Interview conducted by Cecilia D’Arville
As a new member of the Highland Support Project (or HSP), I’ve been constantly amazed and awed by the opportunities this organization creates not just for the communities it seeks to serve, but also for the people it partners with to serve these communities. However, as a mere Summer Intern, I quickly realized there was not nearly enough time in my summer schedule to take part in all of the incredible trips offered by HSP, like their stove building project in the highlands of Guatemala. This trip is a part of HSP’s effort to support women’s health and the political involvement of women in Guatemala. You may be asking yourself what stoves and politics have in common, but the connection is clear for the women who have had these stoves installed in their homes (and hopefully will be for you too by the end of this article).
So, in order to better understand the impact, meaning, and importance of an HSP service-learning trip to Guatemala, I sat down with Rebecca McNamara, a Virginia Commonwealth University grad who went on one of these trips during her time at VCU. Rebecca’s kindness and openness in meeting with me was so appreciated, and it was hard not to notice her face light up as she told me about her experience in Guatemala. She spoke so eloquently about her trip – seriously she’s probably one of the most quote-able people I’ve ever met – and really helped me to better understand this experience. Hopefully her words will do the same for you all as well!
Let’s start with the basics – when did you decide to go on Highland Support Project’s trip?
I was at VCU from 2004-2008, and it was in that timeframe that I went on the trip… I didn’t know anybody on the trip, I really didn’t know much about it at all, I just knew for my Spring break I wanted to do something that mattered. I wanted to get out of my comfort zone. And it definitely mattered and definitely got me out of my comfort zone.
So, you didn’t know anyone else going when you decided to go?
Nope. I ran into somebody who I had taken a class with who had also signed up for the trip. She also didn’t know anybody, and we both just happened to sign up. We weren’t friends. But we had just been in class together, so we kind of immediately gravitated towards each other.
It’s not a typical spring break experience. It kind of changes things in your brain, and going with a group of strangers, you form [an] immediate bond over the experience that you all went through together. Some of them I actually still talk to.
What was your initial reaction when you first got to Guatemala?
Arriving at this tiny airport was something different that I had never experienced. It was hot and dusty, not like the humid Virginia that I’m used to. [I had] this feeling of awe. These people that we went to meet and work with were so different from us, they didn’t have the same resources as us, and they were just so kind to us… We were strangers arriving in their village and home. We looked different, we sounded different, and they were so open. The adjustment didn’t take as long as I expected it to because everyone was so welcoming.
Did you make any connections while you were in Guatemala that you still remember?
Because of the schedule, we were getting up at the crack of dawn to drive into the highlands to do the work. We had long conversations on the bus ride, and you learned a lot about one another; and, therefore, you learned a lot about yourself.
There were some young women there from VCU, who [went] because they knew that [this] work was going to help the women in the village become a part of their own political process. [The women] spent all day in their homes cooking over open flames, so they didn’t have the time to participate in the local processes of the village. These VCU students already knew that. I didn’t know that. Like I said, I just joined the trip to do something new, and so having conversations with these young women brought into my perspective not just social justice but also feminism. What it means to be a feminist and what it means to fight for social justice. They really helped shaped my perspective.
It was funny that I had to go all the way to Guatemala to talk to people I could have run into on the streets in Richmond. But being thrown onto that bus together and thrown into these experiences together, you kind of can’t help but talk about the big important things.
Did you have any lasting takeaways from the trip?
I made the decision when I was there that whatever I did with my life, it had to matter. Because my world was no longer the world I had lived in my whole life. Until that trip, I had a particular perspective on the world. After that trip, my whole view of the world had changed. And that has carried me through the last 10 or 12 years since that trip. That has carried me through my life. For me specifically, [the trip] helped shaped my perspective on what my own future could be, and you can’t say that about everything. It was a big deal.
Do you feel like you’ve kept up with that?
I would like to think so. My first job out of college was working in community affairs as a volunteer coordinator, and the trip was a big reason that I decided to do that because it was a little way that I could still carry out that mission. It’s kind of a cornerstone of [how] me and my husband raise [our kids] to look at the world, that we’re all equal and some of us are blessed with having more resources than others, and it’s incumbent on us to help people as much as we can. I feel like that has certainly carried over from the trip.
But I cannot stress enough the importance of seeing and participating in that act of building a stove [and] the impact [that has] on the lives of the women that you visit in Guatemala. I actually have a framed picture of the family that we visited in my office at work, so that everybody that comes into my office sees it, and I can tell them about it.
It’s just an example of the way, that if you do one small thing, it can have a huge ripple effect on a community. Flying all the way down to Guatemala is not a small thing, but the act of building a cinder block stove changed these women’s lives. And if you build enough of them, it changed the course of the political system in that village. It’s one of those things, where if you do something small, like throwing a rock into a river, it ripples out. If everybody did something small, it will make a really big impact.
Do you remember building the actual stove?
Yes, because I had never built anything in my life. And the whole concept of not coming in with your tools but of coming in and using their tools, not that I know how to use my tools either – I knew how to use zero tools. I still remember trying to figure out how to work with people that were strangers, even the people on the trip were strangers, and I don’t speak Spanish, so there was a language barrier, but we got it done. It wasn’t nearly as hard as you think it’s going to be when someone says: “Here, build this stove with a machete.”
It’s weird, the whole thing. I can’t remember what I had for breakfast yesterday, but the whole experience is written on my brain somehow because of that transformational nature of it.
Is there anything that you would tell yourself before you had gone to prepare yourself? Or was the not knowing part of the experience?
Not knowing was probably good. Still, I would tell myself to hold onto that version of me for as long as I could. Because when you graduate school and you get older, it’s easy to forget – because we don’t have time to remember – who we were in these transformation moments. And that woman who went down there without knowing where I was going or who I was going to be working with, she’s an adventurer. I would tell my former self to hang onto that for as long as I could because it’s easy to lose track of that when you get older.
Is there anything you would say to young students who may be looking at trips with HSP or advice to people taking a big leap in general?
I would say do it. Don’t think about it because you might talk yourself out of it. You have an entire lifetime to make a plan and pursue goals. If you’re in high school or in college, you have an opportunity to take chances and to take time to do things that are transformative for you and for the world. Richmond’s own great Arthur Ashe said something in an interview that I live my life by. “When a door opens, walk through it…” Because doors will close. Do something for yourself and for somebody else, because it might change your life. Like it did for me.
Since not everyone can go on this trip, is there anything you would suggest people read or watch or just ways to get involved?
Definitely staying connected to the organization has helped. They have events and do things to raise money for trips. Even if you’re not really into volunteering, I would say support the businesses that support this trip. The women [in Guatemala] make these beautiful textiles and products. Shopping at local businesses that support the women who made them is a really easy way to support the organization and to stay involved. Even if you don’t have the time to give or the money to give in a large way. If you’re buying a present, buy it from there… That’s a very easy way to still support the mission.
And read and watch whatever you can. There’s going to be a narrative woven on either side of the aisle, but if you educate yourself on what’s actually going on in the world by going on a trip like this, or even reading about a trip like this, it gives you an opportunity to have a different perspective. Just continue your education, even on your own, by reading books or following the news. There’s a lot of power in seeking the information for yourself and not consuming it from some other source. That’s like the afterschool special message that knowledge is power. There’s a lot of truth in that.
Rebecca currently works for Dominion Energy, where she oversees internal communications works with a “team of really awesome people.” I’d like to extend my sincerest gratitude to her for being so open and kind in sharing her experiences. You can find the products Rebecca refers to at AlterNatives in Carytown. AlterNatives is a non-profit business trust established by the Highland Support Project in 1993 for the purpose of developing markets for weavings of Highland Maya women widowed by political violence in Guatemala.