2014 Stanford Delegation

2014 Stanford Delegation
Stanford Delegation in the UCA Chapel

Monday, March 31, 2014

Preserving Historical Memory, and the Delicacy of Community Service

by Adam Perelman

When we embarked on this trip, our primary goal was simply to learn as much as we could by talking to people in El Salvador. But we also had a secondary goal: to help Amando Lopez, a small community in the Bajo Lempa region, with an oral history project. The community leaders sought to rescue the “memoria histórica”, or historical memory, of community members, in particular with regards to the civil war and the founding of Amando Lopez in the war’s aftermath.

People in Amando Lopez expressed a number of compelling motivations for this history project. Many felt a responsibility to preserve the community’s stories for the sake of the historical record, so that future generations might learn from the struggles of the past. Perhaps even more urgently, many feared that the community’s youth were losing touch with their history and were at risk of leaving the community. They hoped that an oral history project might remind youth of the immense struggle that their elders participated in so that they might have the land they now call home. As many people reiterated, their land was bought at the price of the blood of those who died fighting in the civil war. The oral history project, many hoped, would remind the youth of all that was sacrificed to make Amando Lopez a reality, and therefore encourage a deeper connection with the community.

Our project seemed straightforward enough: the community board provided us with a list of 38 names of people to interview, we set up a schedule of interview slots, and we brought down our camera equipment, ready to go. We were meeting a need expressed directly by the community. What could possibly stand in our way?

Planning the historical memory project with Amando Lopez

As it turned out, quite a few things could and would. When we got to Amando Lopez, and started thinking through the logistics of the project in earnest together with the community board, we encountered a number of unresolved questions and concerns.

Two logistical questions immediately arose. First, should the interviews be individual, or collective? Would it be better to interview community members in groups, so that they might support each other, or individually, so that they might be able to tell their story more fully? Second, what final product would be best for the community? A book? A website? A digital archive? And who would take responsibility for producing and editing that final product?

Apart from these logistical concerns, several more serious unintended consequences became apparent. First, what would the emotional impact on interviewees be, given that the personal histories they were preparing to relate often involved significant personal tragedy? We had no resources prepared for emotional support. Second, how could we decide who to interview and who not to interview? As we began with a couple of interviews, resentment soon arose as many people not on our list argued that their stories were valuable and worth recording. This question of whose story to record threatened to divide the community rather than to strengthen it. Finally, since one of the main purposes of the project was to build a stronger relationship between local youth and their community, how could we encourage their participation in the process rather than conducting all the interviews ourselves, as outsiders?

As we grappled with these questions, we soon abandoned our naive initial plan. We ended up conducting 4 interviews--a far cry from our original goal of 38--and left with the project still evolving, but with much deeper community ownership of the process and with a better understanding of its potential ramifications. Voices on the Border, the NGO we traveled with, will continue working with Amando Lopez to shape and implement the project in a way that supports interviewees and strengthens the community.

The experience reminded me of Ivan Illich declaration in his famous 1968 address, “To Hell with Good Intentions”: “I do have deep faith in the enormous good will of the U.S. volunteer. However, his good faith can usually be explained only by an abysmal lack of intuitive delicacy.” As Illich pointed out, when it comes to international service, there can be an immense difference between intention and impact.

We entered Amando Lopez with the best intentions. As we soon learned, however, service and solidarity are much simpler in theory than in practice. In reality, effective community work requires patience, a deep knowledge of local dynamics, and a willingness to let go of grand plans and adapt on the fly.

The experience left me with a much richer understanding of community work. It also left me with a major question: our project was relatively simple, involving only a small community and designed to meet a need they had explicitly expressed. Yet even this seemingly straightforward project soon proved to have major unintended consequences. How, then, can much more large-scale development initiatives, like those of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, be designed and implemented so that they truly support local people rather than disempower them? That’s a question many of us will keep exploring.

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