Now that I’ve been here for nearly 2 months, I’m finally beginning to get into the work of being a Sister Cities volunteer. Like I said in my last post, things move slowly here. But I am learning about the decision making process and what the trbajo organizativo – organizational work – looks like in Guajoyo and in El Salvador in general.
The Austin committee is funding several projects in Guajoyo this year, and I’ve been involved in the slow process of seeing those projects go from paper to reality. The project I’m most involved in, as it involves the youth and that is one of my areas of focus while I’m here, is a youth-run cyber café. The Austin committee collected 4 used computers to donate, which the youth hope to use to start a community space that brings technology to students and adults alike. As it is, anyone who wants to use a computer has to pay 50 cents to take the bus or pickup (which only pass about 6 times a day) into San Nicolas to go to the cyber café, which charges $1/hour for internet use. Such an excursion ends up costing at least $2 (transportation there and back plus time in the café) and at least 2 or 3 hours. It’s a great project that, once in effect, will be a huge support not only to Guajoyo but to the surrounding communities.
But getting it off the ground is quite a feat.
First, it requires gathering a group of dedicated community members – in this case youth – who are going to see the project through. We planned a preliminary meeting last week on Wednesday, but nobody showed up so we moved it to Thursday. Thursday only the president of the community council, 2 youths, and myself showed up. We ironed out some details, like sending a few people out to gather cost estimates for the project (for things like an internet modem, desks, printer, etc), and we planned a follow up meeting for this coming Tuesday – tomorrow.
The process of calling a meeting is still something that bewilders me, a product of the facebook generation. I am used to meetings being planned at least a week in advance and details about the meeting being published online and in some cases in writing. Here, in this community of oral communication, planning a meeting just means informing the right people, and they spread the news through the community. They go to the soccer field at 4:00 when there is sure to be youth gathered. They go to the church on Saturdays and Wednesdays where people gather weekly. Or, they just walk up and down the main road poking their heads into the yards of people’s houses as they pass by, shouting the important information to residents as they lounge in their hammocks or pat tortillas by the fire.
Then the meeting itself, if it is scheduled for 3:00, people begin to show up at 3:30and fill the plastic chairs arranged haphazardly in spots of shade. By 4:00 or 4:30 the meeting begins, and an hour into the meeting people finally warm up and start to contribute.
The idea for the cyber café came from the youth, and has evolved since it was first mentioned as an idea. Since a certain amount of funds are available, it is the job of the youth committee to figure out how to execute the project within the limitations of available funds.
There is an irony in the speed of decision making here. On the one hand, it moves at a slug’s pace, but on the other hand, decisions are made swiftly without waiting for full attendance or participation. At meetings I’ve attended in the US, it seems that decisions made usually require follow up and the input of individuals not in attendance. But here, those who show up are those who have a say. If the meeting is called to elect a new committee, those who show up are the candidates, and it’s tough luck for those who don’t. So I hope that enough youth who are really interested in seeing this cyber café project through show up to the meeting tomorrow, because those in attendance will be the ones who design the project and make decisions.
One critique I have to offer, and that I brought up in our last meeting, was the need to constantly come back to the question: “How will this benefit the community?” The cyber café, for instance, will definitely benefit the community, but the moments when the conversation got lost down an unproductive path was when they strayed from this foundational question.
I’m getting used to the whole process, and even initiated two meetings of my own this week. We’re starting an English practice group for those who want to improve their English outside of the classroom. The second meeting was on the very important subject of dance in the community. I called it a dance class, and I did teach some swing dance moves, but it was really just an excuse to get together and dance on a Saturday morning. I’m looking forward to more of these meetings