WDA summer trip to Guatemala builds trust, gathers info

Rose Woodbury

The term “sustainable development” is associated with words such as volunteerism, service and internationalism.   This summer, five Whitman students worked to understand the difference between these abstract words and their real-life application.

Contributed by: Monica Simmons

Whitman Direct Action (WDA) sent sophomores Shelly Le, Sean McNulty, Monica Simmons, Julia Stone and alumna Anna Sky to Willywood, Guatemala to assess problems and needs in the community in hopes of returning to the same community next summer.

Stone commented on the nature of the projects:  “There’s a lot of controversy in how to do these projects, because who are we to go down and say, ‘You need better [equipment]?'”  Stone explained that it is more effective to learn about the community and to develop relationships with the people before introducing change.

Simmons explained the work that the group did this summer:  “We were doing anthropological research with the intention of collecting enough information to do a service project. We have plans to start the project this next summer.”

The students spent two months living among families in the community and working with community leaders.   The group partnered with Semilla Nueva, a non-governmental organization founded by Whitman alumni Curt Bowen and Joseph Bornstein.   Bowen and Bornstein also started WDA in 2005 and are currently based out of Guatemala.

“They partnered us with a community permanently based on what it needs,” said junior Maggie Appleton, who went on a similar trip with WDA two summers ago.

This summer, the group went to Willywood with the intention of getting to know the community and building trust in order to pave the way for future groups to carry out service projects. They were initially interested in the inefficient kitchen equipment used by the families in the community.

“There were a lot of inefficient stoves that emit toxic indoor air pollutants,” Simmons said.

They hoped to find ways to popularize eco-stoves. Two of the group members even spent their spring semester prior to the trip doing independent studies on eco-stoves.

“Now, looking back, it’s funny how little that prepared us,” said Stone.

The group assessed the cooking habits, including amount of wood consumed and time spent cooking, of nine families, discovering that several of the families were using broken eco-stoves from past projects by other non-Whitman affiliated volunteers.

The group eventually concluded that providing eco-stoves for the community was not the best way to cut down on emissions.

“I wouldn’t feel comfortable implementing an eco-stove project because they ultimately break and people don’t have the money to fix them,” said Stone.

While they decided by the end of the summer that the way they originally foresaw bringing about sustainable development in Willywood was not optimal in terms of long-lasting benefits, the group still felt that the project was a success.

“We definitely succeeded in our goal to build trust,” said Stone.

The group was also able to gather data and compile a set of demographics that will be useful for future trips. Some of these statistics were especially groundbreaking for future development projects because, for example, nobody had ever quantified how much wood the community used.

On a more personal level, Simmons stressed that the trip was life-changing and will remain a crucial part in her decisions about her future.

“[The trip] was amazing. I learned a lot about the developing world. I learned a lot about Guatemala and Guatemalans,” said Simmons. “It changed my thinking and informed what I want to do with my studies and my life.”

WDA will spend part of this coming year figuring out what actions the next group of Whitman students should take based on the groundwork laid by this past summer’s crew.