We are all connected, say the environmental and social scientists: all the organisms and ecosystems on the planet. The truth in this aphorism is impossible to miss when flying over the Belizean coast in an impossibly small eight passenger plane. Below are the blues and greens of Carribbean waters, which blend with briny brown rivers that wind like snakes through green mangrove colonies, into blink-and-you’ll-miss-them coastal communities and beyond into rainforests that blanket the mountainous landscape. Just by looking at the land and seascapes from above, it is clear that collective effort is required for environmental conservation to be successful.
I am here in Punta Gorda, Belize to connect with the six terrestrial, coastal and marine conservation organizations with which ArtCorps works and to participate in Creative Facilitation, the second course in our Creative Leadership Certificate Program. The objective of this course is for participants to develop and practice their creative facilitation skills, gaining fundamental knowledge and confidence to effectively lead their own groups.
The course was a smash hit, with everyone finding ways to communicate more effectively and facilitate activities that elicit empathy, dialogue and a collective vision. And, we connected with each other. Maybe it was because we had to disconnect; we all agreed not to use our cellphones during the course and the country was coincidentally experiencing a nation-wide internet outage. But I think it was mostly because participants were hungry for such connection.
Belize is home to only 200,000 people. And while most conservation leaders already know each other at least by name, they rarely get a chance to identify common challenges and collaborate to uncover possible strategies to address them. The spaces for connection are critical: the complexity of the environmental and social challenges we face require working together to address them. It was inspiring for all of us to be part of an initiative that not only builds critical skills to advance conservation work but also builds connections among champions for a sustainable and healthy planet.
This initiative was sponsored by the New England Biolabs Foundation.
The author Louisa Trackman is ArtCorps’ Development Officer.
Maria discovered her voice and purpose in ArtCorps’ workshops. She now serves on a national committee for community development, applying her leadership and creativity to improve living conditions in rural El Salvador.
In 2013, Maria del Carmen attended the leadership school for rural women leaders (“Escuela Rural”) with 19 other microcredit organizers. The facilitator, ArtCorps Artist Miguel Zepeda Santos, recalls that she was embarrassed to speak in front of the group and only responded to a question when asked directly during the first few months. However, despite her obvious discomfort, she never refused to participate in the creative expression exercises, and her participation gradually improved as she engaged in conversation more often and interacted more with the other women leaders.
One day, she shared that her town planned to form a volunteer committee and that she was thinking about participating. The group encouraged her to be part of this effort, as an opportunity both for personal growth and to serve her community. And she joined.
In our workshops, we continued to work on self-esteem, communication and conflict transformation, using role play and other creative methods. A noticeable shift had taken place in Maria—her shyness was a thing of the past and her ambition to keep learning took the forefront.
The next month, Maria told us that she had been selected as a departmental (state) representative for the rural progress committee she served on. She was chosen based on her communication skills, ability to express herself and strong interest in improving the living conditions of her people. Maria credited the creative leadership workshops with helping her become a better leader for her community, and we congratulated her on the significant progress she had shown.
In our last meeting of the year, as we celebrated the group’s progress, Maria surprised us yet again with remarkable news. This time she had been appointed to the national committee for rural progress.
As part of a collective assessment of our work, Maria gave the following testimonial: “If I had never participated in ArtCorps’ workshops, I would never have discovered my abilities…. Now my public service is recognized by many people. Not only am I a part of the town committee for progress, but I was also elected to represent my district at the state level and, most recently, I have also become our national representative. I meet with public figures and government officials, with the President’s staff, and we come up with projects to benefit [rural communities].”
This project was carried out in collaboration with Servicio Jesuita para el Desarrollo and Oxfam America.
Leaders of women's savings and microcredit groups receive diplomas and promote community service at the Festival for Leaders of Women’s Savings Groups organized by ArtCorps Artist Miguel Zepeda Santos.
Nervous energy reigned at the time of the final preparations. “Miguel, check out how the mural turned out.” “Miguel, we put up these pictures, what do you think?”
The first truck arrived, carrying about 50 participants. They began organizing the chairs and setting up the sound system, while others helped with the welcome banner. In less than 20 minutes, about 300 people arrived, counting girls, boys, women and men.
The program began with the introduction of the participants and a reflection on the work done by the different groups, while dances from young people entertained the audience. During the presentation of diplomas, the women shared their accomplishments, along with the difficulties they encountered and how they have overcome them and the road that lies ahead to achieve even more. One participant stated: “The group and training have helped us in solving group conflicts. We used to wait for someone from Servicio Jesuita para el Desarrollo to come and fix it, but now we can do this for ourselves thanks to the group activities and reflections, which have helped us become more independent and address difficult issues in an atmosphere of dialogue and tolerance.” The ceremony was very emotional, and some participants could not hold back their tears when they received their diplomas.
The representatives from ArtCorps partners Servicio Jesuita para el Desarrollo and Oxfam America noted the pride and active engagement of the leaders and have many questions for them. Some female entrepreneurs made the most of the gathering by selling their products.
The participation of staff from Servicio Jesuita para el Desarrollo and Oxfam America was fundamental to the success of this event. A colleague from another district traveled a day early to the village to help out with anything we needed, and the entire office staff lent a hand from transporting equipment to cleaning up.
A month has passed since the activity took place, and our shared experience is already showing results. It has served as a model for other groups. The festival will be replicated in a nearby village where Servicio Jesuita also works, and other groups of women and youth are planning service projects like the ones that were presented and recognized.
In the words of Rigoberto Bonilla, Program Manager for Servicio Jesuita para el Desarrollo, "I congratulate [all female leaders]; this is a sign of how hard they are working."
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