Building Bridges through Global Education

One of the most important goals of Jesuit education is the formation of “men and women for others.” We seek to educate students to live out their Christian faith in service and solidarity with the marginalized and oppressed not only in their own communities, but also throughout the world. As a Spanish teacher at a Jesuit high school, I often reflect on how to practice this mission amid our daily routine and curriculum requirements. I want my students to know that speaking Spanish is not just a marketable skill or an area of study, but a gift that can build bridges across cultures and foster understanding and empathy. The Global Citizen Education initiatives sponsored by Magis Americas have greatly helped facilitate this mission.

I first became aware of Magis Americas and the Jesuit’s global education programs when I, along with two colleagues, led a student immersion trip to Colombia to collaborate with Fe y Alegría in 2019. Our group of ten students met young Colombians who are a part of the Red de Juventudes, a network of community-action groups facilitated by Fe y Alegría. These groups raise awareness about various social issues that directly impact the well-being of their communities. After decades of civil strife in Colombia, these young people want to create a better future for their country. Together we participated in social justice workshops and painted community murals that addressed the need to care for the environment. The students played games to help learn one another’s languages, experienced mass together, and formed friendships. The Fe y Alegría coordinators enthusiastically welcomed us into their praxis and truly exemplified the Universal Apostolic Preferences of Journeying with Youth and Walking with the Excluded.

For my students, the Colombia trip was an eye-opening experience. They witnessed the impact of internal displacement and environmental disasters on the everyday lives of young people their age. They greatly admired the Colombian students’ commitment to justice, and they were inspired to be more engaged with social issues in our own community.

It is often easy for students in the US, especially those who come from middle-class suburban backgrounds, to assume that their way of life is the norm throughout the world, but through their friendships with their Colombian peers, my students learned first-hand that many students lack the access the opportunities that they take for granted. This was especially true with access to educational opportunities. Whereas the US students were confidently planning for college, many of the Colombian students were concerned they would not be able to continue their studies due to enrollment limits.

The experience in Colombia helped them to grow in empathy and solidarity with young people in other parts of the world and fostered an inter-cultural exchange that benefitted both groups of students.

We were looking forward to returning to Colombia in 2020 when the Covid-19 pandemic altered our plans. In the summer of 2020, Fe y Alegría organized their annual meeting of the Red de Juventudes virtually, and we were fortunate to be included. We also met virtually in December of 2020, when our students shared the impact of the pandemic on their education. Our contact with the Red de Juventudes has been entirely virtual for the last year and half, and although we miss the experience of meeting in person, these virtual meetings have enabled us to maintain our relationship with Fe y Alegría until we can hopefully meet again in the future.

Immersion trips are transformative experiences, but they can only accommodate a small number of students. Magis Americas’ La Silla Roja campaign enabled students in all my classes to learn about educational inequities faced by young people around the world without leaving our classroom.

During last year’s campaign, my students researched how the pandemic was affecting education in countries served by Fe y Alegría. We discussed how millions of students are facing more challenges than ever before because of quarantines and in-person closures. Whereas students in our school are equipped with iPads and high-speed Wifi, others lack easy access to technology. For example, my students learned that students often relied on classes transmitted on the radio to continue their education at home. We also discussed how the drop-out rates were exacerbated by the pandemic, especially when students needed to work to help support their families.

In the second part of the campaign, my students were asked to find an individual story that exemplified the issues we had discussed in class. One of my students, Matthew, chose to interview a friend who lives in Venezuela. Her experience of the pandemic was radically different from his own. Matthew expressed to me that he and his friend were able to have a meaningful conversation because of this assignment, and he shared his insights with our class. This experience made the abstract figures and percentages come to life in a tangible way.

This year we are looking forward to initiating the La Silla Roja challenge in September. We are expanding the campaign to more grade levels and are planning an all-school, awareness-raising campaign. The La Silla Roja campaign has brought global issues into my curriculum and exposed students to Jesuit missions around the world. As Ignatian educators, we are called to practice a pedagogy that is not just rooted in the abstract, but also grounded in real contexts and inspires concrete action to make the world a more just place. It is my hope that Magis America’s Global Citizen Education programs, whether they take place abroad or at home, encourage our students to reflect on the meaning of education and seek ways to ensure educational equity for all students.

Communities that Teach Us Through Persistence

Living in the small, rural community of Orinoco on the isolated Caribbean coast of southern Nicaragua, Mateo is a Garifuna leader and healer who uses ancestral medicine made from medicinal plants to promote the health of his community. He knows how important his teas and poultices are because often community members can’t afford to get to the hospital in the city of Bluefields. The Garifuna—an Afro-Indigenous group in Central America—only number about 5,000 people in Nicaragua; they are treated like country bumpkins when they travel from Pearl Lagoon to Bluefields. Furthermore, when they make it all the way to Managua, the capital of Nicaragua on the Pacific Coast, they’re discriminated against for being Black and Indigenous.

The Garifuna of Nicaragua belong to the pan-Garifuna community of Central America and beyond. The Garifuna are a Central American, Afro-Indigenous people born of the Caribbean and watched over by loyal ancestors. Worldwide, the pan-Garifuna community numbers about 300,000 – 400,000; they inhabit communities along the Caribbean coast of Central America, 100,000 of whom live in the United States and Canada. The Garifuna are a hybrid group who emerged as a people a couple of hundred years ago on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent from the intermarriage of shipwrecked West Africans destined to be sold as slaves, escaped slaves, and local Indigenous groups, the Arawak and Red Caribs. The Garifuna ended up in Honduras when exiled there by the British in 1796, and their diaspora continued from there to include Garifuna communities along the Caribbean coast of Central America, as well as Nicaragua, the focus of this piece. The diasporic movement of Garifunas seeking work and moving around the region is a constant trait.

In Surviving the Americas: Garifuna Persistence from Nicaragua to New York City, my co-author, Leonard Joseph Bent, describes his childhood growing up in Orinoco on the remote shores of Pearl Lagoon: “During my childhood, it was delightful for me to visit the communities. It was so good and enjoyable to see and be near nature. I can remember when leaving Bluefields in my father’s little dugout boat, or my uncle’s barge boat, to go to Pearl Lagoon and then to Orinoco, Brown Bank, La Fe, San Vicente, or Marshall Point, we would pass by areas rich in flora with leafy vegetation. We could see a lot of yolillos (yolk trees), mangroves, lilies, orchids, coco plum, pine trees, maypole trees, oak trees, and other timber trees. We would also pass by areas rich in fauna, observing pelicans, albatross, herons, crocodiles, alligators, howler monkeys, squirrels, varieties of birds, and some snakes (poisonous and nonpoisonous ones). We would ride across wide rivers and narrow rivers with crystal waters. In some areas, we would take our bucket and fetch water to drink, so fresh and clean. When getting in the lagoon in the Pearl Lagoon area, the water was crystal clear and turquoise. We could see to the bottom where white sand and green grass served as food for manatees and fish. In the lagoon, there were varieties of fish in abundance—snook, copper mouth, bass, catfish, jack, mackerel, tarpon, shark, swordfish, junefish, dolphins, turtle, and stingray.”

Today, however, many challenges face the Garifuna communities on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua due to the depletion of the fishing industry to the detriment of artisanal, local fishing practices from the Garifuna communities on one hand, and illegal land grabs by mestizo settlers on the other. This, in turn, has contributed to increased poverty and exclusion for the Garifuna communities, which has led to renewed diasporic economic arrangements as communal lands get occupied by settlers and rural families are forced to send family members abroad to earn income. These economic and political developments, with their historical roots in tensions between the colonizing forces of the Spanish and the British on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, are aggravated by how the Nicaraguan government continues to promote internal colonization and the extractive practices of the past in the Caribbean communities rich in natural resources yet marginalized by discrimination due to location, ethnicity, and poverty.

In addition to the influx of settlers, some Garifuna consider selling their land because of poverty due to there not being as much fish. According to Mateo, some community members have sold land to the mestizos because they don’t want to farm the land anymore: “they think the Black man shouldn’t be a farmer, should be fishing.” The difficult part of this is that fishing has been so depleted in the Pearl Lagoon and out on the sea due to overfishing by the commercial fleets that many are unable to earn a living fishing. One of the school teachers in Orinoco told us: “We don’t work. The fish is bajo, bajo, bajo. A lot of people live hand to mouth.” So, they sell the land because they don’t want to be farmers but then have to fish to survive and there are fewer and fewer fish.

Mateo’s shepherding of the communal land he cultivates is for the future. His connection to the land is inspired by the past and the present; Mateo simultaneously seeks advice from and receives guidance from his ancestors on what plants and herbs to use through his dreams, and says the cultivation is “also for those who come afterwards,” meaning the next generation. In this case, Mateo’s grandson.

Despite threats from natural resource depletion and settler incursion, Orinoco and surrounding Garifuna communities persist because of their connection to the land and the sea. Other positive forces include the importance of family and kin, including ancestors, and Garifuna adaptability to change. Their spirit of persistence and resistance not only serves to help them survive but also serves as an inspiration for other small, beleaguered communities worldwide who endeavor to persist in the middle of adverse situations.

To learn more about the persistence of the Garifuna in Nicaragua, you can read Surviving the Americas: Garifuna Persistence from Nicaragua to New York City

One of the four co-authors of Surviving the Americas, Serena Cosgrove, PhD is an anthropologist and sociologist who teaches in the International Studies program at Seattle University. She serves as the director of Latin American Studies there and is the faculty coordinator for SU’s Central America Initiative. You can follow the SU Central America Initiative on Facebook at Seattle University Central America Initiative.

Linguistic Equality, a Precondition for Economic and Political Equity

In May of 2016, Dr. Michel DeGraff, responded to Danielle Allen’s, Director of Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Professor of Government and Education, essay on What is Education For? He focused on linguistic equality as a precondition for political and economical equity. His response was originally posted on the Boston Review.

Danielle Allen’s essay provides added inspiration for my efforts to help solve an education-and-equality challenge in Haiti, a country with one of the highest rates of inequality. As director of the MIT-Haiti Initiative and a founding member of the Haitian Creole Academy, my work in Haiti has led me to more deeply understand linguistic equality as a precondition for the economic and political equity that Allen seeks.

The creation and dissemination of knowledge, especially STEM knowledge, in local vernaculars can advance both economic and political equality. Indeed, home vernaculars are necessary for universal access to high-quality education. Unless they are utilized in education, there are many children who will never grow to participate in the political system, ensuring the perpetuation of a cycle in which the poorest are blocked from shaping the distribution of social, economic, and political capital. The humanities, together with STEM disciplines, can help break down this barrier, as we are doing in Haiti through the MIT-Haiti Initiative.

For centuries now, the Haitian state has failed the vast majority of Haitians on both the economic and political fronts. Language is at the heart of the problem. In spite of the Haitian Constitution’s recognition of both Kreyòl and French as official languages—and its stated view that Kreyòl is “the one language that binds all Haitians together”—the primary language for instruction and examination in Haiti remains French. Yet at least 95 percent of Haitians speak only Kreyòl. How does this work? The answer is, it doesn’t.

The use of French in schools systematically privileges children of French-speaking families, and it penalizes those who come from communities in which only Kreyòl is spoken. The system thus offers no possibility for equal economic opportunity. Nor does it deliver what Allen calls participatory readiness: the state, the schools, and many segments of civil society convey to children the unambiguous message that they can become fully active “citizens” only if they can speak fluent French—an alienating and impossible task for most Haitian children, especially given their lack of opportunity for immersion in French-speaking contexts and the dearth of competent teachers.

Haitian leaders and intellectuals, including well-meaning educators, often cite two sorts of pseudoscientific arguments for maintaining French as the sole or primary medium of instruction. First, they say that children’s interests are best served through French instruction because Kreyòl, as a “young” and “still emerging” language, cannot express complex concepts in science, mathematics, philosophy, etc. Second, they claim that children who speak Kreyòl only will be isolated in a linguistic ghetto.

Among many rebuttals to these claims, my own work argues for the status of Kreyòl as a full-fledged language that has the capacity to express complex concepts, on a par with any other language. Moreover, warnings about the creation of a linguistic ghetto ignore the possibility that Kreyòl-speaking children who can build solid foundations for literacy, numeracy, and logic in their native language are on a stronger footing to learn second languages like French, English, and Spanish, alongside acquiring important knowledge in the humanities and STEM.

Finland’s superior school system, in which Finnish is used as the primary language of instruction, provides a robust refutation to the myth that local languages necessarily enclose their speakers in linguistic ghettos. Finnish, which has only 5.5 million speakers, is about twice as “local” as Kreyòl, which has more than 10 million speakers, many of them spread around the world. As anthropologist Suze Mathieu points out, there are more Kreyòl speakers in the Americas than there are French speakers—in effect making Kreyòl more of an “international” language than French, so far as the Americas are concerned.

The persistence of French as the primary language of instruction and of formal discourse in Haiti must then be viewed as an instrument of linguistic apartheid, to be analyzed from a Fanonian perspective: French is enlisted as both a marker of social and political domination and a tool for the perpetuation of this domination.

The MIT-Haiti Initiative produces digital learning tools and other educational resources in Kreyòl for active learning at advanced levels of STEM. We are already finding that teachers teach better and students learn better when the medium of instruction is Kreyòl. Our data also suggest that children become more proficient readers and writers and better learners when they learn to read in their native language.

While Allen’s argument prioritizes liberal arts over STEM as a path toward distributive justice via participative citizenship, we have seen how the production and dissemination of scientific knowledge in Kreyòl can help usher in both economic and political equality in Haiti. In one post-workshop survey for the MIT-Haiti Initiative, a physics teacher recounted how the use of active-learning tools in Kreyòl would ease students into class participation with great excitement, provoking them to ask questions and enter into debates in ways they characteristically would not when the instruction was conducted in French. In fact, the teacher admitted that when the discussions became too lively, he would silence the students by switching back to French.

Similar oppression affects speakers of vernacular dialects in the United States as well, such as speakers of African American Vernacular English. It goes so far as to affect court rulings, as in the Trayvon Martin case against George Zimmerman: the prosecution’s star witness, Rachel Jeantel, was perceived to be an unreliable witness because she spoke African American Vernacular English, rendering her effectively voiceless. Linguistic inequality thus has graver consequences than merely hobbling the interpersonal skills that enhance civic participation. Even Justice Clarence Thomas has attributed his silence on the Supreme Court to having grown up as a speaker of the Gullah variety of English.

Local languages are indispensable for participatory readiness on a global scale. But the activism needed to promote them often requires academic training that is inaccessible to the communities of their speakers. In the MIT-Haiti Initiative, we see how Kreyòl-based classroom tools and methods have the potential to shift educational outcomes toward both distributive and political equity. The initiative may well suggest that a tight collaboration between humanists, educators, scientists, mathematicians, and engineers is a winning option for all concerned. Such analysis doubles as a plea for a retooling of linguistics. This retooling would be part of the general “revision of the liberal arts curriculum” that Allen advocates. Alongside its contributions to both science and social justice, linguistics, like education and other disciplines in the humanities, has too often been used as a tool for intellectual and political domination. Yet linguistics is critical, alongside education and STEM, for tackling global challenges, especially in promoting participatory readiness and distributive justice in disenfranchised communities that speak local languages—in Haiti and beyond. As Marx said, “the task is not merely to understand the world, but to change it.”