I recently had the opportunity to talk to Josh Weiss, who works with Partners in Solidarity. Partners in Solidarity was founded by Matthew Rutman with the vision of bringing computers and technical education to the rural schools and NGO's of the Guatemalan state of Quetzaltenango. The project facilitates the donation of computers, supplied by Next Step Recycling in Eugene, Oregon, to allow for the implementation of laboratories. In partnership with Guatemalan NGO INEPAS, Partners in Solidarity provides sustainable development within the communities of Quetzaltenango, through the dual means of encouraging both computer literacy and community organizing. Josh Weiss, a consultant and technology worker from California, is currently living in Quetzaltenango and working as a volunteer for Partners in Solidarity.
A computer lab built by Partners in Solidarity
JMZ: Can you describe the current state of Guatemala?
JW: I see Guatemala as still reeling from the socioeconomic effects of its 30-plus year Civil War. The Guatemalan Civil War was fought for a variety of reasons, including significantly: a more equitable distribution of land, educating the rural, poor and indigenous, increasing access to health care, encouraging democratic participation and the defeat of the 500 year old patronage farming system. When the civil war ended in 1996, a series of peace accords were signed by the government which promised to address these issues. As the government has been slow in fulfilling its promises, many local and international NGOs have formed to take up the work that addressed in the accords, i.e. building schools, clinics, water treatment centers, monitoring elections, etc. In the Guatemalan Highlands, this includes, for example, the work done by ourselves, Cafe Conciencia and Enlace Quiche. Enlace is a local NGO, funded by USAID, which creates a digital curriculum for teaching Mayan culture and language, as well as training Rural people in technical skills. Incidentally, we use the software created by Enlace on our computers to teach the Kiche language and culture, the predominant indigenous culture in the Quetzaltenango area.
Unloading a Shipment of Recycled Computers from Next Step Recycling in Oregon
JMZ: Do you think the current government regime is stable?
JW: This is a bit of a loaded question. The government IS Stable in the sense that there have been three "democratic elections" since the peace accords were signed, and that all the winners were non military figures. However, what they're doing to better the life of the people we work with, I can't say. There are currently countless problems in the county. Violence is incredibly prevalent: 12 bus drivers were recently murdered in one week by gangs in the capitol, there are lynchings, 26 police officers were kidnapped in the Atlantic port of Puerto Barrios the other day. Malnutrition is high. People are *very* poor. I couldn't believe my eyes last week when I did a school visit. 30 minutes off the main highway to the Pacific Coast, down a dirt road, to a community in the middle of a coffee plantation. I've never seen anything like it and I don't think the kids had ever seen a computer. So id say its "stable-ish".
JMZ: how does your organizations approach differ from others?
JW: I've learned a lot about sustainable development through my work. Basically we function like this: we tell teachers in our department (state) that we have a computer lab project. If they want to participate, they submit a formal application to the organization INEPAS. When INEPAS gets a proposal, they preform a study of the community to make sure that basic necessities, ie nutrition and sanitation, are available within the community. If the community is a good fit for the project, we send along a list of requirements for project participation. If the study shows these factors are lacking, we choose not to work in that community to encourage development in the proper order. Some of the requirements are: building the lab, putting bars on the windows, putting in electricity, having both a security and a maintenance committee, and having a curriculum. Once they do all that, they're requested to contribute 75 Q (About $10) per computer to help with project costs. These costs include the rental for our parts bodega, tech services, curriculum development, container transport and other costs. The contribution is an important part of creating sustainability as it it helps the communities take ownership of the computers. The parents really care, all those committees are volunteer, and let me tell you, seeing a group of twenty or so rural indigenous Mayans who have made the journey to Xela to meet with us and discuss the lab, all discussing their commitment to the lab project for their school (on a work day) is really something. Blows me away every time.
JMZ: so most of the rural Mayans see it as a path to college education?
JW: well, that's about 10 steps ahead I think. It really serves two dual purposes. One is the obvious, introducing kids to computation and the concepts of computers. Whether that's so they can write papers, use the Internet, play games, or find work in the future and yes, it's like literacy tests for voting in the U.S. Black South, they need to know computation to get to university, so at the least it removes that obstacle. University attendance is very rare among our schools, just because it's very expensive, maybe the first born son goes, but all school after elementary costs money, and costs are not only school costs but the transportation costs to get to school, which are really high, especially given the current cost of gas ,which is reflected in bus costs. Purpose two is getting the kids and the parents interested in and proud of their schools, which is huge. There was a Tulane university study done on the effects of our project, which demonstrated that that parents leave their kids in school longer, because they value an education that includes technology. Further, we install software which teaches art, geography, history and indigenous culture, which thoroughly augments the regularly available curricula. These effects are why INEPAS got involved. They developed our sustainable concepts, and administrate the selection of schools.
JMZ: do any of the rural Mayans use the net for business or even political goals? - I'm talking about usage aside from just preparing to become something other than a rural Mayan.
Josh Weiss speaking to a group of Guatemalans
JW: I'd say overwhelmingly, no. There's some interest from some potential donors to train them to use the Internet to sell products as part of getting them online. Mostly what happens now is ONGs in the cities use the internet to sell products FOR the rural population, as Cafe Conciencia above. It's a huge cultural shift (at least in my interpretation) to get people using the internet in that way and certainly one that would be great.
JMZ: coffee is the major export in G. ?
JW: Actually, the number 1 and number 2 income sources for Guatemala respectively are tourism and remittance payments from Guatemalans working abroad. After that, coffee is a large export along with some handicrafts
JMZ: How long has this project been operating?
JW: The project started as an independent organization 6 years ago in 2002. In 2003, the second year of the project, INEPAS got involved, beginning the community involvement aspect of the project. Its now a great partnership between ourselves, Next Step, INEPAS and a local org called Entremundos that provides office, storage and teaching space. As of last year, 2007, we became the official International Computer Placement Program of Next Step Recycling. The involvement of the social organization INEPAS in the Partners in Solidarity project is an important one. They began the sustainable aspects of our project, and will eventually be taking it over to leave it in Guatemalan hands. For them, the project serves not only to build community interest in schools, but to teach the communities about community decision-making and organizing (through the election and organization of committes). Thus, the project serves to teach more than just technology.JMZ: Any last words regarding your experience in Guatemala? there's a river near XeJW: Its beautiful down here, but in some ways is also pretty shocking. For one example, my mom was here visiting recently, and she noticed things I've stopped noticingla that is literally the town dump for a small rural community. As my mom was looking on in horror, a little kid walked up, smiled right at my mom, and threw a huge bag of garbage in the river, smiled again, and walked away. Its beautiful, shocking, exciting, scary. Shocking and scary because of the story I've just related, and the pervasive top-down cultural and environmental ignorance which allows situations like this to persist. Beautiful, however due to the capacity for change. Just after this story took place, I learned of (and am participating in as a helper and DJ) a festival being put on to clean up this river and raise money to put a garbage collection system in place in Zunil (the town from which the river gets its name).
JMZ: Thanks Josh!
There are many ways to help Partners in Solidarity. For more information on monetary or equipment donations, as well volunteering in Guatemala, please write to Matthew Rutman (psolidarity -at- yahoo.com).
- INEPAS, which is also a really great Spanish School offering 1-on-1 intensive Spanish courses in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.
- Next Step Recycling, which provides all computers to Partners in Solidarity, among many other great projects.
- Entremundos, which provides Partners in Solidarity with storage and classroom space, as well as maintaining a database of volunteer opportunities throughout Guatemala.