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A Short Dictionary of Misunderstood Words: Community

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One of the biggest challenges I have faced so far in my new position as Community Advocate for Philanthropiece in Chajul is one that I didn’t particularly anticipate before my arrival.  I expected a bit of culture shock, reticence about being accepted and trusted by the students and members of such a small, conservative and relatively isolated community, periods of loneliness and insecurity, bouts of sickness, inevitable clashes of personality/ideology/socio-cultural norms.  I was prepared for all of this and, no surprise, have been confronted with each scenario in various ways.  However, what I failed to take into account is being equipped with the vocabulary or framework in which to express or put into context these experiences in a meaningful way.  Countless times I have sat down to a blank page or computer screen, trying to find a way to convey what I am witnessing and learning on a daily basis.  Even thinking about writing blog entries for Philanthropiece has thrown me into the grip of an extreme bout of writer’s block, desperately wanting to share what I’m going through in the most honest, engaging way possible instead of the usual dry, narrative account of my daily activities.  “Look at what I did!  Look at how different it is from my life back in New York! “  Boring.  There must be a better way.

And then, thanks to Milan Kundera and my favorite book, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” the solution finally presented itself to me.

There is a part in the book called “A Short Dictionary of Misunderstood Words” that I absolutely love.  The author demonstrates how different words have distinct, unique, and often completely opposite meanings depending on whom you talk to, and then proceeds to discuss a variety of words or concepts (everything from cemetery to the city of New York to the idea of living in truth) according to how the main characters in the book define them.  What is ultimately revealed is how the failure to realize that not only do people have different ideas but at times inherently different definitions of things can lead to the alienation of both parties from one another and, oftentimes disappointment and a breakdown in communication in our interactions with others.  While in the book this idea is presented in the context of romantic relationships, I still feel compelled by the notion that having a common vocabulary or at least understanding the basis of another person’s or community’s vocabulary is integral in most situations we find ourselves in, especially development work.  So what I want to do in my series of blog posts this year is to present a variety of different words and contexts and explore this relationship between what these things mean to me, what they mean in Chajul, and what that suggests for the work that I am doing here.

The first word or idea that I want to expound on a bit is community.   It’s part of my job title, it’s part of the field in which I am working in, and it’s a word that is used a LOT to denote an association of people that supposedly have a common thread – whether it be geographic, idealistic, social, or a thousand other things.  It sounds straightforward enough, but during my time so far in Chajul, I’ve noticed that even this seemingly simple word can be thought of in a number of ways.

To me, the word community has strong connotations with the word seek.  I was never particularly compelled by where I grew up, so I left, determined to travel, learn, and find other people, other cities, other environments that would somehow seem more authentic or compatible with who I am and who I want to be.  The very concept of community to me denotes choice and activism…who do I want to associate myself with?  Where can I be and what can I do that I personally find fulfilling/meaningful?  What community can I be a part of that I feel somehow enriches my life and that I can bring something to in return?

In Chajul, needless to say, it’s quite a bit different.   In a post-conflict region, the concept of being part of a community is still a bit confusing to come to terms with and even daunting, something to perhaps avoid if possible.  In the past, people here were killed for attempting to assemble or organize themselves, as any community- based movement was viewed as a possible front for guerilla activity and viewed as implicitly in opposition to the Guatemala government and, according to the U.S., “communist.”  Understandably, this negative association with community organizing has been difficult to overcome and has proved an indispensable reminder to me when attempting to further develop or evaluate any existing organizational programming.

However, I have definitely seen another definition of community present itself during my time here, one that exists to uphold cultural norms – traditional Ixil dress and language, gender roles, general conduct and behavior.  Chajulenses have persistently clung to so much of their rich Mayan heritage, remarkable given all that they have been through during the Civil War and beyond.  This idea of being a “part” of something – a common language, a common culture, then, it’s definitely there.  Where the inherent challenges and opportunities lie is how to use this sense of belonging to something and take it one step further – active participation.  How do we involve people, mobilize them to care and become involved in their own society?  How can we encourage them to think about this concept of community in a way that is beneficial, that resonates with them?

For me, I am choosing to work and live in a place that is not my own, in order to advocate the idea to the people who do call this place home that it is worth being a part of.  My decision to be involved in the experiences I now find myself a part of was completely intentional, and I see every day the needs, the challenges, the possibilities that exist and I earnestly want to share this passion to develop solutions, strategies, initiatives, viable hopes with these people who are now my colleagues and neighbors.  My wish is that by beginning to share ideas, space, vision, resources, and time, this way of perceiving community as something that can represent a common effort, a shared participation in jointly defined goals or objectives, will start to take shape.  I’d like to think that I am one of many Community Advocates here in Chajul, and I am determined to find out how I can reconcile my own ideas and notions of community and what this means in terms of civic engagement with a sensibility that is actually in accordance with what Chajulenses really want and need.

It’s complicated.  It’s messy.  It’s also important and glorious and an amazing opportunity to explore the different possibilities that exist and, hopefully, make a tangible and meaningful impact.

Kelty Davis is the newest member of the Philanthropiece team!  She has been working as the Community Advocate in Chajul, Guatemala, since November, supporting Limitless Horizons Ixil in the development of their existing programming.  Her main areas of focus include helping expand current library initiatives, sustainable agriculture projects, the artisan program, the community kiosk enterprise, and the implementation and evaluation plan for safe stoves.  She is excited to bring her skills and passion for international development to the community of Chajul, and is looking forward to the adventures, challenges, and myriad of new experiences that await her this year!

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