You Can Do Something: The Two-Way Street of Empowerment

A Reflection on Service by Simone Riddle

I spent two amazing years working with AMA/HiP (Asociación de Mujeres del Altiplano and Highland Partners) as a guide and interpreter for Highland Partners’ volunteer service learning groups.  These projects truly create lasting change for the communities they serve. I saw firsthand the impact of HiP/AMA’s interventions on not only the highland communities with which they partner, but also on the  international volunteers participating in the service trips.  Here are some of my thoughts on why HiP’s interventions are the best I’ve seen. HiP’s work in the Guatemala Highlands is based on development theory, academic research and more than 20 years of experience. HiP’s mission is to ”create models of cross-cultural exchanges that disrupt cycles of dependency, support sustainable development and empower individuals to be active agents of change in our world.” In Guatemala, HiP empowers Maya indigenous women, increasing community resilience in Guatemala’s Western Highlands against the adverse effects of rapid climatic, economical, social and cultural change.

Since Guatemala’s civil was ended in 1996, the Western Highlands experienced an influx of aid and development initiatives by national and international agencies, as well as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). By offering short-term handouts, many well-intentioned initiatives accustomed communities to rely on outside help rather than building local capacity to find sustainable solutions to local needs.

The projects offered through HiP’s service learning programs provide tools and knowledge to up-skill build capacity and transfer knowledge to local communities. Volunteer teams leave, but the new tools and knowledge remain. Returning to visit communities months and sometimes years after, I found the solutions built in partnership with HiP service learning groups were used and valued.  I have listened to many stories of a smokeless cook stove transforming a family’s life.  On countless days I opened the door at AMA’s office to families wanting to participate in AMA’s projects after seeing the impact they had on their neighbors’ life. I have watched women’s ambitions go from homemaker to entrepreneur as their self-confidence rose.  I’ve watched these aspirations develop through participating in AMA’s mutual support networks called Women’s Circles and the fair trade textile enterprise, Pixan, which employs over 100 women in productive work. Nothing is more satisfying than seeing a change that you helped create.

Indigenous Maya women lead and run AMA. This is what makes AMA unique. It is rare to see indigenous women compose an organization’s leadership. It is even less common in Guatemala for an organization to employ women from the communities it serves.  Paula, one of AMA’s Community Facilitators, began as a Women’s Circle member.  She then began working with AMA’s fair trade enterprise, Pixan.  That was when AMA realized her potential as a community leader.  AMA’s organizational structure reflects HiP’s mission: effective and sustainable change comes from within the community itself.

What I had not anticipated witnessing was the personal transformation of hundreds of volunteers. The evening lectures HiP offers to volunteers was a critical component of this. The lectures cover a variety of themes, from Mayan cosmovision, to the impact of international gold mining on Mayan communities, to Mayan medicine or Guadalupe’s life story, the founder of AMA. The effect of these lectures was profound, for myself included. HiP works with highly respected experts in the field who offer a historical, cultural, economic and political context for the volunteers’ experience. This is where the transformation extends beyond Guatemalan communities: HiP strives for global impact in their work. The educational aspect of the service learning program raises awareness about the global policies and consumer cultures affecting the communities HiP serves. The aim is that volunteers return home enlightened and empowered to share their experiences with their family, friends and wider community to amplify AMA’s work across borders, recruit more volunteers, and be a part of the global impact. This gives me hope that we can make positive changes both within and beyond Guatemala’s borders.

However, while we work towards a more systemic change I comfort myself with the words of Helen Keller, who said “I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.”

I know that HiP’s work makes a real difference to the communities I served. I challenge you to experience the transformation for yourself.

Simone is one of many transformed through service. She has since pursued a new career in her home country of England, but she remains an active HiP supporter and advocate.

Karen Mayorga