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Taking a Step Back to Power Sustainable Change

I started working with primarily indigenous communities in my early 20’s, and now, in my early 30’s, I’ve been lucky enough to do this kind of work across Australia (my home country), the Republic of Kiribati (definitely worth a Google), and Guatemala (where I currently call home). I was recently asked to give an online guest lecture to a Social Work class at the University of Potsdam, Germany, with a focus on ‘international and intercultural contexts of community development work’. The professor told me that the students were excited to hear about international experiences in far off places – an excitement surely heightened given the current COVID lockdowns – and were particularly curious to hear about the nuances and distinctions that I’ve encountered working with different communities in what are very distinct parts of the world.

“Sure,” I thought, and went about reflecting on my experiences with this guiding framework in mind. But, from the very outset, I struggled. Of course, the cultural traditions and nuances in each community I’ve worked with are completely unique, but it quickly became obvious that the theme that kept naturally weaving itself into my narrative was not an expose on the differences between these culturally rich and diverse communities across the globe, but the similarities that consistently shine through for me as a community development worker, in spite of those differences.

I should take a step back and explain that my approach when working with communities has developed over the years into that of taking a passenger seat role in project development and execution; with my key goals being to build trust, form friendships, and eventually make myself obsolete to the project.

Yes, I realize that this might sound a little odd, even bordering on unhelpful, and trust me it is often understandably a little difficult to explain – especially to communities that have had countless experiences of outside ‘professionals’ arriving with promises of answers and solutions to all of the often wicked, systemic, generational problems that they face. And then I arrive – intentionally with no answers, no solutions, and no promises. But this is the approach that I have found most effective across communities/countries/continents in order to encourage two key guiding principles of community development work that all of us in the sector hold close to our hearts: empowerment and sustainability.

And it is these two guiding principles of my work, along with the goals of building not just professional but personal relationships (aka friendships), and eventually making myself obsolete, that tend to be met with similar reactions across cultural, linguistic, and geographical boundaries.

The similarities across cultures, to which I refer, are as simple as a chain reaction. It begins with the building of trust; develops into greater interpersonal and individual confidence within the community; this leads to action, then oftentimes failure and honest discussion; is followed by iteration; and ultimately results in those north-star goals of empowerment and sustainability, not just for the project at hand, but – I hope – for projects within the community as a whole.

For me, it is these similarities, reinforced by the simple and beautiful commonalities of humanity, that strike me in a far more profound way than the cultural differences between communities. Basically, my experiences have taught me that:

1. If you come into a community listening, learning, and being truly open; communities the world over will share, teach, and welcome you.

2. If you take a step back from the expected ‘leader’ role in a community development project; communities and community leaders will step up, take the wheel and steer towards where the community truly needs to go (with some bumps in the road of course).

At the end of the day communities must always be in the driver’s seat from the outset of any project; guiding the route, making the key decisions, making the key errors, and ultimately taking responsibility for all of the above. I know this may sound obvious, but it can be a surprisingly uncommon approach in community development projects.

Don’t think for a second that being in the passenger’s seat is an easy task. I’m not talking about taking on the indulgent role of ‘back seat driver’, but rather the trusted friend who’s upfront with you, keeping everyone awake and concentrating on the road by spurring on interesting conversations and pertinent questions, helping with directions as needed, but never taking over the wheel.

Normally at this time of year, for the past two years at least, I have packed a few key possessions into a backpack and, accompanied by about 10 university students, traveled hours in bumpy mini-vans to communities in rural Guatemala. This ritual is otherwise known as Social Entrepreneur Corps (SEC) – an intensive, summer-long internship and cultural immersion program aimed at fostering cross-cultural understanding and empathy in participants, whilst providing them with the opportunity to gain professional experience working on community projects in rural Guatemala.

I love watching the changes that inevitably occur in students over the 8 weeks of living with local families, learning about local challenges, and pushing aside personal biases and assumptions to make way for the rapidly opening mind and shift in perspective that inevitably occurs.

This year, we’ve had to do things a little differently with Virtual SEC; although I haven’t gotten to don my hiking boots, through video calls and email exchanges with local organizational partners and community members, I have gotten to help plant the seeds of those same changes and both personal and professional developments are most certainly taking root.

Through SEC – and now VSEC – and the community projects that students consult on, we aim to embed these values of empowerment and sustainability into the very core and foundations of tomorrow's changemakers. Embed an understanding that bringing about positive change often means being a friend not a driver. Embed an understanding that when we share common values of respect and admiration, we all are empowered to build a better world.


Engage Further

-  Social Entrepreneur Corps offers experiences for those looking to volunteer cross-culturally, in Ecuador and Guatemala. They offer 2.5-week, 8-week, and year-round internships and even include Spanish lessons to supplement volunteer learning. To learn more about opportunities through SEC, check out their website here.


About the Author

Katie Brickwood is a semi-nomadic Aussie who has spent most of her adult life exploring different corners of the globe. She is an eager traveler who thrives on stepping outside of her comfort zone and learning from meaningful cross-cultural connections. Katie is passionate about social justice and the role of experiential learning in promoting empathy and combating racism. 

Currently residing in Guatemala, when she's not getting high on local coffee beans she can usually be found hiking up a volcano.

For more of Katie's work, check out her writer's page.

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