Community Partner Forum: Our Commitment with Communities and Education
By Gabriel Vargas
Last April, ICADS director, Antonio Chamberlain, and I, had the opportunity to visit Chicago in order to participate in the Community Partner Forum (CPF) organized by the GESI Staff of the Buffet Institute for Global Studies at Northwestern University. After the forum, we attended the Global Service Learning Summit (GSL) at Notre Dame University in Indiana. The entire week that we invested in those activities brought a lot of professional growth to us. We deepened our reflections on the impact that our programs have on students and communities, and we strengthened our commitment to education as a reflective cycle of continuous “concientización”.
At Northwestern, the goal was to reflect collectively on best practices for the community outcomes of the programs that the Buffet Institute and the different organizations with whom they work around the world, facilitate. Attending the forum was a truly enriching experience for us. We had the honor to meet incredibly smart and interesting folks representing community organizations from Guatemala, Ecuador, Bolivia, Vietnam, Ghana, Uganda, Kenya and the United States. In addition to the innate value of interacting with all of them, we gained a lot from understanding their work and approach to education. From the thoughtful Fair Trade Learning model that GESI and Amizade are implementing, to the compelling focus on story-telling and artistic performance developed by Pachaysana, we were exposed to and inspired by many different forms of student engagement in communities.
Likewise, the forum was an important chance to think of the impact of international service and education on communities. Issues of colonialism, globalization, development, ethnocentrism, the risks of good intentions, and ethics, had every participant of the forum thoughtfully contemplate their roles, both as facilitators of education and as members of the many unique communities that they represent.
We had the chance to reflect further on all these topics at the GSL where we attended a series of thought-provoking lectures and workshops, and met many more interesting people. In addition, some of us were invited to present on panels and workshops. I, personally, was honored to participate in a panel with other organizations from the CPF in which we dug deeper into themes of best practices, power relationships, ethics and community participation. The variety of perspectives and backgrounds of the panelists led us to a profound discussion that certainly broadened each one’s previous view on every topic.
When thinking about the goals of student and community outcomes of international education programs, our work at ICADS tries to grasp and put into practice the values of critical thinking and critical literacy. Therefore, it was particularly hopeful to get to know, at both the forum and the summit, other people who are intentionally grappling with such approaches to education.
My perspective is that it is important to be aware that the impact of students on communities, and the extent to which programs could grow to expand their focus, not only on students but also on community outcomes, are closely related to the premise that students are indeed students. In other words, acknowledging the role of students as learners is key to a healthy and successful relationship with communities and organizations. In my experiences with ICADS programs in Costa Rica, I have come to realize that students have great potential to give something to a community. To name a few, this could come in many forms: it could be a presentation or report of their small research project to the community, supporting locally owned businesses when touring around in their free time, taking advantage their skills and knowledge to collaborate with projects designed by the communities, exchanging culture and language, or sometimes just physical labor.
However, listening to and learning from the community members is indispensable. One of the greatest contributions students can bring to communities is the acknowledgement that voices of the locals can and should be heard. Along with that, there should be a humble and non-paternalistic recognition that the welcoming communities are vast sources of wisdom and culture, and that the knowledge students gain from their abroad experiences is a great transformative gift. Thus, they can take that knowledge back to their home communities to work for the changes that are important to them, and to look for ways in which their neighbors can also engage in reflective cycles to understand the inequalities and injustices around the world and in their own neighborhoods.
“Listening to and learning from to the community members is indispensable. One of the greatest contributions students can bring to communities is the acknowledgement that voices of the locals can and should be heard” -Gabriel Vargas
The experiences we had and the inspiring people we met at the CPF and GSLS expanded our perspectives on such topics. Every participant had their own ideas to share, and we all had things to learn from one another. Since then, we have been reflecting in depth about the work that we do, how to do it ethically, how to diminish the perpetuation of unbalanced power dynamics, and how to be more conscious about our role within communities in a student-oriented environment. I am very thankful to the Buffet Institute and the GESI Staff for having made this possible, and I hope that our cooperation to build best practices continues for long into the future.