Civil Unrest in Nicaragua Spurs U of A Students to Action

Despite the cancellation of their community placements in Nicaragua due to civil unrest, U of A Global Service-Learning students leveraged their program experience to raise money and awareness.

Erik Einsiedel - 03 August 2018

Since April 2018, over 300 people have died and 2,000 more have been injured in Nicaragua as protests have escalated against the government of Daniel Ortega. The resulting travel advisory issued by the Government of Canada forced students in the UAlberta Community Service-Learning (CSL) course, "Global Service Learning & Solidarity in Nicaragua" (CSL 350/360), to abandon plans to spend three weeks in community placements there in June.

"There are real social and economic impacts of the cancellation," said Erin Kelly, CSL Partnership Coordinator. "Partner organizations and families would have received small honorariums for hosting our students, which is income lost for them at a time when every other group is cancelling their travels to Nicaragua because of the increasing instability."

A woman stands near a burning barricade holding the national flag of Nicaragua.
(Photo courtesy of: Voice of America)

Despite their travel plans being cancelled, the students worked collaboratively with Kelly and their instructor, Dr. Katie MacDonald, to redesign the second half of the 6-week course. This included thinking about a local CSL placement or project they could engage in, and that would provide connections to their learning about Nicaragua, and their efforts to enact solidarity with the communities they would have lived and worked in.

Working in collaboration with their main community partner, Toronto-based Casa-Pueblito, the students decided to organize a solidarity fundraiser event that was held in U of A Quad on June 16: Students in Solidarity: U of A Nicaragua Solidarity Event and Fundraiser.

Featuring Nicaraguan food, entertainment, a silent auction and an "interactive mural," the event - organized in less than three weeks - raised almost $3,000 to distribute back to the families and partners in Nicaragua. Alberta Minister of Culture and Tourism, Ricardo Miranda, originally from Nicaragua, attended the event in support of the students.

With hopes to continue the CSL Nicaragua program, Kelly explains what makes it different from most study abroad programs.

"Students spend the first three weeks examining their identity, power and privilege dynamics, and Canada's relationship to Global South communities. So when they go abroad, they're arriving with some sensitivity to what it means for them to be visiting from a position of privilege, particularly when they are living and working with folks facing systemic barriers to participating in similar opportunities for cross-border intercultural learning."

Dr. Katie MacDonald, program instructor (standing, far let, back row), with Erin Kelly, CSL Partnership Coordinator (standing, far right), Alberta Minister of Culture and Tourism, Ricardo Mirando (standing, second from right) and CSL students.

During their three weeks in Nicaragua, CSL students live with host families, integrating themselves into their family's daily life while learning how to communicate across language and cultural barriers. They work with organizations and hear from community leaders in order to gain local insight into issues such as Nicaragua's revolutionary history and the current political and economic contexts in the country.

Through Casa Pueblito, CSL students are connected to four key partners through which they can choose a variety of immersive learning experiences in Nicaragua:

  • Funarte, a group that uses art -- particularly murals -- to engage youth in issues of social justice, human rights and indigenous histories. CSL students can support their work in a number of ways.

  • ASOPASN, a farming collective through which CSL students can contribute to daily agricultural activities, such as planting, weeding, and/or cultivating crops.

  • Iniciativa Colibrí, where CSL students can engage with youth and community animators to explore relevant themes through community theatre.

  • Cooperativa "Christine King" (Fundacion Superemos) which provides opportunities for CSL students to be involved in particular fine arts, cultural, technical, and/or employment training programs for children, youth and adults.

The Community Service-Learning office aims to run the program in Nicaragua again in 2020, and every two years thereafter. Of course, that will depend on how the current political situation in the country unfolds over the next months, and even years.

"It is important to invest long term in our relationships with community partners," Kelly says. "You build trust that way. Reciprocity is strengthened through long term relationships. That's important to CSL in terms of how we work and what we value in our partnerships."

Kelly points out that this is is especially true in the context of this course, given that solidarity is a core theme and that the current political and economic conditions in the country challenge us to think about how we can be, and act, in solidarity with Nicaraguans living in this precarious time.

The Community Service-Learning program blends theory and practice, while acting as a bridge between community and university. CSL students get the opportunity to do meaningful work with a local community group, while reflecting and putting their experiences in context within a university course. These community partnerships provide opportunities for students to gain valuable experience, and to contribute and increase their awareness of the social and political life of their community.