In college I learned about community development from a professor who was both a genius and socially awkward. During an eclectic semester of visits to local churches, bowling alleys, skating rinks and even the Moose Lodge, he taught me to listen to what people talk about, the words they use, and to identify patterns to discern what is most important to them. I now do this unconsciously wherever I am.
For example, the last time I was in Seattle on a speaking trip I talked to a lot of people in many different settings and could see clearly that a common concern was being priced out of their own city by newcomer Millenials brought in by Amazon and Facebook who were willing to pay exorbitant rent. It was fall, so I could also see the only thing ALL Seattleites seemed to love unreservedly was Seahawks football. A friend of mine said,
“If you could find a way to link the work you do in Nicaragua to the Seahawks, then people would be passionate about it.”
This example seems silly, but there is something to be said for linking people’s natural passions to important social justice work. Doing this is often not possible, but sometimes it happens by accident.
When our Clinic health promoter Jessenia and I started Las Lobas, the group for teenage girls, we saw it as a necessary step to prevent teen pregnancy – we did it because we saw all the pregnant girls coming into the new mothers program, and it seemed stupid not to at least try to postpone pregnancy for the next round of girls. We didn’t start because we had a plan, or support for a program, or even knew what we were doing, we just started. Two and a half years later, we still have a steady group, not just of Las Lobas, but of their followers.
“I love hearing about the Lobas,” women will almost whisper to me when they see me – it’s the most common comment female friends and supporters will make to me about our work.
“¿Cómo te va con tus muchachas?”female community members and coworkers will ask. The work with Las Lobas – basically just loving and understanding some girls who’ve had a very hard time of it and trying to help set them on the right path – seems to touch a place deep inside adult women across borders and cultures.
The group has been funded – to pay for craft supplies, outings, snacks – by a woman who gives a monthly donation in honor of her mother, who had a special place in her heart for teenage girls. Women have sent personal hygiene products, craft supplies, messages of encouragement, curricula, suggestions. Of course Jessenia and I spend time discussing the current challenges and successes of each girl together, but other female staff members get in on it, too. Danelia is special friends with one girl who has been a hard nut to crack, Luz Marina dispenses advice and hugs, Fabiola banters with them. Diana has been so interested that she’s followed each of their paths from the sidelines, set up countless educational outings for them, and now has spent two months teaching them to make, cost and sell hair clips.
Wherever Las Lobas go, they receive outpourings of support. As soon as I call up a woman and say, “I’d like to bring a group of girls by, we’re trying to help them see options besides just getting pregnant,” these women invite us in to their homes, workshops, workplaces, schools. They open up in front of the girls talking about their own lives – “I didn’t start school until I was 10.” “All I ever want to do was sew.” “I was one of 15 children.” “I walked to school barefoot.” They give the Lobas things – t-shirts, bags of cloth scraps, purses, candy, whatever they have available. They give advice, “Don’t start your family too early.” “Listen to your mothers.” “Stick with your studies.” “Stay in the program.” And they inevitably wish all of us luck.
For the last two and a half years, I’ve watched as our ragtag group of struggling and sometimes surly girls elicits responses of extreme generosity and empathy from women of all walks of life, and I think, this time, by some stroke of dumb luck, we’ve managed to harness a passion. – Becca