What does grassroots organizing look like?

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By Alicia Conte, Un Mundo Volunteer

“If you give me a fish you have fed me for a day. If you teach me to fish you have fed me until the river is contaminated or the shoreline is seized for development. But if you teach me to organize, than whatever the challenge I can join together with my peers and we will fashion our own solution.”

Ricardo Levins Morales, social justice artist

I share this quote with you, because for me it really illustrates the work of the INVST Community Leadership Program as well as the work of Un Mundo. As a graduate of the INVST program, and also as someone who has volunteered in Honduras with Un Mundo, I have the unique opportunity to share with you all the incredible importance that these organizations continue to have in my life and in the world.

Un Mundo is a non-profit with a radical approach to community organizing in rural Honduras. Un Mundo promotes dignity, community, and self-sufficiency for people in marginalized rural communities. But what does this mission really mean? What do these words “dignity” “community” and “self-sufficiency” really look like in practice? I had the amazing opportunity to see for myself, when I went to Honduras to volunteer with Un Mundo this past summer.

During my time in El Pital, Honduras I worked on a midwife project called  “Viva la Partera!”, or “Long-live the Midwife.” This incredible initiative is a support network intended to increase access to improved healthcare services for women and children, by strengthening natural healing practices in the region. Local midwifes practice an important tradition of guiding women through the birthing process, a process which is dangerous and risky in impoverished, rural areas. The midwives help women “dar a luz,” meaning give birth, but literally in Spanish it means “to give light,” which is such a beautiful way to explain one of the most precious and sacred moments in a woman’s life.

So what did grassroots organizing look and feel like for me, during my time working on the Midwife Project? It looked like waking up at 4 in the morning to walk through mountain villages, smelling the early morning smoke from tortillas dancing in flames, just to deliver one invitation to a midwife for a visioning meeting. It looked like finally arriving there– 5 long, steep, miles later—only to learn that this midwife has moved to another village.

It looked like living with Doña Tina, a local midwife whose strong yet gentle hands soothed me as she rubbed my stomach when I was so sick that I couldn’t move. It looked like sleeping under the same palm-branched roof with Doña Tina , staying up in the dark as her son did his homework by candle light. It looked like listening to her share stories about how she birthed each one of her 10 children all by herself in her own home.

What did grassroots organizing in rural Honduras look like? It looked like midwives who ranged from ages 40 to 90 years old, traveling from as far as 5 hours away, to attend a needs assessment meeting. It looked like these midwives overcoming barriers such as the lack of ability to read and write–and even to hear or see—in order to narrow down a list of 50 needs to 9 needs, prioritizing the most urgent needs of midwives in the region.

It also looked like the government choosing to turn off the power on the one day you need to show a power-point presentation, but adapting and improvising alternative, technology-less ways to deliver your presentation instead.

When I volunteered with Un Mundo I learned that grassroots organizing in rural Honduras looks like asking a community of individuals, many of whom barely read and write what their needs are, and then engaging in dynamic processes that facilitate the community’s identification of their own needs, on their own terms, rather than telling them how you think their community should change. I learned that the words “self-sufficiency,” “dignity,” and “community,” mean developing local community leaders and empowering and supporting them to sustain their own communities on their own terms.

My two life-changing years in the INVST Community Leadership program pushed me to think about and engage critically with the world.  My experience in INVST, specifically with the International Summer Service Learning Experience and my second-year SOL project, both of which focused on immigrant rights and the effects that US policies such as NAFTA have on Central American countries, deepened my knowledge of these issues. In INVST, I stood on this side of the world looking at the issues of immigration and US foreign policy, and with Un Mundo, I had the opportunity to stand on the other side of the border, trying to see and live life as many Central Americans do.

INVST taught me the importance of reciprocity and community-based change, where you “work with communities, not for them.” INVST provided me with the skills and theory to engage in community-based change, and my experience with Un Mundo gave me the opportunity to put these skills and knowledge into practice. INVST also showed me that I learn the most when I push myself out of my comfort zone, and that might have been the most important nudge I could have felt, because it pushed me all the way to Honduras.

So what does community and grassroots organizing REALLY look like? It looks like Un Mundo, and it looks like INVST.

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