Central America has been on our minds this year as we’ve witnessed horrifying images of families being separated from one another, forced to live in squalid shelters, and met with hostility and physical violence upon their arrival at our border. I write to you just moments after watching deeply disturbing scenes of border patrol agents firing tear gas at immigrants at the San Ysidro border crossing near San Diego. We feel deep pain for the families who have risked so much to come to this country. Now, as worlds collide and the issues of Central America that once seemed distant draw near, we are given occasion to reflect anew on Voces y Manos’ engagement in Central America. What lessons does our work offer in the current moment?
First, Voces y Manos’ experience shows that by investing in communities rather than marginalizing them, we can begin to create conditions where migration is a matter of choice rather than necessity. Since 2008, our approach has been to listen to local communities — and invest in the solutions that they tell us are most needed. Using this simple approach we have expanded access to secondary education, built the capacity of local farmers to improve agricultural practices, trained indigenous leaders to promote sustainable development in their communities, provided access to health care, and worked to prevent teenage pregnancy. And it has proven effective:
- Since the inception of our high school scholarship program in 2008, we have provided 91 scholarships to 52 girls and 39 boys. Over 93% of them have graduated or are on track to graduate high school, and just one has made the decision to emigrate out of Guatemala.
- Since the start of our college scholarship/internship program in 2014, 14 young adults have received internship placements. Eleven of them are now employed, ten of whom have been employed in the community development sector.
These results contrast starkly with Guatemalan averages, where three out of every four indigenous teenage girls are no longer in school by their 16th birthdays. The lesson here is that many of the seemingly intractable issues that drive migration — such as early pregnancy, school dropout, and unemployment — can be addressed quite effectively when we listen to and design programs in partnership with local communities. And the investments required to create these local, community-based solutions are relatively small: our high school scholarships cost approximately $360 per student per year and our college scholarships/internships cost approximately $1,000 per student per year.
A second lesson that Voces y Manos can offer our decision makers is on the importance of planning for the future. Rabinal is located in a stretch of Central America known as the “dry corridor,” an area where climate change is already prolonging periods of drought and making rain patterns less and less predictable. As climate change progresses, local agriculture will suffer if farmers are not prepared for it. To respond to this challenge, we’ve partnered with local Rotary Clubs in Guatemala and the San Francisco Bay Area to plan a three-year initiative to introduce sustainable agriculture practices to 250 families in Rabinal. The initiative, which we are hoping to launch in July of 2019, will be the largest scale-up of Voces y Manos’ work to date. Importantly, this project will be led by graduates of Voces y Manos’ scholarship program, providing jobs and training at the same time as it helps communities prepare for the challenges that climate change will pose. As more and more people will inevitably be forced to migrate under a changing climate, policymakers would do well to consider investing heavily in similar initiatives that simultaneously capture carbon from the atmosphere (as sustainable agriculture practices automatically do), build farmers’ capacity to adapt to climate change, and provide jobs.
In addition to listening to the community and planning for the future, a third lesson Voces y Manos’ experience offers in the current political moment is an ethical one: the need to express values of solidarity and care by putting the needs of the most marginalized at the forefront of policies and programs. Voces y Manos has always been driven by these ethical values, and this year has challenged us like never before to put them into practice. In June, we faced the most devastating hardship in our nine-year history — the death of one of our students, Onofre Galeano. His untimely death at the age of 17 was particularly tragic because the cause was a ruptured appendix — a condition that is easily treated when an adequate medical system is in place. Our loss of Onofre is a reminder of the immorality and staggering human costs of underinvesting in the health sector, even as untold sums are spent on advanced military equipment.
In the aftermath of this tragedy, our U.S. team raised money to support Onofre’s family with the burdensome funeral costs they faced and to provide them with several months’ worth of food supplies. Meanwhile, our students and staff in Guatemala accompanied Onofre’s family during the difficult moments of his funeral and beyond, providing them with vital moral support. Their actions to support one another during this tragedy were a powerful example of the values of care and solidarity put into practice. We dedicate this year, and every year, to Onofre, a kind and generous soul taken from us far too early. Onofre is deeply missed by all of us in Voces y Manos and will always be remembered.
Onofre’s story, just like the horrifying scenes we are witnessing along our southern border, are reminders that ill-conceived or inhumane policy decisions all too often touch down upon the bodies of real people with devastating, sometimes life-ending, consequences. At the same time, young people in Voces y Manos and across the globe are showing that when we invest in their future, they can go on to transform their communities and our world. We fully believe that in the not-so-distant future, these very youth will become the politicians, advocates, and professionals we need who will listen to communities, plan for future challenges, and lead with values of solidarity and care. As always, thank you for your ongoing support, partnership, and for believing in the power of our young people to create a more caring and humane society.
With profound gratitude,
Michael, for all of us in Voces y Manos
P.S. If you have not year read our June 2018 newsletter, you can do so here: 2018 Voces y Manos Newsletter
P.S. A gift of $360 funds a high school scholarship for one student for a year. $1,000 allows us to provide a student with a life-changing college scholarship and internship. Donations in any amount are greatly appreciated, and 95% of what we raise supports local programming. We thank you for your support!