A group of some 50 community members convenes outside the meeting place in Chiac, a rural community about 15 minutes from the center of Rabinal. Usually, such meetings are to discuss the routine goings-on of the community, and often, the turnout is low. Today, however, is different. Community members show up in large numbers, and all arrive early, excited to hear Voces y Manos’ proposal for a community project.
Besides the high turnout, there are a few other things that make this meeting unusual. Instead of being led by experts from a local agency, this meeting is almost entirely led by the Voces y Manos youth. In addition, rather than proposing a pre-designed project to the community, the youth explain that they are interested in learning from community members about the project ideas that they believe will be most effective in meeting their needs.
The meeting begins with Don José, the elected leader of Chiac, addressing the community with a welcome that begins in Spanish and quickly switches into Maya-Achí. He introduces Armando, Voces y Manos’ program coordinator, whom he describes as an old friend of the community (Armando had worked on several projects in Chiac in his previous job). Armando in turn introduces two of the VyM youth, who explain how the project selection process will unfold.
The students—with Armando’s help—explain that they are interested in learning as much as they can about the community before deciding what type of project to design. They split the community members into six discussion groups, each focused on a different aspect of community wellbeing.
For the next hour, pairs of students engage community members in a lively discussion about the issues that affect them, such as environmental degradation, poor children’s health, and lack of agricultural land and resources. Thanks to these focus groups, the youth gained a wealth of information about the community that will enable them to hone in on a central problem for their project to address. Yet just as important as the information students gathered from the community was the experience they gained putting their newfound leadership abilities into practice. For the past several weeks, the youth have worked tirelessy developing the skills to be able to facilitate these community dialogues effectively. With a level of skill and tact that surprised even themselves, the youth create a warm and welcoming environment that allowed the community participants to open up and discuss the major challenges they face as as a community.
Students left the meeting exhilerated by the positive manner in which community members responded to them. At the end of the day, Mirna, a 15-year old student in the VyM program, reflected on her experience in these words:
“For me it was a beutiful experience, and everything ended up going very well. We were very enthusiastic and excited in anticipation of this day, because we wanted to share once again with the community. I feel proud because we did a good job and everything went well.”