Writing and photos by Jonathan Timm
For the past month and a half, I've found myself in Peru. After saving my money during the past academic year, I found a volunteering-abroad program that would help me find a place to volunteer and a host family to stay with in Trujillo, Peru, for the entire month of June. However, I scheduled my return ticket for the first week of August with no plans for the month of July. My intention in being here is, for one, to improve my practical Spanish speaking abilities. Though I've had plenty of experience in American classes, it's an entirely different thing to converse with native speakers, and it's something I will need to continue to practice if I ever want to become ''fluent.'' For another, I wanted to live and work amongst people who share an entirely different background than my own. Having never spent any substantial amount of time outside of the United States or lived outside of the safeguards of white-male-cisgendered-upper-class-''Christian''-American privilege, this has been an insightful and sometimes eye-opening experience.
While I was in Trujillo
, I worked in an elementary school. My job consisted of many odd jobs and sporadically assigned tasks, but I also taught English twice a week. Having no experience with kids or any formal teaching training, this was a very challenging experience. Classroom control and effective teaching prove to be even more difficult when there's a language barrier. More interesting was when my politics and ideals were contrasted with practical dilemmas. For example, the students at the school usually were assigned their sports and activities according to gender. Boys always played soccer and girls always played volleyball. So when we realized that we had an opportunity to mix genders and illustrate other possibilities of play, the correct course of action became unclear. As I wrote in a blog I've been writing in since coming here
...I am caught in a somewhat awkward position between my radically leftist views, reinforced by my highly privileged education, and the desire not to paternalistically impose my views on others. I believe, amongst far more radical views, that gender is socially constructed and that rigid gender dichotomies are harmful. I have no doubt that many girls suffer from their squelched desire to play soccer and that many boys suffer from bottling up interests that may paint them as ''feminine.'' [....] At the same time, I believe that considering myself both qualified and obligated to impose my views on others, especially in this situation, is problematic. What comes to light is the seemingly cliche conflict between moral convictions and relativism -- or maybe moral convictions and anti-paternalism. I'm not going to volunteer at a Peruvian public school for a month, or possibly two, and change it into my ideal elementary school. But how should I deal with this conflict on a practical level? [....] How aggressively and frequently should Julia, Camille, and I [the other volunteers] transgress the norms of the schools' activities in ways that challenge the kids' conceptions of gender -- or any other issue?
While working at that school, I ran into issues like this frequently. It can be easy to formulate radical views and critiques of the various manifestations of oppression, for example, but like bringing your Spanish skills to the world of native speakers, application proves to be a totally different ballgame. In work that reaches across the lines of privilege and especially across cultures, one has to be especially careful not to be paternalistic, imperialistic, or judgmental.
Now I volunteer for an organization in Ollantaytambo
, a small town in the mountains of southern Peru. So far, I've been teaching computer classes to adults, and I'm scrambling to find more to do with my excess of free time. Last night, I went with the organization's program director to meet with a group of 48 women who occupied a piece of land and are trying to start an agricultural cooperative. I may be able to help them come up with a 3 year plan and budget, if my Spanish allows. Until I return, I'm simply mulling along, trying to be as useful as I can while learning as much as I can. I'm face-to-face with the privilege that divides me from the people I work with every day, and with the fact that there's no easy solution to any given social problem. But if my goal is to change something, somewhere, for the better of a large group of people including me, getting my feet wet in some sort of global-activism seems to be a good start.