Although I'm less than halfway through my PiLA fellowship -- five months and one day to be exact -- I feel like I've become a member of both the community of Patzún, Guatemala and my host organization, the Women's Justice Initiative (WJI). To my surprise, it took only a few weeks for me to feel welcomed and settled as a member of the team, despite all the barriers I had created in my mind.
Before I came to WJI, I admired the organization for its locally grounded and sustainable model, as well as its ambition in tackling violence against women and girls, which is often viewed as a culturally related, intractable problem. My work at WJI has only solidified my admiration for its staff, supporters, and participants, who are fearlessly making real strides in changing community norms and improving the justice system's response to violence against women in their communities. WJI works to combat violence and impunity in rural communities in two municipalities in Guatemala, by implementing educational workshops, accessible legal services, and leadership training for indigenous women and girls. All of WJI's programs are in the local Mayan language, Kaqchikel.
Given that WJI's staff are nearly all Maya-Kaqchikel and from the communities we serve (and that my Kaqchikel level is very basic), I was nervous about finding a comfortable and productive role for myself here. I knew that I would encounter skepticism as a foreigner coming to a small community that sometimes feels bombarded with well-intentioned, foreign-sponsored (and oftentimes ineffective) NGOs. I knew I would have to work to gain the community's trust and show cultural humility in everything I do.
Fortunately, WJI found a place for me within the organization where I can put my skills -- especially my English language fluency and experience with certain software -- to use. While not intruding upon jobs that can really only be done by locals, WJI has managed to make me feel like a valued and fully integrated part of the team. As a Development and Communications Fellow, most of my days are spent working to expand WJI's resource development and set up internal systems that will strengthen WJI for the long-term. I've implemented new grant and donation tracking systems, which will hopefully continue to benefit WJI for years to come. I also focus on researching funding opportunities, writing grant applications and reports, supporting our social media channels and email newsletters, and corresponding with donors. So, although I'm living and working in Patzún, I often spend hours alone in my office typing away on my laptop (and just in English!).
Nonetheless, I've been surprised and grateful to see community members go out of their way to make me feel at home and to help me understand their community's challenges at a deeper level. I'm grateful to the WJI staff who let me come along to observe the rights education workshops they were conducting throughout my first few weeks here, and to the workshop participants who allowed me to photograph them and sat down with me for interviews about their experiences with WJI, enhancing our ability to share important stories of impact with our donors and supporters.
I'm grateful to the host family who I lived with for my first month here, for inviting me to countless family dinners, birthday and graduation parties, and (perhaps surprisingly) Grey's Anatomy marathons, and for holding back their laughter when I tried to help make tortillas one afternoon (and ended up needing to surrender my lopsided piles of mush to be saved by their expertise).
Although I'm not spending every day out in the field, I'm proud to be supporting the tireless fieldwork of my colleagues. By being welcomed into the Patzún community, I've gotten close enough to WJI's work to understand its significance. I've had the opportunity to interact with beneficiaries of our programs--women whose futures have been secured through a land title in their name, or who sought legal services for the first time in their life to obtain years of child support they were owed, or those who have trained extensively to become rights advocates and mentors to the other women in their communities, and who have proven that indigenous women leaders can create lasting changes in gender norms in rural Guatemala.
Five months and one day in, I'm proud to say that my desk job has also seen some tangible results. I've helped secure new grant funding for WJI and helped lead an end-of-year fundraising campaign that brought in a record-high amount of resources (over $115,000!!) for the organization. For the next six months and thirty days, I'm excited to strengthen my personal relationships in Patzún while working to ensure that WJI and its network of women leaders have the resources to continue making a powerful impact for years after my fellowship ends.