For the past five months, the 27 students involved in Voces y Manos have been participating in an empowerment project aimed at getting youth voices heard by local politicians. 2015 is an election year in Guatemala, and 8 local candidates are vying to become the next mayor of Rabinal. The candidates’ presence around town is ubiquitous—their photos adorn posters and their theme songs form a virtual soundtrack to daily life—but their plans for improving the quality of life for young people are largely a mystery.

Meanwhile, as Rabinal heads into election season (elections are September 7th), many of the necessary building blocks for young people to live healthy lives are crumbling. Funding for public education is going dry, shifting ever-increasing costs onto children and their families. For example, because schools do not provide students with textbooks, teachers often require students to print out readings from the internet. Another particularly egregious form of cost-shifting is requiring students to carry out “community-service projects” to repair dilapidated school infrastructure. Initially such projects were reasonable– painting murals and the like–but as funding dissipated, these “service projects” spiraled out of control. One student reported being required to dig a well to provide her school with water. At a cost of several hundred dollars, this was, needless to say, an enormous financial hardship for her entire family.

In the realm of healthcare, youth in Rabinal do not enjoy access to youth-friendly services of any kind. Despite an alarming number of youth suicides in recent years, psychological services are nonexistent. While teenage pregnancy is common, access to contraception is extremely limited. Making matters worse, a local religious organization has waged a propaganda campaign attempting to convince youth that condoms are ineffective, and that birth control pills and injections cause cancer. Despite these significant affronts to vital services, the wellbeing of young people does not appear to be a high priority for most political candidates.

Because of this, VyM staff and students decided it was time to get youth issues onto the political agenda. Students in Voces y Manos have been using the tools of action-research to amplify youth voices, and to develop meaningful solutions to the issues they face. In the investigation stage of the project, students designed and administered a survey to 140 youth at local high schools. The survey asked students to report on the quality of their relationships with teachers and peers, the amount of money they spend each month on school-related costs, and their overall satisfaction with the their education.

The action stage of the project involved students presenting research findings and policy recommendations to mayoral candidates. Working with an extraordinary coalition of local organizations and youth organizers, the VyM students drafted a policy proposal and invited local mayoral candidates to a public forum to discuss relevant issues.

The achievements of this project exceeded everyone’s highest expectations. These are a few highlights:

  • All seven mayoral candidates attended the youth-led forum.
  • Over 250 members of the general public attended the forum, and another 600 tuned-in online.
  • The forum was broadcast on local television and radio.
  • All seven local candidates signed an agreement to provide funding to strengthen Rabinal’s Office of Childhood and Adolescence (described below).

During the weeks leading up to the forum, I had the sense that something powerful was taking place, so I began keeping a journal and taking photos at all our planning meetings. Now that the forum is over (it took place Thursday August 13th), I’ve finally had a chance to get these thoughts and photos organized and onto this blog. Read on to learn about the exciting process, or jump to the end to see photos from forum!

July 19: Meeting with Comité Civico “Chilate”

 The movers and shakers on this project were Nery, Griselda and Selvin, all first-year college students who assumed a leadership role in preparing for the forum. Griselda and Selvin are graduates of Voces y Manos, and Nery is a friend that Griselda and Selvin recruited to work with them on the project. They were truly a power trio.


Here are Gris and Selvin, deep in analysis mode, reviewing the 140 surveys they collected.

 On July 19th, thanks to outstanding networking by Selvin, Voces y Manos’ biweekly association meeting had a special guest: Octaviano Alvarado Garcia, one of the local mayoral candidates. He and several members of his Chilate party (named after a traditional, corn-based drink in Rabinal), attended our meeting to learn about Voces y Manos, to hear preliminary findings from students’ surveys, and to discuss how he formed the Chilate political party. Because students had only begun tabulating their data the previous week, they worked hard that morning to prepare their data before Octaviano’s arrival. In the picture below, Nery, one of the leaders on the project, works with Lidia and Belqui to generate graphs from their data.

AnalyzingData #1

Here, Lidia, Ingry, Hamilton and Hortencia work on their own data analysis


At 11:00 AM, Octaviano and the other members of the Chilate Party showed up at the Fundación Nueva Esperanza office. We sat in a circle, and, after brief introductions, Octaviano shared his own life story. A child of corn farmers with no stable source of income, Octaviano described the many sacrifices he underwent in order to graduate from college, become a lawyer, and finally a political candidate. He described stories of hardship that many of the Voces y Manos students could relate to, such as traveling over his summer breaks to Guatemala’s sweltering southern coast to cut sugar cane and cotton to finance his studies. He finally described how he and a group of neighbors and friends had formed the Chilate party—which they described as a civic committee rather than a political party in the traditional sense—as a local alternative to the major national parties that dominate the Guatemalan political system.

Mayoral Candidate Octaviano Alvarado Garcia meeting with Voces y Manos Students

Mayoral Candidate Octaviano Alvarado Garcia meeting with Voces y Manos Students

Following the discussion, youth shared with Octaviano and his co-workers the preliminary results of their investigation. Students complemented the presentation of their data with passionate testimonies about the challenges they face as students.

Lilian presenting data to fellow students and mayoral candidate Octaviano Alvarado Garcia

Lilian presenting data to fellow students and mayoral candidate Octaviano Alvarado Garcia

Nery Presenting his section of the presentation

Nery Presenting his section of the presentation

Students shared stories about outright disrespect from teachers and principals, as well as stories about the serious economic hardships their families must endure to allow them to stay in school. Octaviano related students’ struggles to his own life experience. He also talked about how he would work to reduce barriers to education if he were elected mayor. In all, the meeting was an excellent opportunity for students to practice their public speaking skills, and a low-stakes preview of their final presentation in front of other mayoral candidates.

Aug. 6: Planning Meeting with the Ministry of Culture and Sports

One of the keys to the success of the forum was partnering with outstanding partner organizations, such as the Ministry of Sports and Culture and a group of youth called “Jóvenes por el Desarrollo del Pueblo” (Youth for Community Development). The week prior to the forum, we met at the beautiful offices of the Ministry of Sports and Culture, where we were joined by Don Celestino, a leader at the ministry and strong proponent of bilingual education, and Mauricio, a second-year college student and youth organizer with Jovenes por el Desarrollo del Pueblo. Mauricio is an old friend of Voces y Manos. He had participated as a volunteer in our first health fair in 2007, and, although he never received a scholarship from Voces y Manos (we didn’t have a scholarship program at the time) he’s always stayed connected to the program. Meanwhile, while pursuing his teaching degree, he co-founded Jovenes por el Desarrollo to hold local politicians accountable to the needs of youth in Rabinal.

Independently, it turned out, Jovenes por el Desarrollo had also been working toward the goal of holding a forum for mayoral candidates. For the past several weeks, the group had been meeting nightly to coordinate their forum, and already had achieved impressive results, including securing agreements from local media outlets to cover the forum on local TV and radio stations. Within a few minutes of discussion, the groups came to the decision to pool resources and work together to put on a single, mega-forum.

For the next several hours, we turned our attention to developing an agenda for the event, and drafting preliminary text for a proposal to be presented to mayoral candidates. The students’ survey had clearly pointed out several key issues faced by youth: lack of trust, economic difficulties, and inadequate sanitary facilities in schools, but these issues were disparate and did not point to a clear, over-arching solution. Our central question was: How could we develop a proposal that would reflect all (or the most important) of these issues?

After extensive brainstorming, we came to this idea: rather than selecting a specific issue (e.g. lack of soap in the bathrooms), we should focus on creating institutional change that would allow these issues to be addressed in a long-term manner. It had come to our attention that although there is an “office of childhood and adolescents ” in Rabinal, this office is habitually under-funded. (The lone staff member who works at this office recently provided us with several documents she had apologetically printed on the back of previously used paper; the office was entirely out of funds). So we figured that getting the future mayor to commit to providing adequate funding and support for this office would be a big step in the right direction. But the question remained as to what specific areas this office should prioritize.

We decided three components would be critical:

  • First, we felt that the office must have strong youth leadership. Under our proposal, the office would include a youth board of directors that would guide all decision-making processes. This board would prioritize issues, be involved in hiring staff, and have control over the office’s budget.
  • Second, the office would need to fill a key gap in health services for young adults. Although Guatemala recently approved a law guaranteeing access to reproductive health services (including for adolescents), access to contraception is severely limited, and rarely confidential. Our proposal thus included a line item for the office to have a physician or professional nurse on staff to provide sexual and reproductive health services in a youth-friendly environment.
  • Third, the office would need to have a psychologist on staff. Mental health among adolescents is an issue that is widely and grossly overlooked, and, as mentioned above, Rabinal has seen an alarming spike in youth suicide rates. These tragic events are likely only the tip of the mental health iceberg, as young people live with enormous stresses and strains in their lives, and the vast majority with mental health issues are simply left to cope as best as they can.

We were aware that providing direct services would only treats symptoms, not the root of the problems facing adolescents. But we figured that with a strong youth board focused on community-level intervention and a professional staff able to provide clinical services, the office would be well-positioned to address immediate needs while also pursuing the goals of prevention at the community level.

Having developed preliminary text for the proposal, we left the meeting all the more motivated to hold a successful forum in which candidates would sign on to the proposal.

The Voces y Manos Team meeting with the Ministry of Sports and Culture

The Voces y Manos Team meeting with the Ministry of Sports and Culture

 August 9th: Final Meeting with the Association 

The proposal we developed in the previous meeting still had two missing pieces. Most importantly, we needed the approval of the other youth in Voces y Manos’ Leadership Association before moving forward with the proposal. We realized our preliminary proposal had drifted considerably from the three needs identified in students’ surveys, so we wanted to make sure students in the association were on board with the new proposal. Selvin and Griselda led the August 9th Association meeting by distributing copies of the proposal for students to review in small groups. Selvin explained the rationale for focusing on the youth and adolescent office:

Selvin explaining the proposal to students at the Association meeting

Selvin explaining the proposal to students at the Association meeting

“Currently, the office of childhood and adolescence is very under-funded,” he explained. “There are many different needs you identified through your survey. But if we don’t have an office, or an organization that is dedicated to addressing these issues, they will be much more difficult to solve.”

After discussing the proposal, students were quick to provide their approval.

The remaining issue was a technicality, but an important one: In order for our proposal to have “teeth” we needed to make sure it was backed by a strong legal framework. Selvin, Griselda and Nery came to the meeting prepared with copies of the Guatemalan Constitution, the International Convention on the Rights of the Child, and several other international and national conventions. Students then were split into small groups, and each of these groups was given one of the legal documents to review and identity relevant sections that provided support for our proposal.


By the end of the day, students had identified over a dozen laws that affirmed the rights of adolescents to live healthy lives, to attend school, and to participate in the civil life of their communities. Below, Voces y Manos students, holding the constitution of Guatemala, and the international conventions on the rights of the child.

DSCF3520Weds August 12th: Day Before the Forum

The day before the forum, the students who had been selected to present their research met to rehearse. We wrapped up the rehearsal shortly after sunset, and hailed mini-taxis to give the students rides homes so they could get some rest. Although the students were extremely well-prepared, for many it would be a restless night.

Team Prep

Thursday August 13: Day of the Forum

The day of the forum itself was a reflection of the preparation that went into it.

By the time I arrived at 7:45 A.M. some 300 chairs had been set up in the church auditorium where the forum was to take place. The stage had been beautifully set up with a white table cloth, and name tags indicated where each candidate was to sit. A special “filter” table was set up to review questions that came in from the public. And, a large media center was established in the center of the auditorium that would broadcast the event on two local television channels, livestream the event online, and broadcast on the radio.

Candidates taking their respective places on stage

Candidates taking their respective places on stage

Two of the young adults from “Jóvenes por el Desarrollo took their places at the “filter table”. They would have responsibility for filtering and prioritizing questions from the public.


I’m not sure where we found the moderator. And I’m not sure where the moderator found his suit. But both were on point!

I’m not sure where we found the moderator. And I’m not sure where the moderator found his suit. But both were on point!

After a brief but avuncular welcome from the moderator, we launched into the first agenda item: the presentation by Voces y Manos students on their survey results. Griselda, the first to speak, looked out into the audience of 250-plus people, video cameras, and bright lights, and spoke with enormous confidence, apparently impervious to the fanfare that surrounded her (I remembering feeling relieved that my job was simply to operate the powerpoint projector).


Griselda introduced the objective of their investigation, and went on to elaborate on the high proportion of students (roughly 25%) who have considered dropping out due to family problems, or problems with classmates.


Selvin spoke immediately after Griselda. His part of the presentation addressed the importance of trust and effective communication among teachers, principals, and students. He noted that only 50% of students reported feeling comfortable speaking to their school principal. Selvin explained that students see their school principals primarily as authority figures, concerned above all with disciplining students rather that working to improve the quality of their education.


The final topic of the presentation was economic barriers to schooling, delivered brilliantly by Lidia Morente. Lidia explained that the high costs of schooling are simply forcing many students at the high school level to consider dropping out. She emphasized that nearly 40% of students at the post-secondary level considered dropping out of school for lack of funds. Most of these costs, such as printing and internet costs, could easily be avoidable with concerted policies to reduce the economic strain on students.


Leaving little pause, Lilian segued right into the reading of the proposal that she and other students in Voces y Manos had developed. She read in a loud, clear voice as the proposal was projected to the audience.


In a veteran maneuver, as soon as they finished reading through the proposal, the youth delivered copies to each candidate, and politely requested that the candidates sign the proposal if they would like to indicate their support for strengthening the office of childhood and adolescence.

Griselda and Lilian distributing proposals for candidates to sign

Griselda and Lilian distributing proposals for candidates to sign

Whether it was due to persuasiveness of the presentation or the large, public nature of the gathering, no candidate hesitated to sign the document. Promptly, youth collected the signed proposals, exited the stage as the moderator transitioned into the next item on the agenda: presentations by each political candidate.

The event began with each candidate having 10 minutes to explain their “plan de trabajo” for their time in office. Candidates spoke about the usual issues list of issues in Guatemala: roads, water, and electricity. But, perhaps because of the youth-focus of the event, the panelists took pains to mention their investment in improving education as well.


Lidia, Griselda, Nery, and Selvin, by this point, were now sitting back, enjoying watching the presentations and drinking atole from the first row of the auditorium.


Following initial presentations, an hour-long question and answer session took place, in which the candidates responded to questions that came in from the public.


I was impressed by the tech squad at the event. Broadcasting on 2 TV channels and the radio!


The event truly ended on a positive note, as all candidates congratulated students on their initiative, and thanked the moderator for his professionalism. Even the incumbent candidate, who we worried might not take well to the students’ proposal, took the time to publicly congratulate students on their initiative, and encouraged more youth to get involved in making their municipality a better place.

The forum was a major achievement for the students in Voces y Manos, and evidence of the power of working in coalitions. Yet the students know that their proposal still exists only on paper, and much work lies ahead to encourage the candidate who wins the election to make good on their promise and provide the funding necessary to ensure the office of childhood and adolescence provides its vital services to Rabinal’s youth.

VyM Students Teach Soil Conservation Techniques

With a roll of manila paper in each of their hands, Elson, Dina, Mirna and Ingrid walked through the front door of the office at FNE with a cheerful “buenas tardes”, then quickly ran through a rehearsal of the charla that they would be leading later that day in the community of Chiac. One by one, the four students practiced their respective parts of the talk on soil conservation. Then in the early afternoon, we piled into the back of the FNE pickup truck and headed out to the Chiac Community.

Once in Chiac Juan Dolores Grave, the community leader, placed an announcement on the loudspeaker (yes, it surprised me too), and within minutes the 45 project participants came together at the meeting location. Juan Dolores got the attention of the community, and then introduced Elson, Dina, Mirna and Ingrid. Elson gave a preview of the day’s activities: He explained that, first, he and his peers would give an explanation of four basic soil conservation techniques, and then, the participants would break into three groups to participate in a hands-on demonstration.


Using hand-drawn posters, the students introduced community members to four soil conservation techniques. After pausing for questions, Armando summarized the basic idea: to create physical barriers to slow water as it carries topsoil down a hillside. Whether barriers are made of stones, dried logs, reeds, or other materials, they all serve the same function. The more runaway soil is given a chance to settle, the less is lost.


With the help of Juan Dolores–the community leader—the 45 participants were split into three, 15-person groups. One of these groups was led by Armando, and the other two groups were led by local agronomy students, one of whom was our very own Manuel, a member of our 2011 cohort of scholarship recipients. The three groups fanned out to different sites that had been pre-selected by the community leader for the demonstration workshops. I went with Manuel’s group, eager to see him in action.

We arrived at the demonstration site after a fifteen walk through a cornfield and across a tiny footbridge. Once at the site, Manuel promptly began by introducing himself: “I’m from a rural community myself,” Manuel said, “and I speak Achí. So if you have questions, go ahead and ask me in whatever language you’re more comfortable.”


Manuel explained that he would be teaching participants how to build and use an “A-frame model”, a tool for measuring the incline of a hillside. He explained that this was important for the construction of barriers. Just eye-balling it, he said, can lead to barriers that are uneven and ineffective at preventing erosion.

Getting right to work, Manuel said, “I’ll need two poles two meters long, and one pole one meter long.” Manuel spoke at a brisk pace and with poise that seemed to invite the active participation of the community. Two men from the community rushed to the job, taking out their machetes and cutting down two sticks to the appropriate length.


Manuel pulled out a tape measure, to ensure the poles were of the correct length. He fastened the two long poles together using a rope, with their points converging in the form of an “A”.


He then requested a 1-meter pole, which bisected the two-foot poles. Again he tied the pieces together with string, and the type A model frame was complete. Manuel stood up the massive letter A and displayed it to the community.


Manuel then took out a piece of string and tied one end to the top of the A-frame, and the other end to a stone he had found. “This is what we do, we use the materials around us,” he said with a sort of off-handed wisdom. With the rock dangling down the mid-line, Manuel marked where the rock hit the midline. He then spun the model A around, and again marked where the string hit the mid-line. He explained that the point in between his two marks was the actual center.


José, a member of the new group of VyM students, furiously took notes. He was responsible for recording the day’s events, and will be responsible for keeping track of these procedures so that students can guide community members in building these A- frames on their own.


Finally, Manuel demonstrated how the A-frame could be used to mark out contour lines. Manuel and Macario adjusted the feet of the model A so that the string lined up perfectly with the midpoint. This ensured they were on a level plane. They then dug two stakes into the ground where each of the legs of the A-frame were placed. They repeated this process 10 times, leaving a trail of 10 stakes marking an even line to guide the construction of their barrier.


As the sun was beginning to set, Manuel stopped and asked the group if they had any last questions. Several people asked very specific questions, which showed, to Manuel’s delight, that they thoroughly understood the technique and were now concerned with mastering its finer points.


The group then headed back down the hill, across the river and then through the cornfields, and into the back of the pickup truck where we headed back to Rabinal. The next week, we will return to the community to deliver basic materials that will allow community members replicate these techniques on their own.

Community Project Begins!

This Thursday was the long-awaited start to Voces y Manos’ students-led community project. For the past month, students have led dialogue groups in the community of Chiac to build trust with community members and identify issues of importance. On Thursday, students unveiled their plans for putting into action the key issue they identified: soil loss.

Readers of this blog may find themselves wondering, as I first did, why soil conservation would be a top priority in a country known more for the poverty for its people than its soil (after all, doesn’t much of Peet’s coffee come from Guatemala?). Indeed, the juxtaposition of poverty and malnutrition amidst agricultural abundance is so striking that a recent newshour story referred to the situation in Guatemala as a paradox. This apparent paradox, however, has a clear explanation: Today in Guatemala, 2% of landholders control more than 70% of agricultural lands. This highly inequitable land distribution has relegated most poor and indigenous farmers to small plots on the steep, rocky slopes where survival is precarious.

Complicating matters, Guatemala is one of the ten most vulnerable countries in the world to the effects of climate change. Recent years have seen prolonged periods of drought, and particularly intense storms. This year, for example, a 6-week drought in the middle of what was supposed to be the rainy season caused subsistence farmers to lose half to two-thirds of their crops. One of the farmers in Chiac told me his family was surviving, but “raspado”, just scraping by. Within such a context, it’s easy to understand why helping farmers get the most out of their limited lands is so important. And maintaining high quality soil is critical to that endeavor.

To help community members in Chiac conserve their soil, the youth in Voces y Manos developed a three-stage project plan. The students then split into three teams, with each team taking responsibility for one stage of the project. On Thursday, with a bit of well-masked nervousness, the teams of students presented their respective plans to the community, one at a time:


Team 1/Phase 1, Soil Conservation Practices: Students on this team explained that they would begin by leading a workshop in the community on the construction of so-called “live barriers”: plants that reduce soil runoff. Then, students explained that they would provide participating families with basic materials to create these live barriers on their own.

Team 2/Phase 2, Organic Composting Techniques: The youth on this team gave an introduction to the two composting techniques they would be introducing to community members: “Bokashi Composting”, and “vermicomposting”. Students explained that, as in the previous phase, they would first lead a workshop, and then travel to participants’ homes to assist with implementation.

Team 3/Phase 3, Planting of Fruit Trees: This group explained that using the compost generated by their composters, participants would be given fruit trees to plant in their community. Students explained that each family would be given a total of ten fruit trees, which would not only help reduce soil erosion, but also improve nutrition.

The energy in this the outdoor meeting space in Chiac was one of enthusiasm and excitement. Seeing that the issues they identified were reflected in students’ proposals, community members seemed particularly engaged in hearing the students presentations. Next week, students will lead a demonstration activity on soil conservation practices, and will then visit participants’ homes to help them replicate the project on their own.

All Projects

Groups lined up in order to explain the sequence on the three project stages

Meeting with the Community to Design a Project

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.

Community members waiting for the start of the meeting

Community members waiting for the start of the meeting

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.

Students w Armando

Armando and students explaining the project selection process

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 after the meeting

Students after the meeting

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.”

Picking a community: An Exercise in Consensus-Building

The students’ final project, which consists of interventions into local health, educational, or environmental issues, is the culmination of the youth leadership program. Before they can carry out their community diagnostic or brainstorm solutions, however, the students first have to decide which local community to work with. This week, our main objective was to reach a consensus about where to conduct the final project. Along the way, students developed valuable skills facilitating, negotiating, and teamwork.

The students began with a list of 8 communities, each home to one or more of the students. Using a series of parameters, including the accessibility of the community, existing natural resources, strength of community organizations, public resources, and the availability of local collaborators, they ranked the various communities and selected the 3 most suited for the final project.

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Here the students are taking note on each of the community's parameters

Here the students are taking note on each of the community’s parameters

photo (2)

After narrowing the list, the students had to collectively decide which among the three would be the actual place of their community diagnostic and intervention. First, Michael and Jeny offered a lesson in group discussion and consensus-building. The students came up with a list of successful and democratic consensus building strategies, such as listening to everyone’s opinion, summarizing the main points, making all participants’ feel welcome to share ideas, and choosing who speaks next based on who raised their hand first.

Following the lesson, two student facilitators led the group discussion and worked to ensure that everybody’s voice was heard. Students offered impassioned pleas and reasoned arguments for why one community rather than another was the ideal site for the final project. Drawing on the consensus-building techniques and democratic ethos learned throughout the year, the students collectively decided that the local Chiac community would be the site of this year’s community diagnostic and intervention. Next week we’ll fill you in on the preliminary results of the group’s first visit to Chiac and the meeting with a local community leader!

Dina and Hortencia facilitate the group of students to reach a consensus.

Dina and Hortencia facilitate the group of students to reach a consensus.

Student Videos: Culture, History, and Identity

As we’ve mentioned in previous posts, culture plays a central role in Voces y Manos. This year, we decided to embark on a new adventure: helping students to develop videos about their culture, identify, and community.

Over the weekend students travelled to their communities, where they recorded interviews with elders. They asked their grandparents and neighbors to talk about the history of their community: How did the community get its name? What are the most important events in the community’s recent history?


Students uncovered a wealth of information, which they incorporated into short videos.  In addition to interviewing elders, students also shared about themselves in their videos. They talked about their cultural identify, and why it is important to them. They discussed their vision, or the change they hope to see in their communities. And they articulated how they plan to work as community leaders to make that change come to fruition.

As always, hard week was broken up with various dinámicas (games). We started the week with a very powerful dinámica in which students stood in a circle, and one by one, shared a strength that they appreciate about one of their classmates.


On a more lighthearted note, we also played a game of telephone, an international classic.


At the end of the week, students presented their videos to a packed audience of students and teachers at Fundación Nueva Esperanza, the students’ middle school. Teachers and fellow students congratulated the presenters on their work. The youth presenters left not only having learned new skills–such as how to use video editing programs–but also with newfound confidence in their communities, and their own abilities to create change. (We are currently working on final edits and sub-titles for these videos, and look forward to sharing them as soon as they are ready to go!) Next week, the youth will harness this confidence to take on their next challenge: developing a community project.

Jose Vid Pres


Leadership Retreat

Last weekend, we led a leadership retreat with the group of new scholarship recipients in the nearby municipality of Salamá. We started talking about the 5 guiding values for the program: responsibility, commitment, respect/dignity, solidarity, and honesty, and the students came up with a list of recommendations to follow for the weekend. Above all the students made the commitment to work together as a team and to help one another understand the material.


We led the introduction with an activity called “the spider web” with the intention of demonstrating to the students how important it is to work together because if one person lets go of their thread, the entire web falls apart. As they threw the ball of yarn to create the web, each student stated what they wanted to learn during the retreat.


After the warm-up activities, we went straight into the main topic; leadership. We began by watching a documentary, Sipakapa No Se Vende, about a Guatemalan community trying to get a Canadian mining company to leave their land. We paused the movie right before the end and divided the class into three groups, each would dramatize an original ending to the movie. The catch: each group was assigned a particular type of leadership style that they had to enact through the skit (autocratic, passive, and participatory leaders). In the end, the students unanimously decided that the only way for a community to achieve its objectives would be through participatory leadership.

Here, Jose demonstrates an autocratic leader who only gives orders for others to follow and in the end takes all of the credit.

Here, Jose demonstrates an autocratic leader who only gives orders for others to follow and in the end takes all of the credit.

Marlon is representing a passive leader who does not seem to care about the decisions made in his community and does not care to listen to the community’s ideas.

Marlon is representing a passive leader who does not seem to care about the decisions made in his community and does not care to listen to the community’s ideas.

Here, Lorenza, Elson, Lidia, and Mirna get together and share their opinions to confront the big mining company as a group of participatory leaders.

Here, Lorenza, Elson, Lidia, and Mirna get together and share their opinions to confront the big mining company as a group of participatory leaders.

After lunch, we shifted topics from leadership to a growing field in education called “critical media analysis.” The aim of critical media analysis is to provide students with tools so that they can become active producers and critics of media, rather than consumers who take media messages at face value. Ultimately, students will make videos in which they represent their own community and culture to an audience of youth in other parts of Guatemala and the world. But to start, we wanted to help students learn to see that media images are not objective portrayals of reality, but rather subjective representations of reality that are designed in very intentional ways to create a particular impression in the mind of the viewer. We started out by providing two groups with completely different images of Arnold Schwarzenegger (one as the terminator, another as the governor). Obviously, the lists of adjectives describing the two Arnolds were quite different, and we challenged students to think of strategies that media-makers are able to use to portray such radically different views of the same person.



We then flipped the script by giving each student adjectives such as “powerful”, “weak”, “rich”, or “poor” that they had to represent in a picture of themselves.

Lidia demonstrating “powerful.”

Lidia demonstrating “powerful.”

Elson is representing the word “weak.”

Elson is representing the word “weak.”

Students learned to see that there are multiple ways of presenting the same reality, or the same person. None is “right”; all are constructions.

Critical media analysis is a topic that we carried over to Sunday as well when we learned how media uses the tools of representations to sell products. After watching several example ads, students developed their own highly creative commercials to sell a fairly unexciting consumer product: a water bottle! (Check out the students’ highly creative advertisement HERE. Its in Spanish, but the plot is not hard to follow!)


The students were given some free time before dinner where they played soccer, braided each other’s hair, listened to music, danced, and had some great conversations. After dinner, we were each given a candle that was not yet lit as we sat in a circle. The way one would light their candle was to get the flame passed to them by another person. Macario (one of the VyM Program Leaders) started the chain by saying some appreciative words to Michael and the chain kept going until everyone had a lit candle that was used for a bonfire. This activity was used to raise awareness about each individual’s capabilities. The biggest impact was being able to recognize one’s own weaknesses while also realizing that they are able to strengthen them. Another impactful moment was hearing each other’s life experiences, not only because we learned more about each other but also to show support within the group.


The students left the retreat as a team, more connected than ever!


Meet the Authors!

The Voces y Manos 2014 volunteer team is thrilled to share their experiences with YOU. We hope you enjoy reading the stories, and seeing the pictures that document our experience here. The writers of this blog are:

Shelly Escobar

I have recently graduated from UC Davis majoring in Sociology with an Education minor. Working with Voces y Manos has been a great opportunity for me to gain more experience working with youth and learning about a different culture. Some of my favorite hobbies are playing soccer and hiking, so working with the students in Guatemala has made me feel right at home.

Elena Pecot-Zuniga

Elena Pic

My name is Elena Pecot-Zuniga. I just finished my second year at UC Berkeley where I am majoring in Spanish (more specifically, Hispanic Languages and Bilingual Issues) and minoring in Education. Voces y Manos is the perfect opportunity for me to travel abroad to experience another country’s culture, further develop my spanish-speaking skills, and work with youth: three things that I love. In my free time, I like to watch movies, go to dance performances & musicals, bowl, dance, make friendship bracelets, and attend “open mics.”

 Michael Bakal

MB Profile PicMy name is Michael Bakal, and I’m one of the co-founders of Voces y Manos. I recently graduated from UC Berkley’s school of public health. Before that, I worked as a high school science teacher, and spent my summers working on the Youth Empowerment Program here in Rabinal. I’m thrilled to be in Rabinal again for my seventh summer, and am particularly excited to be working with an amazing team of volunteers and staff!


Week 3: Mayan Ceremonia at Kaj’yup

Kaj’yup, an ancient ruins located on a small hill overlooking Rabinal, is considered to be the most sacred historical and cultural site of the Achí people (Achí is name for the Mayan group that lives in Rabinal and surrounding areas). According to oral tradition, Kaj’yup was and is the home of Rabinal-Achí, the once living Achí prince who continues to watch over the people of Rabinal as a guardian spirit.

View of Kaj'yup, overlooking Rabinal

View of Kaj’yup, overlooking Rabinal

Each year, the entire group of Voces y Manos scholarship students, volunteers, and parents of scholarship recipients travels to Kaj’yup to learn about and practice a traditional Mayan ceremony. The Mayan ceremony gives us volunteers an opportunity to deepen our understanding of Mayan traditions, it helps students build knowledge and pride in their own culture, and it gives the entire group an opportunity to build relationships outside the context of the classroom.

On Sunday morning, we met in plaza of Rabinal at 6:00 am, just as the sun was rising. There, we met up with Manuel, a longtime Voces y Manos advisor who leads the ceremony each year. After a quick head count, we followed Manuel up the hillside to Kaj’yup. The hike took us just over and hour, and when we arrived the sun was high in the sky.

The group hiking up to Kajyup

The group hiking up to Kajyup

We all drank water voraciously and socialized as we waited for Manuel to set up the materials for the ceremony. Manuel was accompanied by his 6 year old son, Josué, who was at Kaj’yup for the first time.  Josue seemed excited to be able to help his dad, and hang out with “the big kids”.

Manuel and Josue preparing for the  ceremony

Manuel and Josue preparing for the ceremony

The ceremony centered around a small offering which consisted of candles, incense, sugar, bread, sesame seeds, and other items. As the fire burned, the items of the offering mixed together releasing a sweet smell into the air. Manuel explained to students about the four cardinal directions that are of great importance in the Mayan tradition. The students turned East, then West, then North, then South, and with each turn, Manuel blew a long, echoing note into a conch shell. As the fire burned down to ashes after an hour or so, students shared reflections with one another about their experience in the Voces y Manos program. Several of the older students welcomed younger students into the program, and mentioned that they were grateful to Fundación Nueva Esperanza and Voces y Manos for the learning opportunities these organizations had provided them. This was the younger group of students’ official welcome into the Voces y Manos family.

Group Photo at Kajyup

Group Photo at Kajyup

We all thanked Manuel for leading us in the ceremony, then headed down to the the hill to make fruit salad. Each student had brought a piece of fruit to contribute to the salad, and we ended up with a fruit salad that can only be described as epic (quantity as well as quality). It was the perfect way the end the day. We all left the Mayan Ceremony closer and more united as a group than ever before, and ready for the community work to follow in the weeks ahead.

6-eating fruit salad

Fruit Salad Hit the Spot!



Week 2

Voces y Manos works to help youth become leaders that will be able to affect change in their communites over the long-run. A starting point for developing this identify as community leaders is a belief in oneself and one’s community. That’s why Voces y Manos begins by teaching youth to recognize the strengths of their communities long before they start investigating community needs. During week 2, we introduced students to a community-assessment known as Photovoice. The methodology is simple: Students are taught how to take photos using digital cameras. They then draw a map of their community, listing as many strengths as they can think of. Next, students, accompanied by volunteers, travel to their communities to take photographs of the strengths of their community. They then organize these photographs into a presentation about their community.

On Wednesday, students traveled in groups of three or four to their home communities. We (the volunteers) were excited to have the opportunity to see students “in their element”, and the students in turn were excited to show us all about life in their communities.  Students took pictures of a wide range of community strengths, some that would have completely escaped our gaze: a community clinic, women weaving traditional cloths, people walking to work in the fields, kids playing with each other after school, rivers, trees, and people engaged in conversations. It was fun and informative for all of us.


The next day, we worked with students in their school’s small computer lab to select the photos that the students felt best represented their communities. They then wrote descriptions of each photograph, explaining what the photograph demonstrates about their community, why it is an important strength, and how they might be able to use that strength to help improve the community projects they will eventually develop.

Prep FotoVoz

Finally, we introduced students to PowerPoint, a computer program that was new to most of the students.  But the students were quick learners, and they quickly learned to copy paste their photos and descriptions into Powerpoint slides. We ended the week with students presenting PowerPoint presentations to one another that documented the entire process. Students thrived as they had the opportunity to share the many strengths of their communities.