Combatting Inequality in Rural Guatemala Through Community Partnerships: A Roller Coaster to Success

03/12/2015 02:56 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2015


By any physical, mental or spiritual measure, the journey to Aguacate, Guatemala, is daunting. It's a 10-and-a-half hour roller coaster ride, careening through the passages of the Cuchumatanes mountain range. Ducking and dodging between dilapidated buses -- ancient and under-maintained by even the most minimal standards -- we whipped around precarious slivers of mountain paths, the treacherous labyrinths the locals called roads. It was clear we were being immersed -- kilometer by kilometer -- in a starkly different reality than the clearly-signed, evenly-painted and straight forward trappings familiar to every street corner, parking-lot and caffeinated cubicle back home. Here lives are simply, ruggedly lived and lost -- the sun rising every day over an unimaginably different physical and cultural terrain, one so often fraught with more challenge than opportunity.

My traveling companions were Fr. John Chakos of Pittsburgh, and Robert Kirschner, a retired engineer and experienced medical missionary. With two lifetimes of humanitarian experience in developing countries, the ride was punctuated by horror stories of what the indigenous populations suffered during the rancorous 36-year civil war that engulfed Guatemala. Leaving the highway, the tales that had been piercing my heart for the past few hours came vividly to life in the flood of grim reality my eyes and ears now absorbed. Desolate towns with abandoned store- fronts, the local populous gathered dejectedly around their shanty residences, soaked in a soul-deep aura of sadness.

The final stretch into Aguacate is completely unpaved; no streetlights; no guardrail, simply a winding trail. To top it off, it was now 11:30 pm and pitch black. After what felt like a lifetime getting tossed around in the van, we pulled up to the Church in the center of the village. Despite the hour, there seemed to be an enormous gathering of people from the community. We stopped just short of the crowd and climbed out to a startling, thunderous roar welcoming our team to the village. As we proceeded towards the church, thousands of villagers began tossing flowers and embracing us, lining up to say hello. The love, warmth, and sincerity of that embrace has inextricably bound me to the community and remains a feeling I am unable to put into words to this day.

Our week in Aguacate was spent talking to the community about the myriad of issues they faced on a daily basis. The conversations revealed that the most distressing issues for them were job and food security, access to clean drinking water, a dilapidated school and no access to healthcare.

As soon as we began our journey home, I began organizing my thoughts. Confronted by an overwhelming need met with pragmatic limitations, it was clear something different, something unique was needed. Trying to do too much was tantamount to doing nothing. Upon our return back home to the States, I wondered incessantly how we could effectively combat this sort of inequality -- not just for the people of Aguacate, but those who struggle against inequality and poverty in every corner of the globe.

I discussed ideas of empowerment and the right to a dignified life with Archbishop Athenagoras of Mexico City, the Ecumenical Exarch of Central America, the Islands of the Caribbean, Venezuela, Colombia; Dr. Andrea Bartoli, the Dean of the School of Diplomacy at Seton Hall University, and Chrysilios Chrysiliou, a Los Angeles-based businessman and philanthropist. Our discussions manifested in the founding of One World One Community (OWOC), a 501(c) 3 charitable organization. However, I struggled with the traditional notion of "charity." It seemed to stand in contrast to the conventional wisdom of give a man a fish (even the best and biggest fish, or a whole school of them) rather than teach that man to fish on his own.

The answer that emerged was to fundamentally design our mission differently. As a result, OWOC flipped the traditional notion of international non-profit work on its head--eschewing a top-down, go-down-and-help model with an on-the-ground, bottom-up model. It's about empowering communities and individuals to address unique local challenges with equally unique, sustainable local solutions.

This approach fundamentally alters the role of the non-profit--replacing the distant savior with a thoughtful partner. Rather than attempting to treat the symptoms of these communities, OWOC aims to address problems at their roots; to not only do good in the moment, but endeavor to fix the systemic issues these communities face so that the good which that is done will be permanent, not fleeting.

OWOC does this by harnessing the potential of these regions. It's built on constructing a reliable framework that engages local stakeholders- linking our resources and expertise to their actual needs, not our perceptions. This allows the entire cycle of the partnership to be both more effective and efficient; improving, extending and saving lives.

Although single missions to remote locations can be beneficial, the nature of the problems faced by indigenous communities, especially in Central and South America, are daily maladies only cured by daily solutions. By strengthening local communities, we equip them to respond to their specific needs as they happen rather than have to wait for outside individuals and groups to come in and spot-fix them.

This also allows for unparalleled flexibility. The needs of those OWOC aims to serve are diverse, ever changing and innumerable. Strengthening the community with our resources and strategically positioning responsible individuals with first-hand knowledge of that community's needs gives all of us who care the best chance to allocate precious resources so that they can have the highest-and-best use possible.

The second- and third-order benefits here are equally important. Not only does this approach allow OWOC to use all the available talents and resources to their best uses, it delivers those fully realized benefits directly to the local community. This helps the community shape the world around them for the better, to build something that will pay huge dividends to those investing the time and energy -- especially the local stakeholders and their families. As importantly, training these communities to plan for themselves and allocate their resources in an effective, constructive and naturally replenishing way reduces waste, the potential for failure and the need for endless remedial triage by OWOC and other organizations.

Striving to help shape and build these communities in a good way, we plan to help resolve, not treat, the ailments on the ground. Partnering with the local communities will serve to help break the toxic, aid-dependent cycle and help them achieve a positive, dignified life through their own efforts.

Through that lens, our actions are not an act of charity; they're the organizational realization of the Sustainable Development Goals. Our globalized world has interlinked communities in a fashion never before witnessed. This opens avenues of practical cooperation and assistance that have never existed. It's the individual realization that every man, woman and child deserves a dignified life, a tangible recognition that every man, woman and child is equal to one another.

It is from this deep conviction that human rights are universal that led to the creation of our NGO, One World One Community. It is with these same convictions that we ask each of you to reflect, and consider doing what you are able in order to help create a dignified existence for all.