Embracing Human Rights in El Salvador
Korleen Brady ’14 and Kailey McDonald ’15 set off for El Salvador intent on encountering another culture, learning something new, and doing meaningful work. It’s safe to say that they succeeded. They returned transformed, with open hearts, a new outlook on social justice, and a deeper understanding of how they want to live the rest of their lives.
Brady and McDonald spent the summer working in El Salvador with Foundation Cristosal, a faith-based human rights and community development organization committed to improving the quality of life in the communities it serves. The students were there as part of the John Ben Snow Foundation-Le Moyne College Honors Global Internship Program, which seeks to provide students in Le Moyne’s Integral Honors Program with the opportunity to further develop their understanding of social justice through an immersion experience abroad. It was rugged; it was rewarding; and it was inspirational. Beyond that, the trip was also a major force in the women’s intellectual, social and spiritual development.
“When I came back from El Salvador, there was an entire country living in my heart that I had never known could fit there,” said McDonald. “The language, the people, their history, my Salvadoran friends and family … I started looking at the world from Central America instead of Central New York, and it looks different from that angle.”
A long civil war late in the last century left in its wake serious challenges for the people of El Salvador, including gang violence, drug trafficking, and child migration. Many are still struggling to recover, and Foundation Cristosal is committed to reaching out to those in need. The work that Brady and McDonald did was centered on “a rights-based approach” to community development. While many organizations focus solely on meeting existing needs–for instance, providing individuals with food, clothing and shelter–Foundation Cristosal works to develop citizens’ capacity to address systemic issues like infrastructure, education and health care directly by providing them with a variety of resources and educational opportunities, such as workshops on legal and economic literacy.
A typical weekday for Brady and McDonald might include studying Spanish at the Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad (the Center for Exchange and Solidarity), talking to people in the community, and working on their two primary projects for the Foundation Cristosal. McDonald created a handbook for Cristosal’s Global School, which offers visitors from North America a variety of one-to-three-week courses in human rights from a Salvadoran point of view. The book describes the foundation, its mission, and its work. Meanwhile, Brady compiled a list of agencies that provide microloans to men and women in the community, perhaps to start new businesses or to make improvements to their homes. In both cases their work was centered on one pivotal question: How can we empower those we serve?
“Being in El Salvador and learning from the people at Cristosal helped me to think critically about human rights, the world, and what we can do to help other people,” Brady said. “It confirmed my ideas about education being the pathway to a better future, but it also taught me to think more broadly about how we educate the people.”
Rebecca Livengood, chair of the board of directors of Foundation Cristosal, said that Brady and McDonald seamlessly incorporated both the College and the foundation’s values into their work.
“Their Jesuit preparation proved to be a perfect match for Cristosal’s mission to strengthen the ability of the poor to act for justice and our rights-based approach to community development,” she said. “This alignment of the missions of Cristosal and Le Moyne resulted in both useful work for our programs and an engaging opportunity for the students.”
Throughout their time abroad, Brady and McDonald immersed themselves in Salvadoran culture, living with a host family, attending Mass with members of indigenous communities, and eating lunch in comedors, small, buffet-style restaurants. They learned to listen carefully to everyone they encountered, to hear their stories. After they returned to the U.S., Brady and McDonald shared what they learned with members of the Le Moyne and surrounding community during a celebration of the lives of the Jesuit martyrs who were killed at El Salvador’s Universidad Centroamericana 25 years ago. As they explained to the crowd, “Social justice is a long process that combines discussion and thought for a better future.” Their time in El Salvador was life changing for the women in that it provided them with a deeper understanding of how they want to put their educations to work.
Brady, who earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Le Moyne, is completing a master’s degree at Columbia Teachers College, said that she will bring the lessons she learned about empowerment and self-advocacy to her students at Brilla College Prep in the Bronx, N.Y., where she will teach beginning this fall.
“Education is the pathway to social justice,” she said. “I know that when I am teaching I am going to bring that ideal with me.”
Meanwhile, McDonald, who earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and peace and global studies from Le Moyne in May, said that she could not imagine a greater leadership opportunity than the one she found in El Salvador.
“My time with Cristosal really affirmed my belief that I will be doing social justice work, in some manner, for my entire life,” she said. “Cristosal taught me the words to explain my values when it comes to this kind of work. The rights-based approach to development honors and dignifies all of the people involved in a development project, without creating a hierarchy of giving ... It inspires real change and progress.”
Funding for the trip was provided through the John Ben Snow Foundation, as well as by the College’s Integral Honors Program and Office of Mission and Identity. In order to be eligible for the Snow-Le Moyne Honors Global Internship Program, students must have successfully completed The World of the Other, an honors course culminating in a three-week study abroad experience in Guatemala. Understanding the importance of Le Moyne students’ becoming involved in human rights and justice issues in neighboring Latin American countries, the College has funded The World of the Other for nearly twenty years.