Space to be and breathe: A farewell gathering with partners in Central America

By Corey Oser | April 7, 2022 | The Americas | Freedom from Violence & Exploitation, Gender Equity

Editor’s note: This post is also available in Spanish.

After four years, GFC’s Empowering Adolescent Girls initiative is coming to a close. In this blog post, Vice President of Programs Corey Oser reflects on the final convening in Guatemala.

It is dark as we gather around a stone fountain in the courtyard of Casa K’uljay, a retreat center in Guatemala. We are here for the fourth and last convening with 16 partners from Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua in Global Fund for Children’s Empowering Adolescent Girls initiative, which is supported by Dubai Cares, part of Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives. Members from Artemisa in Honduras prepare to lead us through a closing activity.

They tape colorful letters to spell out the word emoción (emotion) across the top of the fountain. We listen eagerly as someone reads short vignettes, and we walk around the fountain, dropping paper petals on pictures to correspond to the feelings that the stories evoke. After a couple of rounds, GFC Co-Director for the Americas, Kimberly McClain, sets the scene for a last scenario: What feelings emerge as this initiative closes after four years of being together like a family, in a collective spirit of solidarity?

People around a fountain

GFC partner Artemisa leads the group in a closing activity. © GFC

People move silently around the fountain, dropping their petals, with the biggest piles forming in front of tristeza (sadness) and amor (love). Several speak about what it has meant to feel heard and supported with true flexibility across the years, especially during the pandemic isolation. Some extend wishes to keep the connections among the group alive. As we close our circle, each organization comes forward to choose a parting gift from among an array of colorful feminist storybooks hauled all the way from the US by Marco Blanco, Program Officer for the Americas.

This cohort has had no shortage of activities across these four years, from engaging in participatory organizational self-assessments and working on internal organizational areas to a yearlong learning review that included outcome harvesting, case studies, and participatory action research.

Yet what strikes me in this gathering is not all the doing and learning of the last four years, but the space to breathe and be. This is the first in-person convening for this group since just before the pandemic unfolded in 2020. Our partners are confronting entrenched interests to shape new social norms around how girls exercise their rights to learn, live free from violence, and speak out on social issues that affect them. All of our partners’ staff have led their own lives in a way that opens possibilities for others even as they carry the weight of historical and intergenerational trauma. As a group, we have taken special care this week to acknowledge our partners from Nicaragua, who reported their sighs of relief when their plane touched ground in another country, offering temporary respite from living in fear in a climate of repression.

An activity with lights and colored paper

Participants put final touches on an activity led by GFC partner Coincidir. © GFC

When we bring people together, we have the natural temptation to fill every moment. Yet in this convening, spacious collective care and connection weave the group together.

We started the time together in a breathing exercise to tune into our surroundings and ourselves and let go of unfinished business elsewhere. We created a paper quilt representing the gifts that each person brings to their community and shared stories and marshmallows around a fire.

In one powerful exercise designed by our partner and local host, Asociación Coincidir, participants shared personal and organizational stories from recent years and visions for change, each contributing to a beautiful visual representation. Our partners led physical games and exercises each morning. We spent one afternoon exploring the nearby town of Antigua, culminating in dinner punctuated by a rousing session of karaoke. These less-structured spaces reflect the idea that healing and connecting happen through creative expression, movement, and the in-between spaces. If people leave feeling more energized, inspired, cared for, and less alone, we have contributed to their individual and collective wellbeing.

Women and men participating in an outdoor activity

GFC partners lead the group in a morning energizer. © GFC

On the last day, we journey by minibus to the space where Coincidir works with girls in their community. After sharing a communal meal, we do some exercises to get to know each other and form small groups to interact with Coincidir staff and the girls. We listen to girls as young as 9 as they share their concerns, experiences, and dreams, talking about topics like feeling unsafe walking in their communities or their hope to end corruption in their country. The girls chant and play drums as an electric way to embody Coincidir’s campaign: “Lucha como niña” (fight like a girl). The girls remind us why these moments to breathe and be are important to renew our energy.

As we reflect on the spaces where our partners come together, it is easy to gravitate toward talking about the content shared or action galvanized. Yet how do we convey the subtle moments of release – the spaces to talk about things taboo at home, the laughter, childlike games, music, and art? We remind ourselves that documenting and justifying is not always necessary – holding the space is a gift in itself, for reconnecting with ourselves, each other, and our desire for social change.

Header photo: Participants listen as Coincidir staff and girls in Coincidir’s program play music during a site visit. © GFC

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