How can we help you?

by Amanda Colón

One of the most inspiring CUSLAR events I remember was a talk in November 2011 by Elvia Acosta and Raldy Santos, two young people from the Dominican Republic.

Elvia and Raldy opened their talk with a powerful description of injustice and poverty in the Dominican Republic. CUSLAR had invited them to give a presentation about their use of art to empower youth and inspire social change. The talk was simple and inviting; they sat on two yellow chairs facing the audience, sharing their passion for their mission and what they had learned along the way.

As the two finished, they opened the floor to questions. An audience member raised her hand and stood up to address the group. “I don’t understand,” she expressed with furrowed brow. “How can we help you?”

Elvia and Raldy looked at each other, confused. “We aren’t asking for help,” they answered. “We want to share our work with you.”

This moment has stuck with me years later because of the underlying dynamics in the conversation. So often in international development, it is a one-way exchange: The United States and other countries of the Global North export their ideas, money, projects and beliefs to other countries. Not often do the ideas, projects, and beliefs flow the opposite direction.

CUSLAR is an organization that wholeheartedly believes that the development dialogue should not be a one-way exchange. CUSLAR supports the self-determination of communities to exert control over decisions that impact them. This understanding, along with the open-minded and inquisitive nature of CUSLAR members, inspired me as a student, as an activist and as a global citizen.

Following my time with CUSLAR, I became interested in international development issues, particularly from an education standpoint. I served as a field director for bilingual education programs in Panama and in Colombia, training and leading groups of international volunteers committed to teaching English in low-resource communities. One of the biggest issues I encountered in our schools was a lack of hope. Teachers and administrators felt at a loss for how to move forward. Students, with few local role models, believed they were destined to the same fate as their parents.

Spurred by this observation, I volunteered at local organizations wherever I was working. In Cartagena, Colombia, I helped local friends establish a children’s group to offer a safe space to neighborhood kids. In an area with no green space and no place to play, children were constantly surrounded by drug and alcohol abuse. We created “Los Utópicos,” an after-school and summer program that offers workshops on respect and leadership.

As a U.S. American, I believe my greatest contribution to sustainable international development is acting as an ally to communities and supporting them in the work that they value as important and necessary. As a Latina, I believe that my personal privilege implies a responsibility towards supporting Latinos on their paths. My work with INGOs in Panama and in Colombia has led me to my passion for mental health provision in Latino communities, and to pursue a Master’s in Social Work. I am excited to support community members in their personal growth towards larger, community transformation.

With increased globalization comes increased opportunities for collaboration on solving social ills that touch communities everywhere. When we can open ourselves to learning from inspired leaders from around the world, like Elvia and Raldy, we open ourselves up to the possibility of real, sustainable change everywhere.

Amanda is working in Costa Rica in the summer of 2016 and in the fall will begin a Master of Social Work program at the University of Pennsylvania.

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