Solidarity and Empowerment Not Dependence and Reliance

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“Solidarity and Empowerment Not Dependence and Reliance” By Allie Smith

I remember making the decision to join the FriendsNE 2014 winter break trip while walking home from work in a slushy New England downpour. Harrison, my good friend and trip leader extraordinaire, had advised me to just go for it — he promised it would be worth it, and that all the details would fall into place. I had an inexplicably good feeling that he was right, and without much hemming and hawing, I booked my flight.

Between final exams, holiday commitments, and preparing for my internship in Nicaragua directly following our service trip, I got ready for the trip in minimalist fashion. I was mostly focused on getting myself mentally ready for a long term stay in the country. As the departure date approached, I became less convinced that leaving early to volunteer with FriendsNE was the best decision. I spent most of the days after Christmas and before I left running errands. Checking off checklists. Browsing expat forums for answers to last minute concerns. A small voice in the back of my head nagged at me — I could be spending this time enjoying a few more days with my family before I set off for four months. Had I really allocated my time wisely? I wasn’t sure, and left Logan airport with a stomach full of trepidation.

This feeling of uncertainty dissipated as soon as I had my first family-style meal in Chacraseca. Our group had a charisma I immediately connected with, and it was clear I was a part of a trip many had been waiting to come back on for a few years. Seeing so many trip participants returning for their third, fourth, and fifth times testified to the deep connections built in years past.

One of the most interesting parts of the trip, although it’s hard to choose, was hearing the history of the organization and seeing how far it has come since the first brigade of volunteers arrived following Hurricane Mitch. FriendsNE has emerged from a purely aid-based model, formed out of severe necessity, to a model that incorporates community empowerment in Nicaragua’s unevenly developing economy. The importance that FriendsNE places on collaboration with community leaders like (the beloved) Conchita Montes, is evident in every project-related decision made prior to and during our trip.

Describing the trip to friends and family in a few sentences has been challenging, as with many experiences that have greatly impacted me. When I hear people talk about how they went to help build a house in an impoverished region of the world, the first image that comes to mind is one of “old-school” top-down development theory: send a brigade of smiling students, erect something quickly that outsiders plan and design, and leave patting yourselves on the back for the good work you did. In a few years or less, the house falls apart, the school garden is abandoned, the clinic loses funding — examples of failed aid projects are far too easy to come by.

But that’s not the kind of work that’s happening in Chac. FriendsNE has been in Nica for over 20 years and isn’t leaving any time soon. More importantly, the homeowners we helped financially and materially are invested in the project. With the help from the money we fundraised, Marialena will be responsible for the remaining 25% of her new house cost. The money she pays will be put into a rotating microfinance fund, where she can take out money in the future to enlarge or fix up her house.

Another highlight of the trip was the “bazaar” in Malpaisillo. Before the trip, I snugly packed over 100 articles of new and used clothing into a carry on suitcase as did other trip members. Instead of giving away the clothes we brought down as handouts, we organized the clothing by gender, size, etc. and gave members of the community the opportunity to purchase them at a low price in an open market. The revenues from the day will be further invested in the community. Such a small but obvious change in methodology can dictate the success or failure of something so well-intentioned. Anyone who has ever found a deal shopping can understand the concept that when you invest your hard earned money into something, you’re much more likely to take pride in it and make it last. This is another example in action illustrating FriendsNE’s commitment to respecting the dignity of every person, regardless of need.

Unfortunately, many good-intentioned initiatives still operate the old-school way. Seeing projects dedicated to community empowerment in the way of Friends gives me hope that we can shift the brigadista framework to solidarity rather than dependence, to empowerment rather than reliance.

The entire week was replete with memorable moments, from getting to know scholarship students, to touring a local beekeeping enterprise, to waking up early to learn how to cook from the wonderful women who prepared our meals. Endless thanks to everyone involved in the trip for making it an exceptional experience, especially the welcoming, patient people in Chacraseca.

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