What is success after three months on-site in Green River?
A municipio of 88,000 situated in the Zona Media of San Luis Potosi, it is a pueblo caught in-between: between the bustling capital and the lush Huesteca; between 263 rural ejido communities and the bourgeois urban center; between dependency on their government and the US. One young campesino I met in an early foro in El Capulin community told us Peace Corps Volunteers that if he didn’t get the muni’s help (apoyo para el campo) to make the land workable again, he was going back to Estados Unidos. A threat, a Plan B, a reality.
This new Consejo de Sustentabilidad Rioverde, with whom I’ve been assigned to work, seems sandwiched in-between too. Citizens representing each of six sectors (ecologia, agricultura, emprezas, academia, social y gobierno), they’ve been selected by the mayor’s office to serve as a much-needed link between the Government and the People. They’ve been sworn-in in Cabildo, and are tasked with setting the standard for sustainability in the municipality, encouraging and creating development projects that “meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (Bruntland Commission, Rio Accords, 1987)
This is not small order – especially given the fact that it’s an all-volunteer board, and they’ve been given no budget or official authority or ability to raise and manage funds of their own.
So what is success for them?
As a Peace Corps volunteer doing the work of development, I am meant to create sustainable projects – changes that outlast my two-year term of service. And with this board that has sustainability in its name, it seems obvious, our work together should create an organization and initiative that outlives them too. Having a coincidence of intentions is a pretty good place to start.
So I set out to formulate our ‘primera meta’ and present this to the Consejo at our first meeting:
Crear un Consejo de Sustentabilidad eficaz y eficiente, con una misión, visión y papeles claros, con un proceso colaborativa, y con herramientas y conocimiento para continuar y crecer Agenda 21 para el largo plazo.
In other words (borrowing from one my heroes), be the sustainability we hope to create in Rioverde.
I’m tapping into my 15 years of organization development consulting experience, using my SeeChange participatory tools to create something concrete the group can react to, revise, buy-into. But instead, I hear doubts – conversation swirling around the table and going nowhere – caught between hopes for change in their pueblo, a sustainable future for their children, a government that’s participatory and transparent…and their complaints about the system, the impossibility of their task, ni modo refrains that fill the time and space and keep them sandwiched comfortably in the status quo.
I want them to discuss this first goal, believe in it, and move forward as a team to realize it. But that’s not happening. They’re avoiding it, looking outward, not inward, going off in their own directions, forgetting their aspiration to be a ‘different kind of Consejo.’
And I feel the frustration building, my own gringa desires for progress and productivity butting up against reality, my ‘just do it’ cultural programming butting up against mañana. After a couple weeks of this ‘going nowhere,’ I begin to question myself, my approach, my work with the Consejo and my reason for being here in Rioverde (maybe my energy would be better spent with la gente in the Campo), even my decision to join the Peace Corps and come to Mexico in the first place!
Luckily I recognize this is what the Buddhist’s call dukkha – the worry, doubt, second-guessing, and piling-on we do when things aren’t going how we planned. So I take a step back, breathe, take some time from the business of planning and doing and reacting to investigate my own role in the process – how my own desires for change and to have an impact might be effecting them.
Perhaps this pause and reflection is my first small ‘success.’ Because suddenly from this distance, my lens focusing in, I see: They are at the very beginning of their change journey. And so am I!
I pull out my handy Human Change Curve to remind myself – it’s a process. And the first stage is Denial – not just a river in Egypt – but a time when things are so new it’s easy to pretend they’re aren’t – to just float along like nothing’s changed and nothing’s going to. And this can be a dangerous place to get stuck because, in fact, it will prevent evolution. For the Consejo and me, it will block any hope for work together on the path toward a sustainable Rioverde – and realizing our own personal dreams.
So what is needed to get past Denial? Information.
The truth is the Consejo members don’t really know me, don’t yet trust me. Why should they? New to Mexico, to Rioverde, an outsider, here in my sitio less than two months – learning and improving as fast as I can, but still fumbling with their language, the customs, still adjusting to the extreme temperatures and the Vitamina T intake, tacos, tamales, tostadas, tortas, tamborcitos, experiencing periodic bouts of Montezuma’s revenge – and discovering the inner workings of the bureaucracy, the players, their challenges and agendas.
I need to share with the Consejo information about who I am, my background and experience as an entrepreneur, my life and interests, my hopes and fears, my ideas about participation and innovation, why I am here in their country – why I left the comforts of Washington DC and my established consulting life…for something bigger than me. Ah, and for the Comida Mexicana!
Most important (and difficult), I realize I need to let go of my game plan altogether. Perhaps the Consejo wants or even needs to work on its own, confronting their challenges, making their own discoveries, experiencing possible successes, even failure – without my involvement. This is not a comfortable realization to make. I hear the little voice inside me saying: It’s not fair, I came to help. And I find myself quickly concocting Plan B and C – how to make my life meaningful, myself useful, in the Peace Corps.
But I move forward, with my PCV partner, to hold a special meeting of the Consejo, presenting our experience and ideas and outlining the process of capacity-building and planning – and then letting go. Asking if they are in agreement to involve us – explaining it’s their decision: we cannot be effective unless they are open and ready to learn and share with us.
We go around the table then, sure to hear every voice – what are their desires, thoughts, concerns? And one by one, I hear agreement: yes they do want and need the help – several of them say, in fact, they joined this Consejo in order to learn and create a new model.
I am relieved, in truth. And beneath the agreement, I hear Resistance: impatience from a few voices, ‘vamos adalente’. We don’t want to waste time. We are busy. And tiny complaints: do we have to make it a weekend retreat? Even sarcasm: Look, we are not Americans. We are not going to applaud the idea.
Okay, fair enough.
But perhaps, nevertheless, a tiny victory. Moving out of the muddy Denial stage into wilds of Resistance is progress; certainly something to include on the Success Story page of my first trimester report.
And now, with this acuerdo, I don’t have to explore a Peace Corps Plan B – at least for now. I can dive into preparing a survey of the Consejo and creating the best teambuilding workshop I can – bringing all my experience, skills, tools, energy, even love, to the table – putting all of that into the PowerPoints and translations and participatory exercises – then letting go of the result.
Ojala…I’ll have (even) more ‘small success’ to report next quarter.