I always struggle trying to describe my work to my family and friends. While my official title is “Leadership Director,” and while my contract dictates that my primary responsibility is directing our Voices of Youth, our youth leadership program, that is far from what I do.
At a small, community-based non-profit organization like Building Dignity with a three-person staff, we all wear different hats. Yes, I do run Voices on Saturday afternoons, but I also do a plethora of other things: tracking student attendance; setting up psychology appointments with mothers in the community; managing our finances out of our small cash box; helping to lead our neighborhood development project; heating up oatmeal for snack (or Kwacker (Quaker), as everyone says here); and shooing Canela, the dog who lives above the office, back upstairs when the kids come for their workshops. I love each and every one of the hats that I wear hear in Villa el Salvador, and that is what makes this work so exciting.
My schedule is technically 9-6 Tuesday through Saturday, but living in the community I work in, and more precisely, above my office, I am never truly off. When I hop on the combi to run errands at the mercado, I inevitably encounter a parent and their child. Or when I head to the corner bodega for my daily galletas fix, a neighbor will ask to make a psychology appointment or sign their child up for a taller.
While these encounters challenge my attempts at creating a work-life balance, this is why I took this position. Working and living in Villa el Salvador allows me to be part of the neighborhood and intentionally build community with the kids, youth, and neighbors that I work with.
I remember at our PiLA orientation last June when Emily Hedin, a PiLA alum and one of the co-founders of Building Dignity, described the impact of past fellows. As she went through each fellow and named their strengths, she also stressed that none of the fellows changed the organization or the lives of the kids that come to our center. Rather, the role of the fellow has been to serve as a consistent, friendly face and help to keep the organization running. Each morning, the fellow opens the center and turns on the lights, and after the talleres end at 6, the fellow turns off the lights and locks up.
As I get caught up in the day-to-day responsibilities and the cadence of crazily busy days followed by a brutally slow week, I am reminded of what Emily said. The impact of my work is not evidenced in the programs that I run or the number of teenagers that I rope into our Saturday leadership sessions, but rather in the strength of the relationships that I develop in my year here. More than anything, I believe that Building Dignity’s work and our community center here in Villa el Salvador serves as a safe space for kids, youth, and mothers to come and play, read, do homework, and find themselves as leaders.
In the next seven months, I will continue to help kids with basic geometry concepts I have long forgotten, to build relationships with mothers in the community, and to work with members of Voices of Youth on projects related to environmental injustice and human rights. But more than that, and I will be there to schedule psychology appointments on my walk to the mercado, to make small talk with kids that I see walking around the neighborhood, and to turn the lights on and off each day.