So, I already know what is probably going to be one of my biggest take-aways from this summer: learning to be flexible. In 2007, they used to talk about having “high hopes and low expectations” for our projects, and I never really liked that way of putting it— going in with low expectations always seemed like accepting things as less than they could be. Today, though, I am reminded of why that advice made sense in the context of trying to work here.
Before I got here, we had talked about spending all of June in the village, and me traveling through Mexico July 1- 15. On arriving, I learned that one of my friends needs to stay in the city until the 13th of June and the other until the 15th. Now, all of a sudden, one of them is going to Buenos Aires for a workshop today and will only return on June 14th. So much for my carefully planned schedule, I’m going to need to improvise and find ways of getting out of DF during this week, I really don;t want to spend that much time in the city (I do love Mexico City, and it does remind me of home in many ways. But right now, I need not to be in a city). It isn’t that big a deal, really, but I like having things planned out and scheduled, last minute changes and flakiness always upset me. But I knew even before coming here that there’s no way to work in rural Mexico (or rural India for that matter) unless one can get used to those last minute changes… here’s a chance for me to become comfortable with the absolute lack of plans!
More than that, though, I’m struck by how there isn’t really a vision for this project… my friends know they want to work with the kids of Zoatecpan and have been working with them for almost a year, doing all kinds of fun stuff… but when asked what they hope to achieve, what their long term vision is for this organization they are trying to found, they don’t really seem to know. As a result, the work too feels a litle scatteredñ for example, they did a series of workshops on art, a bunch of things about rights of children, and a group of their friends did workshops in many if the circus arts… if the photos are anything to judge by, the kids had a blast, and that’s important. But surely it isn;t all that is important… we can’t get away from questions about whether the workshop in children’s rights became part of their lived experience, whether we are giving them the tools to make it so. We can;t get away from asking what our goals in working with these kids are and how these different activities are feeding into those goals. That that hasn’t received much thought shouldn’t come as a surprise, it’s the case with most start-up projects, isn’t it? But I’m afraid it’s not going to last or grow unless they can find that larger work of which these activities are a part. The organization through which I did the summer project 3 years ago (and the only non profit these friends know closely) suffered from a similar lack of larger vision to guide the everyday activities… and it’s falling apart now, they already can’t secure funding to pay any of their employees, everyone assumes it will disappear within the year. As the Mexicans would say “¡Que pena!:— they are good people with good intentions, but one needs more than that to keep such an organization running, no?
Now more than ever, I go back to conversations with Paul about how 90% of start-up non-profits fail. I want this project to succeed, but I’m not sure how they’d secure funding or any of that without being able to explain the larger visions behind the project. And it isn;t just about funding either, it’s the more fundamental question of do we know we are actually making a difference simply by playing games and doing art workshops? We might be, but we might not be, and unless we have a sense of the difference we want to make, how can we know if we are making it?
I feel like I have something to offer there. I;m the only one amongst the three of us who has actually worked with a non-profit for an extended period of time (and a non-profit that is growing and succeeding, at that). I’m also the only one who has received any training in instructional design and the like. My friends have more to offer in terms of on the ground experience— not only have they spent much more time in the communities than I have, one of them is doing her Masters in Rural Development and the other is just finishing a certificate course in the Rights of the Child. Between the three of us, we have quite an interesting and varied knowledge and experience base.
The question, then, will be to what extent we can make those three things work together. I realize I am afraid to ask tough questions and push them to clarify their vision because I feel like that would be arrogant. I feel like I am an outsider to the work… they are the ones who have been doing it all this while, I’m only here a few weeks, who am i to come in and say it needs to bedone differently? At the same time, I feel like I won’t be doing justice to them, to myself, or most importantly to the children of Zoatecpan unless I start asking those questions. But I need to navigate this carefully, there are also cultural ideas about how best to do this work and mine will be seen (ironically) as too-Western at first. Let’s see where we go from here.
In an interesting way, I’m realizing that doing this kind of work is like poetry in some ways. From the outside, people often seem to romanticize it as being all about the heart, whatever first finds its way onto the page or into the classroom is sacrosanct because it comes from the heart and that;s all that matters. It takes a lot of time, a lot of frustrated attempts at getting the work done, and sometimes a lot of failure before one realizes that structures and systems need to balance out the spontaneity, that while the work must always always come from the heart, it demands a certain rigor and discipline in order to become effective. I’m thinking now of all the times that I too was uncomfortable with structures and systems at Pravah, and I;m increasingly grateful I was held accountable to them anyway. By now, I feel comfortable enough with the structures that were put in place to know when I can break out of them. But I’m glad of having that scaffolding.