What is our responsibility as “partners” even if our students can’t go?

June 21, 2018

By Nora Pillard Reynolds, Director of Globalsl

This reflection is about commitment in the face of real risks to student safety. It’s about having – and advocating for – relationships that have deeper roots than the facilitation of annual exchanges. I come to the work of community–university partnerships primarily from experiences working in a nonprofit. In 2002, I first traveled to Nicaragua and ended up starting Water for Waslala, an organization that works for access to water and sanitation for everyone living in the municipality of Waslala, Nicaragua. My years of NGO experiences have all focused in one rural municipality of Nicaragua – Waslala. Even now, after Water for Waslala was acquired by WaterAid and El Porvenir in 2016, I continue involvement in Waslala as a member of the Board of Directors of El Porvenir.

Years later, I used my dissertation work to explore community perspectives in Waslala about community outcomes of the 10+ year partnership with Villanova University’s College of Engineering (Reynolds, 2016). One excerpt from that project continues to ring in my head in this current moment,

In 2005, local Waslalan artist, Pantoja, gave me this painting depicting the partnership between Waslala and Villanova.

Community organization representatives credit international partnerships, including the one with Villanova University, as “putting Waslala on the map.” Referring to horrific historical events that could happen to communities because of isolation (such as Chiapas, Mexico, and Guatemala), one community organization representative’s comment highlighted just how important outside awareness of an isolated community can be: “the fact that the world knows Waslala, makes us stronger” (Reynolds, 2014).

If a positive community outcome from community-university GSL partnerships is the creation of transnational networks for advocacy, are we, as university partners, willing to step up? When a topic or issue arises for our international community partners that requires advocacy, will we act? This community outcome has the potential to be positive and powerful if the answer is “yes” and tragic if the answer is “no”. If our community partners are in a difficult situation and reach out to us, their partners of many years, to support their efforts to advocate and they are met with silence or a response such as “I can’t because…”, this negative feeling has the potential to undermine the creation of consciencia, one of the potential positive outcomes identified by community participants (Reynolds, 2016).

On April 17th, I left Notre Dame after the 5th GSL Summit chatting with several colleagues (Gonzalo Duarte, Erin Sabato, and others) about dreams of a future gathering in Nicaragua. Two days later, April 19th, any notion of doing that in the immediate future got tossed out the window when protests broke out across the country. The protests have continued for two months now. I will not attempt to analyze the protests or current political context in Nicaragua in this blog post, but we’ve quickly seen one consequence from program providers, church groups, and colleges and universities across the U.S. – lots and lots of summer group trips to Nicaragua have been cancelled. Similarly, the U.S. Peace Corps and other foreign volunteer groups have left Nicaragua.

These cancellations are disappointing and troubling for many reasons for all involved – students need alternate experiences which leads to faculty, staff, administrators, & students scrambling to shift plans and be adaptable and flexible. High quality programs dedicate so much to preparing for these immersive  experiences and working to ensure that young people have engaged in pre-departure preparation, reflection, and learning about host communities.

Although I am not directly responsible for student health and safety, I found myself close to these challenges since I am based (at least one foot squarely planted in) an institution of higher education. Meanwhile, in my role as board member of El Porvenir, there is no option to leave or pull out – our organization and team members are Nicaraguan. This is our country, our communities.  

As an organization, we put plans in place for staff safety and adapted budgets for financial hits: increased transportation costs, loss from cancelled group trips, quickly disappearing federal and municipal funding for water and sanitation (redirected to the crisis), possibility of missed project completion deadlines for grants, etc. These challenges are at the forefront, but they are exacerbated by salaries of team members who are needed specifically to host student and volunteer groups – with no trips, their job responsibilities are reduced (if not gone). As an NGO, we work to double down to ensure safety and security of our team members, but some of the costs incurred exist precisely because we partner with organizations and institutions in the U.S. to host student and volunteer groups.

This series of events has left me with a clear question for the globalsl community: as individuals and organizations based in U.S. higher education institutions who pursue ethical partnerships, what is our responsibility as partners even if our students can’t go to Nicaragua – or a country experiencing similar upheaval? If, through our partnerships, we are committed to the missions of our partner organizations, what does partnership require of us?

Nicaragua, of course, represents just one example and these questions apply to numerous partnerships. I don’t have a definitive answer to this question. Like relationships, every partnership is different. Are we open to asking these questions in open dialogue with partners? Will we listen even if the answer is not what we want to hear? If the response is not the role we want to play?

I feel fortunate to have friends and colleagues in this community of practice with whom I can think about these challenging situations. We wanted to share a few examples of thoughts and responses to this current challenge from colleagues in this community of practice. In the coming days, we will share specific examples from partnerships between organizations and institutions working through this challenge. We’ll consider another perspective and approach. We hope these reflections and examples raise questions and considerations and provide a push for all of us to consider ways that we can step up.


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