Power and Privilege
Co-Edited By Kelly Bohrer, University of Dayton; Lynn Rollins, Case Western Reserve University; and Sarah Brownell, Rochester Institute of Technology
This is the seventh in a series of posts leading up to a Special Session at the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) 2021 conference on July 27, 2021 entitled At the Crossroads of Community Engagement, Ethics, Liberal Education, and Social Responsibility: Community engaged engineering education challenges and opportunities in light of COVID-19. These posts are intended to introduce the panelists of the special session and provide a basis for discussion at the conference and beyond. The co-editors of these blogs and the panelists represent different perspectives within engineering community-based global learning endeavors and community/university partnerships. Previous blog posts are available here: (1) Rollins, Bohrer, Brownell/June 2021; (2) Oakes/June 2021; (3) Manghnani, Nilov/June 2021; (4) Bohrer, Rollins, Brownell/June 2021; (5) Griffin, Brownell/July 2021
In this post, we explore how power and privilege factor into our work with Waleska Crowe from EWB-Guatemala.
Waleska has been co-founder of one NGO and three social businesses that are operating in Guatemala. Her passion is to connect with others and help those in need by acting as a bridge between different partners.
How do power and privilege factor into your work? How has your understanding of this changed your views, helped you examine past injustices or influenced how you educate engineers?
I wanted to start by saying that as a collaborator of Engineers Without Borders it’s not that I am educating engineers directly out of a university. In fact, my background is in business management with a focus in tourism. But our program itself is meant, among other things, to educate students of engineering careers and also professionals through the experience that the projects provide. And you know, in general, all of us should not stop learning and getting educated by academia and directly from experience.
So, I think that within my role and experience, I have come to understand that as an organization that works to help people who are in need you’re bringing a big value to the local communities and other partners. That value is perceived as power and privilege within the local context.
We coordinate very closely with a range of stakeholders, all of them are equally important, and I would like to speak about how that power, privilege and justice plays out as we relate with each other. And I hope that it will illustrate how by doing these projects, we provide a meaningful and educational experience for engineers.
When we come to local governments, they immediately understand how we can help them achieve their goals, and of course they want our support to help their people. They request help for some of their communities to have access to water or bridges, or you name the project. And, so I have learned that we can use that power and that privilege in these partnerships, and we can help our volunteers to learn how to use that privilege to voice people’s needs. For example, any local government gives us a list of project requests that we can evaluate to see if they meet our standards and if they are a high need. But as we do so, we have also learned to bring requests to the municipality that we receive directly from communities – projects that otherwise would not be taken into account by these governments. Over the years, our engineers and volunteers have learned that we can use this voice to say “Hey, I like your request. We’re going to evaluate them, but we also got these requests and we have already evaluated them, or will do.” I would say, sometimes we do half the projects that the municipality brings to us and half the projects we bring to the municipality. And it doesn’t mean that we just say yes to half their projects, because we need to make sure they are good projects. So that’s one way we can help our engineers to use their power and privilege, while at the same time respecting local governments and their needs and authority.
We can change direction for our stakeholders. When we come to communities, they really want us to receive their projects. They will tend to say yes to any conditions that we give them in order to receive help with their project. And so, again just by bringing some help, we bring this power and privilege over the community. We see this within many organizations; this is not unique to Engineers Without Borders. It is common among many organizations that work in infrastructure. For example, the community requests a water project, and during our conversations we can condition them to come up with a plan for maintenance or operations on their own, because we know the project needs to be sustainable. And people would say, “Yes, yes, we will do that. We want the project!” But when we ask for those conditions, we need to make sure that we’re being just in what we request. Have we thought through what we requested from them? Is it realistic? Will the community be able to accomplish this on its own? Is this feasible?
Our engineers need to understand that we need to be responsible and just. It’s good when our community tells us yes and they commit to this request, but they need help. You must know the context of these communities. The community has low levels of literacy and some maybe have primary school education. It’s not fair to ask them to know all of a sudden how to handle a utility water bill!
Additionally, I think Engineers Without Borders does a good job with the online courses. We have a cultural awareness class, we have a class on how to interact with the Guatemala office, for example. Those courses help the volunteers to think about these topics and give a lot of information and a lot of extra references. It really takes a lot of work and interviews from the volunteers. The ones who are very engaged really do a good job at learning these things. In addition to the on-line classes, we have an in-country office that plays a needed role in all this. We coordinate these projects and work very closely with our groups. I would say one of our roles is like that of a great waiter. You know somebody is eating, the waiter is making sure they are okay, that they don’t need anything. So we are always checking with the community, with the volunteers, with the local government and making sure that everybody is having a conversation and that people understand what’s going on. And when we notice something, we speak up!
The way we relate also is very important, we interact as teams. Doing that in a real life project can be such a learning experience. And so it’s easy for us to raise our voice and say “hey, we don’t think this is managed properly.” We can advise this and that. We have a lot of resources developed to direct groups of volunteers. In having conversations with communities, we normally make sure somebody who speaks the language and who understands the culture and knows the community is present, because that’s very vital.
I was part of the team that started the Office here in Guatemala in 2016. We were looking at the efficiency of the projects and they would take like five to six years to be executed, some even longer. Today, five years later, we are executing an average of two to two and a half years for a project. Having people on the ground makes a huge difference. Finishing the projects in a reasonable timeline is also a way to use that power and privilege with justice. The communities need and deserve that.
The other thing I want to point out is that it is easy for volunteers to forget that your community is basically your client. If you were in the U.S., and if you have a client, you speak to your client. You tell them what the options are and in the end your client participates and is a big part of the decision on what’s going to be done. But I’ve noticed that the tendency at times is that groups forget to include the client, that is, the community. I always invite people and say “Okay, you need to serve the communities as if they were a client, you know they are serious and we’re not playing games.” Sometimes we get excited because we are volunteering and it’s so nice and it’s so cool to help people that we tend to forget this. We bring the fundraising, we bring that money for the project but if we don’t talk to the community about what we are designing then we are practicing injustice in that power that we have over the community. They may think “Okay, maybe I won’t ask. Maybe I won’t consult them because they are engineers, they know what they are doing and they are going to help us.” But making the people part of the conversation for the design is something that we need to push everybody towards.
Another lesson for all of us, that might not be as obvious, and makes the vetting of a project crucial, is that within communities, we also see that not everybody all the time is included in a project. Some families are left out. Because we are part of these projects we have some influence. We need to question in a respectful way and acknowledge different people. I think we can use this power. We have to have these conversations with communities to invite them, to make sure that these projects are beneficial to all. We can start conversations to invite them to think about ways to make the projects inclusive. Many times we’ve been successful. Sometimes we’ve had to say no to some of the projects because we see that it will just be beneficial for one group within a community and we don’t believe that is ethical for the work we do. We strive for that equality and justice within the community too.
Finally, I feel very responsible for all these things I mentioned to you because I quickly learned about how power and privilege fit right into what we do. Just because it’s the nature of what we do. So it’s our responsibility to make sure those things go in the right direction, which includes that our members get educated on those aspects as they work helping communities to meet their needs through engineering.
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