, this signifies a positive foundation of personal connections.

Emily 1

From left to right, Pablo, Jenny, and Lucrecia welcomed us to Alta Gracia.

Alta Gracia was founded two years ago with the mission of providing a living wage and fair working conditions to employees and in doing so redefine global business to support exploited communities. This organization is centered in a free trade zone near Santo Domingo, in a spacious warehouse building. The ambiance is cheerful amidst white walls and an uncluttered feel. A painted pathway clear of all obstructions except a few admiring gringos runs the perimeter of the work area. Inside are stations of sewing machines and tables with people passing cloth back and forth. A woman runs part of an orange shirt through the machine and then examines the stitch; seeing a gap, she discards it and comments on the slight error to the woman on the other side of the table. There are smiles and concentration in the bright space. Every door holds an emergency evacuation plan with a photo of the designated lider de evacuación (evacuation leader). In the back, office areas have windows and open doors available to any employee who wants to talk. Three employees, Pablo, Jenny, and Lucrecia, led us on this tour of the space proudly pointing out the many aspects that make it a positive working environment. On the side among the wide bolts of cloth, the importance of relationships began to emerge when Lucrecia said "somos como una familia, Alta Gracia" (we are like an Alta Gracia family). In a family, there is a sense of mutual caring for the group and for each member. The three tour guides described that the employees as a whole conduct the hiring (and firing) process. In this way, each employee is a respected member of the organization. Through making group decisions and recognizing individuals, each member is significant and knows it. The tour guides worked their way up to higher levels in the factory and they are proud of their family. As I looked at the boxes of completed shirts with the Alta Gracia label, I thought about where those boxes were headed. They will be printed and then sent to universities across the US, hopefully to Clark University where I study.

Emily 2

Inside the warehouse space, there is a clean and spacious atmosphere.

 Alta Gracia’s success comes from relationships. Alta Gracia operates in the free market, in a free trade zone, an area that is usually associated with worker exploitation and distant overseers who order the operations of factory floors. However, Alta Gracia made a few simple tweaks to beneficently take advantage of the system. The system in place allows international companies to hire dispensable workers cheaply to create products to sell competitively in the international market. These traditional free-trade zone companies get their edge by reducing costs as much as possible, but Alta Gracia gets their edge by maximizing personal relationships. The origin of the organization is personal connections, the Alta Gracia family, but meanwhile the successful reception of the company in the US market is also due to personal connections. One person in the US is saying I care about the individuals in the Dominican Republic and many more individuals are doing the same thing. This work requires individuals to feel passionately enough to set aside the price and think about the other individuals involved in the process of the commodity. You could say that this is commoditizing personal relationships, but I don’t see that as a negative. The workers benefit with proper working conditions; the consumer benefits with clothes they can actually wear with pride; and the global production system begins to place more emphasis on people’s well being.

 Without being privy to the account books, this venture is a success. Local workers have work that unites them and supports their personal existence. This is all done by people establishing personal connections with community members to say, “We care.” And from there, the personal connections continue to grow. At this point, the employees are no longer just laborers and the consumers just wallets, but each is part of the Alta Gracia family with an influence in the process.

 I now know that the degree of personal relationships created within any operation, whether intentional development work or not, are a measure of the level of success of the endeavor. As we continue in our semester here, I will continue to look for personal relationships. Knowing they are the foundation even in grand-scale operations, I will cultivate them in my own work and will search for them as measures of success in organizations that we learn about. Through my work this semester, I will seek out personal connections. For instance, instead of simply walking around the community to understand it, I will prioritize sitting to talk with individuals and get to know them throughout the semester. Even when I return home, I can have a positive influence by considering the relationships formed in the companies and organizations around me.

 Emily Sturdivant

Clark University


The New Slavery

Annacecila 1

In the CIEE Service-Learning weekend trip to Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, our group focused its attention on five paradigms of development: Economic, Free Trade, Human, International, and Grassroots. Through our various stopping points and meetings in and around Santo Domingo, we were able to see and analyze how different organizations work with these various paradigms.

There were two sites that intrigued me in particular, the first being the Alta Gracia Project factory, and the second being the ruins of an old sugar plantation in Boca de Nigua. The Alta Gracia Project factory is a grassroots development project dedicated to offering its factory workers a “living” wage instead of minimum wage. The workers here earn more than three times the minimum wage, giving them a decent income for them and their families ( They have a clean and safe workspace, their labor rights are respected, and they have “instructors” rather than managers, who assist the workers if there is a question or complication. It is an excellent example of both grassroots and international development, as with the support of Knight’s Apparel and some U.S. universities who buy their products and sports gear, the factory has been able to bring the community back to life, offering work and decent pay that allows the economy to continue and, little by little, expand.

The second site that intrigued me was Boca de Nigua, the ruins of a 400-year-old sugar plantation (Boca de Nigua Lecture). We learned various ways in which the slaves were worked to death, the fastest way by being strapped by the neck to the mill to churn at rapid speeds in order to crush the cane and abstract the liquid. To process this sugar liquid it had to be kept at extremely hot temperatures, and because there was very little air flow in the pits where the slaves worked, this became another common cause of death. Kidnapped from their homelands, these slaves worked and lived in terrible conditions, and had a lifespan of about only 3 years after beginning work on the plantation (Boca de Nigua lecture). As we scoped these ruins I couldn’t help but feel relief that this slavery no longer exists here.

As I toured these two very distinct places, a thought came to mind that’s been churning in my brain ever since. Slavery, as many often recognize it, is the slavery of plantations, where people were forced against their will to migrate and be worked to death for the economic profit of others. Although plantation slavery may have ceased to exist in the Dominican Republic, I believe that it still exists in a slightly different form: Poverty. Instead of a slave master who controls the plantations and hundreds or thousands of lives, it is the social, political, and economic systems that are in place that allow poverty to continue and worsen over time.

When workers are paid the bare minimum, the inability to pay one monthly bill can quickly begin a swift decline into debt and poverty, both of which can be extremely difficult to escape. This becomes increasingly significant as the gaps between the upper class and lower classes are rising throughout the world. This pattern demonstrates that there are clearly incentives and benefits to those in power, mainly the wealthy, who keep the majority of the lower classes in poverty through political and economic decisions. For example, large companies will move into developing countries in order to accumulate a mass of cheap labor. Although the companies and their CEO’s make a significant profit, the workers often suffer under sweatshop conditions, with hours and hours of work on end and very few breaks. However these workers are so desperate for the little money they earn that they have no choice but to tolerate the conditions. Essentially, the system and those in control of it are enslaving those in the bottom rung, as these workers are unable to make many decisions in their lives without the proper access to resources such as medical care, education, and financial security. Although very different from the slavery seen in the plantations, poverty locks people into a cycle that strips them of their opportunities and freedoms, which then allows the wealthy to maintain their own power and privileges.

The Alta Gracia Project is such an inspirational factory because it demonstrates how people within their own community can start a competitive business that not only gives its workers a fair salary, but also allows them to have the rights and abilities to make their own life decisions. In an effort to eliminate sweatshop working conditions, with a “living” wage these workers are able to provide more for their children and families, and they themselves have more personal power and freedom than they would have experienced in other minimum wage jobs. The process of developing such an organization is not an easy task, in part because of the heavy competition, and in part because of resources. But with the combination of international help from Knight’s Apparel and the determination of community members to develop such projects, Alta Gracia has become a true example of how grassroots development can create social change, can break the cycle of poverty, and can make living decently a realistic outcome while still making a profit. I am moved to not only share my experience in meeting those workers and others involved there, but to also find ways to make projects like Alta Gracia possible in other communities.  


Office of Communications. “Living Wage: Above and Beyond Anti-Sweatshop Codes.” Georgetown University. January 24, 2012.  <

Anna Cecilia McWhirter

University of Oregon