In order to better contextualize our research and volunteer work here in Mexico, I thought I would take the time to introduce Fundación Comunidad, Asociación Civil, a non-profit organization based in Cuernavaca where Atena and I will be volunteering throughout the summer. Fundación Comunidad is dedicated to co-investing in sustainable community initiatives that ensure improved quality of life and self-determination for marginalized populations in the state of Morelos. More specifically, Fundación’s work involves mobilizing resources to support Mexico’s civil society groups and their development efforts. Additionally, the foundation works to build and strengthen alliances between different sectors of society, thus drawing on values of cooperation and collaboration. Its work can be divided into two different segments: A) supporting communities to strengthen social networks and enhance basic capabilities; and B) increasing communities’ productive ability through training courses in both technical and administrative skills.
We have also been working alongside Juan Manuel Zaragoza and Polina Bugayev, two amazing individuals who are part of UNILCO (see Atena’s post). It is through them, and Erik Friend at Fundación Comunidad, that we have become aware of ilusionismo social and the presence of economic solidarity in Morelos.
In many ways the work of Fundación Comunidad embodies the principles underlying economic solidarity and ilusionismo social (see Atena’s post). Rather than impose its own development programs Fundación works with pre-existing initiatives and recognizes the ways in which Mexicans are already organizing on their own and building communities in the face of growing poverty and social inequality. Central to Fundación’s work is the value of solidarity, networking and creating spaces for various communities, actors and organizations to come together and share their experiences. As volunteers Atena and I have been able to observe that the work of Fundación is as much about creating and nurturing relationships with people as it is about carrying out a specific goal or project idea. Thus what we have experienced is a civil-society group that works with people, and not for them, replacing hierarchical structures of aid and development with horizontal exchange, commitment and comradeship.
Though ilusionismo social does not define itself as a form of solidarity economy, the two movements work intimately together and share common values, interests and principles of action. Both ideologies value local, grassroots, micro-level exchange. This exchange works across social frontiers of nationality, race, gender, and various other categories of exclusion and division. Paulo Freire’s language of conscientization is strong here, although I believe it is used here much more in the way Freire intended. As Juan Manuel once pointed out to us, the word ‘conscientization’ is employed liberally in Mexican social activism, but it often comes to resemble a model in which a sage and educated person implants knowledge or ‘conocimiento’ in the empty minds of the masses. Ilusionismo social borrows from Freiren thought, but instead envisions conscientization as an exchange of knowledge and experience, a type of pedagogy and learning that takes place through action, and not the transplantation of ideas from one class of people to another.
The following are brief descriptions of some of the activities and partnerships of Fundación Comunidad:
- ALEM: Autonomía, Libertad en Movimiento. ALEM provides vocational training and employment for people with disabilities. Its diverse staff manufactures and repairs custom-made wheelchairs, bicycles, tricycles, specialized furniture and personalized equipment. The employees at ALEM work closely with their clientele to develop products that answer specifically to the needs and preferences of the customer. This mechanical workshop includes departments in welding, sewing, and painting. ALEM also makes use of recycled materials, and collects broken wheelchairs for renovation and reuse. Through this recycling and restoration program ALEM is able to create a business that is simultaneously environmentally friendly, and economical for clients who do not have the means to purchase new wheelchairs. The other facet to ALEM’s work involves advocacy and community awareness. As a civil association ALEM is dedicated to challenging the social stigmatization and marginalization of people with different abilities. ALEM’s modus operandi is grounded in the value of “trabajo en red” or networking. In conjunction with the government of Morelos, Fundación Comunidad and various other civil-society groups, ALEM works to generate and promote public policy that is socially inclusive of the so-called ‘disabled.’ In addition to nurturing a more inclusive workplace for people with diverse abilities, ALEM seeks to provide spaces for informal education in an effort to provide alternatives to Mexico’s exclusive education system. Atena and I volunteer here twice a week and we have greatly enjoyed getting to know the ALEM family. The values of co-responsibility, cooperation and collaboration are very palpable here, where ALEM staff work in a non-hierarchical, horizontal environment. We have been working on the following volunteer projects:
- Creation of a new brochure for ALEM
- French translation of the official website
- Design of a new logo to use on the mural in front of the workshop
- Paint a new mural with the help of graffiti artists in the neighborhood
- Oral histories of the staff at ALEM
- La Estación. La Estación is a neighborhood in Cuernavaca. This community used to be the location of the main train station of Cuernavaca. In 1990 the Mexican government removed the passenger train system throughout the country. Most inhabitants of La Estación depended on the railroad as a source of livelihood, and as a result this government initiative brought significant change (and poverty) to the community. Nevertheless La Estación is an area of rich community development and solidarity. Fundación Comunidad has been supporting the construction of a new community center that will house a great number of formal activities. In anticipation of the creation of this new cultural center members of La Estación have already organized to provide daily breakfast to children of the community and a space where both adults and children can convene to participate in workshops and social events. Additionally Fundación Comunidad is assisting an oral history project in La Estación where a team of community members and Fundación staff are involved in collecting the testimonies of older generations. This project was initiated with the goal of preserving the memory and heritage of the community, and strengthening ties across age gaps. The purpose of this project is both internal and external – on the one hand it serves to bring together the community of La Estación, but it also works to spread awareness to Cuernavaca and the surrounding region. Indeed, La Estación faces a significant amount of stigmatization – it is a community that is perceived as dangerous, crime-ridden and vagrant by outsiders, and this oral history project is committed to shattering these misconceptions. Atena and I travel to La Estación once a week to assist the oral history project.
- El Texcal. El Texcal is an apartment complex located outside of Cuernavaca. Together with the support of Fundación Comunidad, the community of Texcal is seeking to address issues of recycling, water access and water sanitation, ecological sustainability, and community development. Near this apartment complex is an abandoned water park [balneario] constructed in the late 1970s. Built on comunero land, the people of Texcal are seeking creative ways to reuse and revamp this abandoned space. They have began cultivating mushrooms there to provide more of a source of livelihood for the community. Juan Manuel, Polina and Erik have also been working with Buckman, a nearby factory, in an effort to address the contamination of Texcal’s main water supply. In the spirit of ilusionismo social, this collaboration and partnership has been nurtured in an effort to create long-term relationships. Instead of initiating a water-cleaning project that lasts only a year and results in a re-contamination of the water supply, Polina and Juan Manuel have sought to first establish a relationship that will allow for long-lasting change. Atena and I will be helping to start a recycling campaign in the community.
- Acopio San Anton. Acopio San Anton is a recycling center in a neighborhood of Cuernavaca. Rodrigo, one of the founders of the organization, began this initiative as a teenager when he noticed the dire need of recycling in his community. The acopio is a private organization, although it receives money from the government on an irregular basis.
- Symposio sobre la Justicia Ambiental. On Wednesday Atena and I attended a conference on environmental justice, hosted by Fundación Comunidad in partnership with the Pachamama Alliance. The focus of this symposium was to highlight the ways in which social justice, environmental justice and achieving sustainability are intimately connected.
These are just a few examples of the initiatives and communities that Fundación supports. Stay tuned for blog posts on “En el Fondo: el Agua,” “Cooperativa Bandera” “FEMIN” and “Equipo Pueblo!”