by Molly Friend, Greenheart Outreach Coordinator
Throughout my travels in rural Latin America I could easily be consumed by what was missing, no running water, the need for a longer school day, chickens running inside homes, the list goes on. However when I view a foreign community by all that is missing or what is wrong according to my American view point, this creates a barrier to many things—my integration into a new community and my ability to be a catalyst for sustainable development.
For many teachers and volunteers going abroad into a different culture it is hard to find your place as a respectful, understanding outsider, but even harder as a catalyst for development. You are stuck in a weird situation where you have the drive to create change but not necessarily the understanding of the inner-workings of the community.
The first step for me in making sense of my early experiences abroad was to truly embrace the idea that one culture isn’t better or worse but just different. While this seems very obvious to any open minded person it’s a lot easier said than done. To finally give in to different cultural customs, eating habits and ways of life can be a challenge, however once accomplished it’s a very invigorating feeling.
Something that has taken a bit longer for me to embrace is how to apply this understanding to community development. By this I mean to be truly respectful of how a community operates and how to work within their framework to begin development projects. In developing countries it is especially hard not to see all that is missing in our eyes. Once the shift to viewing the assets, resources and treasures happens this is where sustainable development can truly begin.
Recognizing and utilizing the assets of a community is described in the theory of Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) and it promotes the idea that sustainable development is possible through local assets as the basis for any development. The first step in this methodology is to map the assets or capacity within a community. Find your resources, these may be people with knowledge or materials or physical assets.
I encourage anyone interested in making a positive change in their new community abroad to try this technique—make a map of assets and get feedback from others. The Asset Based Community Development Institute offers several techniques and inventories on how to map a community. From there you will see how women’s cooperatives, after-school groups, and construction projects could or could not be viable sustainable projects for your new community.
And remember Greenheart wants to support you. Have you found a project that will be embraced by the community, that is created out of assets in the community? Apply for a Greenheart Travel Grant for help with funding of the project.