Friday, April 29, 2011

International Networking: Professional and Personal

The other day, I was talking on Skype with the pastor at the Moravian Church in Puerto Cabezas, and she mentioned in passing that Carol Forbes, one of the women who attended the Creole Moravian young adult meetings with me, would be in Chicago for a workshop on grassroots organizing around issues of domestic violence. I said, "Wait, back up. Someone I know from Puerto will be a mere two and a half hour drive from my home and conveniently located near some of the best theatre in the Midwest?" Count me in.

I met up with Carol last weekend, and I think the feeling of relief was mutual. She'd been in the US for a week and didn't have anyone to talk to who knew her family and her community. I remember that feeling all too well; you are forever on square one and explaining what your home is like to people who, as well meaning as they are, really have no point of reference for understanding. To some extent, even the women who were there from Belize and other parts of Nicaragua come from different realities. They had told her that her Creole didn't sound like Creole, but like "normal" English, and they were going to send her a dictionary so that porteno Creoles could keep from losing their language. We agreed they could go screw themselves.

For my part, it was nice to talk to someone who had also bridged both worlds; who knew Puerto, and was now experiencing this part of the US for the first time. I felt a new surge of connection and relevance. She talked about her sisters, and people that we both knew, and local communities, and the struggles they were facing. In Puerto, I felt like I really could transform the world through my relationships. People in need were not living in other parts of town or the world; they were my friends and neighbors. Love, compassion, and justice never felt so intimately related. When I act out my values by donating to charity or even by volunteering my time in controlled, defined amounts, it feels much more distanced. Not that these acts aren't important and wonderful. It just isn't the same, and it doesn't appeal as much to my more relationship-oriented way of being.

Our conversation also brought back to my mind the conflicted feelings I have about international ministries and outreach. She was talking about how she needed to encourage her sisters and other women to get educated and get jobs and then give part of their money to helping women in situations of domestic abuse construct their own homes so they could had another option. These women have valuable skills and know how to run a household; they just don't have the capital to actually start their own. I was inspired by her passion; I believe it is local visionaries and organizers in Nicaragua, most often found among professional and educated women, who will ultimately transform the country. My interest is purely selfish; I love the organizers that I met there, and the community in general. I want to support their struggle because they are my friends and I am inspired by their work, but ultimately the struggle is theirs. Even if they are poor, it is better if they gather their own funds to support members of their community, because they have the relationships, knowledge, and trust to make it work. Well-meaning, international non-profits' interventions can mess up that dynamic of local agency and accountability and create dependence, even while providing the capital local people need to create the changes they wish to see.

The workshop that she was attending provided me with hope for possible avenues of productive international relationships. It brought women together from several regions of Central America to discuss their situations, see how domestic violence plays out in the Chicago area and meet with speakers on gender issues in other areas of the world, such as Egypt. Carol said she'd gotten a lot of different strategy ideas to take back to Puerto Cabezas, and she'd have to wait and see what worked and what didn't. This type of gathering and discussion allows for give and take, which is what any relationship, international or otherwise, ought to look like. I'd like to think that was what my Cap Corps time was about; giving and taking knowledge of one another, that we might all be enriched. As the Qur'an says, "O humankind, we have created you male and female and made you nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another." (Surah 49:13)

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