Monday, December 15, 2008

The Central American Youth Parliment and End of the Year Updates

At 5am I am walking up the corridors of the convent silently, looking out at the grove of orange trees that slope down the side of the mountain. There are twenty people already gathered in a circle when I arrive at the open clearing. Heidy, a young Mayan priest from Guatemala, is dressed in the purple woven fabrics of her village and standing in the center. She is placing candles that represent North, South, East and West in a circle, preparing to begin the ritual fire. We each hold a candle representing our prayers, and one by one we place them around the fire. Heidy leads the group of young people from Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Mexico, and Honduras in the Mayan ritual of prayer to Mother Earth until we see the sun coming up and the birds began their chirping and we go back silently to our rooms to prepare for another day of talks on youth violence and strategies for social action.

Last week I participated in the Central American Youth Parliament held in San Salvador, El Salvador, whose focus was on addressing the issue of youth violence in the region. Central America is a
diverse region ecologically, containing 15% of the earth’s biodiversity in less than 1% of the earth’s surface. Its people are equally diverse, speaking hundreds of indigenous languages as well as Spanish and Creole English, and coming from indigenous, Spanish, English, African, and other backgrounds. The Youth Parliament was a testament to this great diversity and was an opportunity for youth to share their cultures as well as the ways they are responding to the threats of gangs, drugs, violence against women, HIV/AIDS, and other issues in their communities.

From Nicaragua we had 15 delegates from various organizations including the Centro Cultural Batahola Norte, Covenant House (which helps to rehabilitate street kids from abuse and drug addiction), Cantera (which runs a youth center with programs like painting, folkloric dance, and karate), and other organizations. The week focused on teaching young people how to strategically plan programs for violence prevention programs in the community as well as ways to be politically active in pushing for legislation to protect youth. Nicaragua, for example, invests less than 3% of its national budget on education. Since investing in education is one of the best ways to eradicate poverty, prevent gang and drug activity, and create a better future, pushing for the Nicaraguan government to spend more on education would be one area where youth could be effective.

The Youth Parliament was an incredible opportunity for me and I look forward in 2009 to building upon what I learned and the connections I made to continue working with youth
from Batahola Norte on important issues.

As we are finishing up the year at the Centro Cultural Batahola Norte, Christine and I have been working hard to finish up projects, paint our house, and evaluate our experiences over the past year to be able to make bigger contributions in the coming year. This past Saturday was the graduation ceremony at the Center and we were proud to give diplomas to 11 of our adult students.

Teaching English this year has been a tremendous learning experience for Christine and me. Our students have been dedicated to learning English and using their skills to help others. Among our students are two of the Center’s staff members, Arlen who runs the library, and Ingrid, an administrative assistant. Another of our students, Mary Luz, is a doctor who works in public health who goes out of her way to help people in need no matter the hour of the day (she has come to the aid of Christine and I in various medical emergencies!). Martha is a hydrologist who helps bring clean water systems to rural areas, and Kathia is a university student studying International Relations who hopes one day to work as a translator. Our other students included a manager of a paint shop, university students and a psychologist.

It was a privilege for Christine and me to assist these extremely intelligent and socially aware people to learn a skill that will help them in their work. Learning English will help those without jobs to find employment, and for those with jobs to be able to work together with international counterparts in addressing issues of social justice and human rights. Martha will be able to work with English-speaking scientists in projects like predicting volcano activity and creating water systems in poor rural zones, and Mary Luz attended a conference in Washington, DC a few months ago on Public Health and was able to share ideas with her U.S. counterparts about ways to combat malaria, dengue, and other tropical diseases.

Christine and I are excited to teach English again to another group of students, as well as continuing our other work next year. Christine has been focusing on the women’s quilting collective and on promoting fair trade events where small businesses can promote their artwork, and I have been focusing on the continued development of the volunteer program and on youth organizing work.

I am excited about the next eight months in Nicaragua, and taking the opportunity to learn more from community-based organizations here about creative and holistic solutions to poverty reduction and social justice.

Wishing you all a very happy holiday season and a Happy New Year,