Anger and Edge

July 13, 2010

It really annoys me when leftists aestheticize “struggle.” When I say “aestheticize,” I mean that in leftist circles there is much talk of resistance to “neoliberalism” and the importance of constructing counter-hegemonic discourses, and very little action. It’s not that I disagree with these people’s politics. It’s that I disagree with their vision of politics: their understanding of how change happens, and what we can do to bring it about.  Making change requires real struggle: lots of frequently boring, totally un-counter-hegemonic activities like phone calling and knocking on doors and raising money and occasionally making alliances with people who might not pass your political litmus test.  Think Che in Cuba vs. Che in Bolivia.

But I digress. For all my pert opinions, I too am not immune to the seductive power of “struggle.” Because to assume that change will happen without conflict is to aestheticize struggle as well: to imagine change as a linear process that requires that only one person or organization to reason and take action.

Two weeks ago, I fired two facilitators, the sisters from the “disaster” group. Although I was initially horrified by the quality of their teaching, I assumed that if I gave some concrete suggestions they would begin to approve. I also acknowledged to them- a crucial mistake- that I considered their work conditions “difficult.” Which, to be fair, was true. They traveled to RS two days every week to teach, staying the night in a rented room and eating with the women. There was almost never transportation, so we usually walked back together on Tuesday afternoon. And the students don’t have benches, or (until about three weeks ago) books. So, yes, difficult.

But it quickly became clear that the difficult conditions were the only things the facilitators cared about. Every single week they asked me about the possibility of increasing their salaries to cover their travel costs. But they never acknowledged or made any attempt to address my suggestions for improvement. When I held a meeting to review the methodology- and subtly suggest that copying from the blackboard was NOT an acceptable teaching methodology- they showed up an hour late and insisted they needed to leave an hour early.

And when I finally decided to show up for the first day of classes, I made an interesting discovery: the facilitators didn’t come on Mondays. Although classes should begin at 1 PM, they never showed up until 4 or 5 PM. They started work at 8:30 AM on Tuesday morning, taught until 10, and continued for another 45 minutes after a 20-minute recess. Meaning that they were teaching for 2 hours and 15 minutes every week, when our program requires a minimum of 10 hours if instruction every week.  Complaints had emerged as early as April, but it wasn´t until I visited in early June that we realized how frequent their absences were. Considering that we are now a year and a half into the process and the women still can´t read, this is a problem.

By the time I went to Guatemala City for my week of vacation in June, I was convinced that we needed to look for new facilitators. After talking to my coworkers, we decided that C would arrive in RS during my absence, convene the women for a meeting, and decide on a course of action. Except C went to El Salvador for a training, and I went to Tikal with P the next week, meaning that no meeting was convened and no action was taken until I returned in the third week of June. Incidentally it was the same week that my coworkers arrived from the capital, meaning that we had to move quickly if we wanted to interview new candidates for the positions. A decision was taken quickly, without consulting the women, and the decision was that the “disaster” needed to be taken in hand by entirely new facilitators.

  1. Community Work Rule Number 1: Always consult the community before making a major decision about a community program.

And so new facilitators were interviewed, hired and trained, and I was dispatched to deliver the bad news.  I´ve never fired anyone, let alone in Spanish, so I had my speech all prepared, emphasizing how grateful we were for their hard work and support (lie, cough cough) and how we were simply concerned that they could not provide the necessary hours of instruction and how of course we would pay them for May and June as soon as they presented their boxes of materials in our offices. When I showed up and only the younger- and much less aggressive- of the two sisters was present because the elder was at a meeting for her OTHER job (hmmmm), I breathed a sigh of relief. She took the news well, I was proud of my Spanish, it seemed like everyone went home (more or less) happy.

The single most important lesson of the last two weeks of my life is that you should never tempt fate by being too happy.

The next day I showed up in RS to gather the women to inform them of the change and introduce the new facilitators. I wasn´t exactly expecting them to kiss my feet or anything, but I did think they would be pleased that they had heard our complaints and taken action. Instead, the first women we visited were frustrated, and insisted they wanted the old facilitators back. I knew something was wrong when they started talking (in Q´eqchi´), but I was absolutely confounded when my translator delivered the news.

  1. Community Work Rule 2: It´s really good if you speak the language your clients are speaking in. Also, when they complain to you, document EVERYTHING.

I went to the one corner where there is cell phone service in RS, and I called my coworkers to deliver the news. They told me that perhaps we should offer to give Z and S a second chance.

And then the gringa did something bold and brave: she took initiative.

With a confidence that surprised even me, I informed them that we were not giving Z and S another chance. We were having a meeting on Sunday, we were consulting all the women about their opinion, and I was going to convince them that the change was a good idea.

  1. Community Work Rule 3: It is always better to respect the wishes of the community. But sometimes people who are used to their children attending a school where the teachers show up once a month might not always know if they are getting the best service or not, and it´s your job to teach them.

Meanwhile, the Elder Sister called. I didn´t really like her before, but 30 minutes of phone time convinced me that she was actually one of those evil older sisters out of a fairy tale. Who argues with their boss when they call to inform them that they are fired?  And then, get this, subsequently shows up in the community to pressure the women into retracting their complaints?

Yes, dear reader, the Elder Sister, who consistently complained about the difficulties of traveling to RS, managed to show up before noon on Sunday, just minutes before the meeting started. Interesting.

Perhaps predictably given that the facilitator in question was standing around the corner, the meeting was not the model of democratic decision-making that I´d dreamed of. Not all of them showed up, and when I asked them to share their thoughts they admitted that, yes, the facilitators hadn`t always showed up on time, but the students didn´t arrive at 1 PM either. And they refused to vote on the decision, insisting that it was up to me.

On the phone that night with my parents, I cried like a seven-year-old. How had a decision that had seemed so right gone so wrong?

My father, sage Quaker that he is, told me that I “had been gifted a rich learning experience.” And that I should think about it.

So Dad, I´ve thought about it, and I have two more learnings to share.

  1. Community Work Rule 4: Stick to your guns. Change requires doing difficult things that push people out of their comfort zones.

At it happens, the Elder Sister called every P staff person she could get to answer her phone calls over the next few days and tried to convince them to take her back. She was forceful, angry and intimidating, and succeeded only in convincing everyone that she was crazy and that I was right.

  1. Community Work Rule 5: Plant seeds.

I have three weeks left in the Zona Reyna, and there is absolutely no hope that the women in RS will learn how to read by the time I leave. But I can do small things that won´t determine the outcome but might make it more likely. We imagine change as a revolutionary event, but it would be more accurate to describe it as a constant struggle. There is nothing beautiful about this kind of struggle: it´s about as glamorous as me climbing mountains in the Zona Reyna. But afterwards, you are left with a sense of quiet certainty that gives you the strength to keep moving forward.

It is, as the Industrial Areas Foundation calls it, “anger and edge”: “not temper, not ideological fervor, not an abstract commitment to “the people,” a clear sense of what’s wrong, impatience in the face of that wrong, and a drive to address it.” This is what all leftists really need if we have any hope of making change.

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