BUILD forum joins Tufts and Guatemalan communities

Jenny White, The Tufts Daily
Published February 9, 2010

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The “No Alcanza: Voices from Guatemala’s Enduring Search for Peace” forum spotlighting Guatemalans’ social and economic challenges brought together people from Tufts and Santa Anita la Unión, Guatemala, in a tangible symbol of the two communities’ interconnectedness.

The three?day forum was hosted over the weekend by the Institute for Global Leadership’s (IGL) BUILD Guatemala program, an entirely student?run program focusing on sustainable development, which has since 2008 been working with the rural Guatemalan town and its small coffee cooperative to improve the local community.

The town is composed mainly of resettled guerilla combatants and refugees from a 36?year civil war. Like most parts of the Central American country, it has been struggling with the sociopolitical aftereffects of the civil war since it ended in 1996.

The forum’s title, “No Alcanza,” which literally means, “it is not enough,” was taken from a phrase commonly used by the people in Santa Anita to express their frustration with the general state of the country.

BUILD members designed the forum as a means of uniting the Tufts and greater Boston communities with members of Santa Anita, partners of the Santa Anita coffee cooperative and scholars with expertise on Guatemala.

“We wanted to raise awareness,” sophomore Sasha deBeausset, BUILD co?director, said. “Beyond that, it was important for people to see that the issues that Guatemala faces are inherently connected to what we do at Tufts and in Boston.”

DeBeausset mentioned as an example that daily choices made in the United States can impact people in seemingly distant communities.

She pointed out that U.S. citizens’ opinions on immigration policy and consumers’ decisions on whether to buy imported commodities like coffee are intertwined with the lives of the people in Santa Anita.

BUILD Co?Director Mike Niconchuk, a junior, said that a key goal of the forum was helping people realize their ability to impact Guatemala.

“We want people to care about a country that they can have an effect on,” Niconchuk said. This was a goal especially because Guatemala is “an oft?neglected country even though it is so close to the [United States].”

Playing a significant role in achieving this was a panel featuring Santa Anita community members. Dry eyes were few and far between during the Guatemalans’ discussion of their personal experiences during the civil war, according to Niconchuk.

DeBeausset agreed that hearing from community members themselves had a powerful impact on audiences.

“Putting a face to the people we are working with was very important,” she said.

Complications arose when the Guatemalan Ambassador to the United States, Francisco Villagran de León, who was scheduled to speak on Saturday, was stuck in Washington D.C. due to snow.

Organizers managed to arrange for a video conference, in which de León discussed Guatemala’s growing problems with gangs and narco?trafficking.

He stressed, however, that the current Guatemalan government under President Alvaro Colom is better poised than any previous regime to initiate positive social changes.

“The government is taking steps toward strengthening its administration of justice and improving security,” de León said. “Over poverty, lack of health and education … the major concern of Guatemalans is security.”

The forum consisted largely of panels, including talks on the sociopolitical state of Guatemala by academics, discussions on the meaning of fair trade in a global market by coffee?roasting companies, and sharing of insights on Santa Anita by its inhabitants and BUILD team members.

Forum attendees had the opportunity to view Guatemalan artwork and photographs from previous BUILD missions in Santa Anita. They could also enjoy complimentary Santa Anita coffee provided by roasting companies Just Coffee Cooperative and Dean’s Beans, the cooperative’s partners.

With over 100 people from a variety of groups purchasing passes to the forum, BUILD organizers felt that their goals for the event had been achieved. Attendees included students, professors and Guatemalan expatriates from the Boston area.

Niconchuk credited the people of Santa Anita for the event’s success. Associate Director of the IGL Heather Barry at the event’s conclusion also recognized the commitment and efforts of the students on the BUILD team.

The BUILD students’ professionalism was evident to guests, including the representatives from Just Coffee Cooperative, which was a sponsor for the forum and is the primary partner and purchaser of the Santa Anita cooperative’s coffee.

“We’re very inspired by [BUILD’s] work,” Co?Founder of Just Coffee Cooperative Matt Earley said. “They’re the most impressive student group we’ve seen, but also maybe the most impressive group who is doing the kind of development work they’re doing.”

Organizers said that putting together the forum was a challenge. According to Niconchuk, the forum had to be proposed and be in the works by June 2009.

DeBeausset added that arranging for Santa Anita residents to get to Medford, specifically, acquiring their visas, was also difficult.

However, forum participants felt hearing from the speakers personally was a worthwhile and moving experience.

“Talking to the people in Santa Anita, you realize that what they want for their families and themselves is exactly what we want for our families and ourselves,” Earley said. A conversation with them, he said, “is an experience that changes you.”

Funding from Tufts, the IGL and local businesses made the forum possible.