Last night, sitting by myself at the corner of an almost deserted street in a small town that cannot even be found on many maps, I had one of those moments of self-reflection. The sun had set and the cool ocean breeze cast a slight chill as it stirred the dirt roads that connected the different ends of this community. It was dark and nearly silent; the few street lights that the municipality had provided cast a dim glow, I could hear the sounds of foot steps from far away. The occasional person would pass by on their way to the tienda. I expect them to stare at me - this is no place where foreigners come and my tanned skin is not quite enough to conceal the gringo within me - but they simply tell me the customary “good evening” and continue on their way, as though I am supposed to be here. I later realize that they probably already know who I am and what I am doing here; word spreads quickly in a community like this.
I’ve experienced similar moments before, where I’ve felt completely outside of my comfort zone, completely removed from everything I know. I was in a place where not many people from my part of the world have ever been, and will likely never go. Usually at times like that I get a little down on myself and I question what I’m doing. Why did I choose to put myself in this situation? Is this really where I want to be right now? Last night though, as I sat waiting patiently for a meeting that I had with the community leaders, I came to realize that I was truly privileged to be where I was. I realized that I thrive off of such uncertainty, and that it is such experiences that have shaped the person that I am today.
The leaders of the various barrios slowly began to assemble about an hour later than the scheduled start - such is the custom in these parts. I was to take part in the meeting of the newly elected Community Development Committee which was composed of leaders of the nine different barrios, all of whom were informally elected by their constituents of mainly close friends and family members. I quickly came to realize that what I was about to participate in was the most direct, fundamental, grass-roots manifestation of democracy that we as organized societies know.
We gathered around a table in the yard of one of the older leaders, sitting on a wooden bench I inspected the faces of those around me, their features illuminated by a hanging light in the centre of the semi-circle. Most of their eyes caught my own as I crossed by them, their curiosity equal to my own. They all knew who I was but their interest in me seemed heightened; after all I was an outsider participating in the local politics of this community. What did I represent? Was I a threat to them? Such thoughts, I soon came to realize, were not just my creative imagination but rather a reality in a community and a country that has seen decades of broken promises and exploitation on the part of outsiders.
With such thoughts going through my mind the meeting began and immediately I was introduced and invited to say my words. They all watched me with an intensity that I have never before felt – this was no power point presentation, it was politics, and we were discussing the future of this community, of these people. As I finished speaking and opened things up for questions and comments, immediately those more vocal members of the committee had some grilling to do. One person asked me how the community was to trust that I wasn’t here with an ulterior motive and that I didn´t really just represent a group that wanted to exploit the people or a natural resource in the community. As prepared as I was to answer such questions, it was at that point that I came to terms with the responsibility and accountability that I had accepted with this position, and I realized the magnitude of the message that I had brought to this community.
What was my message? I don’t feel that this is the appropriate space to discuss the specifics of what I am doing here, and I think that it would take much more than a few paragraphs to explain. I’ll leave those who are interested to know more with a promise to explain in more detail at a later date, and I’ll say the following for now. The community that I am working with here is one that is relatively poor and under-developed in regards to infrastructure, education, and health, and is lacking much needed alternative sources of income that they have the potential to realize. In a country that calls itself socialist, this community is a clear example that not everything can be provided by a top-down governmental structure. Thus, in very general terms, I feel that my main purpose here, for now, is to assist in community organizing.
Returning to the meeting, it went on for almost three hours, and in the end the Committee seemed both satisfied and appreciative of my presence there with them. They represented a community that has not received much interest from any outside group, and they were clearly united in their openness to the support. As we finished off freshly baked empanadas and glasses of soda that were passed around, I was invited by them all to take part in the next meeting.
Today, as I think about that experience last night, I feel humbled and at the same time extremely privileged and proud. Witnessing such a meeting was a learning experience like no other, and was a moment of personal and professional growth. Participating in such a meeting, and being respected and treated as an equal among those wise and obvious leaders, I felt ready to move forward with confidence. My position here in
, while ambiguous at first, is beginning to reveal itself. And just as my job here may impact the lives of those I am working with, it is clearly affecting my own. Ecuador