Community Organization – Love, Chaos & Some Kind of Change

2007 - Team in Esteli, Nicaragua

2007 – Team in Esteli, Nicaragua

If there is one thing that I’ve learned it’s this: it feels good to be a part of something bigger than my own individual goals in life.

Milestones that I’m supposed to celebrate: individual accomplishments like graduating from high school, university, and entering the world of long and annoying job titles and what not; these things, for some reason or other, have never felt so monumental to me, personally.

If you asked me to describe some of my biggest achievements in life, I would tell you that these achievements were not my own. Instead, they were shaped and shared (and continue to be shaped and shared) with others who passionately aspired and worked for their manifestation and ongoing success.

Perhaps, you can also relate. Or maybe I’m a bit of a naïve fool on another nostalgic rant. (Probably true, also).

Anyways, what’s prompting these soulful ramblings of mine – on today of all days – is a unique community project that, as I write, is wrapping up (or perhaps, just beginning…) in a small city called Estelí, Nicaragua.

The project involves a lot of diverse players, inputs and outcomes that aren’t easy to describe, but certainly I can try because, around seven years ago, I was one of them.

They called me a ‘Team Leader’ for something called Project HOPE, a student inspired initiative that was founded at MacEwan University in 2003; though in hindsight, I recognize that I was just one of many, many other ‘leaders’.

Myself and thirteen other Canadian students were tasked with a massive fundraising mission: $30,000 for the construction of an alternative arts center in Estelí, a city known as the City of Murals, with over 150 educational and provoking murals that had been painted by children and youth, thanks to the twenty-year leadership of an incredible organization called FUNARTE.

Esteli is the 'city of murals'

Esteli is the ‘city of murals’

We spent eight months in Edmonton, stumbling about, experimenting and sharing experiences to realize, locate and collaborate with resources around us. (Not an easy task when you’re faced with a goal of $40,000 let me assure you). But it wasn’t all about the money. No, it was about talking, collectively, about themes of social justice, inequality, international development and local community development, for that matter.

It was more about figuring out how to work collectively – which involved some very, very trying moments and some very, very rewarding moments.

And then we took that journey to Nicaragua to help construct FUNARTE’s educational art center. Of course, we didn’t need to go there. It wasn’t as if there was a shortage of construction workers in Nicaragua, or they were in need of our team’s bumbling ‘non-expertise’ when it came to construction. We weren’t there to teach Nicaraguan kids, either – FUNARTE, led by a team of passionate Nicaraguans, had been doing that, quite successfully, for over twenty years. They didn’t need our help.

But we did go there, not as heroes or saviors or do-gooders, but as students prepared to learn from a different community, culture and organization, and what we helped build, in my humble opinion, extended far beyond the walls of the art center.

We learned what the collective could accomplish. We learned what partnership with local organizations could accomplish. We learned about the power of the paintbrush to transform children, youth and community. We learned about social and economic inequality and its roots causes. We learned that some changes required, not dollars, but political actions.

Lately there’s been some very popular (and important) articles and ideas published about North American volunteer brigades in developing countries, arguing that these initiatives only reinforce paradigms of racism and colonization.

Arts center build by Project HOPE & FUNARTE in 2007.

Arts center build by Project HOPE & FUNARTE in 2007.

But I would argue endlessly that Project HOPE has turned ideas of ‘first world/third world’ upside down on their head and that any ‘development’ produced from the project has been a ‘shared development’ between global actors and organizations and communities. Project outcomes couldn’t be more varied. For example, an organization gains access to a safe space for their programming – and a young-twenty-something realizes that when she gets back to Canada she wants to study social work and apply what’s she learned to her local reality.

The local-global variance in results makes me feel incredibly proud of what Project HOPE has accomplished and continues to accomplish. I know I’m not alone, either.

Ceiba is an Edmonton-based NGO that manages Project HOPE.

Ceiba is an Edmonton-based NGO that manages Project HOPE.

In 2010, a group of PHOPE alumni founded the Ceiba Association, our own non-profit organization, so that the project could continue reaching out to local-global players. I was one of those alumni and together we built a platform for building connections between MacEwan University and community-led organizations in Latin America and Africa; we’ve since helped to facilitate three development projects between teams of students and communities in Nicaragua, and we’re looking towards our fourth.

We didn’t have to do it; no one was paying us. No one was paid and no one continues to get paid to help with the organization. But I can write, with certainty, that it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done with my life. It’s one of my greatest accomplishments – it continues to reward and awe me, this small organization of ours.

I’m sure other people who’ve become intimately involved with community organizations and social movements can understand part of my sentimental rant. Why people do it? Maybe – out of love, love for the process, love for those around them and love for the cause.

Community organization is messy and chaotic, sure. It’s disorganized. It’s frustrating. It’s tiresome. It’s that annoying ‘extra’ on your to-do list. It always will be. If you don’t want process, if you don’t want all the instability that unpaid community work entails, start your own business. But it probably won’t be the same. It will be more efficient, yes.

But it will also lack all the unexpected outcomes and transformations that take place when you work collaboratively with many others who are different from you are and think differently than you do.

It’s the instability, the rift and uncertainty, the difficulty, the stress that defines the extent of change that occurs within our collective processes. Can we work through them? Can we innovate from them? Can we evolve?

Sometimes the tension is worth it. Other times, it is not. I can’t pretend that I haven’t stepped away, quit or moved on from certain organizations.

But community work and organization is fluid and never final. What we learn from one experience transcends to another and another and another beyond that.

There is immense happiness in the collective, whether or not you achieve what you set out to do. Sometimes only a version of the change you struggled for is what you get at the end of the day and it’s precisely this ‘some kind of change’ that has brought a great deal of love and satisfaction into my life.

Thanks for listening,


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