Saturday, May 7, 2011

A special visit strengthens the Partnership

It took months of planning, fundraising, and frantic Skype conversations, but the Nicaragua Sister Partnership accomplished something wonnderful this Spring. We had the honor of bringing Francis Ubeda and Noel Canales of San Juan de Limay to Oberlin College for a week-long visit in late March.

Francis and Noel are two very important people both to Limay and the relationship with Oberlin. Noel is the local UNAG president in the region, and represents his community's concerns to the regional board at the municipal level in Esteli. He also has hosted many Oberlin students on the Nicaragua Sister Partnership delegation, and is himself an amazing example of the effectiveness of our loan fund. Both he and his wife started taking out small loans, and now they have their own land, a little general store, and a healthy boy just starting school.

Nora with Noél's family in front of their home

Francis is an inspiring woman. A Catholic Sister, she has dedicated her life to bringing hope and healing to Latin American women, from incarcerated women in Mexico to young girls who are victims of violence in her own community of San Nicolas. She once told me her mother went off the mountains to fight against the Somoza dictatorship when she was a baby, and her family gave her coffee instead of breast milk during that time. Well, she still radiates energy today. Even though we had them tramping through the Oberlin snow from early morning till late at night, she was always ready for more.

Francis, Nora and Alice on an adventure outside of Estelí

You can read about our time with Francis at the end of the 2010 delegation, and about current coordinator Nora's time living with Noel. Noel was also a main character in my Wilder Voice piece about gender in Nicaragua.

I can only hope the visit was as wonderful for them as it was for us having them, but I'm certain it was just as disorienting to have such a complete role reversal. On the delegations, we were on their territory, where they were confident, known and respected by all, and in control. We were the outsiders, struggling to understand, following their directions, looking like idiots at basic tasks like tortilla making. In Oberlin, everything was turned around. We escorted them from place to place, translated everything for them, introduced them to students and professors, and answered their questions about everything from co-op kitchen duties to snow.

Ah, yes, the snow. It was their first experience with the stuff. They both agreed it was beautiful, and couldn't get enough of picking up handfuls. They even suggested putting some maple syrup on it and having a snack. But the cold did get to Noel, who was constantly blowing his nose on the scarf I lent him. But don't get me wrong--they weren't completely out of their element. They spoke with great authority on reproductive rights, the importance of unions, and climate change--both in their formal talk in Wilder and in more casual conversations at co-op meals. Noel has a third-grade education, but he can explain climate change more clearly, concretely and emotionally than most college grads.

I was also happy that they both expressed admiration for the co-ops, and not just for the tasty and plentiful food and welcoming atmosphere, but for the ideology behind them. "It's so great to see you guys all working together and helping each other," Noel said, after we visited Old B. "And it's important that you guys support small farmers like me." He also mentioned the shared values of OSCA and the UNAG, and how we both worked to oppose unjust systems.

Both leading up to their visit and during it, I was stressed that we would not be able to host them nearly as well as they hosted us on our trip. How could we match their hospitality, their inclusiveness, their generosity? When we were there, entire towns organized meetings with us. Could we even muster enough busy, distracted Obies to fill a room? Though their talks didn't draw enormous crowds, the students who came were engaged and appreciative. And we tried to tell them over and over that we were so happy to have them.

Another worry of mine touched on the difference in privilege between us and them. As much as we talk about solidarity and partnership, we can't ignore that we (for the most part) have enjoyed a financially stable home and access to education, while they have fought to survive in a climate of poverty and isolation. What would they think of Oberlin's stately buildings? The students on their laptops and iPhones? My first reaction was embarrassment. I almost didn't want them to see all our wealth and privilege because it threw into stark relief the unfairness of our global economy. But I knew they should see the most accurate picture of Oberlin possible. If they recognize all the resources we have, they can demand (and should demand) more from us. Not just more money per year for the loan fund, but more support in a number of new and creative ways.

Francis and Alice at Westside Market in Cleveland

But their visit wasn't all business either. We sipped coffee in the Slow Train Cafe, viewed priceless art on display in Mudd Library, and tasted food from around the world at Cleveland's Westside Market. A highlight for me was taking them to a Contra Dance, which offered a beautiful view of Americana music and dance, as well as a special glimpse of Obie culture (men in skirts, women dancing with women, etc.) Also, they got to see 3 generations of Nicaragua Sister Partnership coordinators (Paia, Alice and Nora) all dancing the same dance.

As we face the challenges ahead, including making some big organizational changes on campus, we know that the personal bond we share with them will continue to motivate us in our work to keep the Partnership strong.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Nicaragua Sister Partnership Semester in Review

Here is a brief update from the Nicaragua Sister Partnership, to let you know this group hasn't fallen on the face of the Earth. The majority of these blog posts were written during the January 2010 delegation trip to Nicaragua. This trip happens every other year, giving students a chance to experience what life is like for our partners in Nicaragua's National Union of Farmers and Ranchers, and to forge strong personal connections that are essential to this work, and hear firsthand about the ideas and priorities of those participating in the loan fund.

This January there is no delegation to Nicaragua. However, the Nicaragua Sister Partnership Committee continues to be active in both semesters. Our objectives on non-trip years are to educate Oberlin Student Cooperative Association members and the Oberlin community at large about the partnership, and issues relevant to Nicaragua and Latin America in general. We also work to raise funds in order to make these educational activities and the delegation trips possible.

Now for a brief listing of our activities this semester:
We cooked the traditional Nicaraguan rice and bean dish gallo pinto for Oberlin's Culture Festival. We put on a movie screening and discussion event on the topic of international trade and immigration for International Trade Action Day. We showed the Witness for Peace mini-documentary Roots of Migration , and talked about how free trade agreements like NAFTA and CAFTA destroy livelihoods of farming communities in Latin America and force migration. We facilitated the annual all-OSCA vote to donate to the loan fund. OSCA members approved a donation of $5,000, which is the $3,000 allocated as a donation in OSCA's annual budget, plus $2,000 made up of donations from each member's end-of-year refund check. We put up an installation in Mudd Library on the weekend of November 21st, the same weekend as the protest at the site of the School of the Americas in Georgia. Our installation included information about this U.S. taxpayer-funded training school for Latin American military officials and the human rights abuses the graduates have committed, as well as petitions and information on how to call representatives. A couple of members of the committee worked on posters describing fair trade bananas, to post in the Oberlin dining halls. As of this fall, Oberlin Dining Services has switched to buying only fair trade bananas, thanks to discussions the Nicaragua Sister Partnership had with dining managers last year. The Nicaragua Sister Partnership has also been involved in planning meetings for Food Week, an event bringing together many campus and community groups working on food issues to present events. The Nicaragua Sister Partnership hopes to collaborate with the Immigrant Workers' Project to put together an event about issues of farm worker rights, food justice and the many facets of local food production. Toward the end of fall semester, the committee also organized a fundraiser dance night featuring live music from Oberlin's salsa band Son de Oberlin, as well as a fundraiser selling photos from past delegations at a table of Oberlin's annual Alternative Gift Fair.

By far our most exciting plan is still slightly up in the air. We have invited Francis and Noel to come from Nicaragua to visit Oberlin in the spring. We are waiting to hear whether they can get visas, but we sincerely hope they are able to make the trip. They are both amazing people who work with the UNAG, and their visit would be a great opportunity to teach Oberlin more about Nicaragua and the partnership between OSCA and the UNAG. Also, a trip like this would be important in making the Nicaragua Sister Partnership a truly reciprocal exchange of ideas and experiences.

I feel privileged to be able to be part of this unique and important partnership. If schoolwork ever begins to feel overwhelming or pointless, I can think of this partnership as a way that I can affect real people and connect with others, even though they are far away. My experience last January affected me deeply and continues to motivate me in this work. Best wishes for a great new year.

Nicaragua Sister Partnership Coordinator 2010-2011

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Importance of Narratives

I know we've all found since returning from our trip that it's incredibly difficult to share what we saw and felt during our time in Limay. Facts about poverty and historical atrocities start to bore even the most sympathetic listener, and many throw up shields of defensiveness when you try to explain how we are all responsible for the suffering of our Nicaraguan sisters. The best way I've found to reach people, to impart a small fraction of what we learned, is storytelling. More than anything I want people to "meet" those who were so important to me on the trip. I want people to see both the light and dark sides of our stay. It's also a bizarre but true contradiction that it's often easier to publish an extremely personal story than tell it to someone.

You can find a story about my experience in the most recent issue of Wilder Voice Magazine.


Saturday, March 13, 2010

Getting the Word Out

We sure have been busy here on campus: meeting with the committee, organizing events, etc. We're also getting a lot of great publicity. Check out the article recently published in the Oberlin Review about our trip and our work! We'll also have pieces later in the semester in two campus magazines: Headwaters and Wilder Voice.
A few weeks ago, the four of us presented to a packed crowd at Spanish House. The event merited a write-up in OSCA's publication, written by Alice and Nora:

On Monday, March 8, four OSCA members presented in Spanish House about their recent Winter Term delegation to San Juan de Limay, Nicaragua, where OSCA maintains a micro-loan fund for unionized female farmers.

Senior Alice Ollstein, sophomores Marlee Fischer and Michelle Jahnke and first-year Nora Berson planned and fundraised all fall semester for their month-long trip. Students, the majority of them OSCAns, packed into Spanish House's salon to hear the talk. Michelle also made pinol for the attendees—a traditional Nicaraguan cornmeal

The presentation included:

-An overview of the hardships that face our sisters in Nicaragua, including lack of access to education and health care, a chauvinistic society, the precariousness of farming life compounded with climate-change induced droughts, and trauma from the US-backed Contra War in the 1980s.

-An explanation of the relationship that began in 1993 between OSCA and the National Union of Farmers and Ranchers (UNAG)

-A description of how the UNAG empowers women with training and how the loan fund allows them much-needed access to credit

-Some reasons why the problems of Nicaragua concern us, including the exploitative history of U.S. relations with Nicaragua, the way our resource use affects small farmers dependent on the global climate, and our ability to use our privilege for positive change

-A few things we can do about the problems that exist, including being conscious voters and consumers, and responsible travelers The Nicaragua Committee wants every member of OSCA to feel like a part of this partnership. The delegates were happy to be able to share with the campus some of the things they learned, and were glad so many people could attend and hear our stories.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Needed Knowledge

Since we believe that it's crucial to educate yourself before taking action on an issue, here are some links to good information about the topics we'd like to tackle this semester.

On bananas: (in Spanish) (video on pesticide contamination of food imported from Nicaragua)


On drought and climate change:

On the ethics of service work:

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Statement of Values, drafted today

The Nicaragua Sister Partnership Committee, dedicated to working in solidarity with the women of San Juan de Limay, Nicaragua, professes the following values and beliefs:

1. That all people, regardless of national origin, gender and economic situation have the right to:
a. Healthy and plentiful food
b. Clean water
c. Accessible and free education
d. A dignified home

2. That the aforementioned are rights, not commodities.

3. That everyone has the right and the responsibility to know where their food comes from and the conditions under which it was produced.

4. The most ethical and effective solidarity work involves:
a. Long-standing and meaningful personal relationships
b. Both organizations being aware of one another's structure, culture and goals
c. Allowing and trusting a community to articulate their own needs

5. Gender discrimination continues to be a real and severe force around the globe. To combat it, we must insure that women have:
a. A equal voice and vote in any organization
b. The right and means to own land and control their own income
c. Freedom from violence, be it verbal, emotional or physical
d. Access to the resources they need to provide for themselves and their children

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Giving Thanks

This will be completely inadequate, but I wanted to write a brief thank-you to all those who made this trip what it is. Ladies, please let me know if I've forgotten anyone!

To Roxanne at Witness for Peace: for giving us a safe and insightful day in Managua and for giving the framework with which to analyze the rest of our experiences.

To Becca at Jubilee House: for taking the time to talk to us when we showed up (sort of) unannounced, and for your patience and dedication in helping the coops of the area be the agents of their own advancement.

To José at Finca Magdalena: for sharing with us your pride in and love of your cooperative, for your stories and for the delicious coffee you grow.

To Michael Judd at Finca Bona Fide: for teaching us that change comes slowly, that one has to think many years down the road, and that listening to a community is the only way to truly help. Your commitment to ensure the people of Ometepe's right to healthy food is inspiring.

To Rachel in León: for giving us an incredible tour and insight into what you've learned during your Fullbright year, and for taking us dancing at the hippest bar in town. The close connections you've formed are clearly a product of your commitment, curiosity and excellent Spanish.

To all of our host families: for caring for us like children but asking for our thoughts like adults, for your heart-breaking generosity and hospitality, for sharing your home and your stories with us.

To Ligia Briones Valenzuela: for everything you've done for us and for the campesin@s of Nicaragua, for always being frank and direct, and for your struggle against everything from breast cancer to an oppressive patriarchy. Generations of women will follow in your footsteps and their path to leadership will be easier because of what you've accomplished.

And finally, to our families back home: for trusting us, for believing in us, for supporting us financially and emotionally and for reading this blog. It's good to be home.