Thursday, February 26, 2009

Summer Language Exchange and Accompaniment

Originally, when I was thinking through my learning objectives for students when traveling to Spanish-speaking regions of the world, I wanted their experience to be more meaningful than your run-of-the-mill museum/castle-visiting-tour. I wanted to bring students to regions of the world that starkly contrasted with theirs and to make a central component of these experiences socially-conscious travel. With trips to Chiapas, Mexico in February of 2008 through Witness for Peace, and a more recent trip to Nicaragua last November through Global Exchange, I was able to accomplish a great deal of what I had hoped for as students were challenged to engage in economic, political, social and cultural issues. However, even as I found that what I was doing with students was unique among most high school experiences, I realized I wanted to go beyond this level of challenge for students engaged in the act of learning.

These two delegations of students to Chiapas and Nicaragua were amazing experiences for the students and me. It is evident in their successful community presentations around Missoula in schools, churches and the University of Montana, that they learned a great deal about the economics, politics, history and culture of Latin America. Two of the students who participated on these delegations are newly inaugurated board members with CAJA!

However, I believe there exists another level of learning and participation for us that goes beyond the experiences Global Exchange and Witness for Peace can provide. One of my goals is to critique the idea that travel experiences, even “socially-conscious” ones, should be viewed by the participants as a product to be consumed. Secondly, both Global Exchange and Witness for Peace presented our delegations to the communities of Nicaragua and Chiapas as consumers, albeit “fair” consumers learning about the advantages of Fair Trade over Free Trade. In both cases, we gave our money and in return we received an “experience” (i.e. a product) to “witness” firsthand the effects of global economics, U.S. foreign policy, etc. In return, we committed to telling our/their story upon return, which included a plea to our consumer society to buy Fair Trade.

From June 19-July12, 2009, I will be co-leading a group of 10 Montanans (5 graduating seniors, 3 returning seniors, 1 graduating U. of Montana student and my twin-sister who will be graduating from Carroll College in May) to Chiapas, Mexico for the first-ever Summer Language Exchange in the Zapatista community of Oventic, Chiapas, Mexico. Big Sky High School senior, Gabriel Doherty, will be co-leading this group as he approached me four months ago offering to make his co-direction his high school Senior Project.

It is my contention, that while this kind of travel is certainly valuable, it is through the act of accompaniment that learning goes beyond the intellectual absorption of ideas (including “walking a mile in another’s shoes”). Accompaniment, instead, embodies the concept of mutual aid. In this case, the students and the Zapatistas are pushed to stay open to divergent ideas and accompany each other as they work through the real lived history of their respective moments in time. The Zapatista language school does not provide a structure for learning, but instead expects learning to be self-generated (an aspect of their school that has frustrated misinformed revolutionary travelers). Again, their expectation is that if one is going to learn, they need to begin by asking what it is they want to learn, and no one will be there to prod one to ask.

The language school in Oventic offers Spanish and Tzotzil. I will be studying Tzotzil and the students will study Spanish. Our daily lessons consist of only a couple of hours of morning grammar and an hour of afternoon activity, while the biggest challenge provided in Oventic, as many who have gone through this experience claim, is figuring out what to do with oneself for the rest of each day. The Zapatistas are inviting us to generate for ourselves what we will learn. At the same time, our presence in their community for the three weeks provides much needed accompaniment, as U.S. military aid has resulted in the increased militarization of Mexico in general and Chiapas in particular. Moreover, we must also recognize that it is we, U.S. Americans, who could benefit a great deal from the accompaniment of Zapatistas; having their support as we face our own struggle for justice at home in the U.S. Instead of reinscribing the global economic order by using our economic privileges to consume one more product (even if those products are “greener and fairer”) we must, as is the mission of CAJA, “seek to fundamentally alter the unfair distribution of wealth, power and resources.” Accompaniment transcends the deficiency of consuming our way out of our current predicaments by doing our transformation. “We need to walk together. We need to do history together. We need to journey side by side, confronting whatever comes” (Staughton Lynd, Wobblies and Zapatistas).