New Haven/Leon Sister City Project is a progressive, binational, grassroots organization that seeks to promote social justice in Greater New Haven and Leon, Nicaragua. By sending delegations of volunteers from Greater New Haven to the rural community of Goyena, we educate local students and adults about Nicaragua, the second poorest country in the hemisphere. We raise awareness about the history of US government policies in Nicaragua and the present day effects of international economic institutions on the Nicaraguan community. We strive to educate, connect, and empower people in Greater New Haven and Leon to take action for sustainable development and the eradication of poverty. Not only do we build awareness through travel and cultural exchanges, but also we implement grassroots initiatives that address pressing community needs including climate change, hunger and malnutrition, access to education and women’s rights.
New Haven Leon Sister City Project was founded in 1984, at the forefront of a movement of sister city relationships that sprung up between Nicaraguan and US cities throughout the 1980s. At the time the US government was sponsoring a brutal and illegal war against the Nicaraguan government and people. The founding mission of NHLSCP was to enact an alternative form of foreign policy by raising awareness among US citizens about the effects of the war on the people of Nicaragua, and by supporting Nicaraguans in their efforts to create a more just society.Every year, NHLSCP sends dozens of students, teachers, artists, health professionals and other volunteers on delegations to Leon. Like New Haven, Leon is a small, vibrant, close-knit city with a major university and teaching hospital.After Hurricane Mitch in 1998, the municipality of Leon encouraged us to send our delegations to Goyena, a rural area established by displaced people on the outskirts of the city.Goyena faces challenges including a lack of basic government services. The San Antonio sugar cane company owns most of the land and is a major cause of environmental destruction, worker exploitation, disease and death.NHLSCP provides capacity-building for Goyena teachers; nutritional assistance for students; building school infrastructure; funding for after school small-group instruction; and supplementary funding for the public preschool. We support a women's rights program in Goyena that includes forum theater techniques and community organizing to tackle domestic violence. We sponsor an Environmental Youth Brigade that promotes school and home gardens, recycling, and respect for the land. Goyena projects are led by Nicaraguans and advised by the NHLSCP Board and the elected community council of Goyena. The goal is for the community to become self-sufficient.NHLSCP implements grassroots initiatives in Greater New Haven such as the Walk Bike Transit education campaign to raise awareness about climate change, environmental justice, food security, and other issues that affect both Nicaraguan and New Haven communities. We train people in the Greater New Haven area to use forum theater as a tool for social change, and we use cultural and artistic exchanges to build understanding between the two sister communities.Many New Haven residents make modest financial contributions every year that are invested in projects in Goyena. Ninety percent of our funds come from grassroots fundraising.
Like so many people involved in NHLSCP, I've been active in the project for over 25 years. I first traveled to Nicaragua on a Sister City delegation in 1993. My two daughters went on delegations to Nicaragua as high school students. The experience has broadened their vision, increased their understanding of the causes of poverty, and deepened their appreciation of the dignity of all people. Serving the project has certainly enriched my life and, I trust, contributed to a more just life for the people of Leon and Goyena.
One important function of any board is to ensure that programs and activities reflect the mission of the organization. The challenge for NHLSCP is to make sure that our work encourages the community to become self reliant and self actualizing.
Our mission is to promote social justice not charity. While charity has its place, and meeting the immediate needs of people is undoubtedly important, what the NHLSCP aspires to is different. We want to work with people helping them to better help themselves. To that end, we focus on education and youth development, and we also support efforts in community organizing and participatory theater that tackle the root causes of injustice.
In October 2012, another board member, a staff member and I traveled to Leon to meet with our Leon staff and spend time in Goyena. We returned to New Haven filled with renewed hope for the people with whom we work.
Nuvia Quiroz, who is a volunteer facilitator of the Goyena women's group, told us about how she had confronted her neighbor after repeatedly hearing him berate and beat his wife. She took a risk and knocked on his door at 11 o'clock at night because she could no longer remain silent. This was not a spontaneous action -- it was an action that she had rehearsed during forum theater workshops. She had created a play about her inability to confront her neighbor, and she had rehearsed some potential strategies with the women's group, and finally she took action in real life. Now she aims to organize a crisis response team to provide refuge and accompaniment for women who may want to leave an abusive home.
At the same time, in New Haven, immigrant women, mentally ill patients, and youth are creating their own forum theater plays and rehearsing for social change thanks to NHLSCP. While youth in Goyena create theater and video about environmental justice, New Haven residents respond by holding weekly "butterfly swarms" in public spaces to ask local residents to cut their reliance on climate-warming greenhouse gases.
Stories like these motivate me to continue serving the New Haven Leon Sister City Project. We constantly challenge ourselves to listen and provide tools so that people can build healthier, more sustainable communities, locally and globally.
Delegations are groups of volunteers who travel from the New Haven area to live with families in Nicaragua, typically for 7 to 10 days. While in Nicaragua, they learn about the causes of poverty and the US role in Nicargua's history. They work with community members on a project such as repairing school desks or painting a mural in the preschool. Delegations often explore a particular theme based on the interests and skills of the group, for example, delegations of teachers often meet with the Ministry of Education, learn about the challenges facing Nicaraguan teachers and students, and share teaching techniques.
During the next year, at least thirty people from Greater New Haven will travel on delegations and internships to Nicaragua. At least 90% will report increased understanding of how US policies and US lifestyle choices affect the Goyena community. At least 90% will report increased ability to take action on issues of global economic and social justice.
Delegates and interns will return to the United States with an increased understanding of how their lives and choices affect the people of Nicaragua and Latin America. Many will go on to study and work in Latin America or in the fields of sustainable development and human rights. Some will stay involved with the New Haven Leon Sister City Project, volunteering to raise awareness among the Greater New Have community about issues affecting the Nicaragua people, or offering in-kind or financial contributions to support ongoing programs in Nicaragua.
Approximately 1,200 people from Greater New Haven area have participated in delegations over our 29 year history. Delegates and Peace and Justice interns have taught music and theater; built capacity for the after school programs; conducted interviews and surveys on food security; done water studies of the adjacent sugar plantation to determine pesticide contamination; organized sick farmworkers; and more.
After traveling on a delegation last year to learn about the kidney disease epidemic affecting sugar cane workers, two students wrote, "Where do we go from here? What can we, a delegation of eight students, do about this? As we begin to grapple with the overwhelming reality for these Nicaraguan sugar cane workers, we invite you to be part of our discussion. Let's bring this discussion here to New Haven. Let's work together to make our sister city in Nicaragua a safe place to call home." The students were spurred to action after meeting with the association of sick workers, seeing the environmental destruction in Goyena, and meeting with representatives of the US Embassy and USAID in Nicaragua.
Forum theater is an interactive, playful tool that allows a community to identify problems and brainstorm solutions. NHLSCP trains people in Goyena and in Greater New Haven to use forum theater.
We began this program so that people in both Greater New Haven and Goyena could use theater as a tool for social change, awareness raising, and community empowerment. We envision binational exchanges in which residents of New Haven and Goyena will use theater as a tool to communicate across borders about the
issues they face locally and globally.
To that end, we strive to build an active network of forum theater facilitators in the Greater New Haven area who are trained to use this technique. These facilitators will establish forum theater troupes with at-risk populations, in collaboration with agencies that serve at-risk populations, such as youth, homeless, immigrants, former prisoners, etcetera. Forum theater troupes will produce plays to educate the general public about community problems and to engage the public in "rehearsing solutions" onstage.
The Women's Rights Program in Goyena gives rural women a platform to educate one another and come together for the betterment of women, girls, and the community. The long-term goal is that once women build awareness about gender discrimination and violence, they will develop their own initiatives to increase their well-being, such as cooperative income-generating projects; crisis response for women who are victims of violence; action committees to change laws and policies; forum theater plays to raise awareness; and other kinds of trainings to educate children and adults about gender discrimination.
In the past three years, NHLSCP has produced three intensive Forum Theater workshops in New Haven and two in Goyena. In New Haven, more than 70 teachers, social workers, mental health professionals, activists, and youth workers have learned this technique. In Goyena, five women have graduated as Forum Theater Facilitators ("promotoras") and 50 women and youth have created original Forum Theater plays.
This year, 30 Goyena women completed a 12-month series of trainings and workshops to learn from experts about how to use the law, direct action, and forum theater to defend their rights. Five women graduated as Forum Theater Facilitators. They also completed a week-long training by CANTERA, one of the oldest Nicaraguan feminist organizations, to facilitate interactive workshops about gender justice in their community.
Nubia Quiroz, a participant in the women's trainings who is now a facilitator, says that the workshops have "allowed me to loosen up my body and my mind and think outside the box." She woke up every day at four in the morning and walked half an hour to Leon plus a two hour bus ride to Managua to attend the CANTERA training. With help from NHLSCP, she is helping establish a rapid response group to offer refuge and accompaniment to women who want to leave abusive partners.
In New Haven, NHLSCP provides ongoing training and support to more than ten Forum Theater Facilitators who work with the homeless, immigrant women, at-risk youth and mentally ill patients.
NHLSCP provides financial support, school supplies, and teacher training for the Goyena preschool, after school and school lunch program serving children from preschool through grade 6. The after school program consists of small group academic instruction, including advanced work for students who need more rigor and remedial help for students who are behind.
Our goal is to increase enrollment in the public schools, improve access to education, and improve graduation rates in the rural areas of Leon that are underserved by the Ministry of Education. Many adults report that they did not finish school after the sixth grade because of the need to work and the difficulty paying for transportation and books in order to finish their studies. Our ultimate goal is to engage parents, teachers and volunteers in improving educational access and outcomes for the next generation.
School retention and promotion rates (the percentage of students who stay in school and proceed to the next grade) are the measures of success. NHLSCP staff maintain constant communication with teachers in the preschool, primary school and afterschool, and require teachers to keep records for evaluation. We also keep track of any participants in our programs who go on to enroll in university, which is rare but increasingly within the realm of the possible. The Board's standing committee on Education oversees the program.
Most of the parents in Goyena have no formal education beyond sixth grade because rural people have to travel great distances to attend school, and they often drop out of school to work and support their families. Several mothers who are active in the Goyena parents group told NHLSCP Board members that their children would have dropped out of school without the extra instruction and support offered by the after school program.
Marta Osejo created the Goyena preschool in her house when she was 16 years old, more than ten years ago. Five years ago, NHLSCP built a one room schoolhouse for the preschool right next to the primary school. Marta continues to work there, and she is one of three preschool teachers who are now funded by the Nicaraguan Ministry of Education. Fifty five students attend. Goyena parents and New Haven volunteers lovingly maintain the building. New Haven volunteers donate supplies and teacher training.
NHLSCP recently built a kitchen at the primary school, in an effort that was spearheaded by Goyena parents. Mothers who take turns cooking lunch for all the students. As in the United States, school lunch provides an incentive for kids to travel great distances to attend school and ensures that kids have the nourishment to excel in their studies.
Yara Perez, 21 years old, has been a leader in the Environmental Youth Brigade for three years and is now working as an assistant in the preschool. She just began her first year of college at UNAN Leon to study natural sciences. Yara remembers whem her family was displaced from their farm by Hurricane Mitch in 1998, and she talks about that experience when she leads international visitors on the environmental justice tour of Goyena.
Last year, Yara was one of ten youth in the Goyena Environmental Brigade who created a video based on interviews with community elders about the history of the land. The students previously knew nothing about how their grandparents had fought with large plantation owners and the government to reclaim farm land that rightfully belonged to them as small farmers and indigenous people. With help from a New Haven theater delegation, the Brigade created a Forum Theater play and documentary video about the history of the land, and the current struggle to keep the land from being sold to the San Antonio sugar plantation.
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