The Roots of Activism
By CHELSEA ROOD-EMMICK, MSW, LSW
Chelsea Rood-Emmick is a licensed social worker in the state of Indiana. She has worked for Ivy Tech Community College both as a case manager and then as the Director for Civic Engagement. As the Director for Civic Engagement, she helps the college and community organizations partner form reciprocal relationships and helps faculty develop service-learning classes. Chelsea is also a raiser of free-range chickens and foster mom to shelter animals.
A 37-year-old returning student and I were standing in the blazing sun, deep in thought, sweating and squinting at a compact truck with a shell on the bed. This was a math puzzle.
Finally, he said, “If we sat on the suitcases and had our bags in our laps and took the shell off and put three of the big people in the front, with someone holding the baby, we might be able to fit the other ten of us in the back of this truck.”
I said, “I think you may be right.”
He said, “That’s some critical thinking there, for ya.”
We were in the mountains of Hidalgo, Mexico, and I was teaching a class called ‘Critical Thinking.’ My students were 12 individuals with a wide range of majors, backgrounds, ages, and experience with travel and Spanish. The students only pay $150 for the entire trip. This allows us to recruit and pick a diverse group that is representative of the college. We have a high number of returning students, single parents, working adults, laid off factory workers, and people from very rural areas. And all of those demographics were represented in our group.
We had a student who in his interview told us, to prove he was experienced with travel, that he had been to Iowa for two weeks. Two months later, that student who had been elaborating on how difficult it had been to be in Iowa was in a shanty town in Mexico beating a poisonous snake to death with a hoe.
Our plan for the week was to help families living in shantytowns to improve their shelters by pouring concrete floors over dirt floors and replacing tarp walls with siding. We also planned to spend some time in local schools and visit native villages further up in the mountains.
This was not ‘charity tourism.’ For me, as an instructor, it was about pulling back the veil for our students, many of whom had never traveled or thought about the international community. It was about experiencing and thinking about global poverty, economics, indigenous cultures, and the ways in which place shapes perspective.
Having traveled to five continents and possessing a social work license, on the surface it appeared I was a great choice to lead this group. Few where aware I almost didn’t go.
Around the same time the snake killer was telling me about his brush with Iowa, I went to see my neurologist to get a letter stating it was imperative I be allowed to take needles on an aircraft.
I am 25 years old, and I have Trigemial Neuralgia and a damaged supratrochlear nerve; a nerve that runs from below my eyebrow to the top of my head. On a good day my eye is tingly. On a bad day it will burn so bad my eye will turn red and my eyelid droops.
I considered not going. My past travels have not been impeded by my nerves much, but I have also never been responsible for anyone but myself.
In the end, my neurologist made a comment that was ripe with realism. ‘I am a bit worried. But I think even if you had a major flare you could get through the week.’
This limitation, coupled with the fact that I was the same age as many of my students often gave me a sense of apprehension. I worried, and I probably over emphasized my leadership role to compensate. I counted heads, passports, and luggage a ridiculous number of times. I became very irritable with the young men who helped our group ignored me and called my colleague, a silver haired gentleman, ‘el professor’. Luckily for me, ‘el professor’ was very understanding and all but put a neon flashing light over my head that said ‘the person in charge.’ Not that it helped.
One of my more anxiety producing moments came when a student and I were stopped in the street and asked to accompany a nine year old girl back to her house. We agreed, not realizing how far away this house was. The medication I take for my nerve makes me very forgetful, and the farther we got away from town the more I wondered if I could get us back to our shelter. I tried to make directions for myself in my head; ‘turn right at the two skinny horses, left by what looks like a chicken graveyard’ etc. But by the time we got to her ‘house’, which was a 12 by 12 box made of cinderblocks that housed eight children and their mother, it was getting dark and starting to rain.
The mother spent some time with the student and me, talking about her children. Our Spanish was bad, but we picked up the key themes. Her husband had died a few years ago at the age of 29, having already fathered eight children. He had died of alcoholism, and her 11 year old son was already drinking. The student and I told her we would bring her shoes for all her children. When we left, as we began to walk down the hillside to get to the road, we heard her yelling at the daughter that brought us to the house. From what we were able to gather, she said something like, ‘Girl, you take those two nice ladies back to town, they’ll never make it back themselves. Maybe they’ll buy you some dinner.’ We collected one of her brothers halfway back, and we did buy them both dinner. And something odd that appeared to be a marshmallow Peep on a cracker.
While I wanted to be a strong leader, I also wanted to have a bond with my students. They were a tight, cohesive team and I wanted to be a part of it. We did chores together, slept in the same room, and spent many hours stuff into the back of a pickup truck together. One day, when we were all particularly tired and cranky, ‘el professor’ unleashed some of his ex-Marine on a few of the students. This resulted in some angry tears and a few hours of silent treatment from most of the group. ‘El professor’ and I spent some of our outcast time outside on the curb.
‘Maybe I’m too easy on them.’ I said.
‘Maybe I’m too hard on them.’ He said.
‘I just want to be their friend.’ I said.
‘You can’t.’ He said. ‘You can be friendly, but you can’t be their friend.’
As I was learning about leadership, the students were doing their own learning.
The students spent two days building shelters in a shanty town. They learned how to mix concrete using sand, river water, and large gravel. The put up siding using cardboard dipped in tar and kept it from ripping over the nails in a wind gust by nailing a bottle cap into the siding and wood frame.
In her journal, one student wrote:
One day while we were mixing concrete, I told a child, Rebecca, that I was thirsty. She told me to drink water, and I explained I was out of water. She motioned and began to walk, ‘mi casa.’ I followed her. She led me into a tiny hut with a dirt floor and dipped a cup of water into a bowl on the table and handed it to me with a smile. The water was yellow, straight from the stagnant murky river, with chunks of stuff floating in it. It had never occurred to me that this water was considered drinkable to people. I knew I couldn’t drink it, but I wanted to connect with her; I didn’t want her to be ashamed of her poverty or think I thought I was above her. I thanked her and took it away to dump out when she wasn’t looking. It makes me wonder what the health risks are in drinking that daily and how much of it they are immune to.
Journal excerpt: Sondra Sasser
Another two days were spent in local schools. Students broke piñatas with the children and played with them at recess. One school we went to was in an indigenous village further up in the mountains. Families came from all around to see us, and we used that opportunity to give away the donated items we had carried all the way from Indiana in 14 large suitcases. The students gave away 300 pairs of shoes that were donated by our community.
Giving out shoes was a mob experience, with those who spoke Spanish performing crowd control and the rest of us working as fast as we could to size feet and get people out the classroom door before the crowd closed in on us. It was two hours of sweat, adrenaline, and nonverbal communication skills. Occasionally there was a moment so poignant it comes to the surface of the otherwise blur of a day, such as finding shoes for a baby or a particularly awesome coat for an elderly man.
In their journals, Ivy Tech students wrote:
At the village, there was a 96 year old woman with no family, no house, and no shoes on. She stayed outside every night. It got so cold at night. All we had left to give her was a blanket.
Journal excerpt: Tracy Ho
Nothing can prepare you to understand how poor these people are. Most of their shoes, if they had shoes, were held together with tape or a couple stitches. They were skinny and hungry. They were however, humble, happy, and close as a community. It is unlike anything that I see at home, they don’t live as individuals out to get their own, but more as a giant family.
Journal excerpt: Desiree Fedrick
Every night we ate dinner as a group on a balcony between the men’s and women’s rooms. During these meals, between inhaling food, there was much discussion. The students asked ‘el professor’, a history professor, to explain NAFTA. We talked about imperialism and its effect on the native populations in the outlying villages. We talked about family culture and religion. And time after time, we talked about permanent solutions to poverty.
The students realized that laying down a floor where a family had slept in the dirt was life changing. And giving a child her first pair of shoes was a marvelous gift. But the roots of poverty were still just as deep as when they had arrived. They knew that and it ate at them all week.
As a social worker, I felt troubled. I was trained to empower people by giving them life changing tools. All week a parable that I had heard long ago followed me like a pebble in my shoe.
There was once a homeless man, with no shoes. His feet were very rough and calloused. One day a rich man saw him and how bad his feet were, and bought the homeless man a great pair of new shoes. The homeless man loved the shoes and was very grateful and wore them every day for years. Eventually, the shoes became worn down and fell apart, and he had to throw them away. Now his feet, from being in shoes for years, were no longer rough and calloused. As he began to walk around barefoot again, his feet became cut up and infected.
I do not believe we were doing anything but good by giving away shoes and building floors. But the story haunted me like the ghost of social work schooling.
My comfort is believing that this was just a stepping off point for the students; the first mile in their marathon. They learned how much they could achieve and endure when they needed to. They hauled water from a distant river in 5 gallon buckets and cleaned their wounds with bottled water. They met fathers who, desperate to feed their children, had been to the states to pick crops. They played soccer with kids in the street who could not go to school.
This trip stretched my physical capabilities and I achieved more that I thought I could. My time in Calnali taught me that even my meager abilities could make a difference to someone. It has made me want to improve upon the skills I have and acquire more.
Journal excerpt: Lehua Aplaca
And today, the day I finished writing this article, I got an email from a student:
I'm probably going back to spend fall semester in Puebla, Mexico. I'd live with a host family and teach English to schoolkids- the program is International Language Programs (ILP). Hopefully I get accepted!! I'll let you know- I find out this week.
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