As we squeezed into the passenger seat and slammed the door of the colectivo taxi, the driver asked if we were sure we wanted to go in the direction he was heading, away from Oaxaca City. Not many tourists visit Guelace, he told us. Genesis and I got out of the car at the intersection between Guelace and the neighboring pueblo, and as we walked down the dirt road through corn fields, we reviewed what we could do differently to make our afternoon class better than the morning’s. After passing houses, a school, and several turkeys we arrived at the orange house at the end of the road. The six women were already sitting in a circle on the patio, ready to begin that day’s class.
For our service learning with En Vía, we taught a basic money management and business course to groups of women in two towns surrounding Oaxaca. This course is the first step that women take when entering En Via’s micro-finance program. Upon finishing the course, they receive a loan of $1500 pesos ($250 dollars), and if they pay it back and fulfill all program requirements, including explaining their businesses to visiting tour groups, they can continue to borrow increasing sums of money.
Originally I was skeptical that this role would make sense for social work students, but as we met with these women over the weeks I began to see the value that my previous social work training had on my ability to do this job well and also the value that this experience could have for my future social work practice. We were running groups; facilitation is a useful skill, regardless of content. As outsiders entering into these communities, we were tasked with building trust and rapport and essentially engaging these women. Our last session was devoted to setting SMART goals and objectives. Even though we came in with a curriculum, it felt important to meet the women where they were at, and to discover, celebrate and incorporate the strengths, knowledge and experience that each woman brought to the circle.
Through teaching the classes we also got the chance to visit these small towns and learn from the women about the traditions, customs, and challenges associated with living there. As soon as each session ended, these open, generous women taught us: the best way to get back to Oaxaca, parenting advice, their perspectives on the teachers’ strike, how grasshoppers are harvested. We were welcomed, nurtured, fed, taught.
So for me it was a rewarding experience – I probably benefited more from this experience than the students did, even though I was the one providing service. Is this problematic? Is it inevitable? The women told us that we did a good job, and that they liked the course and learned new things – but maybe they had to say that. After all, they had to participate in the course in order to receive the loan; we were standing between them and access to what they needed.
This is not the first time I have felt uncomfortable with my role as a gatekeeper. When I worked as a legal clinic coordinator for an anti-poverty nonprofit, and again when I worked at a shelter for homeless families, I stood between clients and the services they sought. I did not create the barriers or the resources, but I represented access, and because of that I was treated with respect and authority. What structures and histories are at play behind these unbalanced power dynamics?
I will return to the U.S. with as many questions as answers. I will carry these thoughts about power imbalances, about the privilege associated with providing service and having access to communities that are not my own. I will also return with greater confidence in running groups, new knowledge of factors that cause Mexican families to try to build lives in the United States, a better understanding of manners, practices and the importance of family in Mexican culture, and an appreciation of the spirit of generosity and sharing that I have been lucky enough to take part in.
I arrived at En Via only knowing their mission, goals and my job description: to teach a business course to women on financial management. The course was already established, it was only a matter of reviewing, learning and teaching it. Simple. No hay pierde as is said in Spanish (there is no loss). Similarly, our supervisor said, “es fácil, no hay pierde” when handing us the directions on how to get to our assigned towns outside of Oaxaca. But there was and there will always be a moment of pierde, of being lost. (And that is okay.)
My experience at En Via taught me that through the experience of being lost, of pierde, of not knowing, we are humbled. Not being an expert on a subject reinforces the truth of collective knowledge and its importance. Being geographically lost, not knowing what direction to head or what taxi to take forced me out of my comfort zone. Here I had no GPS, no google maps, nothing but the knowledge of others. This experience taught me that no matter how much technology advances it cannot replace the unique experience of the exchange of knowledge between two people and the impact it creates in society.
Along with being lost in physical spaces, I also found myself lost while teaching the course. I realized that no matter the simplicity of the course or my education, I did not posses the everyday and generational knowledge about the women’s businesses like they did. I quickly realized that the space of the course had to be one of exchange; a give and take of knowledge, skills and ideas between the women and the instructors. The goal then became of meeting the women where they were at.
En Via focuses on serving people where they are both figuratively and literally. One of the characteristics that drew me to En Via, and which I appreciate, is their commitment to going to the surrounding communities of Oaxaca and working there with the people. The business courses, the English classes, the Zumba classes, the diabetes classes; everything is created with the intention of being put into practice in the communities. There is a clear awareness of the difficulty and sacrifice it would cause the women to travel to the city. The organization successfully has and continues to develop their relationships with the communities in a proactive manner towards change and growth of each town.
During my time with En Via the comments, feedback and stories women shared with me were of gratitude and appreciation towards the organization. En Via recognizes this appreciation of the women, but seems to underestimate the gratitude and utilization of what is being provided to the women. For some reason in both the United States and in Mexico, and possibly in many parts of the world, people believe that free things are not valued, or as I have heard in Oaxaca “Lo gratis no se valora.” While there might be some truth to this statement, my exchanges with the Oaxacan women have proven it wrong. In San Miguel del Valle during a post evaluation survey of newly built stoves, all of the women I spoke to were extremely grateful for the stoves that En Via build. Not only were they grateful for their stoves, but they were also putting them to use. The same cannot be said of women from other towns, unfortunately this had a negative impact on the free stove project. As the saying goes “por unos pagan todos” (for a few, everyone else pays the consequences). Sadly, there is a stigma placed on people who receive free things; there is a belief that they do not value them, that they are ungrateful, and that they will continue asking for more. There are two sides to this coin, but unfortunately in both the United States and here I have witnessed that only one side seems to be acknowledged, and sadly it is the ungrateful side. People, agencies, organizations, donors, the government; everyone needs to know that what is free is truly valued. As one of the women from San Miguel del Valle told me, “Esta estufa la voy a cuidar porque me sirve mucho para poder seguir vendiendo mis tortillas y así darle de comer a mi familia. Estoy muy agradecida.” (I’m going to take care of this stove because it allows me to keep selling my tortillas and feeding my family. I’m very thankful.)
In closing, my time at En Via was filled with many memorable moments. I am thankful to have been able to work with them and the women of the surrounding communities of Oaxaca.