Addressing Guatemala’s Educational Crisis
|Students sing a school hymn "Paz, Queremos Paz," or "Peace, We Want Peace" at an assembly. Photo by John Abernathy, Abernathy Photography|
WATCH: a video of the Asturias Academy.
I interned under Fran Korten, Executive Director of YES! Magazine, in the summer of 2004, and continue to turn to her for mentorship and guidance. During my senior year of college, seeking to discern my next steps, I asked Fran for advice. Fran encouraged me to live and work on the grassroots level with people from the Global South. "There are lessons you need to learn that you won’t be able to get any other way," she said.
Fran’s advice helped guide me to my present position at the Asturias Academy, an innovative nonprofit school in Guatemala serving some of the country’s most marginalized children. Like my time at YES!, I am working under excellent leadership, and I am daily presented with opportunities to serve and grow.
Guatemala’s educational needs are complex. Fewer than three in ten Guatemalan children finish the sixth grade, and Guatemala is only ranked above Nicaragua and Haiti in terms of literacy rates in Latin America.The country’s public schools are overcrowded, under-funded, and using archaic teaching methods. Private schools, the supposed alternative, are too expensive for Guatemala’s poor majority.
The country’s education deficit is rooted in a highly stratified social structure, which itself is a legacy of Spanish Conquest and Colonialism. Class interests are so divergent in Guatemala that elites privately procure goods such as education and security and refuse to invest in them on the public level.The result is extremely low government social spending. In fact, Guatemala ranks first in the entire world in the “Freedom from Government” category of the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom.
The Miguel Angel Asturias Academy for which I work offers a model for reforming Guatemala’s education system. Scholarships and low general tuition rates make the Academy accessible to even the poorest families. The curriculum combines strong academic fundamentals with training in leadership and human rights issues. The Academy’s Popular Education pedagogy strives to elicit the pupil’s curiosity and gestate an awareness of the reality in which the student lives. A recent alliance with a vocational school has also opened the door to job training for older students at the Academy.
As the Academy’s Development and Volunteer Coordinator, my job has been to develop a reliable and growing stream of resources for the project, thus bringing the Academy closer to its goal of replicating into other communities in Guatemala. To this end, I have built the Academy’s fundraising infrastructure and raised sufficient funds to cover the 2008 school year and purchase a full computer lab. I have also organized a three week U.S. speaking tour for the project’s director and myself, and built a sustainable volunteer program. The 23 volunteers that I have managed have taught courses such as Theatre, Art, and English, and worked with me on administrative projects such as the construction of a website.
I see the Academy as a subtle, profound, nonviolent revolution. Instead of sexism, I witness male and female students learning together in math and cooking classes. Instead of racism, I see indigenous and non-indigenous children playing together. The line between the very poor students and those better off is made indistinguishable by their shared school experience and common uniform. Justice and peace are proclaimed throughout the curriculum, and students are trained to live those values as they engage the many social problems facing their communities.
Fran was right that this experience was going to teach me lessons that I needed to learn. I have come to appreciate the importance of local knowledge in change-making, and have forged relationships that are deeply value to me. The experience has affirmed for me my commitment to promoting human development, and also made me cynical to outsider-initiated international development projects. A good first step for us as foreigners wanting to help is to “be with” instead of “do for.” Bit by bit, the community will reveal to us the nuanced cultural landscape in which we are operating and which we will never fully know. A good second step is to identify local people doing good work and ask them how we can support their efforts. Living and working in Guatemala and sincerely connecting with the country’s people has been a challenging, beautiful opportunity for which I am grateful.
With a degree in International Development and minors in Spanish and World Religions, Ryan Richards has sought continued transformation through international experience. Years of asking “How can I help?” brought him to intern at YES! Magazine in 2004 and later, to his present position as Development and Volunteer Coordinator at the Asturias Academy in Guatemala. Ryan plans to enroll in a masters program in social entrepreneurship in the fall and eventually establish Donor Smart, an organization that will support local change agents by reducing the barriers that come between good grassroots projects and potential donors.
 Guatemala: Overview United States Agency for International Development and Human Development Reports, United Nations Development Program
 What the Rich Don’t Tell the Poor. Roman Krznaric, awaiting publication, 2008.
 Index of Economic Freedom. Heritage Foundation, 2008.
The above storyaccompanies the March 2008 YES! Education Connection Newsletter
That means, we rely on support from our readers.
Independent. Nonprofit. Subscriber-supported.