Friday, November 5, 2010

Clarification ("what is it you're doing there, exactly?")

Ok! So I graduated last week and now I’m living near the Mexican border with a bunch of quetzals in a dirty little jungle town next to a marimba school. I’m now an official volunteer in the “Municipal Development” program and I gave some speech to the US ambassador and ate a crazy salad last Monday while flying a kite in the graveyard. A lot has been happening lately. There have been plenty of changes. I wouldn’t be surprised if whoever is reading this has no idea what’s going on, so allow me to eloooocidate.

Last Friday I completed the official Peace Corps training program. When I arrived in Guatemala on August 11th back almost 3 months ago, I wasn’t a volunteer quite yet. Strictly speaking, I was only a “trainee”, which is exactly what it sounds like. I had to learn what the Peace Corps was all about. And after 11 weeks of classes, trainings, practicum, field trips, language lessons and orientations, I am now an actual, bona fide and official Peace Corps volunteer in the tradition that began 49 years ago with the administration of John F. Kennedy. (Note: you can bet that for the 50th anniversary next year, we’ll have a big ol’ celebration)

Now – here’s what being a volunteer, or more specifically, a Municipal Development volunteer, is all about:

First off, I’ve been assigned to a town where I’m going to live for the next two years. Like I said, it’s in far Western Guatemala. Now, while living in this town, I will have two main goals. The first one is to work with the Municipal Planning Office, or “DMP”, which roughly equates to a planning office for a United States county. The second is to work with community groups throughout the county called COCODES, which translate as “Community Development Councils.”

Now, while working in this county planning office, which is responsible for all sorts of public infrastructure (potable water, street paving, drainage systems, the building of schoolhouses and community halls) I will be working to improve operational and organizational processes. What does that mean, exactly?

It means that I’ll be sharing my work experience as a professional in the United States. That would include things like: showing up for work on time, staying on task, creating a planning calendar, establishing work priorities or taking advantage of existing software. For example, I taught my co-workers how to do a mail merge on Tuesday. Before then they’d do mailings by inputting every name manually, but now they can link Excel files with Word documents and save themselves hours of work. It’s not all like that though; I’ll eventually be doing more advanced stuff later on, like analyzing the Strengths/Weaknesses/Opportunities/Threats of the office (this is called a S.W.O.T.), assisting with the annual operating plan and encouraging transparency and communication with the public, but there are plenty of ways in which my help can be really straightforward.

As for the “Community Development Councils,” (COCODES) I’m just going to try and make sure that they’re organized. What I mean is that people out in the Guatemalan countryside often lack a good deal of formal education, with maybe just a few years of elementary school. Many reside in tiny, remote villages but still need all the “accouterments” of civilization that everyone does– clean water, electricity, medical services, schools, sanitation facilities, navigable roads and so on. These people recognize their needs and form subsequent community groups, with the intent to bring public infrastructure improvements to their town through petitions and solicitations to the Municipal Planning Office. However, their efforts aren’t always as organized as they could be, and that’s where I come in. Over the next couple months I’ll do some meet and greets with COCODE leaders in the area, and at some point I’ll probably start visiting certain communities to give a series of workshops on self-organization. On each visit I’ll highlight a subsequent step of the process, starting with the identification of community needs (this is also known as a Community Diagnostic), then do a needs prioritization, followed by assistance with the formulation of a work plan and budget, and finally, help with the filing of an official appeal for assistance with the Municipal Planning Office or another funding source.

Basically, I hope to get these people a little more clout with their elected and appointed officials, or help them find people or $$ to improve their community. And who knows, maybe I’ll be able to help them execute some of these projects.

Does that make sense? Let me know if I didn’t explain it well enough.


  1. I too found that things we take for granted here were of great importance abroad - tasks like making a brochure in Publisher, creating letterhead and order forms, editing - things that took me an hour but had taken them a couple months (partly due to capacity and time, and partly to having to teach themselves the software). It widens your perspective!

    Also, awesome salad on Dia de los Muertos.
    We're going on that cemetery walk with Dr. Newman tomorrow - we'll pretend it's in Guate or Mexico. ~Kris

  2. yeah....being here makes me really value my education, like the fact that my parents made it such a priority and the fact that I actually enjoy reading and here reminds me that it's all about perspective