Education for Action: Montclair State in Nicaragua

Photo: Mike Peters

The members of Team Nicaragua pose with some friends in El Regadillo.

Motivated by a desire to create change in their communities and in the world, thirteen Montclair State students traveled to Nicaragua on a ten-day educational mission in May 2008 to learn about the political, social, and economic conditions there, and about the impact that U.S. policies and businesses have on developing nations.

Led by Jhon Velasco, director of Montclair State’s Center for Non Violence and Peace Initiatives (CNVPI), and the Reverend Ann Ralosky, Protestant Chaplin for Campus Ministry, the delegation—dubbed “Team Nicaragua”—visited hospitals, factories, and schools, and met with Nicaraguan economists, environmentalists, and community leaders, among others. The itinerary also included a trip to a nature reserve and a two-night home stay with local families in El Regadillo, a rural northern community.

“The core issues we looked at on the trip were economics and free trade versus fair trade,” says Velasco. “We also looked at the public health system and at the policies and forces that contribute to keeping the Nicaraguan people and government at a certain level.”

Velasco explains that the theme of the mission was “Education for Action” and that the focus was to help the team understand the conditions in Nicaragua and other developing nations—and the underlying policies and forces that create them—so that upon returning to the U.S., the students could take action to create change.>

Free Trade vs. Fair Trade

In El Regadillo, the students had the opportunity to learn firsthand about the conditions that can result from free trade policies when they visited a tobacco factory run by a foreign-owned corporation. “The first thing that stood out to us was the fact that young girls between the ages of 12 and 16 were working there,” recalls team member Imad Ibrahim. “They were separating tobacco leaves while still in their school uniforms—they had obviously just left school.”

Not only were some of the workers school children, but they worked long hours without the protection of proper safety gear and clothing, and much-needed health screenings. Despite the conditions, the workers felt compelled to continue at the factory because they could earn more money there than through their former occupation, farming.

The team was quick to see the potential danger: if the farmers stop producing crops to work at the factory and the factory suddenly closes, they would suddenly find themselves without a source of income, without any crops from their farms, and without the resources to buy food. For a poor community such as El Regadillo, which is barely making ends meet as it is, that would prove a devastating blow.

“Free trade sounds great,” Velasco says. “That is how the government has presented it to us and to the world; but what we were able to see in Nicaragua was how it actually affects the local people, especially the farmers. Local farmers are not going to be able to compete with the big companies that are now in Nicaragua because of free trade.”

Seeking to learn about the other side of the equation, the team visited Esperanza En Accion (“Hope through Action”), a fair trade organization of local artisans turning out handmade crafts. True to its mission “to economically empower Nicaraguan artisans and their families by promoting their work, and helping to connect them with fair markets both in Nicaragua and internationally,” Esperanza En Accion employs local workers who receive fair treatment and pay, and offers a market for what they produce.

“The items [they created] ranged from necklaces and earrings made from seeds, to a variety of bracelets, vases, clay/ceramic whistles in the shapes of animals, bags, cards, and more—all made by hand,” said team member Charlene Clarke. “The greatest thing about fair trade is that we know the artisans creating these beautiful pieces are receiving a fair amount of money for the work and time they put into it.”

The differences in how workers were treated at the tobacco factory and at Esperanza En Accion were dramatic and readily apparent to the team. So, too, was the outlook and attitude of the workers. “The workers at the tobacco factory felt resigned about working there; they felt they didn’t have a choice,” said Velasco, “The workers at Esperanza En Accion, on the other hand, said they felt valued and appreciated, and had great pride in what they did.”

Life-Changing Experiences

While each aspect of the trip affected members of Team Nicaragua in different ways, all would agree that it was a powerful and unforgettable experience. “Nicaragua had a huge impact on my life,” says team member Cristian Valencia. “The people I met, what I experienced, and what I saw will always be an image in my head that will keep playing over and over.”

Team member Jill Vanderhook feels the same way. “When we did our home stay, we were welcomed into the community with loving, open hearts. I truly felt at home in another country,” she says of her experience. “I will never forget the warmth of the country and the warmth of the people we met.”

For team member Jessica Bergman, the trip was a life-changing experience. “The things I learned and the people I met opened my eyes to a world I had never seen before and opened my consciousness to new ideas,” she says. Bergman was so inspired by her experience that upon returning to Montclair State, she designed her own study abroad program, received approval from the Department of Global Education, and is currently pursuing her studies in Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala.

“This experience has changed me in so many ways,” says Kimberly Tanella. “It’s not like I did this one-eighty and I’m a 100 percent better person, but it has made me take a step back from my life and just really analyze a lot of the things that I do.” Tanella, who is studying to become a teacher, says the experience far transcended her expectations and opened her eyes to the poverty in the world for the first time.

“I want to dedicate more of my time now to people in third world countries and people experiencing poverty,” says Tanella. “Even in our own country, there’s poverty…and recently, I’ve been considering teaching in an urban setting, just because this experience has touched me in so many ways, and I’ve seen poverty.”

From Education to Action

In keeping with the theme of the Nicaragua mission, Education for Action, many members of the team have been motivated to act on what they learned and experienced. Here are some of the projects and activities that the Team Nicaragua students have undertaken since returning to the U.S.:

• Imad Ibrahim presented his findings from the tobacco factory visit at the conference, Big Tobacco’s Global Expansion. The event, sponsored by Reality Check, was held in Sparkhill, New York, in October 2008. Also in October, Ibrahim implemented a poster presentation at the Engaged Campus Conference: the Public Purposes of Higher Education held at Montclair State.

• Kimberly Tanella, Imad Ibrahim, and Jhon Velasco spoke about their experiences at the annual statewide Diversity Issues in Higher Education Conference at Drew University in November 2008.

• Team Nicaragua members have participated in more than 15 presentations at Montclair State on issues such as Free Trade vs. Fair Trade, Child Labor Laws, and Workers’ Rights.

• A partnership was created between five Team Nicaragua students and local community member Stephanie Sheerin to work toward making Montclair State a Fair Trade community.

• Jhon Velasco and three team members were featured in an audio slide show about the Nicaragua trip. The slide show, which received a Gold MarCom Award for Electronic/Interactive Media from the Association of Marketing and Communication Professionals, has been widely used for informational presentations. It may be viewed on the Montclair State Web site at www.montclair.edu/nicaragua08.