January 2010

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In my time in Guatemala, I had the opportunity to tour Glendi’s sister’s high school in the city of Coatepeque. In the Guatemalan education system, youth spend a couple of years studying general secondary studies in what’s called Basico (basically junior high through freshmen year), and then they spend 1-3 years studying specialized studies in a Carrera. At Vicky’s school, the major Carrera is primary education, and it focuses on training certified primary school teachers.

The school was located on a city block, wedged between other businesses on either side, all in a one-story cinder block row. Walking through the narrow entrance was the main office, which was just a single desk, with an old manual typewriter, an aged hole-punch, and stacks of papers. On the walls were little hand drawn cartoon faces and cartoon suns and clouds, the kinds of decorations you’d expect to see in a place teaching primary school teachers. Past the main office was an open air courtyard, and all of the classrooms themselves. Maybe 8-10 cinder block square spaces the size of maybe a small U.S. classroom, with rows of very old, chipped wooden desks. The ceilings were that foam paneling stuff you see in office buildings, but browned in many spots by leaks. On the floor were rusty electric fans, and the only thing on the wall (especially since it was still “summer” break time), was a half-chalkboard/half-whiteboard panel.

I didn’t see a single book anywhere in the whole school. I didn’t see any technology either, except for the manual typewriter at the front desk. The registration system was made up of students’ names in a single notebook.

This is a private school. It costs us more than a month’s worth of an average Guatemalan’s salary to pay for this school each year. Imagine paying for this level of schooling for 5-10 children.

I was shocked and deeply saddened by this experience. To know that even private high schools like this are not even comparable to the access to education and resources that a public high school offers here in Seattle. The difference is night and day.

And this really got me thinking. What does it mean to think about youth empowerment–which is my paid work–in an anti-imperialist way? What does it mean to support youth empowerment for marginalized young people in the U.S., which respects and validates their experiences of oppression and their demands for equity…but in a way that also encourages solidarity with the very different realities and needs of fellow youth across the globe?

Truth is, I actually think that we’ve been bad at this in our own organization. When young people come in with complaints about their day, about their school, about their lives, the almost automatic response is to take their side, nod our heads, and universally respond, “man, that’s so messed up.” And it is…but I also think it’s important to be aware of the relative privilege that U.S. youth have compared to youth in other parts of the world. Building a global revolutionary youth empowerment movement demands this. What is the role for context and broader thinking when talking about injustice and organizing in U.S. youth’s lives?

What I want to avoid doing in thinking about this is playing oppression olympics. I don’t want to discount any youth’s experiences of injustice, be it racial profiling in the hallways, or lack of access to quality textbooks, or whatever. However, doesn’t real youth empowerment for U.S. youth also mean education about their incredible level of privilege and access in the bigger global picture, and the need for them to flex those muscles for justice as well? How can youth organizers in the U.S. work on their own issues and fight for changes, while also recognizing the other issues that youth are facing in other places, even within the U.S.?

For example, Glendi. When she was ten, her family pulled her out of primary school completely. She was set to work on the coffee plantations, spreading fertilizer and doing other tasks…for 4 years. She began 4th grade at 14 years old (the age that U.S. youth are usually high school freshmen). This is not uncommon. She was lucky, in fact, to get the option to return to school at all…her sister never did return after 6th grade. Her mom has a 3rd grade education, and still regrets the lost opportunity. Vicky’s school was described above, but what about the fact that in addition to school, she also gets up at nearly 4am every morning to grind the maiz for tortillas, handwash the clothes for 12 people in the communal tank, handwash the dishes for 12 people in the communal tank, sweep and mop the floor, and cook breakfast before and after going to school? At the same time, facing similar problems that young people face here, such as sexual harassment on the bus and by teachers, inaccurate and racist education, and structural racism against her and her peers as indigenous youth.

This is a fundamentally different structural reality for young people–and Glendi’s family is actually relatively well off within the village!–than what the majority of even marginalized and poor youth face in the U.S. Indoor plumbing, library access, public transportation, mail systems, etc…are basic infrastructural elements that even the U.S. poor mostly have access too…at least in Seattle. Even undocumented latino immigrant youth have a relative privilege compared to many of their peers in Latin America…because they made it across the border…that is a big, big deal! I think these different realities should be really taken into account when we talk about organizing, and what youth empowerment looks like.

Really, what I’m trying to say is that in the U.S., youth empowerment must not just be about empowering young people to face their own oppression in their communities, but also to build up a radical, movement-based sense of themselves and organizing in solidarity with youth who are fighting their own oppression on a global scale. This means that within our moments of “that’s so messed up” we also have moments of recognition of how many options youth here actually have–like my organization, which pays youth up to a 3-month Guatemalan salary to organize for change–and how they can use that structural privilege to fight against imperialism.

What I’m also trying to say is that when I eventually move to Guatemala for a short or long period of time, I want to think about how to do youth empowerment work there…and I really want to think about how it could look different from what we do up here in Seattle.

I’m sure I’ll have more thoughts about this stuff over time.

Oh, how Guatemala has changed me…

I began this blog nearly five years ago, with the help of my friend Dave (thank you for more than you know, Dave). I started it as a way to share my thoughts as I took my first real journey outside of the U.S., to learn Spanish in Guatemala. Since then it has provided me really vital space for me to reflect, play with my ideas, and, frankly, grow in a lot of ways.

Now I’ve just returned from my 8th trip to Guatemala, and on the plane home alone, I was just weeping, weeping. I was so moved by how much I love that country, its people, its history, and especially the family that has welcomed me in there. Guatemala has changed me in so many ways, I feel like it’s a critical piece of understanding who I am and what I value these days. How could it be otherwise, with Glendi in my life??

But as I’ve eluded to in previous posts, I don’t really talk about it much anymore. I think that as the ties with Guatemala have grown stronger, and as I become more humbled by how much I don’t know or understand, it becomes harder for me to share. It’s not just the class and race complexities that make it hard to talk about, it’s the whole web of it. Just how different the whole picture is from the realities of my life and my friends’ lives in the U.S.

But I want to keep trying. This blog first started as a way for me to talk about Guatemala and my growth as I spent my first six weeks there. Now that I’ve been there 8 times, there are so many deep reflections that I could be doing here, and I want to give myself the freedom to do that.

But for now, let’s just settle for a quick few fun highlights from my trip:

-Riding for 7 hours in the back of a pickup truck on the way from the capital to Glendi’s family’s house. I love the wind, the sickening sweet smell of burning sugar cane, the disgusting, shit smell of the rubber factories, and the way my legs always completely fall asleep. It’s precisely the length of the journey, so many unknown locations and people that we pass, that really affects me…makes me feel so small in the world.

-Setting up two makeshift basketball hoops outside the family’s house, and playing almost daily 2-on-2 and 3-on-3 tournaments with nearly everyone in the family and extended family, from the 6 year old twins to the 35 year-old Inés. Since I’m a giant compared to everyone else, I get to play Shaq style, just totally guarding and blocking everything…that is until they got really good at passing underneath my legs!

-Picking coffee with Glendi’s dad and brothers on our little plot of land…my first time learning how they pick coffee. It was fun, and the social nature of it reminded me of our old family fishing trips in Alaska. I’m glad that even though the family is very conscious of the exploitation they face when they pick coffee at the fincas…that the actual activity is enjoyable for them. For me, even spending one day doing it, I appreciate just how hard they all work under the sun, and with all the bugs, every day of the week. Glendi’s dad also tried to teach me how to cut brush with a machete…but…that’s going to take me a lot longer to learn! Wow!

-Seeing all of the URNG (the old guerrilla army turned leftist party) graffiti on every single road sign in the area. It gave me hope about increased leftist mobilization since my previous visits, and reminded me that next time I want to plan more than just family time…I want to really seek out and spend time with some more organized Guatemalan leftists. However, I also cynically thought that the graffiti could just be one night’s work of just a small group of youth…who would still be great to connect with!

-Reading 5 books and writing all sorts of stuff in my journal, really re-connecting with some of my favorite political ideas….which hopefully I’ll be writing about more. The peaceful thinking time I had, mixed with the playful family time, really allowed me to get grounded with a lot of the emotional and political stresses that I’m feeling in Seattle these days

-Swimming, swimming, swimming!

-Visiting the kids schools was just so, so humbling. To see, generally, how young people live, interact, find their identities within their families…it really makes me question the work that I do in Seattle. What is youth empowerment in the context of deep poverty? What is youth empowerment in the context of barren schools with no books, and only a few typewriters that are in the main office? What is youth empowerment in the context of rigid gender roles that also maintain a very real family labor system…that if not maintained can grind a families health and hygiene to a halt? Wow, oh, wow are these big things to think about…and they just humble me when I think about my job.

It probably sounds like the trip was mostly low-key fun, and though it really was fun, what made it so powerful was that underlying everything was an emotional intensity, and some critical realities that I can’t really talk about here, but which gave everything a real electricity. Guatemala makes me feel in a way that makes me realize how numb I usually am. And it really makes me ask myself why I feel so numb so often. But that’s another thing I hope to write more about.

Until then, I’m home, I’m thinking, I’m feeling. And I’m alive, and that’s so, so special.

Much love,


Currently Reading:

-Dispersing Power by Raul Zibechi