Safety Discourse, Travel Cancellation, and Creative Response: Continuing Human Rights Work

September 27, 2018

Three lessons learned from program cancellation through re-imagination, working across transnational human rights activist networks and campus stakeholders. 

On the left, archival boxes at the Archivo Historico de la Policía Nacional. On the right, archival boxes containing cases of disappearance at the Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo.

At Haverford College, we have partnered with one of Guatemala’s leading human rights groups – the Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo (GAM) – to build a digital archive of documentation relating to human rights violations during the Civil War (1960-1996). Founded in 1984 by women searching for loved ones ‘disappeared’ by state security forces, the GAM has spent three decades collecting  documentation and audiovisual materials of significance to ongoing human rights trials and Guatemala’s historical memory. The GAM Digital Archive Project aims to preserve and provide access to these materials. We have built the project’s research agenda around bilingual undergraduates at Haverford and their engagement with our community partners. We hired these students in the library as Digital Scholarship Compañeros and they developed successful proposals to conduct summer fieldwork in Guatemala City. However, safety concerns led the college to cancel student travel a month before travel began. We were then faced with the challenge of maintaining student engagement and our commitments to the GAM.

The Compañeros’ proposals included nine weeks of work in Guatemala that combined their research on case files with the experience of working with GAM staff to digitize and describe archival materials. This plan helped meet two critical goals of our project: 1) Building capacity at the GAM to digitize and describe materials and 2) Creating digital scholarship that demonstrated the potential of the GAM’s archive in affecting historical memory and efforts to seek justice in Guatemala.

The DS Compañeros planning summer work with Dr. Andy Janco and Dr. Brie Gettleson of the Haverford College Libraries GAM Digital Archive project team.

The students’ top concern in redesigning their summers was their commitment to our community partners, the GAM. In two weeks, working across the college and with numerous local and international partners, we were able to develop an alternative plan that balanced their ability to produce original research, engagement with the GAM and prioritizing their goals, and incorporating travel and professional development. Collaborators and friends of the project stepped up to open time, space, and connections for our students to develop their research projects with experts based in Austin and Washington D.C..

Hannah Alpert-Abrams at the University of Texas’ LLILAS Benson coordinated three days of archival research and workshops to give our students the opportunity to connect GAM documents to their own collections. Kate Doyle, a top expert on transitional justice in Guatemala, worked with her colleagues at the National Security Archive (NSA) to coordinate an additional three days of archival research at George Washington University. NSA Archivist and researcher Mary Curry prepared entire boxes of materials tailored to each of the Compañeros’ projects. The Philadelphia Center generously donated office space for our students to work in and offered their network of contacts to help place our students in summer housing in the City of Philadelphia. The restructured summer research program would not have been possible without the flexibility of on-campus partners in the College Libraries and Haverford’s Center for Peace and Global Citizenship; both entities also invested additional resources to support the quick project changes.

Natalia Mora ’21, Tania Ortega ’19, and Mariana Ramírez ’20 at the National Security Archive in Washington, D.C.

As project lead, I modified my travel plans to balance efforts at building capacity for digitization and description work at the GAM in Guatemala City with the work of advising student research in Philadelphia. Three members of our project team in the Libraries provided additional support in guiding the Compañeros in their research. Brie Gettleson worked with our students in Philadelphia to develop their research projects and also traveled with me to Guatemala City to identify materials and support the digitization and description work. Mike Zarafonetis and Andy Janco worked to supervise student research in addition to existing project work on platform design. Crucially, CPGC and the Libraries funded two months of work for consultants in Guatemala to fill the roles we had designed for our students working in the archive. The two consultants, Rita Celeste Villatoro and Pablo Galeano, have become important members of our project team and we are working to find funding to extend their positions.

The students produced three excellent research projects and we surpassed our project goals for digitizing materials. The success of this redesigned summer program relied on a few key factors.

  1. Careful student selection and preparation. The Compañeros’ exemplary commitment built on a year of learning about and meeting virtually with GAM staff members and the project’s potential for memory and justice. Their input and suggestions in developing a viable plan drew on experience collaborating with one another and conducting similar research projects during the fall and spring semesters.
  2. Understanding and flexibility from our partners in Guatemala. Our colleagues at the GAM were understanding of the College’s decision to cancel student travel and worked quickly to identify new opportunities for students to engage virtually and were open in identifying shared needs and priorities in the archival work.
  3. Cross-college and professional network commitment to the important goals at the center of the project, combined with flexibility in how it would be achieved. Our students were not slated to travel in order to find a volunteer placement or engage in other types of travel often critiqued as voluntourism. They were going to play a specific role in a broader project that reaches through decades of advocacy and international collaborations. Their roles were important. The importance of this project project helped ensure that numerous colleagues across the United States, in Philadelphia, and at the college, volunteered to take additional steps to support the effort when it was in jeopardy.

In respect to desired digitization outcomes as part of our human rights archive project, this summer was a clear success. In respect to student travel, it was not. This project has diverse current and – we hope – potential funders. We are therefore optimistic that we will continue to see growth in the Guatemalan team. We also hope that our students have the opportunity to travel to and work in the archive in Guatemala during future summers. We are working with colleagues across campus to clarify our commitment to and processes for safety as we work to support student travel this coming summer.

Alex Galarza was made an honorary member of the Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo and is pictured here with the GAM’s staff.

Alex Galarza is the CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow in Data Curation for Latin American and Caribbean studies. He received his Ph.D. in Latin American History from Michigan State University. His research also examines soccer and politics in 20th century Buenos Aires and his interests include sport, consumption, and politics in Latin America. Alex is also the co-founder of and GradHacker.

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