Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The free university and community radio - or, still crazy after all these years

It was a very exciting weekend in Xela, in terms of the exchange of ideas with my dear friends and comrades. I didn't get to do everything I had dreamed or planned: I'd wanted to check out the new locale of the gay discotheque but didn't; plans to gather with the compañeros and have a few drinks to celebrate surviving the rain and our friendship did not materialize (mostly because of the rain), and so we did not touch the half-gallon of kuxa that I brought with me. Instead, I spent Saturday night  curled up on a sofa in Humberto's house reading.

But we have come up so many wonderful and crazy schemes, that I am both extremely energized, but also a little worried that they might take over my life. So, here's a pledge and a plea: I think I have my plate full. I now have about 4 projects in Guatemala, and that's going to have to be it for a while. These are my activist projects, not my research (although the first two are related to my research). I will detail, later on,what they are (in very brief, they are: (1) community radio, (2) continuing to work with the two Maya women who were candidates, (3) putting together a cooperative to buy land and set up an organic farm, (4) the "free university" -- discussed in this blog entry). But I cannot take on anything more of substance. And so you, my friends who read this, have permission to smack me upside the head, recommend that I enter a 12-step program, or otherwise intervene if I start to talk about yet ANOTHER project in Guatemala. Okay?

My original reason for going to Xela this weekend was that two friends had proposed doing a "diplomado" (which means a kind of specialized training course, at the end of which you get some kind of certificate or diploma) on sexual diversity. I am not an expert on this, but I had been very inspired, to put it mildly, by the sexual diversity movement in Xela and a few weeks ago, the weekend I came to Xela to do the Rosh Hashonah dinner with my friends here, I also did an interview with some of the members of IDSO (Iniciativa para la Diversidad Sexual de Occidente)  Quetzaltenango. The name means Initiative for Sexual Diversity in the West -- meaning in the western part of Guatemala, not "the West".

My friend JT, a pastor who has worked with the sexual diversity movement, and Humberto, who was the person who had told me about the June 11 march in the first place, had gotten together after my departure on that Rosh Hashonah weekend, and started to talk about this, and so Humberto had called me and I said I'd come to Xela again and we could talk. It's a little over two hours away if I go via Totonicapán, and I've gotten to feel very comfortable crashing at Humberto's house. His daughter has become very fond of me, and the family is so easy going that I feel right at home (and they have let me know that I am always welcome -- even after I used nearly every pot in the kitchen).  And there are the added attractions of buying the incomparably light and just-salty-enough foccaccia at Xelapan (a chain of bakeries/restaurants that I discovered once when Jeanet and I had to go pick up equipment for the radio), and getting some truly yummy pupusas at Pupusawa. I make cheese pupusas about once a week, but my stove doesn't get very hot and I am still not good at patting them out as thin as I like them, so while the ones I make are quite tasty, they pale by comparison to the ones at Pupusawa.

There had been nearly constant rain for most of the week, including major landslides, mudslides, highway collapses, flooding and deaths from all of the above, so I decided not to drive to Xela on Friday afternoon (that was my original plan). I didn't get myself moving very early on Saturday either, but left around 10:30. One idea had been to try and get to San Marcos, which is about 40 minutes away from Xela, to meet someone from the radio station there. That would have been fairly easy if I had gone to Xela on Friday, but squeezing that in before a 1 p.m. meeting in Xela would have meant leaving pretty early. I've been fighting off a cold for several days, and although I was sad to learn that I had missed an opportunity to hang out with my buddies on Friday night; several of them had gathered to drink and eat together.  But it's probably better for my health in the long term that I stayed here and got some rest and left in the morning. I had called Provial, the agency responsible for roads, and found out that the highway that goes via Totonicapan (it probably has a number but I've never seen a sign along the road saying what it is, and everyone just refers to it as "the highway that goes from Quiché to Toto") was passable.

The drive gave me ample opportunity to ponder about the wild and sometimes nearly harsh beauty of the country, the isolation of rural communities (the road I travel has very little traffic most of the time, which means I have a lot of time to meditate), and the stupidity and corruption of the government, and the poor planning that goes into making the highways. There were a lot of small landslides all along the road; most of them nothing to write home about. Just a tree or two, a couple of bushels of dirt and gravel, spreading across the road. But there is one part of the road that curves around a steep ravine, and there was a very substantial landslide/avalanche. There was an earthmover out, and some trucks and so traffic (such as it was) was stopped while we waited for the trucks and plows to clear away part of the debris so we could pass through.  There is one section just beyond this landslide, about 25-30 feet, where one lane of the highway has collapsed; it's been that way since I started using this road a few weeks ago, so I don't know when that happened.

I picked Humberto up and went to JT's house and then they started to lay out their plans. The diplomado was just a precursor to something bigger and more ambitious. They wanted to start a "free university", a place that would offer a kind of education that was not available at institutions of higher learning in Guatemala. According to them, most universities have fairly rigid curricula and most instructors have fairly rigid approaches to pedagogy. They do not promote critical thinking and multiple points of view and debate. Also, there are people who cannot afford to go to school. So their idea was to start something that would appeal to those who want something more provocative and broad-minded than what is served up in universities, and that would also appeal to young people who are not currently studying.

As we nibbled on tortilla chips and cuchifritos and platanos maduros (yeah, it was basically all grease and starch), punctuated with sips of Flor de Caña and seltzer, I told them about my background with the New York Marxist School/Brecht Forum and the kind of alternative space we had created over the past thirty-five years, and also about my approach to pedagogy in the university context, which is to resist giving students easy answers but encourage/push them to do their own explorations.  Almost simultaneously, JT mentioned popular education and I mentioned Paolo Freire. So JT went to his massive bookshelves and pulled out a stack of Freire's books, and we started leafing through them and talking about how we could implement these approaches. JT mentioned his experiences doing literacy work in Nicaragua during the Sandinista struggle, and we sort of recharged ourselves. They talked about who could be brought in as collaborators and allies, and who would be the target audiences as potential students. Initially we would reach out to IDSO Quetzaltenango, the sexual diversity organization, Radio Doble Via (which is run by young people) and one other organization, to set up the first diplomado. We discussed timing: without being too immodest, I said I thought it would be worthwhile to take advantage of the fact that I was in the country and start it before I left, so that would mean November or December. I mentioned that I was already coming to Xela on December 1 for the first anniversary of IDSO, and that they had asked me to give a talk about the gay rights movement in the U.S., so that could be a starting point.

I made a suggestion that we reformulate the first diplomado as being about gender and sexuality (and within that we could talk about sexual diversity) to make it more broadly appealing to people beyond the sexual diversity community (I was thinking specifically about how to appeal to more women).  We also discussed how we could give people some certification or actual diploma for completing the course (or future courses) so that it would seem as though it were a worthwhile investment of their time. So, they are going to start talking with collaborators and audiences over the next week. According to them, it would be possible to establish this as a private accredited institution through the Ministry of Education ( I guess licensing rules for private establishments are pretty flexible), so this could become an actual alternative school that grant degrees of some sort.

We also talked about how to connect the free university with the work we do in community radio. I suggested that one of the projects could be setting up a community history archive, so that students could do oral histories of people, especially older people, in their communities -- a way preserving and transmitting cultural histories and traditions, and also gathering some of the untold stories of the armed conflict. This could be a "for credit" project for a class, but also something independent. I got very excited about this, because I think it could be fundable. I was thinking about the Firefox projects in Appalachia (and tried to explain to them the ways in which Appalachia is the "third world" of the United States, very much like the cultural/economic position that the altiplano occupies in relationship to the rest of Guatemala). I was also thinking about the work that my friend Susan Perlstein has done with the group she founded, Elders Share the Arts, that links young people with elders in their communities, to gather stories and experiences and turn them into art.

Then, the next morning, I went out for a long, leisurely breakfast with my friend JLR -- a good friend of both Humberto and J and part of my little "posse" in Xela. I had hoped that he would be able to come over to Humberto's on Saturday and hang out (and help work on the kuxa), but the rain made it impossible since he has a motorcycle, not a car. Over eggs, fresh bread, fresh-squeezed orange juice and the strongest regular coffee I have ever been served in Guatemala, I mentioned the free university idea to him (even though he wasn't part of the initial planning group, since we are all good friends and comrades, I thought he would find it interesting). He mentioned that on Friday night, he and Humberto and BC, another member of our posse, had been talking about establishing a community radio station in Olintepeque, a small town near Xela, which is where JL lives and where he and BC grew up. I suggested that we should think about ways to connect the free university with this possible new radio station, and perhaps try to raise funds for them together.

The next step is to draft a brief proposal, and meet to sketch out a work plan, and then start raising some money.  I think my role in all this will be to send out reminders, try and push and prod the process along, and also look for money -- probably through Kickstarter, some kind of direct appeal via the internet, and some proposals to foundations (any of you out there reading this, if you have ideas, please send them along!)

Another little piece of this is a conversation I had with BC a couple of weeks ago, in which he suggested that we should try and arrange for someone from the community radio movement -- one of the established stations, that is -- to visit the United States. He said that he had had good luck in helping people get visas (and I mentioned that I had been successful in arranging a few visas through the university). The main obstacle would be raising money for this, and figuring out where the person would go. My idea was to find universities with good radio stations, located in areas that are either near good community radio stations, or near Guatemalan immigrant communities. That way, the university could pay the person to give a talk or a workshop, and then he or she would be near areas where we would want him/her to visit (since community radio stations would not likely have the resources to bring someone from Guatemala). I spoke to a friend who has been working in Guatemala for many years, who lives in western Massachusetts, who got very excited about this, so hopefully we will be able to make this happen.

So, this seemed to be one of those cosmic convergences: all these separate lines overlap and intersect, it seems, in interesting ways, and hopefully we can weave or braid them together into something durable. -And I have my plate full for, oh, let's say, the next five years, at least.  This brings together so many of my interests (media, community work, education), and I started to spin out possible connections -- with the Brecht, with my university, with old comrades from the Alliance for Cultural Democracy and other groups who know a lot more about media and community radio in the U.S. than I do....

Hence the plea at the beginning of this blog: remind me that I have enough work in Guatemala to keep me busy for a long, long time... and I should be wary of making any further commitments. But meanwhile, I am very charged up with all of this good energy -- and it looks like Xela will be one of my bases when I come back here next year.  All good; I love the city, I love my friends there, and then there's the added benefit of having unfettered access to those fluffy foccaccias and melt-in-your-mouth pupusas. Órale!

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