students Laura Felice and Kim-Khanh Van chat with children
at the San Jerónimo plantation. Photo by Phil
When Angelina Godoy led
an undergraduate seminar in
Guatemala last September, the focus was human rights. Godoy hoped
her students would be moved to action by what they saw and heard
in Guatemala. And they were—more than
she could have imagined.
was one of 14 UW Exploration
Seminars offered prior to Autumn Quarter 2005—month-long
international programs that explore a topic in depth. Godoy, assistant
professor of international
studies and law,
societies, and justice, wanted the 19 students in her seminar
to study human rights issues by talking with Guatemalans who face
those issues on a daily basis.
Godoy organized meetings
with religious leaders, labor leaders, corporate executives, academics,
sweat shop workers, coffee plantation workers, and members of a
fair trade coffee cooperative. The group toured wealthy and poverty-ridden
neighborhoods of Guatemala City, noting the astonishing discrepancies
between the haves and have-nots. They spoke with survivors of government-led
massacres of the 1980s and forensic scientists who analyze remains
that have been recovered from massacres. It was not exactly lighthearted
massacre survivors was incredibly distressing,” recalls Diana
Aycinena, a physics major . “It’s been twenty years,
but no one gets over that.”
Tim Richards, a political science major and human rights minor,
describes the trip as “exhausting work, emotionally and physically.
In the evening, we spent a lot of time processing what we had seen.”
A lot of processing
took place in class as well. “Students were sometimes moved
to tears by their experiences,” says Godoy. “In the
context of this course, that was not surprising.”
Students walk down a path to the offices of a human rights
group in Rabinal, where they will meet with massacre survivors.
Photo by Tim Richards..
The students were responding
to the wrenching nature of the Guatemalans’ stories, but also
to the United States’ historical role in denying Guatemalans
human rights. “By the end of the first week, the students
were asking, “What is our ethical obligation now that we know
this?” recalls Godoy.
Godoy provided no answers.
She wanted the students to ponder the question without her influence.
“I didn’t want to set up a class in which students were
expected to help people from the get-go,” she says. “I
felt that any effort had to be borne of the students. And that is
exactly what happened.”
Throughout the remaining
weeks of the class, the students knew they wanted to identify a
project they could support as a group. They found such a project
at a coffee plantation called San Jerónimo. The workers,
who have lived on the plantation for generations in what Godoy describes
as “almost a feudal system,” have been in the midst
of a labor dispute with the plantation owner. The owner refused
to pay the workers after the harvest in 2001; the workers took legal
action but have seen no resolution due to the owner’s political
influence. They still live on the plantation but have no work, no
land, and no recourse. Local groups, aware of their plight, have
donated food. The students wanted to do more.
“There are 65
kids on the plantation,” says Godoy. “There are public
schools nearby, but there is a charge to attend—minor for
us, but prohibitive for them. The students wanted to put all of
those kids through school in 2006.”
The group decided on
one initial activity to raise funds for the Guatemalan children:
they would sell pins featuring small fabric dolls made in Guatemala.
They purchased hundreds of the dolls before leaving Guatemala, then
sold them on the UW campus and at Northwest gift fairs while explaining
the plight of the plantation workers. They also distributed samples
of fair trade coffee, having seen firsthand how fair trade cooperatives
improved coffee workers’ lives.
Sales of the pins were
brisk, but the students decided to think bigger.
Next they planned two
fundraising events: an auction and a New Year’s Eve fundraiser.
The auction, organized by students Kim-Khanh Van and Zach Snipe,
was held at the New Holly Community Center in South Seattle. Latino
groups participated, and Van involved the Vietnamese-American community
as well. “The students pulled it off wonderfully,” says
Godoy. “A kindergarten class came and sang songs, Vietnamese
cultural groups performed, and the UW students spoke about their
experiences in Guatemala.”
The auction raised $2,500;
a New Year’s fundraiser at Jai Thai, a bar in Seattle’s
Belltown neighborhood, raised another $2,200. (Jai Thai agreed to
donate 100 percent of its New Year’s Eve ticket sales to the
project.) Students also sent letters to family and friends, encouraging
them to contribute to the cause.
By January, the students
had raised $5,000 more than needed to pay for the Guatemalan children’s
schooling for 2006. So they set a new goal: a scholarship to fund
the education of a few motivated children through college. The goal
is ambitious but not unrealistic, says Godoy. “The students
feel sufficiently committed to the San Jerónimo community,
and each other, that they intend to keep fundraising,” she
on San Jerónimo coffee plantation discuss their situation
with UW students. Photo by Phil Neff.
Other projects have emerged
as well. Moved by a group of women in a Guatemala City squatter
settlement who are working to build a community school, Diana Aycinena
and Laura Felice have organized a book drive. Their long-term goal
is to create a small library in the Guatemalan community.
“I helped with
a similar project in Africa and knew I wanted to repeat it in Guatemala,”
says Aycinena. “We needed to find a community with a contact
person, a permanent location for the books, and people with a vested
interest in their community. This community had all three.”
Aycinena and Felice
are collecting books in English and Spanish, but plan to trade or
sell the English books for additional Spanish books. “Each
book will be a question—whether to sell it or bring it,”
says Aycinena. “We want all the books to be useful. We’ll
probably purchase some books in Guatemala as well. We know the dialect
will be correct, and it will be useful to the Guatemalan economy.”
Aycinena plans to return
to Guatemala in September to implement the library project. She’s
not the only student with plans to revisit the country. Godoy anticipates
that many of the students will return at some point, having developed
an emotional connection with Guatemala.
In the meantime, Godoy
is serving as a liaison between the students and Guatemalan nonprofits
that are distributing the San Jerónimo education funds. “I
have this great job,” jokes Godoy. “I get to give all
this good news to the people in Guatemala while the students raise
all the funds.”
More satisfying for
Godoy is the way the students have turned their concern for Guatemala
into action. Six months after the Exploration Seminar, they remain
“This is the best
experience I’ve had as a teacher, hands down,” says
Godoy. “What more could a teacher ask for?”
how you can help with this effort, contact Angela Godoy at email@example.com.
[Winter-Spring 2006 - Table of Contents]