“We are women, We are empowered women, Our voice travels to make changes,
Our voice is strong, Our voice is free, Our voice is strong, Our voice is free.”
These are the lyrics of a song that Maria Dominga Bop, Coordinator of Scholarships Program for Filantropis ONG in Chajul, Guatemala, has been singing with her seven-year-old sister lately. Dominga taught this song to her sister after participating in a series of diplomados (certificate courses), offered through SPEAK. SPEAK, which is based in Boulder, Colo., focuses on using art-based methods that support womxn of all ages in empowering their own voices for self and civic advocacy.
The story of how SPEAK came to work in Guatemala and of how Dominga came to share a song about the importance of women’s voices with her little sister has unfolded over a number of years and with an array of partnerships. Much like the intricately woven huipils that indigenous Guatemalan women wear, the story involves threads crossing and binding to each other, intertwining to show what beauty and strength can be manifested by female creativity and initiative.
The story starts back in 2009 when Chelsea Hackett, co-founder of SPEAK, had a serendipitous encounter with Beth Osnes, an Associate Professor of Theatre at the University of Colorado Boulder, and found out about an upcoming trip Bethwas taking to Guatemala. Chelsea was invited to join the trip, which was part of Beth’s MOTHER Tour. The Tour aimed to create a global community of mothers acting on behalf of their most passionate concerns. With Philanthropiece as the principal partner of the MOTHER Tour, Beth and Chelsea led vocal empowerment workshops and performances with members of the foundation’s partner organizations, including MAIA Impact (formerly Starfish) and Limitless Horizons Ixil. At the time of the trip, Chelsea was a student at CU, pursuing her B.A. in Performance. But she felt that there was something missing from her academic experience.
“I was really having a hard time with theatre, feeling like it was just about myself. I was missing this element, something about it being more communal or more theatre as an experience that is community-based,” says Chelsea.
After the trip, Chelsea was so inspired by what she had experienced that she founded a group called Performers Without Borders at CU Boulder. In partnership with Philanthropiece, she also organized another trip to Guatemala with five other students. Chelsea and her group spent two weeks in Guatemala, leading over 14 theatre and vocal empowerment style sessions. However, upon her return, Chelsea found herself questioning the work. She met with Katie Doyle Myers, Philanthropiece’s Executive Director, to talk about her trip.
“I came back and ended up having sort of a crisis of consciousness. I talked to Katie and I was like, I think there are better ways to do this work, especially as a white woman from the U.S., working in Guatemala. We did these one-off workshops that had some impact but I kind of felt like I was doing voluntourism, to some extent. It didn’t have the roots that I think I sensed would have felt better to me. In some ways, I don’t think I even knew what questions to ask when I was sitting with Katie. I think she helped to hold space for those questions and also to shape, what are those questions that I needed to ask to move forward. And where can I find the spaces where I am going to be able to answer those questions,” says Chelsea.
After finishing her degree at CU, Chelsea moved to New York. There, she decided to pursue a Master’s in Applied Theatre at CUNY. During that time, she begin to answer some of those lingering questions she had encountered following her work in Guatemala.
“My Master’s was based on popular education and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. It is very much about understanding privilege and oppression and your role in that and also, the pedagogy of that. I ended up developing my own pedagogy and got answers to those questions for me – like, what does good practice look like when you are working in a community that is not yours,” says Chelsea.
About the time that Chelsea was finishing her Master’s degree in 2013, Beth Osnes sat down with Travis Ning and Norma Bajan Balan, Executive Directors of MAIA. MAIA is a Guatemalan-based organization focused on unlocking and maximizing the potential of young women to lead transformational change. Beth was writing a chapter for her book on work that she had done with the MOTHER Tour and MAIA during her trip to Guatemala. Travis and Norma were very interested in the idea of vocal empowerment and how it could be integrated into the curriculum at the school where they educated young indigenous women. MAIA invited Beth to develop a “train the trainers” program, where she would train mentors who would then work directly with MAIA students. Knowing that Chelsea had focused her Master’s studies around that type of work, Beth invited Chelsea to be a part of developing the program for MAIA. The relationship between Beth, Chelsea and MAIA evolved over a number of years and ultimately, lead to a curriculum that is now a core part of the MAIA educational experience. During this time, Chelsea got accepted to a PhD program in Educational Theatre at NYU. Her doctoral studies fed into the development of the programs she was building with Beth and MAIA.
“The curriculum looks at the physical, the civic and the social/emotional voice. It draws from theatre and we also have partners who are in voice and speech pathology, who helped us work on the explicit physical training of the voice, vocal exercises. There are also exercises that come from theatre, a lot of physical theatre in which you are making images with your body. We do meditations – looking at the mindfulness of your voice and also reconnecting with your breath. And there is a lot of examination and conversations about how you feel about your voice in different spaces,” says Chelsea.
As they were refining the curriculum, Beth and Chelsea were invited to Tanzania by nonprofit organization, Maji Safi, to run workshops centered around vocal empowerment.
“We went and did a training there, to see if it would stick in another community and it went fairly well. They didn’t have as much of an explicit program focused on girls. But they ran the program once with their female hygiene program and it worked. A lot of what they took from it was the tools and exercises and games to use in different context. And about that time, Beth and I realized, I think there is something here. And we sat down to make a name for it. We decided to call it SPEAK,” says Chelsea.
Since then, SPEAK has continued to grow. Currently, they are working with initiatives involving young women in Boulder, including addressing issues around climate change. They also have a team member who has led workshops in Egypt and has been invited back to continue sharing more of SPEAK’s curriculum there. And the recent diplomados in Guatemala, in which Maria Dominga Bop participated, are also part of SPEAK’s ongoing work with MAIA. As part of a platform to share best practices amongst nonprofit organizations, MAIA helped to organize the series of diplomados by inviting members of organizations, such as Filanthropis and Horizontes Sin Limites Ixil. Chelsea includes this work in their broader vision for the work of SPEAK.
“We are trying to build a community of practice in Guatemala. For me, it’s more about the tools than if participants are explicitly leading the curriculum. One thing that we have gotten really clear on at SPEAK is that it is not the content that helps with vocal empowerment. It is how you are teaching. It is really about having experiential learning and learning that gives power over to students to be the authors of information and to be the authors of knowledge,” says Chelsea.
That community of practice is now being built by Filanthropis diplomado participants, such as Dominga. She has used many of the tools and exercises she learned during the workshops to share with her co-workers and with students who are part of Filanthropis’s scholarship program.
“In a quarterly workshop that we do with the scholars, we did a self-evaluation of 10 characteristics of an empowered voice. And I also created a song with my other co-workers related to Filanthropis and I used the song during an information meeting with the scholars. An empowered voice isn’t just speaking – you can express it in different ways. For the upcoming Agents of Change week that we do, I will be applying a lot of the diplomado curriculum there,” says Dominga.
Dominga has also been moved to see the benefits a fellow participant, Anjélica Maria Anay Raymundo, has found from her experiences in the diplomados. Anjélica is studying Business Administration at Mariano Galvez University and is also a teacher at a local school in Chajul. Filanthropis sponsored the participation fee in the diplomados for Anjélica and another community member, Andrea Laynez, Filanthropis’s Communications and Logistics Coordinator.
“It really affected me seeing the participation of one of our scholars, Anjélica. She has already used a lot of the diplomado tools in the school where she works. It’s satisfying that we were able to offer her the opportunity to attend the diplomado and she is embracing the opportunity. She is already using the knowledge in her professional life,” says Dominga.
Beyond appreciating the value of workshop skills in professional contexts, Dominga has also carried the experience through to her personal life. She taught her sister the song about women’s voices. And she approached her parents about ways to open up communication within her family.
“I talked with my family and specifically my dad. I told him that if we are trying to make bigger decisions in the family, it is not just you. You need to get our voices, get our opinions. Our voices have importance in the decision making,” says Dominga.
Dominga has even put her request into action, confronting her dad on certain occasions, sharing her opinions and her viewpoint.
“Sometimes, he has gotten angry. It is challenging for him. He is used to the old way, that his voice rules the family. But little by little, he is changing his attitude,” says Dominga.
In this way, Dominga is not only addressing issues within her family or her community but within the broader culture in which she lives.
“In this culture, we suffer from machismo, which says that the man is the only one that has a voice. The woman should be able to use her voice – she has her own thoughts and perspective and she should be able to share what she is thinking. Women can use their voices to impact their own lives and to confront challenges for the betterment of their families and their communities,” says Dominga.
Ultimately, Chelsea Hackett sees these same themes at the heart of what SPEAK is seeking to do.
“Women have been confined to particular ways that they have been allowed to show up in public spaces and even in interpersonal spaces. I think by disrupting that, it has an impact on the individual health and wellness of girls and the women. And, it has an impact on the whole culture because then you are getting the full contribution of the 50% of the population that hasn’t been able to contribute fully or give ideas thoughts or solutions.”
Morning Glory Farr is Philanthropiece’s Content Manager and Editor. She likes to speak up about sustainable living practices, resource conversation, and vegetables.