When I signed up for Peace Corps and started asking returning volunteers about their experience, two themes came out: first, the unofficial motto of Peace Corps, “It Depends”, and second “the second year’s the best year.” Well, I’ve spent the better portion of 2017, all of 2018, and now 2019 here in Ecuador. But my second full year living in Ecuador is so far proving to be the best one yet. My Spanish skills have improved substantially since I first arrived. But considering the only phrase I knew upon arrival was “como te fue tu fin de semana? (how was your weekend?)”, I had nowhere to go but up. I feel confident managing groups, and well-versed in the local culture. I could go on and on about how much I love each of the groups I’m working with, but I’m going to focus this blog post in on my youth groups. The next blog post will be all about FUPEC, Families United for Cancer Patients, and the interesting projects we’re working on this year.
First, my migrant youth group, comprised of young people from Venezuelan, Colombian and indigenous communities. Each has been brought by economic and political forces out of their control to live in the city of Cuenca, and are learning to adapt to a radically new environment. As a Cuencan transplant myself, I can empathize with their experience, even though I know I’ll never understand completely.
Last week, I started a new project with them called PhotoVoice. When I was a high schooler the Bystander Intervention group faced on tackling bullying did a small project using the PhotoVoice curriculum. Many of the students in this group also face bullying at school due to their marginalized communities. Using PhotoVoice, I aim to encourage them to tell their personal stories without fear, and feel confident in their identities. We’ll be taking photos and writing stories where they can take ownership over their identities and freely share it with the Cuenca community.
Here’s a three of my favorite photos they took during our first photography session:
The next week, we print out each of the photos from this session and leave space for them to write a story caption beneath. One of the students told me I could share his story anonymously. I’ve translated it to English and left the original Spanish beneath:
I was born in Cali, Colombia; I lived ten years in Venezuela and two years in Ecuador. I am thirteen years old and have a father, mother, and sister. My family isn’t normal – my family is crazy. Why? A sane family would move all across the world. I’m not saying that I don’t like it, but it’s uncomfortable to go from one city to another city – you lose all of your friends and isolate yourself from your family. People ask me where I’m from. I don’t know if it’s crazy, but I think I’m from Gran Colombia. [Gran Colombia was a country from 1819 to 1831 that encompassed the land that is now Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador.] I am Gran Colombian because I have lived in all of these countries. I am not Colombian, nor Venezuelan, nor Ecuadorian, I am from Gran Colombia.
Soy de Cali, Colombia y estuve 10 años en Venezuela y 2 años en Ecuador. Mi edad actual es 13 años y tengo papa, mama, y hermana. Mi familia no es normal – mi familia esta loca. Porque? Alguien en sano juicio no estaría viajando por todo el mundo. No digo que no me gusta, pero es incomodo estar de una ciudad a otra perder todos tus amigos y alejarse de tus familiares. A mi preguntar de dónde soy. Pero no se es algo loco, yo creo que soy de la Gran Colombia. Yo soy de la Gran Colombia porque estado en todos estos países. No soy ni de Colombia ni de Venezuela ni de Ecuador, yo soy de la Gran Colombia.
2. My school classes. At one school, I’m tasked with taking on the most at-risk students; or rather, at-promise youth – I was listening to NPR’s TED Radio Hour podcast, and on the show “Hidden Potential” they discussed “recognizing the potential in people even when they can’t picture it in themselves”. The school’s student psychologist and I use Peace Corps curriculums like “Rainbow Days” and “Girls Leading our World” to help our students realize their potential through weekly interactive activities. The podcast explains really well the same mentality and perspective I aim bring in to the classroom…or hallway, courtyard, cupboard under the stairs – due to limited resources and space at the school, I have to be creative with where I work with students.
Here’s a quote from the podcast:
RIOS: Yeah. So in many places in our society, when we deal with kids who are in trouble, we still use language that is deficit-based. So for example, you know at-risk kids – at-risk youth is one example. But labels are important. So if you label me a risk, your solutions for me are going to be risk-based. And I’ve been with kids in juvenile facilities. I’ve been with kids in detention rooms. I’ve been with kids on the streets. And I’ve told them, hey, you’re not at risk. You’re at promise. And when I tell them that, you know, they light up. They feel like, wow, really? You think that about me? And I say, yeah, I believe that about you.
RAZ: Just take a small tweak like that, like just changing at-risk to at-promise and really kind of recalibrating the way we talk about certain kids can actually change not only how we think of them but the way they think of themselves.
RIOS: Yes. And it’s important to help to change the way young people think of themselves because many times, you know, they’re in a vulnerable stage in their development. They’re adolescents. They’re already in turmoil. And then you add poverty. You add being labeled as a troublemaker to the equation. And so they are very much on the edge. And you bring them back in by making them feel like, hey, you have potential. You have promise. You’re a leader. Let’s bring it out. Where’s your hidden genius? How can we bring that out in school and in society?
This week, all of the of students are on February vacation to relax between semesters. To celebrate, I’m heading out with my migrant youth group to Yungilla, a nearby small town, for a weekend retreat. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to build deeper connections with my students and spend more time together. I’ll keep you all updated here!