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Community Activism

Community Activism

Community Activism

In an age of globalization and tourism, what are the ethics and responsibilities of foreigners working in indigenous communities? What does it imply to be an outsider working with a local community? How are these people from outside perceived within the communities that they work in and what are the difficulties of being an outsider and doing community based work within a community one may not be a part of?

In the article in La Jornada (January 5, 2000), it states that in the year 2000, many foreigners were harassed and even being deported while doing community activist work. The most striking is the deportation of a San Diego man who started a school in the Zapatista caracol, Oventik. The Mexican government stated that the man was acting against the constitution and therefore against the Mexican government. How do foreigners align their politics with the country they are in? What are the repercussions? In our group, we are interested in looking at all aspects of community activism, dealing with people from outside working inside these communities. What are the benefits and detriments of such work? What are the politics at play?

The phrase community activism is problematic in and of itself. To what community are we referring to and if we are not part of a community then how can we work WITH a community? For centuries outsiders have come from afar to ‘help’ native people, but if we look at the history, we must be careful in how this is executed. Many Europeans of the colonialist tradition thought they were helping the Indians by teaching them the ways of Catholicism and assimilation, but the new breed of germs affectively murdered many in the population. Photographers like Susan Meiselas and Kevin Carter are praised for their work in showing images of the Sandinista revolution and the role of poverty in Africa, but what have the photos really done except bring awareness to a problem? Ivan Illich, in the article “To Hell with Good Intentions” suggests that we should not go hypocritically into Latin American countries thinking we can help. To quote Illich, speaking with a group of Americans, embarking on volunteer projects in Mexico,

“If you have any sense of responsibility at all, stay with your riots here at home. Work for the coming elections: You will know what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how to communicate with those to whom you speak. And you will know when you fail. If you insist on working with the poor, if this is your vocation, then at least work among the poor who can tell you to go to hell. It is incredibly unfair for you to impose yourselves on a village where you are so linguistically deaf and dumb that you don't even understand what you are doing, or what people think of you. And it is profoundly damaging to yourselves when you define something that you want to do as "good," a "sacrifice" and "help."

I am here to suggest that you voluntarily renounce exercising the power which being an American gives you. I am here to entreat you to freely, consciously and humbly give up the legal right you have to impose your benevolence on Mexico. I am here to challenge you to recognize your inability, your powerlessness and your incapacity to do the "good" which you intended to do.

I am here to entreat you to use your money, your status and your education to travel in Latin America. Come to look, come to climb our mountains, to enjoy our flowers. Come to study. But do not come to help.”

While this is a very extreme critique, many thinkers have tried to maximize the potential that outside agents can have within community work. Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed, for instance, often has outsiders (from different nationalities, different backgrounds) as the facilitators for his theatre workshops. It is natural to wonder if these outsiders then can understand the oppression and repression of a particular community, given that these ideas are intertwined within cultural definitions. However, the presence of these outside facilitators is Brechtian ,in that their presence and position could actually help achieve an ‘alienation’ from the emotions of the issue and actually give rise to a more objective understanding of the situation at hand.

What would Illich have to say about this brand of outsider? It’s hard to know. But what it does imply is that the term ‘outsider’ itself gives rise to an entire genre of discussions. I think we would all agree that there are levels of outsiders: the volunteers that Illich talks to, the facilitators that Boal trains, groups like ours, etc. How do we begin to understand the nuances of this topic then?

Thinking about activism in this case, the idea has to be defined by the person it helps, not by the person that is doing it. Also, what are the different levels of community activism; people from the same community, people from different communities, different continents, etc. Often there is a favoring of work that is done between first and third world communities, but what does it look like when people from the same community work together? In this way, we are interested in the intricacies of community activism for people who are not native to the community they are working with. Many questions arise from the discussion…this project intends to present a platform open to a dialogue about different experiences and ideas on community activism.

In debating the role of 'outsiders' working with community activism in San Cristobal de las Casas, the first thing to notice are the number of categories that need to be defined and refined: some presented in opposition to each other, others as concepts in themselves- that would lead to a more nuanced understanding of an outsider presence in community activism/ engagement.

Group members: Camilo Ernesto Bogotá Roncancio, Nandita Dinesh, Emmanuelle Lambert-Lemoine, Melanie Ann Lockert, Irma Leticia Robles Moreno