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04/16/2014

Community Infrastructure

Community architecture is the theme of my photo essay. What visually stimulating infrastructure does the community of Hoya del Caimito have for creative, religious, athletic, technological, and social use? The focus is not on the people, though an important part of the community, but on the buildings, walkways, courts, and structures; the facilities that the community provides as escapes from everyday life, or resources for development. All these photos represent an architectural commitment to provide public facilities to help develop the community either socially or physically. These are environments where community members can share and use to play, study, socialize and learn.The people are left out of the photos to emphasize the theme “architecture” (and its visual aesthetics) within the community. I wanted the images to focus on the colors, the design, and the intended use of these facilities and/or structures without public presence.

-Josh Holt

Wofford College

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A Day in the Life of the Kids of Accion Callejera

In an ideal world all children would have a home and would live happy lives with their parents support and comprehension. But the reality here in the Dominican Republic is, according to Red Latino Americana de Acogimiento Familiar (Latin American Foster Care) there is a total of 580,781 kids under 15 year of age that are deprived of parental care in 2007, which represents an 18.8% of the infantile population in the country.  Some of these children don’t have their mother’s warmth and love or their father’s security and protection, leading them to a life of survival and in search of something to fill the void and will give their life direction. This is why Acción Callejera exists to guide these children that live on the streets or are at risk of living on the streets. The children look to this program not only for guidance but also because it guarantees and fulfills their basic needs as a human being and even provide a little more. Through this photo essay I will take you through the daily routine of the children at Acción Callejera and the Sala de Tareas (Homework Center). 

-Ana Brambila

Elon University

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04/01/2014

Taboo and Sexual Education in the Dominican Republic

I stood in front of 45 twelve year-olds, all in matching blue and white uniforms. It was my first day teaching a series of charlas (community talks) on sexual health to middle school students in Santiago, Dominican Republic. Students erupted into shouts when I walked into their classroom, “¡La Americana está aquí (the American is here)!”After greeting everyone, explaining the program, and facilitating a short icebreaker, I asked the students to define puberty to gauge their basic knowledge. A girl with a long brown braid that hung loosely over her shoulder raised her hand and answered timidly, “Puberty is when you start to have feelings for someone as more than a friend.” Almost every student erupted into hoots and howls. For a full five minutes, I worked to quiet them down in order to continue the lesson.

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This sexual health curriculum that I have been applying at the middle school was created by a past CIEE Service-Learning student. She wrote it last semester after conducting a study to investigate the level of knowledge that middle school students in Santiago have about puberty and sexuality. Sixty-five percent of the students surveyed had little to no understanding of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and 70% said they had no access to sexual health resources. The promotoras (public health caseworkers) with whom I work recognized that this lack of education and resources has dire consequences for young folks and families. Unforuntuately, as my promotoras have pointed out, Dominican parents rarely discuss the subject of sexual health with their children nor teach them how to protect themselves from pregnancy and disease. Despite high rates of adolescent pregnancy and STIs within the community, “sex” is considered a taboo subject to talk about in the D.R. Being that the D.R. is a predominantly Catholic country, abstinence is often promoted in the homes of most students.

Teaching sexual education with this age group would likely be a challenge in any country. The added taboo of the subject matter in this culture makes my job even more difficult. The class erupts into fits of laughter every time we discuss concepts of sexual relationships or sexuality. Calming the class initially felt stressful and impossible. I quickly realized that attempting to out-shout students would be unproductive. Instead, I realized that patience was critical to quieting students while maintaining their respect.

During the majority of the subjects we cover, I ask students to share their opinions and understandings before beginning the charla. However, during more “controversial” conversations I provide scientifically accurate definitions and explanations before beginning the discussion. This avoids the use colloquial definitions that often trigger outbursts of laughter from the students.

With each passing charla, students asks more poignant questions and have appeared to take the classes more seriously. These lessons are creating an atmosphere where students feel safe and comfortable talking about their own sexual health. This open mentality will hopefully have a ripple effect that will be passed on to any friends, siblings, and parents with whom they interact. Understanding the best techniques to handle the challenge of discussing topics of sexual health is a continuous learning process. Experiencing a taboo so strong in Dominican culture firsthand has made me more aware of the obstacles I face as a sexual health educator. This has helped me cater my lesson plans and my teaching strategies to work more productively and effectively within this environment. 

-Mikayla Bobrow

Clark University

Fighting for Attendance

 

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I’m finally back, after a weeklong rural stay in Rio Limpio, Dominican Republic. After such a relaxing time it feels so nice to return to my community, Hato del Yaque. As I walk towards the little school so eager to get back to my students, I can’t help but think of all of the new stories the children will share. To my disappointment as I walk in all I see is one little face and a number of empty chairs. This is probably one of worst thing I have ever experienced. Not but one soul is here, Where could these kids be? Do their parents even know they aren’t here?

I have now been in the Dominican Republic for two months, working in a sala de tarea (homework c
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in the community of Hato del Yaque. The purpose of this program is to help children who aren’t performing at their academic level and provide extra assistance to those who are already at their expected level. Unfortunately, attendance is low and aside from working with the children, I am researching the reasons for low attendance rates and creating a strategic plan to motivate the kids based on my findings. For my research, I’ve been surveying the parents to see what their perceptions of the sala de tarea are and figure out why their children are not always attending. I also interviewed the children to see what they like and dislike about the sala de tarea.

Through these instruments, I can identify that most parents think that their children are benefiting from the sala de tarea. Some do admit that it is hard for them to ensure that their children attend when they are at work. Parents also express that sometimes their child may not be able to go because they have to take care of their younger siblings or take care of the house. Evidently there are quite a few reasons that impede children’s attendance that may not be easily resolved. Finding a way to motivate and excite these kids about education is truly challenging, but I think that creating a small activity every two weeks for the kids and their families would motivate the kids and unite families in the program. In addition, a series of three or four workshops, emphasizing family unity and encouraging parents to motivate and support their kids throughout their education could potentially improve attendance. Education is a long-term investment that could benefit the lives of these children in so many ways, but they can’t do it on their own they need the love and support of their families along the way. It is my hope that this project will accomplish this and much more.

-Ana Brambila

Elon University

 

How I Found my Place

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This semester I am working with La Fundación Cuidado Infantil Dominicano (Dominican Foundation for Child Care). Twice a week, I travel to different homes with promotoras (public health caseworkers) to learn about their rehabilitation program for children with disabilities and their families, which consists of weekly home visits. The goal is to teach the family how to help their child develop based on the child’s specific needs. 

I have struggled to understand my role in the rehabilitation sessions and participate actively to form relationships with the kids, families, and promotoras. From the start, I wondered how I could include myself in conversations or exercises without distracting the child or looking like I was taking over. I tried engaging by following the promotora’s lead in giving the child positive encouragement and asking the promotora questions when it seemed like an appropriate time to do so. This helped give me a more active role, but I was still unsatisfied and decided to involve myself in the short songs the promotoras taught to the children, because I could easily pick up their catchy tunes. By singing along, the promotora and child could see that I was willing to participate even to the point of embarrassing myself if I did the wrong dance move or pronunciation, and this did not take away from the child’s concentration. 

Another game-changer took place through initiating conversations with my promotora. Once I began building a relationship with them, I was able to ask them about their expectations and hopes for my role. They assured me that I should not worry about being distracting and should feel freer to ask questions. Since these conversations, I have been able to participate in an even more active way, sometimes allowing the promotora time to talk with the parent while I finish the task with the child.

Throughout the semester, my fellow U.S. American classmates and I have spent a lot of time reflecting on what service-learning means and the role it plays in our everyday life on this program. The challenge we face is determining how to emphasize and facilitate our own learning process while at the same time, ensuring that the organization is benefiting from the work we do together. This constant tension is the root of my struggles in determining my role with the promotoras and the families. I want to be culturally sensitive, and allow the program to sustainably continue without me. However, I am also there to learn and fully participate in the program. I have pushed to include myself more in the weekly rehabilitation sessions because I must not fear offending the promotora or hurting the child’s learning process. Only once this happened, did I really feel I was fulfilling my role of service-learning participant. I was then able to do the service piece that was expected of me. Furthermore, I was able to really learn through the tangible interactions that propel me forward, and continue to learn more through each experience.

-Aviva Schwartz

Clark University
 

03/31/2014

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. 

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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

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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

03/28/2014

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.

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 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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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