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14 posts from March 2014


Translating Sensitive Subjects

"Language is the blood of the soul into which thoughts run and out of which they grow."

‒Oliver Wendell Holmes


How does one discuss issues such as sexual violence, HIV, and contraception with young women in a responsible way?   What language is most appropriate to use when attempting to make others feel comfortable sharing their personal lives and sexual history? Most importantly, how does one navigate these topics and create safe spaces for young women without all of the tools of his or her first language?  

Despite the fact that I have worked with young women and medical professionals in the Dominican Republic exploring sensitive issues for the past two months, I continue to wrestle with these questions.  Asking young women about contraception, sexual violence, and sexuality can be a challenge regardless of a language barrier. Given that my study, which examines the sexual health of young women, remains a taboo in my community, it is especially difficult to effectively engage adolescent women and the larger community in honest conversations about their experiences. My need to occasionally ask timid informants to repeat themselves and my awkward phrasing in Spanish complicate these already loaded interactions, leaving me feeling unproductive and invasive.  At first, each time I tried to engage a community member in conversation about my research topic, I worried that  she would be put off by both my language incompetency and the nature of my investigation.  I also did not want to alienate young women who could not identify with my positionality as an American woman or an English speaker.  I found myself questioning the validity of my findings, worried that I had not translated something properly in my interviews or that my heavy accent made it impossible for my informants to understand me.  For the first several weeks in my community, I strugggled with these questions as I tried desperately to improve my language competency. 


While I still wrestle with these questions and occasionally experience misunderstandings working with community members in my research, the increased sense of comfort I feel with Spanish and my community as a whole has improved my confidence, and ability to conduct valid research. I have developed tactics to ensure that I maintain these achievements. For example, I always make sure to come to my community with a list of questions and key ideas written in Spanish to guide my daily conversations and emphasize certain points with people I interview. I have also become much more comfortable rephrasing my questions or explanations. With this, I have found that if I appear confident and competent, then others will work more enthusiastically with me to attain mutual understanding and more natural conversation.  I also realize that there are myriad ways to demonstrate sincerity and engagement if I falter in my speaking ability. A large component of this is demonstrating humility and admitting when I am confused or unable to adequately express something. This humility has also allowed me to grow closer to participants who appear more comfortable discussing their true opinions and experiences when I admit my vulnerabilities and inadequacies. 

The nature of my research requires that I attain and maintain trust with young women in my community. Despite my initial reservations, I have found that I am able to cultivate relationships and pursue my research. Just as I ask individuals in my community to open themselves up and discuss topics that they may be uncomfortable with, I must also be willing to develop alternative and unique ways of communicating my intentions and demonstrating engagement.  

-Hannah Yore

Clark University

Facilitating Progress

When I began my community work with Niños con una Esperanza (Children With a Hope), an after school program for at-risk youth in Cienfuegos, Santiago, DR, my expectations were naive, to say the least.  I envisioned that in the three months that I would spend at Niños con una Esperanza (NCUE), I would have the chance to do something life-altering for all involved. I imagined that  my work would be incredibly different from and superior to the one-week mission trip groups that come, build a needed structure, such as a new office or classroom, play with the “needy children”, and return to the United States to share their “life-changing” experiences. I pictured that through my work, I would eventually insert myself snugly into the lives of the children and the organization staff I worked with, and become someone they loved and admired. I imagined the organization would change my life, too, by showing me a different perspective of the world and the blessings that fill my existence.Though I am learning plenty, developing genuine friendships, and becoming a regular figure in the lives of the children at NCUE, these things have come about in ways that are very different from what I had originally expected. 

For instance, my work with students in the classroom has shown me that my time and good intentions are more valuable than trying to come in and be a force of change for the organization. When children ask me for help with their homework, I realize that I can barely remember how to do long division, let alone explain it in Spanish. What is more, my presence  as “la blanca americana (the white American girl) in the classroom often only seems to provoke interest that distracts the students from their work. Understanding how limited my abilities are in the classroom has shown me how wrong and even insulting my original perceptions of myself as the much needed “helper” were. It took this experience to help me realize that the children and staff I work with  are human beings with their own lives, loves, hopes, dreams, and unique sources of happiness. They have opened my eyes to help me realize that despite being someone who has always verbally strongly criticized and condemned the “white savior complex” and all the ideologies that accompany it, I had somewhere along the way unknowingly fallen prey to its claws in small ways.

Although priding myself on being someone who was constantly aware and careful of her role as a U.S. American  student, I realize now that my expectations were unrealistic and even problematic. This became more clear as I began to receive questions from the children I work with, such as this one, “Can I come to the United States and live with you?” I was prepared to be asked questions pertaining to my home and my life, but I did not have ready answers for questions like the one above that the children at NCUE have asked me so frequently. I quickly came to the conclusion that without careful reflexion and preparation for questions such as these, ones that I had never been asked and did not feel trained or equipped to properly answer, I could potentially do serious harm instead of good. I didn’t want my presence to perpetuate assumptions that associate the United States only with wealth and well-being; but this was inevitable, and I had to be aware of it. 

Learning from these experiences, I have changed my approach with the children I work with. Now, my goal is to help foster their love and devotion to the Dominican Republic. I have greater awareness of my role as a white American in a community of economically underprivileged Dominican children, which has helped me see that I am not here to change people’s lives nor is that what I want anymore.  What’s more is that the community isn’t expecting or hoping for me to do that. There is nothing I can do for these people that they can’t do for themselves. I simply have more time to devote to a specific project, such as the leadership group I help facilitate, that will hopefully continue after I return to the U.S. The employees at NCUE are extremely committed  to improving the lives of the children they work with in the after school program, and they appreciate support from people whose hands aren't so full to provide new opportunities for the kids.  Overall, I’ve come to accept and appreciate the fact that I am not, and will never be a life changer in this conext; but  I may have the opportunity to facilitate discussion, lend a bit of kindness, and help where I’m needed. 

-Addie Pendergast 

Eckerd College


A Crawl to Confianza (Trust)

I remember walking into Acción Callejera (Street Action), an organization that supports the rights of children, and feeling nervous to meet the young boys from Haiti. Each of them had reached the Dominican Republic and the city of Santiago de los Caballeros by foot in a nearly three-day hike for opportunity, to escape the extreme poverty that has swarmed much of Haiti. These boys, ranging in age from eight years old to eighteen years old, work daily as shoe-shiners, flower-sellers, glass-cleaners, and the like, to make enough money to buy food for their day. Not every boy that visits Acción Callejera is Haitian. However, the majority of the boys that have found themselves homeless and in the highest risk of danger to drug usage, sex trafficking, violence or other abuse, are those that have traveled here from Haiti and have no support system beyond each other.

S14 Blog 2 Gaby Photo 2

 I knew the basic background of the organization and many of the kids' situations and thus, had hoped to walk in and bond with them immediately. I expected to find common ground so that we could build relationships and so that I could one day conduct strong interviews, learn their stories, and build successful research for a sustainable future project. When I sat down with them at lunch the first day, I realized that I could not understand a lick of the Spanish they spoke. Today I realize, my language skills were so poor that the reason I missed so much was not only because my Spanish was terrible, but more so because they spoke their native language, Haitian-Creole, and at the time I was unable to recognize the difference.

They asked in limited Spanish if I was an "Americana” (American) and upon my affirmation, one of the boys stopped eating. He told my supervisor he was too shy to eat in front of me and that my questioning about his name, and later about how old he was, made him uncomfortable.My supervisor asked me to move, and I had to wait silently at a far away table until lunch was done and our first little charla (community talk) could begin.

This first day, I believed I would spend the next ninety days strategizing how to get by. With our limited abilities to communicate, I couldn’t sympathize with any of the boys. Many of them glared, threw rude sexual gestures in my direction, or shouted frustrations in Creole. I had been informed that many of them distrusted U.S. Americans for various reasons, and that only with time could I create a relationship of confianza (trust) with them.

Coming into this study abroad program, I knew that it would be unlike the traditional experiences I had heard so much about. I knew that I would find challenges; I knew that my perceptions would change. However, I never imagined that within six weeks, the same kids who first sent me away with glares and vulgar gestures would become some of my sweetest friends. With time, I earned confianaza and our relationship improved. A sincere desire to learn and share with each other replaced my initial inability to connect.

S14 Blog 2 Gaby Photo 1

Although language discrepancies still present challenges for me in my community, Spanish as a second language has become a primary tool to create connections and find common ground. With each passing day, the preconceived aspirations that I had brought to my community about how easy it would be to connect have morphed. The ability to create trust is not always a guarantee on first meeting. In this instance, it has stemmed from a mutual desire to share and learn with each other, which improves with time.

The experience of my first day laid no foundations of security for neither the boys nor myself, but now, with a little over six weeks behind me, the same boys that originally spat fear and frustration at me greet me with warmth when I walk into my community each day. With time, I’ve learned to believe fully in a human being’s ability to open up and the importance of patience when striving for new connections based on understanding.

 -Gabriela Salazar Kitner

University of Oregon




Thick Skin, Rainbow Masks


Albert Einstein said, “True art is characterized by an irresistible urge in the creative artist,” but maybe not if that irresistible urge is to abandon the school-sanctioned project, spread paint all over your hands, and slap goopy blue handprints on everyone and everything in sight.

Herein lies the chief problem in facilitating creative art projects with third- and fourth-graders in a school that struggles with students acting out violently in the classroom.

In my work at La Escuela Comunitaria Arturo Jimenes, a primary community school run by social justice center Oné Respe, I devote a great deal of energy to preparing these art projects, made from repurposed recycled materials. The projects allow the kids to channel energy into creativity and learn about sustainable resource use.  The first time I worked on an art project with the kids, they responded so positively and behaved so well that it seemed almost like a magic formula.

Alas, it was not a magic formula. 

Recently, I prepared a new project that I was very excited about: painting masks made out of recycled cardboard boxes and toilet paper rolls for Carnaval, a month-long celebration preceding Lent in which people act out heedlessly in street festivals, dance in parades, and dress in elaborate costumes or masks to mock the Devil. The school was gearing up for its own Carnaval celebration, so the kids could show off their homemade masks to their younger schoolmates. When they saw me cutting out the mask shapes, they wanted to start the project immediately.

At first, everything went as smoothly as I had anticipated. The kids applied colors and patterns with gusto. They shared colors cooperatively and cleaned their brushes. Some even asked me to help them cut out extra masks. These were little things, but they seemed like miracles after all the havoc I’ve watched these children wreak over the past month.

Then, just as I was marveling at all the pleasantness, something switched. It was instantaneous. One minute everyone was painting calmly and tidily; the next minute all I could see were pint-sized, primary-colored palms waving everywhere. Faces and uniforms were streaked and hand-printed with red and blue and, for the most creative, muddy pastel mixtures. Students shrieked; slimy stains covered every surface; the rainbow chaos swallowed me.


The change came so quickly that it was difficult to adapt. It had to transition rapidly from Encouraging Art Teacher to Ruthless Disciplinarian/Adept Custodian. I blamed myself for the loss of control in the classroom and wondered how I could have prevented it.

Really, though, there’s no way to circumvent challenges, no matter how carefully I plan these art projects. There’s no way to predict how they will be received, no matter how much I want to believe that creative outlets will make everything click for a child with a disability or a kid from a violent home.

Working with children, especially a difficult group of children, especially in a school low on resources, inevitably will be frustrating. This work requires flexibility and generosity, traits that might be inherent but can always be honed.  

After the polychromatic mess, there were micro solutions and macro ones. Physically, I scrubbed tables and walls and hands and faces. Emotionally, I tempered my anger so I could deal with the aftermath more productively.

Most of all, I tried to remember that there might still be benefits to my community work despite the challenges. These benefits might come later, or they might be difficult for me to see. However, my personal frustration is not the final word (any word, really) on the status of this community’s development.

Zooming out, it’s a statement on sustainable community development. All the foresight in the world will not result in immediate tangible results: good development is slow, requires relationships, calls for adaptation to local context and culture, and might not always produce measurable change. Tellingly, the kids still really enjoyed the project and were proud of their masks, even though I perceived the whole thing as a disaster.

Perhaps most importantly, the outcomes of any development project should stem from the community itself, not from an outsider like me. Although it’s rewarding when the kids enjoy their project and behave well too, I need to remember that the ultimate goal reaches farther into the future, farther away from me. If I can provide opportunities in creativity that plants an “irresistible urge” to organize or develop something in their community, years later, that’s a lot more meaningful than an easy day at work.

-Amy Lebowitz

Macalester College


Persistence is Key in Participatory Development


Speaking in my native language feels comforting, relaxing, and safe. Moving to a different country, where the main language is different from my native one quickly caused me to feel uncomfortable and tense. So far, these feelings have driven my two-month experience studying Spanish in the Dominican Republic. While trying to improve my weak speech and understanding of the language, I worried how I would be able to engage, not only in class, but also in the community, to create change. How would language barriers affect my ability to engage in participatory development with my community and interact with native Spanish speakers?

After a difficult interview with a member of my community in Hoya del Caimito, I gained a greater appreciation for communicating without language barriers.  Mercedes, a very talented artisan of the association, Arte a Mano, in Santiago, Dominican Republic, opened her home to me so that I could ask a few questions about the group dynamic, participation, and its problems and successes. In the interview, I found myself extremely confused because of both the content of the conversation and my limited understanding of Spanish. Unsure of my abilities to communicate in Spanish, I tended to respond to Mercedes with a head nod and a “Sí, entiendo (Yes, I understand),” to show my agreement, or a “¿Por que (Why)?” in order to get a longer explanation of whatever I did not understand. As the interview went on, however, the conversation seemed to become one-sided. Mercedes was describing something about disagreements she was having with other artisans of the association and how a lack of communication was causing problems among the group. By her tone of voice and intense hand gestures, I sensed the seriousness of what she was saying; but I could only understand bits and pieces of what she dramatically relayed to me. Everything else was literally lost in translation. Asking the few questions I could express and having Mercedes repeat herself helped to an extent, but when I left her living room that afternoon, I was even more confused than when I arrived.

 My interview with Mercedes is just one of many similar experiences I’ve had throughout my stay in the Dominican Republic. At first, I questioned how I could engage in participatory development in my community if I couldn’t understand the people with whom I was working. From these challenges, however, I have learned that sometimes I must endure uncomfortable and tense processes in order to learn a different language. I have also learned that I can overcome these challenges by fully and actively engaging. This means asking clarifying questions, asking for help, and actually speaking Spanish with the community members of Arte a Mano. Even though I couldn’t communicate well or understand all of the information being given by Mercedes, I did ask questions and receive help later from another group member who knew what Mercedes was talking about.

Conducting my interview entirely in Spanish wasn’t pretty, I finally ended up understanding the situation. What I originally considered a hindrance to my ability to engage in participatory development became a lesson in how to make the most of language barriers in my community work. I kept looking for a solution to my lack of understanding, but what seemed to be lacking in my interview, actually was not lacking at all. Although the process was uncomfortable and tense, I kept participating by asking for help and ultimately learned that in a country that speaks a different language than my native one, that’s the only way I will improve.

 -Josh Holt

Wofford College

Wasting Time

It is 3:02 p.m. I am drinking cofee with my promotora (public health caseworker), Gladys, and two other women, in Gladys' kitchen.  According to her, we were supposed to be done with our lunch break and commence work again an hour ago. This semester, Gladys and I have been working together to help improve healthcare for people with diabetes and hypertension in her community, Pekín, Santiago, Dominican Republic. And every day, we take a lunch break that extends past two o’clock. It’s a fact that lunchtime in Dominican culture is a respected space of time for dining together with friends and family and relaxing. During lunch with Gladys, we cook, clean, and chat with the passerby that frequently come through her home. I have even spent a lunch break helping her husband paint the house. For this reason, lunch can last for more than three hours. Once we finally make our way back to work, we go about it at a relaxed pace. Even during quick visits to patients’ houses, we make ourselves comfortable, are offered some sort of refreshment, and converse for what feels to me to be far too long. It has taken me a while to become comfortable with the way our work day moves slowly along. The day can be so relaxed that I hardly feel like I am working at all, and this can lead me to feel frustrated and guilty that we are wasting time.

Calli blog2 pic

This struggle has made me think about the different ways in which I value time. Concepts of time vary from place to place and very strongly affect working relationships between people of different cultures. There is even an entire area of study dedicated to this theme. The study of Chronemics looks at the effects of value and perception of time on nonverbal communication across cultures. Using this model to compare the United States and the Dominican Republic would put the two countries at opposite ends of the spectrum. At one end would be the United States, which is defined as a monochromatic society where time is fixed and punctuality and order are highly valued. At the other end would be the Dominican Republic, which is considered to be a polychromatic society where tasks can be done simultaneously and schedules are not so rigid. This chronemic spectrum exemplifies the more individualistic and communal values of the United States and Dominican Republic, respectively. While United States citizens may place value on productivity through the number of tasks completed, citizens of polychromatic culture place more value on the quality of their time spent, especially in the development of personal relationships.

For me, time and productivity are largely related. If I do not have some tangible measure of what I have accomplished, then my time has not been well spent. However, I feel as though my conception of time has evolved since I have been in the Dominican Republic. My experience of “time”  here has not been a unit that should be measured in tasks completed per minute but in how genuinely and thoughtfully I spend every moment. It is the simple concept of “quality versus quantity.” In my community work, I may not always be working in what I feel is a very productive way and this may make me frustrated. However, through this tension, I am learning how to work with people of a different culture, be patient, and be open to defining “work” differently. Four hour lunches and somewhat leisurely strolls around the neighborhood give me time to make connections with the community as well as observe family and community structure. By not rushing through my work with Gladys, I am able to deepen relationships with the people I meet.

Though I am adapting to Dominican culture with respect to how people value time, this does not mean that I can throw all of my time-related values out the window. Punctuality, for instance, will always be important to me because it is a sign of care and respect. I can, however, use this evolving outlook to improve the way I interact with others and the world at large on a daily basis. Though I am not quite there yet, I am striving to see that every moment is an opportunity to learn, grow, and connect. And when I am accomplishing those things, time can never really be wasted. 

-Calli Johnson

University of Colorado Boulder


Classy, Snazzy, and Always Listo (Ready)

I tried to not overpack as I planned my wardrobe for the tropical, yet allegedly conservative, Dominican Republic. Clothes for partying barely made it onto my list of necessities for the rigorous schedule that a service-learning program consists of. With my week always split between classes, community work, homework, and additional excursions, I had assumed that I would have very few opportunities to ever venture into the colorful nightlife that I knew existed, and once there, I presumed my wardrobe would need contemplation.

When I finally found time for my first night out, I understood instantly that I should have read my cultural awareness guide as more of a guide than a total assumption of awareness, as nobody was dressed nearly as conservative as I’d witnessed during the daytime. Nearly every woman, from head to toe, was draped in dazzling jewelry and skintight dresses. My modest-yet-fun attempt to fit in was a clear flop, lacking any class or sex appeal like other women seemed to have. Yet, it didn’t seem to matter; I still received a considerable amount of píropos (cat calls) as I entered my first club and easily scooted past the security guards, receiving an obvious nod of approval. When both of our boys were turned away for wearing long shorts instead of full pants, I realized that the standards for dress had changed as quickly as the sun had set; appropriate dress required a new light.


Men were expected to look classy in nearly every setting: long pants, collared shirt, nice shoes, trimmed hair. Often, women were expected of the same. However, once nighttime arrived, women were allowed, and even more so I’d say, expected to show a few more curves and leave less of their figure to a wondering imagination. The guide’s attempted advice at conservative ware for all lacked the explanation of the purpose of club’s dance codes and failed to mention any motives behind superficial expectations. As I entered the club, blinded by flashing green strobe lights, I wondered for whom I was dressing for. Appearance, something normally so benign to me was evidently of crucial importance here.
I had noticed in my community work that when the boys who worked on the streets would come to our organization and take their showers and change their clothes, every kid would first ask for the fanciest shirts, never white (because it could show dirt) and nearly all of them would ensure that their shirts were tucked in. These boys work as limpiaboatas (shoe shiners), limpiavidrios (winshield cleaners), or in another street job, and they understand much better than I had, that sloppiness is not appropriate whenever it can be helped.

That first night dancing provided my first contrast of an always more conservative dress code. As the live band’s conga drums, bongos, trumpets, singers, keyboards and energy, beckoned beautiful Dominican couples to twirl and dance in perfect fluidity, a wave of acceptance washed into me. Everything seemed to be coated in a layer of class and glamour, despite the actuality of any single person’s class standing, and it brought a level of solidarity I had missed before. It seemed impossible to tell if I was dancing with a young artist, a businessman or even a concho driver (compact car that functions as public transit). Attention to appearance, although normally not topping my priority list, has become an aspect of my time here in the Dominican Republic that I continue to analyze and notice more with each passing day. Although the style changes depending on the setting, the value of appearance is never lost for many Dominicans at any point of the day. There is pride taken in the choices of style made and I continue to learn and admire the attention to detail that so many Dominicans have attained an eye for.

-Gabriela Salazar Kitner

University of Oregon


Lost, but not a Lost Cause

Although I’m hypothetically in favor of “adventure”—I came to the Dominican Republic seeking it, among other things—being lost is one of my least favorite feelings. I hate feeling lost figuratively and also literally, such as recently when I had to navigate solo to the office of my internship, Oné Respe (Honor Respect in Creole), which runs various programs promoting social justice through gender and racial equality.

Usually I’m stationed at Oné Respe’s community school, which is a straight shot on two conchos (public cars), whereas going to the Oné Respe office required me to disembark earlier than usual on my commute, turn down a side street, and walk. Actually, my point person at Oné Respe encouraged me to take a motoconcho (public motorcycle), which is a common mode of transportation here, but I can only see it as paying 20 pesos to ride on the back of a motorcycle without a helmet. (My spirit age is 52.) Thankfully my supervisor sympathized and drew me a map with instructions on where to have the concho driver stop and the best walking route.

AL Photo 2

Everything seemed to be going smoothly. A fellow passenger understood where I was going and told me exactly where to get out of the concho, and I began walking in the direction he pointed. After 10 minutes, though, where was the overpass construction zone? Where was the little bridge? Where was the famous house?

Also relevant: I’m not a fan of asking for directions. I can be counter-productively independent, and I place too much faith in GPS. Here, though, in an unfamiliar part of a new city, being independent will only get me more lost. (A combination of available resources and cultural sensibility in the DR privilege human connections and collaboration much more than the do-it-yourself, Google-maps ethic I’m used to.) The natural inclination to problem-solve independently is just the first of my usually-taken-for-granted crutches that burst into unhelpful relief as I stand outside the colmado (corner store) trying to get my bearings.

For one, as I walk inside and ask for help, it becomes painfully clear that my Spanish is subpar (if the proprietors couldn’t already guess from my glow-in-the-dark skin and red hair).

“Do you speak any Spanish?” a woman asks me, after I’ve already tried most of the asking-for-directions vocabulary I know. Attempting to immerse in Spanish has, perversely, made me realize how much I rely upon a swift and strong command of the English language. My normal confidence is severely diminished when I need to ask for directions but lack most of the necessary phrases, let alone the self-deprecatory humor I’d normally use to diffuse the situation.

Conversing in the colmado, it’s also obvious that the nature of my white privilege is different in the DR. Whereas in the environments I’m used to, it renders me unremarkable, here it does the opposite, so I attract unwanted attention even—and especially—when I’m feeling most uncomfortable. Or lost.

“Straight. Straight long time. Then, left.” In the colmado, luckily, I have some of the tools I need, even if though I still feel an acute loss of control. There have also been times when I’ve known exactly where I was yet felt overwhelmingly lost, like trying to play at recess with 20 squeaky third-graders but not understanding a word they’re saying, or trying to re-program the refrigerator with my host mom in Spanish. In the moment, at least, it’s impossible for me to feel like my normal, in-control self.

AL Photo 1

I ultimately went to three colmados for directions, but the people worked with me until we understood each other, and I found the office eventually. Here are crutches I have not used much before: face-to-face communication with strangers, being the outsider/idiot in a conversation, asking for help before I even try to figure it out myself. But these are the crutches that allowed me to navigate effectively, not the old ones.

The lesson is that my usual crutches are of no use to me right now. I need to let go of them—of lamenting that I know the perfect word in English, of wishing for geographic familiarity, of wanting to be anonymous—before I can stop feeling lost and getting lost.

-Amy Lebowitz

Macalester College



Humility and Self-Assurance: A Constant Negotiation


As a student interested in women’s access to healthcare, I was ecstatic to discover that I would have the opportunity to work in a community health center and focus my research this semester on young women’s sexual health. I was even more excited to begin work alongside a promotora (public health caseworker) in low-income neighborhoods. As I walked through my assigned community with my promotora on my first day of work, I was continuously impressed with my escort's knowledge of the neighborhood and its residents. My promotora spoke with me frankly about her concerns for the community as we walked hand in hand throughout the area.   Because I was still learning to speak and understand Dominican Spanish, I struggled to comprehend her impassioned explanations of her experience in the field and could barely understand the community members who stopped her on the street to ask questions. Though I could not always grasp every aspect of their conversation, it was clear that my promotora was intimately familiar with the concerns and lives of each person who approached her. I watched in awe as she handled each of their questions with affection and attentiveness. Alongside this impressive woman, I felt completely overwhelmed and out of place.

Throughout my first day, we stopped in many homes in the community to check in on residents. My promotora discussed sensitive issues with each community member and for the first time in my life I heard strangers talk about intimate details of their lives without abandon. This struck me as very different from how I had previously experienced individuals discussing their health and personal lives in the United States. While I could tell from body language that what was going on in front of me in these homes was consequential and that I could learn much from these interactions, I was unable to understand most of what was being verbally communicated.  Standing to the side of my promotora, I felt invasive and ill-equipped to accompany such an amazing woman during her work. Who did I think I was to enter into these individuals’ private moments when I could barely understand their language let alone their culture? What right did I have to come into their homes and take notes about their daily struggles as part of a project for my academic record?

As I reflected on my reservations, I realized that my discomfort was preventing me from participating in service-learning as an active and engaged agent in my community. With this, my uneasiness prevented me from involving myself wholeheartedly in my work. I was so distracted by the idea that my presence was inappropriate that I inadvertently rejected the kindness the community was showing me. My preoccupation with not being able to understand every word in Spanish also compromised my ability to observe my surroundings and appreciate nonverbal aspects of communication around me such as body language. While I still struggle with my inability to comprehend every conversation around me, I realize that I need to allow myself to feel comfortable in my community in order to pursue a reciprocal relationship with community members. Involving myself in my community is an essential aspect of service learning. As I work to become more comfortable finding a place for myself in my organization, I also believe that maintaining my humility and criticalness will allow me to more effectively and responsibly engage with my community. 

-Hannah Yore

Clark University

The Universal Language

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My eyes kept wandering towards the rusty guitar that sat next to the stairs. I asked my host mother if she played, but she adamantly protested that she knew not a single song. I suspected some false modesty since she always has a smirk on her face and a joke to tell. Even when my Spanish skills don’t allow me to understand each of her tales, I feel included and at home with my host mom. She has shared stories of growing up under the cruel dictatorial rule of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, of her one-year of formal education, and of her experience falling in love and marrying her late husband when she was eighteen. As we sat on the porch that Saturday evening, I decided it was time for that guitar to be played.  "Can I use it?" I inquired.  “Claro que si, mija (Of course, my daughter)!”  she affirmatively replied. I brought the guitar out to the porch and strummed and sang my favorite Joni Mitchell song. Then, I handed her the guitar saying, “Por favor, me tocas algo (Please, play me something)!?” I expected she would need more encouragement, but after only a brief protest, she took the guitar, winked, and said, “Okay, I do know a little.” She played three merengue tunes consecutively (mergengue is a style of music native to the Dominican Republic), singing loudly in her vibrant voice. For the next hour, we traded the guitar back and forth, playing our favorite songs for each other. 

Music is magical and universal. It helps me connect deeply with others regardless of our native tongues. Singing side by side with my host mom made me realize that, despite our different upbringings, cultures, and languages, our similarities far outweighed our differences. Music helped us create a beautiful bond that transcended these differences. Playing music together connected us and helped eradicate the usual English-Spanish language barrier. Below the surface, I realized, we humans have far more similarities than differences. Remembering this makes it so much easier to process the vast cultural differences and challenges that I regularly face. It also allows me to dive deeply into the connections I make regardless of whether I am comparing my childhood to that of my host mother, or understanding the different teaching style of the Dominican professors I take classes with, or working to effectively communicate with teachers in my community about the importance of sexual education for middle and high school students. As my personal relationships with Dominicans deepen and I gain greater insight and awareness about this society, I suspect that cross cultural challenges will be easier to mitigate since I know that disparate souls can often be united by the universal language of music and the love that keeps it afloat.   


-Mikayla Bobrow

Clark University