By Carley Tucker, 2016 GU Impacts Student
June 23, 2016
I am pretty sure that most of us are tired of reading the news about the 2016 elections. They are full of anger, distrust, hostility, and societal division. From a quick glance at the headlines of major news sources, it becomes easy to generalize a situation, culture, and country. I studied abroad in Chile last semester, and my Chilean host family and friends often asked if all Americans were crazy. I quickly became frustrated with these questions and wanted to respond, “Of course not!” But as I thought about it more, I realized that it is easy for them to make these assumptions when the news coming out of my country highlights our divisive and fear-filled political system.
While technology makes the world more accessible, it also makes us more susceptible to stereotyping people and cultures. I have been thinking about this a lot during these past couple of weeks. After almost a month in Columbia, I have realized that I had many incorrect preconceived notions about Colombia before I came. While I knew that Bogotá was a safe city, I imagined that the rest of the country had many dangerous areas. While there are sectors that continue to experience fighting, the majority of the country is much more peaceful than it was 10 years ago, and many areas have always been peaceful havens, defying the drug- and violence-filled stereotypes we often associate with Colombia.
My trip to the colonial town of Barichara this past weekend served as a clear example of why preconceived notions should never be taken as fact without research or first hand experience. We took the 6-hour journey to Barichara and arrived at night as a light rain fell. Even in the darkness, I could sense the peaceful and simple beauty of the town. When I woke up the next morning, I was greeted with a vista of whitewashed homes and tan, sunburnt rounded roofs lying amidst bring green hills. Chirping birds and clucking hens added background music to this beautiful view. As I looked out the window, I thought, “I didn’t know a place like this existed in Colombia.” But I immediately felt wrong for thinking this. Why wouldn’t a town look like this in Colombia? Colombia is a big country, and violence does not characterize its every inch.
While I should have done more research on Colombia before coming, this disappointment with myself does make me reflect on these questions: how do we truly learn about a place or topic? And how do we know when we truly understand? These doubts seem especially relevant as interns working for an international NGO. While it is a wonderful opportunity to be able to work in Bogotá, what skills and knowledge can I bring to my work, especially when I know little about the country and its daily challenges and successes? My two GU Impacts cohort peers here in Colombia, Anna and Claire, and I ask these questions a lot. We want to help Avina in its work, but we know we have so much to learn first.
“Listen” and “learn” have been important concepts for me these past 4 weeks, especially as I have gotten to know better my supervisor Bernardo. Bernardo seems to be a renaissance man. In college he studied math and then went on to teach philosophy at a university in Bogotá. He has worked for Avina for 10 years, and although his technical title is Colombia’s program representative, his real job and passion is to be the office’s local philosopher. The first day I met him, we discussed how the model of democracy goes against human nature. This conversation soon turned into a discussion about whether crime and punishment are the same. While many aspects of these conversations became too abstract for my understanding (especially since they were in Spanish), I have learned two important lessons from Bernardo. The first is to always listen, for more often than not others have more understanding than you do. Secondly, always do work that is meaningful for your life. This does not mean that all work must be relevant to your job or academic aspirations but rather should fulfill your life as a person.
These two lessons I have learned from Bernardo have shaped my time in Colombia and Avina so far. When I first arrived, Avina did not have a set project for me. This initially frustrated me because I am used to receiving assignments and deadlines in school. Instead of giving me specific guidelines, Bernardo asked me to reflect on what is important to me and what I want to learn during my time in Colombia. While this presented a more challenging task, he made me think more intentionally about my work and personal interests. I immediately began to wonder about gender equality in Colombia. At Georgetown I have become interested in what can be done to help women gain more economic, social, and political opportunities.
With this initial idea, I developed a project that would further my understanding of gender equality in Colombia. One of Avina’s projects is called Las Escuelas de Desarrollo y Paz (Schools for Peace and Development). It involves going to rural areas of the country and teaching locals about their political rights and helping them develop skills to demand these rights and organize their communities. I will spend the summer researching and writing a document detailing how this program can attract women to the schools and include a gender focus in its curriculum. This project has become important to me not only because it will help Avina’s project, but also because it will hopefully help advance the rights and opportunities for women in these rural regions who face many obstacles and discrimination in education and politics.
While this work is important to me, I still need to remember that I must learn a lot before I make recommendations for Avina. I have spent these past weeks researching gender equality as it relates to development, education, and politics, and soon I hope to conduct interviews with local NGOs and businesses that help advance gender equality, because I know I have a lot to learn from their experiences.
My 4 weeks in Bogotá have challenged and changed my preconceived notions of Colombia. Colombia is a country full of peaceful and scenic areas. Many Colombians have progressive and liberal views about gender identity, and many women are leaders of local community movements. My first-hand experience in Colombia has helped me gain a more truthful and realistic understanding of the country. Since we do not have the ability to travel to every corner of the world, I hope that I can at least shed some light for others on the challenges Colombia faces as well as the warmth and generous personality of Colombians and unique characteristics that make up this beautiful country.
The views, opinions, and positions expressed by the author of this article do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University or any employee thereof.