Field Trip!

Last week we held an event that I’ve been wanting to do since I got here, and the best thing about it is that I didn’t even offer the idea, plan it, or organize it…one of my counterparts did. (And she pulled it together in one month, which just amazed and inspired me!)

It was a two-day “pasantía” or knowledge exchange field trip for rural water committees and the municipal representatives that oversee the rural water situation in the 8 different districts in the province of Oxapampa.

First, some background: Every district has one municipal worker called the “ATM” in charge of rural water and sanitation, and that person is in charge of helping organize all the rural water committees in his/her district and helping them build, rehabilitate, improve, and maintain their water systems. There are usually between 20-60 water committees in each district – so it is no easy job, especially not for 1 person.

The government has an incentive program that awards money to municipalities if they achieve certain goals such as surveying and entering detailed data about the situation in every community, formalizing water committees, preparing annual plans, and installing chlorination systems. The incentive program is updated annually, so it defines the ATM’s work for the year.

The ATM of one district explains a chlorination system at a reservoir.

Up until now, each ATM in each district was pretty much working in their own district and didn’t really communicate with the ATMs in the other districts. This event brought all of the ATMs together to share experiences and ideas. Turns out they all have similar experiences and frustrations and it was really helpful for each of them to see that other people are going through the same thing. They shared challenges and best practices, and they now have a rapport between them so they can call each other for support throughout the year.

While it seems pretty straight-forward, meeting the goals of the incentive program turns out to be incredibly difficult for the ATMs, because success relies on the participation of the water committees, which are made up of volunteers, who have limited time and other priorities.

An ATM presents the model water committee from his district.

The essential part of the “pasantía” is that the ATM in each district also brought a member of their best water committee to participate. These were the motivated volunteers who share some of the same challenges motivating the other members of their communities to participate.

The most interesting and inspiring part of the event was the “field trip”, where we went out into the field in the afternoons to visit the water system, and we met the water committees in two different districts. These were the “model” water committees that are the most organized and are functioning the best in each of the two districts where we were. It was really powerful for everyone, especially the members of the other water committees, to see an example of what a water committee could be.

(Granted they still weren’t perfect and they each said they had learned ideas during the pasantía that they were hoping to incorporate to continue improving.) But for both the other water committee members and the other ATMs, and even for me, it was really powerful to see an example of motivated, organized people improving their communities.

The ATM and the operator of a model community present their drip chlorination system.

The use of an example is powerful. It shows us that what we are trying to do can, and has, actually been done.

The president of the model water committee in one community presents the administrative books for the water committee in her community.

Collaboration is miraculous…it helps us think about our challenges in a new way, and it’s inspiring to know that other people share our challenges and our passion and are working on the same issues.

The president of a water committee explains how she resolves certain problems motivating the people in her community to help maintain the water system.

And a field trip, getting out of the meeting room, out of the office, out of our own communities, out of our own routine does wonders to open the mind, let new ideas in, and help us think creatively.

The group hikes to the water reservoir in one of the model communities.

Conveniences

At the table this morning, my mom was making bread – kneading and pounding dough, up to the elbows in flour, while I was eating breakfast – my usual fresh fruit smoothly (though usually it is papaya juice, while today it was banana, peanut butter (that I made myself), and milk fresh from the cow), with bread and cheese.

My mom makes bread in her wood stove almost every week – we alternate between eating fresh, homemade bread (yes, it’s as good as it sounds), and bread from the tienda (which is still usually pretty fresh, just made in someone else’s home, but still never quite as good). We were chatting and the conversation turned to the idea of selling bread, and she wanted to do some quick math to see how much she could sell the bread for and what kind of profit she would get.

We did the math and the profits weren’t too impressive, (just 12 soles ($4) per batch of dough and 4 hours of work. On the other hand, that’s 48 soles a month she saves by making the bread when we eat homemade bread instead of buying it, which was a result she was happy with because I think she also enjoys making bread).

It led me to thinking about my privilege. I personally never really had to think about whether to make or buy my staples to save money. If I decided to make bread, or pizza crust, or undergo some cooking or baking project, it was usually more for entertainment or to learn something rather than to save money.

This reminded me of a book I read (Poor Economics), that pointed out that this very thing is one of the differences between the rich and the poor – those with plenty of money don’t have to spend so much time and energy thinking about whether the small things will save them a few dollars here or make them a few dollars there, and instead can invest their time and energy in things that bring in bigger profits. So naturally, every day, someone that starts with more resources will have more opportunities to make themselves richer by much greater margins than someone who starts with fewer resources.

People with clean water delivered to their house consistently every day, don’t have to boil their water every day before drinking it or cooking with it – which takes time, (mental) energy, and money to pay for gas or wood for a fire.

I have seen that when someone has a medical problem here, they usually have to travel a day and a half to a bigger city to see a specialist (sometimes after waiting weeks or months to get an appointment.) I never realized before how lucky I was to always live in a city with a decent hospital that had a variety of specialists. Simply having a well-staffed, larger hospital means that people who get sick or have medical problems (and have insurance or can afford it…a whole other topic) lose fewer days of work, can get treated more quickly, and bear a little less stress associated with managing the medical problem.

These are just two of many examples I have experienced here that contrast with some of the conveniences I enjoyed in my life, without even realizing or appreciating their value and importance…and therefore highlight privileges I have had throughout my life that I didn’t even realize I had.

These privileges that I enjoyed are not simply due to the US being a wealthier country, as many people assume. They are actually mainly due to the fact that I have always lived in an urban area and not a far out rural area, that I have always had medical insurance, and due to government policies that subsidized and promoted certain infrastructure development in farther out rural areas.

There are and always will be people that have fewer advantages, fewer opportunities and privileges than me, and you – in our own countries, in our own communities, and in other countries. And we can choose to only focus on advancing our own wealth every day, or we can remember that we are part of a larger community, a larger country, and a larger world, and try to advance the collective wealth (health, opportunities, sense of safety and security and justice).

The Art of Sitting

One thing I love about Peace Corps is the emphasis not only on achieving our program goals (for example bringing clean water to people), but they equally emphasize “Goal 2” and “Goal 3”, which basically are to have a cultural exchange in order to promote understanding between Peruvians and Americans and vice versa.

Hence, while my job involves working with governments and water committees, it is fair to say that 2/3 of my job is to build good relationships and promote understanding with my family, friends, and the people I work with here in Peru, and also to share my experiences with people back home. To that end, Peace Corps puts a great emphasis helping us navigate cultural differences and encouraging us to take time to build good relationships in our communities.

This is one of the reasons I love the Peace Corps model because for me, that is not only what development should look like, that is what life should look like – we should always be working to deepen our relationships, exchange ideas, and talk through (and often celebrate) differences, and take time to learn from each other. But with all the pressures of work and responsibilities, it can sometimes be hard to do.

In fact, I think one of the biggest challenges of being an adult – a challenge that I don’t think ever ends – is finding that work-life balance* that is right for us. At least in my adult life, it has been a moving target, and while I have found good rhythms at times, life is always changing and I am always changing, and there is always more work and more life that wants to be had, and never enough time for it all. So, I always had a stressful internal struggle and guilt about the amount of time I put into relationships vs. work.

Living in a new place, speaking and understanding a new language, making new friends, building a new life, while working in a new job, is even harder than I thought it would be, and I have found that having and investing in good relationships is possibly even more important than ever before. Luckily, I feel that the Peace Corps Peru program understands these dynamics, and it really helps me manage my stress just to know that the time I put into building relationships with my family and friends doesn’t take away from my work here, it is foundational to my work here – one of the key expectations of my job.

Granted, they also say that our job is a 24-7 job. After working in the field or with counterparts, we are still on the job when we come home to eat dinner with the family or spend time with friends or family on the weekends. But as with any job, when you love what you do it doesn’t feel like work…to some extent. As with any job, when you work a lot even what you love can be tiring. And with learning and living in a new language, a new culture, a new place, sometimes just conversing with friends or family is exhausting!

But time and again I have found that the investments I put into taking time to slow down and chat with people, (ignoring the sense of urgency and stress from work I have in the back of my mind), have been crucial in my work and my life here – just as they told us during training.

For example, one encouraged activity they told us about in training is to practice the “art of sitting”. Basically, it just means taking time to sit around with people, even if there isn’t a conversation going or anything happening really – to just sit with people. Coming from the fast-paced life of DC it this was really awkward and hard for me. But the art of sitting really works. It has definitely deepened my relationships with people, especially with my host family, and I’ve noticed at least three really cool things that have come from it: 1) I have developed a connection and more trust with the people I have sat with, 2) I am able to share things and make small talk more easily than I could before, and 3) It has led to some great conversations.

One of the best time to do this (though the hardest for me at first) is after lunch or dinner, while still at the table with the family. Instead of rushing to clear the table and wash dishes or watch tv, a lot of times we just hang out at the table for a while. Sure, sometimes (or a lot of times) there’s awkward silence (but it sometimes gives me a chance to try to think through what has happened during the day or something interesting to share…and then to think about how to explain it in Castellano).

Often, like today, the silence will give birth to a really interesting conversation. I don’t even remember how it happened, but today my mom started telling us a part of her life story – her mom’s life and how she and her dad lived in the highlands and then walked to Oxapampa to settle here. It was pretty fascinating for a casual conversation that sprouted from the art of sitting.

Other times, I will share things that happened at work or challenges I am having, and hearing other perspectives will give me good insights into how people I’m working with might perceive what I am doing. And the best conversations (rare, but worth the wait), are when my host dad cracks one of his deadpan jokes that starts a whole string of jokes with everyone laughing (and sometimes I even understand and can laugh too.)

If you don’t already do this, try out the art of sitting…embrace the awkward silence, and wait to see what blossoms.

 

*Geeky caveat: The term work-life balance can be tricky because it means something different to everyone. Work that you enjoy doing is arguably not work, especially if it is with people you enjoy working with, so how does one even define “work” as being different from “life”? (Spoken like a true workaholic). For the sake of argument and clarity, I’ll say that work is what we do to make a living and it usually takes away time from being with other people you enjoy being with who aren’t doing the same work.

People Make the Difference

Now this is going to sound super ivory-tower, bureaucratic, but the thing I am have been most proud of after my first year in site, is that I helped form a working group. Not just any working group, but one that actually works – that meets and does stuff. I know this probably sounds pretty lame to some, but anyone working in government or trying to get different organizations to work together might be able to appreciate why I am so happy about this. And some of you will also appreciate that our group has an acronym: GTIFAS. (Say: heteefas because the G sounds like an H in Spanish.) (And in case you wanted to know, it stands for: Grupo Técnico Interés de Fortalecimiento en Agua y Saneamiento).

I know this doesn’t have the flair of “I built a water system that will bring water to 100 people”, but here’s the thing: The municipality has built many water systems to bring water to hundreds of people in rural communities here, but that water is not potable water, the majority of the systems are not maintained, and some of them not functioning properly. So, as I learned in my work with Engineers Without Borders, infrastructure is really only half (if even half) of development – it’s the social aspect – the people part – that is equally important, crucial for sustainability, and often overlooked. (1)

An unused reservoir due to various factors, including a poorly designed filter and poorly organized water committee.

So, when I arrived, what I found was a really great foundation for having clean water: Constructed water systems. Many different institutions whose purpose is to make sure people have potable water – specifically, the municipality and three different health institutions. Even an NGO that does similar work (watershed protection). And, smart, motivated people working in the institutions.

And all these people and organizations have all been working at this for a while – even decades for some, but usually working separately within their own institutional goals and bureaucratic reporting requirements (even though they all have a common goal of making sure people have clean water to drink (among many other goals that they manage)).

So… I formed a working group. With 7 different organizations, if you count Peace Corps (me). That is, 7 motivated, smart people.

And, while previously these organizations had rarely, if ever, met in the same room to talk about the problem of potable water, in this past year we have met at least every other month, and are giving monthly trainings in rural towns – which is something that has never before happened.

Interactive training in rural community. (The training was led by 4 different members of GTIFAS.)

We are now analyzing the results from the trainings last year to see if we are any closer to having functioning water committees and systems that provide potable water. And together we have dreamed up a plan for expanding our work for 2018, (hopefully with the help of a funding from outside sources), to have a greater presence and give better support in these rural communities, using (and trying out) the latest strategies in development related to health promoters and behavior change.

While I will give myself credit for helping make this group happen, I definitely do not take all the credit…the real credit goes to the individuals who come to those meetings and participate in the group – they are motivated, passionate, and don’t just work for the paycheck – they really do want to see these rural communities have access to potable drinking water. And they are taking a chance on this group – coming to meetings even though they are super busy and tired from a long week, putting in the extra effort, and hoping that our combined efforts will lead to a real change.

Right now we are just a working group that has given some good trainings, shared some good ideas, and applied for a grant for t2018. But still there is no potable water, so I’m not patting myself on the back saying the work here is done. But we are working on human issues that take time to change – behavior change, changing how people thing about water, and training people with low education levels on how to manage a water system in its technical and administrative aspects.

These things take time, perseverance, creativity, and constant effort. The ideas, collaboration, and energy that are coming out of the working group give me hope that this is an important first step towards real changes.

Now to the real work…to stay motivated and keep each other motivated in the long process ahead.

Three of the seven GTIFAS representatives at a training to prepare a grant proposal.

1. So, if you’re into footnotes and soap boxes, here’s one. While building something is really sexy and sounds awesome, the reality is that maintaining that something is where the real work and benefit lies…the long-term, arduous, un-sexy work that is super necessary and usually unappreciated and certainly underfunded. We often think infrastructure and technology are what make our lives better, but without people keeping those things working well, we would not have them. So thank you to all the people out there doing the best they can, working on maintaining the infrastructure and institutions humans have created throughout the centuries.

Processing the 2016 Presidential Election (Part 2: Peace Corps Intercultural Training)

In my last post, I attempted to process what happened last week with the election, why I (and 50 million other Americas) are so ridiculously upset, and what we could possibly to do now. I also promised to share some things from Peace Corps training that I think are really applicable in this situation. It’s interesting that, up to now I am having to apply this training more in the inter-cultural context of the US than in my experiences living in Peru.

Confianza

Only when there is a foundation of love and respect can real conversations happen and can real change take place. This is one of the core concepts Peace Corps trains us in – confianza, or trust/confidence and respect, are foundational for any of the work we do. Without this, we are just an outsider coming in trying to change things because we think we know better than the people living their lives everyday…without respect and building trust, we will try to do projects that don’t make sense, and people will nod their heads to please us, but when we leave, our work will not last. The first thing we have to do is really listen, with an attitude of respect. (The Ted Talk below explains this nicely.)

Integration

Peace Corps aims to prepare us to assimilate and build strong, real, lasting relationships, to step outside of our comfort zone and try new things, and to expose ourselves to new ideas…all without endangering ourselves, losing sight of our own values, or doing something that goes against our core values. It is not easy, and it is not a science, but it is something that we have to learn to do when we work with, live with, interact with people very different from us. In our diverse America and in this rapidly globalizing world, this is becoming more important than ever.

Intercultural Competency

One of my favorite things that Peace Corps shared with us was the “Intercultural Development Continuum”, which describes the following phases of intercultural competency:

Denial Being comfortable with the familiar. Not anxious to complicate life with “cultural differences”. Not noticing much cultural difference around you. Maintaining separation from others who are different.
Polarization/Defense Strong commitment to your own thoughts and feelings about culture and cultural difference. Incomplete understanding and fairly strong negative feelings or stereotypes about people different from you, often leading to distrust of, and tendency to be judgmental about cultural behavior or ideas that differ from your own.
Minimization Recognizing other cultures with differences in behavior and ideas and recognizing that people are pretty much like you, but such that you assume that you understand the situation the same as a person from another culture, without recognizing the full extent of their experience and situation.
Acceptance Recognizing your own culture and different cultures as various ways of experiencing the world, and understanding that people from other cultures are as complex as yourself – their ideas, feelings, and behavior may seem unusual, but you realize that their experience is just as rich as your own.
Adaptation  Recognizing the value of having more than one cultural perspective available to you, and having the ability to take on the perspective of another culture so that you can understand or evaluate situations with either your own perspective or that of another. Able to intentionally change your behavior to act in culturally appropriate ways outside your own culture.

 

I had never really thought of adaptation to other cultures being a clear and different step that comes after minimization and even after acceptance. I think a lot of us were stuck in denial before this election, and a lot of us in polarization/defense as well. I hope that from here we can pull ourselves past minimization (where we assume we understand others’ perspectives and minimize the value of their voice, especially their complaints or call for change), and into acceptance and adaptation.

Adaptation

One common occurrence of those in the “adaptation” phase is intolerance of those in other stages on the continuum. I think this is where a lot of us are now, and this is our challenge – to understand and accept that people are in a different place, a different stage on the continuum, for a variety of reasons, and we will need patience, love, and respect, while at the same time working to break down barriers and promote understanding and tolerance.

different-levels-consciousness

So that’s the theory, but how do we put this into practice? Here’s one example, just in time for thanksgiving. And another. Please share more in the comments section!

Recommended Reading: Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes are High