Community participation in child protection


[Individual articles from the Summer 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

As schools strengthen their child safeguarding efforts, they must work together with families and communities as key allies in the critical responsibility of protecting children. Sometimes family, neighbors and other community members play an obvious role in keeping children safe—for example, when a 12-year-old girl is sexually assaulted by a stranger but manages to scream, and other community members come to her rescue and eventually capture her assailant. However, just as it would be unthinkable for the community to remain silent in moments of crisis like this, it is equally important that the community be actively involved in preventing and responding to more hidden forms of abuse that unfortunately are too often perpetrated by teachers, staff or other adults in positions of trust.

The Inter-Agency Network on Education in Emergencies (INEE) underscores that community participation is critical to the effectiveness and sustainability of education programs. As such, community members must be supported to participate actively, transparently and without discrimination in all stages of education responses (INEE Minimum Standards for Education, 2010). Community-led approaches are grounded in the idea of people power, that is, the ability of ordinary people, even under difficult circumstances, to organize themselves, define their main problems or challenges and collectively address those problems (Wessels, 2018). In that view, structured community-led forums are the best place to identify local protection issues and develop the most appropriate solutions in cooperation with schools (“Role of School Management Committees,” 2016).

School Management Committees (SMCs) and Parent Teacher Associations (PTAs) are important tools for enhancing school governance—particularly with respect to leadership, management and decision-making. These community structures are developed through a series of comprehensive social mobilization activities which encourage and guide communities in the participatory processes of managing a school. They normally consist of seven to eight members from diverse interest groups: SMCs often include a school administrator or principal, parent representatives, teachers, social workers and community elders. SMCs provide a natural and important opportunity to involve the community in making schools safe for children. SMCs and PTAs should participate in every stage of child safeguarding and protection efforts, from the development of child safeguarding policies to overseeing that these procedures are implemented, monitored and updated.

At the stage of policy development, SMCs and PTAs can help identify the risks children face and establish effective steps to reduce those risks, including reporting mechanisms that are culturally appropriate and accessible to all. They can also ensure that children’s voices are heard, through encouraging the establishment of child-led groups in the school and community and by soliciting input from children to feed into SMC discussions.

Policies only have a positive impact if they are put into practice, so SMCs and PTAs are even more important at the stage of implementation. Since SMCs and PTAs play a key role in budgeting and disbursement of funding, they should be in the forefront advocating for resources to be set aside for disseminating policies that have been translated into local and child-friendly languages. They should also ensure that both teachers and students are regularly made aware of the types of abuse children face and that the school has set up the necessary reporting and response mechanisms.

Over the past two decades, both of Kenya’s refugee camps, Kakuma (pop.188,000) and Dadaab (pop. 211,086), have witnessed growing community participation in protecting children through schools. Not only have these community structures strengthened refugee schools in numerous ways, but they have also proven to be an important tool for raising awareness about and addressing cultural norms that marginalize certain groups of children and young people—for example, highlighting and responding to the distinctive challenges facing children living with disabilities, child-headed households and child mothers in accessing education (“Good Practices,” 2015). In Kakuma, parents who undergo SMC training expressed feeling more confident in their roles and responsibilities in engaging the school in cases of child abuse.

In their role as decision-makers, SMCs and PTAs can influence decisions about appropriate response actions when a teacher has been found culpable of abusing or exploiting children—for example, by pushing for dismissal or arrest and conviction of perpetrators in a case of serious abuse or corporal punishment of students by teachers.

Beyond school-based groups like SMCs and PTAs, community-based child protection groups are key players in ensuring children are safe not only in school but even the surrounding community (“A Common Responsibility,” 2008). Community-based child protection groups bring together volunteers who aim to improve the protection and wellbeing of children in a village, urban neighborhood or other community. They are known by a variety of names—for example, orphan and vulnerable children committees, child protection committees, child welfare committees, community care committees and anti-trafficking committees. Despite having different names, these groups are mostly very similar, with the common aim of protecting and caring for vulnerable children. For example, such committees might mobilize adults to accompany children to prevent them from being attacked when going or returning from school. It is important for schools to also engage and collaborate with these kinds of groups, to raise awareness of key child protection issues in the community or identify children who may not be attending schools and refer them for assistance.

Communities must not be left out or reduced to mere rubber stamps in the day-to-day management of school-based initiatives. This is especially true when it comes to child safeguarding. Since communities vary enormously in each context, they must develop their own ways of working that fit their context. Schools form only a part—though a very significant one—of a holistic social reality, so they must not work in isolation from the community. Rather, they must actively involve parents and community to understand how child abuse and its prevention in the school context is related to its dynamic manifestations within the community. This will ensure that school-based safeguarding efforts are culturally sensitive, locally appropriate and as effective as possible.

Martin Juma is a short-term consultant with MCC programs on child protection. He is based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Learn more

“A Common Responsibility: The Role of Community-Based Child Protection Groups in Protecting Children from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse.” London: International Save the Children Alliance, 2008. Available for download at https://resourcecentre.savethe

Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE). INEE Minimum Standards for Education: Preparedness, Response, Recovery. New York: UNICEF, 2010. Available for download in multiple languages at

“Role of School Management Committees (SMCs) and Local Governing Bodies in Violence Prevention within School: Evidences from Nepal.” Regional Expert Roundtable on Prevention of Violence in Schools in South Asia, April 25-27, 2016, Colombo, Sri Lanka. Available for download at downloadpdf/ Day%201%20Session%204%20KBNepal%20Role%20of%20School%20 Management% 20Committee%20and%20Local%20Governance.pdf.

UNHCR. “Good Practices for Strengthening Community Participation in Education In Kenya.” January 15, 2015. Available at

Wessells, M.G. “A Guide for Supporting Community-Led Child Protection Processes.” New York: Child Resilience Alliance, 2018. Available at


Community-led early childhood care and education


[Individual articles from the Summer 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Samuel, four years old, initially struggled upon entering preschool. His mother, Christina, a refugee in Cairo, Egypt, had been stripped of her family support network when she fled Sudan and therefore was forced to leave him at home while she worked long hours to support the family. Samuel thus spent his first years largely isolated from human interaction, and feared people, light and the bustling streets. Despite her long hours of work, Christina could not afford childcare for Samuel—the preschools in the area were too expensive and the few free preschools were full. Community-led, holistic and sustainable programming is essential for refugee children like Samuel to access the benefits of quality early childhood care, which include cognitive, psychosocial and health effects that extend for a lifetime.

Refugee parents in Egypt must cope with disruption to family life, extreme poverty, trauma, no or insecure employment and lack of social support. Many thus struggle to provide their children with the support they need for early childhood development. Some neighborhoods in which refugees live have created affordable initiatives run by community-based organizations, with local community members as teachers, where refugee parents are comfortable leaving their children. These preschools within a community have many benefits: the preschool staff are familiar with the parents, they can conduct home visits and the parents do not have to travel long distances to drop off and pick up their children. However, the ongoing challenge of maintaining enough resources, space and trained teachers often puts these community preschools at risk of shutting down.

St. Andrew’s Refugee Services (StARS), a refugee-led and run organization in Cairo that partners with MCC, was well-equipped to support communities in facing these challenges. StARS had well-established relationships in the most vulnerable neighborhoods, experience and knowledge of best practices from running two preschools of its own and a strong dedication to refugee-led work which meant that community ownership would be central to the project. From this background, StARS developed an innovative early childhood wellbeing project, founded on the three principles identified above: community at the center of programming; holistic care; and sustainable growth.

Community-led programming: In October 2017, StARS’ early childhood development team worked with the StARS community outreach program, which had already conducted extensive community mapping, to identify communities most likely to benefit from its early childhood wellbeing project. StARS then conducted focus groups with community members to understand the existing community structures for early childhood care and elicit suggestions on what might be done to strengthen them. A common concern was how to increase financial resources, as the schools could not sustain themselves through community contributions or school fees alone without making the preschools unaffordable to the communities they sought to serve.

Building upon these focus group discussions, StARS collaborated with the community-based organizations in each neighborhood to elect a management team and design a response model. Caregivers voted on the priorities to be addressed, and a tailored training package was developed. For example, unlike most preschools, some of the preschools needed to care for very young babies, and thus required appropriate space and trainings.

Later in the project, the preschools also received a small budget to invest as they saw fit. StARS’ commitment to community-led programming enabled them to provide relevant, specialized advice to teachers. So, for example, when a student drew a picture of a gun during class, StARS’ teachers, who are themselves refugees, were able to provide an intensive two-week training for teachers and caregivers in the community on how to support young learners in building positive behaviors and coping with trauma. The community teachers later reported that the students no longer exhibited aggression and that the atmosphere of the class had improved. Altogether, this community-led approach means that plans are tailored to the particularities of the communities, thus building community trust and ownership of the project while reducing cost.

Holistic care: StARS’ community-led approach provides those caring for preschool-age children with a nuanced understanding of the underlying reasons for neglected early childhood development. In addition to training teachers on best practices, such as how to welcome students and create play activities, the early childhood wellbeing staff participate in weekly meetings with caregivers. This has created referral pathways to other departments within StARS (facilitating, for example, access to counseling, legal advice, education and medical micro-grants) for the parents and students. When StARS noticed that parents of children with disabilities needed assistance, they established a peer support group for the parents and created referral channels to a provider of education grants for special needs children. With this holistic approach, StARS does what it can to remove the many barriers to the children’s development.

Sustainable growth: It is not enough to train community teachers and to provide them with resources to offer early childhood education for refugee children. If these schools were to close because of lack of resources or, in order to sustain their operations, they were to increase school fees and thereby exclude the very families the project was meant to help, the schools’ founding goals would not be achieved. StARS therefore entered the project with a sustainable strategy. In the short term, work with the preschool management teams to establish alternate income streams, such as providing adult language classes in the center during the hours that the preschool is closed. In the long term, connect the preschool management team with other potential funders.

By training community members as teachers and by equipping parents with positive parenting skills, the project hopes to increase the recognition of early childhood wellbeing as an essential aspect of family life, and thus increase opportunities for children more widely than the parameters of the project. Ultimately, StARS seeks to have a wide impact on community life, including improved communication between family members and strengthened community relations. Sustainable, daily childcare programming for refugee children allows refugee households, especially single parent households like Christina’s, to engage in wage-earning activities while knowing that their children are being cared for in safe, development-focused, community-based spaces.

Daniel Davies is Policy and Advocacy Officer for St. Andrew’s Refugee Services (StARS) in Cairo, Egypt. Other staff running the Supporting Early Childhood Wellbeing Project also contributed to this article.

Learn more

Manning-Morton, Julia. “Well-Being in the Early Years.” Teach Early Years website. Available at

National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. “The Science of Neglect: The Persistent Absence of Responsive Care Disrupts the Developing Brain.” Working Paper No. 12. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Center on the Developing Child, 2012. Available at

St. Andrew’s Refugee Services website.

School Management Committees and school improvement


[Individual articles from the Summer 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Education is a human right! The School Management Committee (SMC) is the driving force responsible for ensuring this right to every child in their community. An SMC has the responsibility to manage its school with a business mindset and determine the most effective way to use limited resources in order to deliver quality education services in the community the SMC represents.

School improvement and accountability movements have challenged schools and districts to develop plans for how they will produce better results. The Zimbabwean government, seeking to maintain its reputation within Africa for its high-quality schooling and to keep up the country’s high literacy rate, has devised a lot of innovations to improve the quality of education in all teaching/learning institutions in the country. One such innovation was to introduce decentralized governance of the schools, to give local communities more say in the management and administration of the schools through the formation of School Management Committees.

SMCs are typically comprised of parents, teachers and headmasters. However, MCC Zimbabwe, in consultation with school administrators and SMCs, has realized that SMCs are even stronger if they also include local leaders (e.g., chiefs, village heads, local council members, business community leaders) and students.

SMCs have a variety of roles, but one of the most important is their role in managing the use of financial and other local resources for the improvement of the school. The committees manage funds from levies paid by the parents and small grants from the government whenever they are made available. During periodic meetings with parents and other stakeholders (including Ministry of Education officials and local leadership, such as chiefs and village heads), the vision of the community is made public for implementation by the school authorities together with the SMC. Budget plans are laid out during the meetings and then spending decisions are ultimately made by the committee’s votes.

Sometimes non-governmental organizations partner with schools to pay the school levies for underprivileged students. When this happens, SMCs select the students that qualify for assistance and manage the use of the funds paid by the partner organizations.

Financial reports are shared and presented to the parents and other local stakeholders during the regular meetings which are usually held three times a year so that everyone is involved in monitoring how the accumulated funds are spent. The level of feedback and accountability is thus clear and transparent. In cases in which funds have not been used as planned, the parents as key stakeholders have the right to recall the elected members should they find that reasons for not using funds as planned are not satisfactory.

One challenge in rural Zimbabwe is that most parents struggle to pay the required school levies, hence SMCs also struggle to execute their mandate due to financial constraints. Where there are financial constraints, it is usually difficult to mobilize communities for unskilled labour as well.

Key stakeholders such as chiefs, village heads and ward councilors are important in overcoming these challenges. When these leaders spearhead the implementation, it builds confidence in communities and thereby promotes the community’s positive response, perceptions and participation. These leaders are the access points for other community members to the school and hence can influence and mobilize the community to provide resources and actively participate in the school. Local leadership is very influential in the Zimbabwean context, such that local leaders bear great authority to foster positive responses.

Effective SMCs also seek to mobilize young people to contribute to the school. Young adults who are not working can be contracted to provide much-needed unskilled labor, something that in turn gives young people a sense of ownership in the school, fostering a feeling of community members being micro-donors to the school rather than waiting for funding from somewhere else.

Another challenge is the need for the capacities of SMCs to be strengthened. MCC Zimbabwe walks the SMCs through the budgeting and reporting processes for prioritizing and managing limited resources. To further support the committees in gaining confidence in managing funds, MCC Zimbabwe provides grants to the schools and the SMCs are responsible for how the grant is used. They plan, budget and purchase, with MCC staff playing an advisory role.

In Binga district, communities have undertaken massive projects such as building classroom blocks through mobilized community participation, with community members donating locally available material like stones and digging pit sand. Through SMC efforts, there have also been notable changes in the schools’ learning environments. The planning has led to the efficient use of funds to purchase learning and teaching materials. Moreover, there has also been an increase in the number of learners who passed their national examinations after these improvements.

It has been observed over time that if communities are empowered and stop viewing themselves as subservient, then they begin to view their environments differently, gaining new confidence in their ability to change their status quo. For instance, many communities in rural Zimbabwe have a lot of resources around them that they can use to their advantage, but due to lack of foresight they end up waiting for an external person or entity to come to their aid. However, the establishment of SMCs in Zimbabwe has fostered development in the schools through their coordinated effort in mobilizing the communities towards set goals. SMCs have created transparency and in turn community confidence has also increased, creating a fertile education environment for the children of that community.

Tinodashe Gumbo is education program officer for MCC Zimbabwe.

Oversight committees help hold schools accountable


[Individual articles from the Summer 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

In Honduras, like in many other countries around the world, the right to quality education is protected by the constitution. In practice, however, most children do not reach satisfactory levels of learning in the educational system. The 2017 National Academic Performance Report showed that across grades 1 to 9, 60% of students scored “needs improvement” or “unsatisfactory” in the core subjects of mathematics and Spanish. Is this a failure of the Honduran state educational system alone? Or are there other actors that can contribute to ensuring a quality education for children and adolescents?

In our experience, community participation in “Comités de Veedores” (Oversight Committees) has helped improve the quality of education. [Veeduría can also be translated as monitoring, observation, inspection or supervision.] These committees, made up of community members, watch over their local schools and advocate for better educational quality by monitoring the performance of teachers and the level of student learning. One concrete result has been a noticeable increase in the number of days schools are open, with students saying, “Now we don’t lose class time!” For example, one oversight committee identified an educational center which, during a 40-day period, had suspended classes on 20 days for different reasons. After implementing the oversight process, the same school successfully provided 99% of the class days required by law the following year.

This initiative emerged from a series of meetings organized by Transformemos Honduras (“Let’s Transform Honduras”). These meetings, called tarde de café con sabor a esperanza (“conversations flavored with hope”), brought together various community leaders around a common goal, namely, that their communities would have educational centers that provide high-quality education. These leaders carried out a community diagnosis which examined the reality faced by each of the schools, including their specific strengths and weaknesses, and the process led to a decision to systematically monitor the schools’ activities and ensure that the services they provided met higher quality standards.

This important community decision propelled the implementation of community watchdog processes across the education sector, resulting in meetings with local authorities as well as the highest educational authorities in the country. Training was developed for local community members on social oversight and about legal regulations concerning citizens’ rights and duties. Then they coordinated with the educational authorities at different levels, including school principals, to proceed with the implementation of the school oversight committees. Reaching out to these decision makers was critical in explaining that the oversight process is intended as an opportunity to improve the school’s quality and ultimately to benefit the children.

Oversight committee meetings became spaces of learning and citizen empowerment, since at the beginning the members had many fears of approaching the teachers. Historically, there has been a vertical relationship between teachers and community members. In some cases, the same teachers had taught these committee members when they were children, so visiting the teachers now as adults in an oversight role became a huge challenge. The constant technical support the project provided to the committees in the early stages of their implementation was a critical element for the achievement of the positive results enjoyed today.

School oversight committees have been successful in pressing for and monitoring school progress in key areas. So, for example, oversight committees have undertaken daily monitoring exercises that have tracked when schools are open, monitoring schools’ commitment to fulfilling the 200 days of school required by law. Observers from the committees are distributed to the educational centers and daily write in a notebook whether classes are in session, to verify compliance with the law.

Observers also collect information to document the use of class time in schools, by making visits to the school without prior notice to teachers. They fill in a form to collect information regarding the schedules, duration of classes, activities that interrupt classes, presence of teachers, principals and parents in the center and good practices. The results of the data are used to advocate to the authorities so that the one thousand hours of class required per year are used effectively.

The oversight committees consolidate and analyze the information they gather, generating a preliminary report on the schools in their communities, complete with findings and recommendations for improvement. This report is shared with the school principals for them to review and validate. If school principals have any observations about these reports, they can send them to the committee with supporting documentation to make the pertinent corrections. Then the revised, final report is delivered to the relevant government authorities and shared with other stakeholders, such as parents and teachers.

A commitment is obtained from the principals to consider the recommendations made in the reports and to prepare improvement plans, which include concrete actions that respond to the recommendations and improve the quality of service provided. The improvement plans are monitored by the oversight committees who use a table to track which activities are carried out and which are not. This oversight exerts healthy pressure on the schools to comply with the plans.

The challenge in making school oversight committees into truly effective bodies that strengthen school quality and foster greater accountability by schools to their surrounding communities is constant and great. Yet, as Doña Alma, an oversight committee member, observes: “Although two of my grandchildren have been killed, I believe I have a civic duty to fight for all the children of my community to have a different future. Even if some teachers don’t like it, I will continue with my work in the oversight committee because I do not lose hope that the situation in my country will improve.” It is truly everyone’s responsibility to ensure the education of our children. School oversight committees are a concrete way that communities can exercise this responsibility.

Blanca Mungía works with the Association for a More Just Society in Honduras, an MCC partner.

Learn more

Website for the Association for a More Just Society. Available at (Spanish).

Strengthening School Management Committees


[Individual articles from the Summer 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

With the decentralization of educational governance over the past 15 years in Nepal, community participation in school management has become a vital component of improved quality of education. The government in Nepal has begun encouraging the use of School Management Committees (SMCs) as a means of ensuring community involvement in schools’ decision-making processes. Strengthening these committees is one of the most effective ways non-governmental organizations like MCC and its partners can contribute to improving the quality of education.

In Nepal, the law requires every school to form an SMC composed of nine members, at least three of whom must be female. Members are elected for three-year terms, with committees including representatives from the local community, government and education offices, intellectual and philanthropic communities, a founding member of the school and the head teacher. Government-mandated roles of SMCs in Nepal are to assess teacher performance, identify and mobilize local resources, coordinate with stakeholders who might contribute toward the school’s development (donor agencies, NGOs, government offices), develop and monitor school improvement plans, oversee regular audits of the school’s financial management and motivate parents and community members toward greater ownership and accountability.

In practice, MCC and its partners have found that, despite legal requirements, many schools do not yet have an SMC that actively understands and operates according to its mandate. Bal Krishna Maharjan, strategy advisor for MCC partner organization Sansthagat Bikas Sanjal, explains that prior to implementing the organization’s MCC-funded education project, the SMCs they worked with functioned only in a rudimentary way, which tended to create an environment that enabled poor accountability and teacher performance (and, in turn, poor academic results). Similarly, Suresh Adhikari, program coordinator of Sanjal’s partner, the Hilly Rural Development Organization Northern Morang (HRDON), found that there was a significant lack of coordination among students, parents, SMCs and NGOs. With limited trust and accountability, students in the region where HRDON operates did not attend class regularly and expected to be promoted regardless of their performance.

Understanding the vital role of SMCs in improving quality of education for students, Sanjal and HRDON intentionally incorporated SMC capacity-building activities into the design of their rural education project. Among the strategies they found to be most effective in Nepal’s context were: orienting SMC members to their roles and responsibilities; regularly coaching SMCs in the process of developing and monitoring school improvement plans; organizing joint meetings between teachers and SMC members to discuss vision and goals; helping SMCs develop guidelines for raising funds to support school improvements; and creating criteria for SMCs to carry out teachers’ annual performance evaluations.

Sanjal and HRDON have found that the impact of strengthened SMCs on school and student performance is profound in several important ways. First, the participatory approaches used by SMCs have led to an increased sense of community ownership over schools. Adhikari explains that “SMC members are now actively involved in setting goals related to improving the quality of education, especially increasing the number of students and improving school infrastructure. The SMC members even contributed to the construction of a new two-room school structure by raising funds and carrying gravel from over three hours away!” Active involvement of SMCs has also increased the schools’ access to educational resources and to teachers with training in specific subject areas. Maharjan explains that in his working area, SMC members began to assume an active role in building relationships with government line agencies and sending delegates to district education office meetings, all of which eventually led to much-needed financial and infrastructure support for their schools.

Teachers now also feel a greater sense of accountability to their schools and to SMCs. With SMCs requiring annual evaluations on teacher performance, teachers are compelled to attend classes regularly, participate in professional development opportunities and meet basic teaching standards. SMC members have also become engaged in student enrollment campaigns, parental counseling and advocacy for local peace and justice initiatives. In HRDON’s working area, SMC members became actively involved in supporting schools’ “child clubs” to create awareness around the harmful impacts of child marriage, offer counseling to parents and students and support students who had run away to re-enroll in school. Beyond promoting academic performance, SMCs can thus play a significant role in engaging young people and parents in a variety of relevant social issues.

While significant improvements to school management committee capacity have been made, there remain several challenges and obstacles. While SMCs in Nepal have a mandate to carry out annual performance evaluations, they do not currently have adequate authority to take action against poor teacher performance. Consequently, teacher performance continues to hinder change in schools to a certain extent. In addition, in geographic areas characterized by difficult terrain and long walks to and from school, it is challenging for SMC members to find time to meet regularly.

Among the biggest learnings around the promotion of SMCs by MCC Nepal and its partners is the acknowledgment that building the capacity of SMCs should be an integral component of any education project. Both Sanjal and HRDON have found that the most effective strategy to strengthen SMCs is simply regular and systematic coaching from NGO staff. With adequate SMC support, schools are able to comply with government regulations while also creating a flourishing and transparent community in which administrators, teachers, parents and students can collectively thrive.

Juliana Yonzon (program coordinator) and Daphne Hollinger Fowler (representative) serve with MCC Nepal.

Communication between school, students and parents


[Individual articles from the Summer 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

“To work in education effectively and successfully, one cannot work alone,” says Esther Pierre, principal of Fodation Œcumenique pour la Paix et la Justice (FOPJ), an MCC-supported school located in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. For Pierre, success in education is the result of three key groups—school staff, students and parents—working together. “In Haiti, we have a proverb that says, ‘If you balance a pot on three rocks to cook, but one of the rocks is missing, the pot will never boil.’ This is why it is important for the school staff to work hand-in-hand with the students and their families to be successful.”

The Haitian education system faces unique challenges. With 85% of schools being run by non-state actors such as non-governmental organizations, churches and private organizations, Haitian families face high tuition costs (USAID, 2017). The average cost per student for primary school is US$154/year, which amounts to 21% of the average GDP per capita in Haiti (World Bank, 2015). For many families in Port-au-Prince slums, this represents an insurmountable cost.

FOPJ, located in the slum of Kafou Fey on the southern outskirts of Port-au-Prince, provides primary education to local students at no cost or for a small fee, based on family income. Kafou Fey is often considered one of the most violent neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince, facing high rates of gang activity. One-fourth of the FOPJ’s students are classified as restaveks (vulnerable young children, most frequently girls, from the countryside sent to live with family in the city to perform domestic labor in return for lodging, food and school), while another half of the students are children being raised by a single parent.

Within a challenging context, Pierre and her colleagues at FOPJ have found creative ways to actively engage parents in the school, with the aim of supporting students’ academic and personal success. In Pierre’s experience, there are four primary ways to facilitate the engagement of parents and students: school committees; effective communication; personal relationships; and parent meetings.

While parents at FOPJ do not have disposable income to donate to the school, Pierre encourages them to join committees which allow them to be involved with school activities such as clean-up days, organizing special events, gardening and recruitment of new students. These committees offer parents opportunities to give back as well as see the inner workings of the school, in turn giving them more confidence in the quality of education their children are receiving. “If they have confidence in what you are doing, you can encourage them to become a part of the school,” Pierre observes. School committees have succeeded in attracting parental involvement: participating parents encourage and recruit parents of new students to join committees.

FOPJ’s director and staff have found that maintaining effective communication not only with students, but with parents as well, is vital to foster parental engagement. Communication with parents should include updates about students’ academic performance, behavior and attitude towards others. Pierre believes that by practicing open and honest communication, school administrators create a learning environment in which parents and students can share questions, concerns and needs. “The director must learn to listen to the parents and children regarding the relationships that exist within the home, and keep that information confidential,” Pierre maintains. When parents are informed about what their children are learning and feel included in their children’s education, they are more deeply invested in seeing their child succeed and in supporting the school.

For Pierre, her job includes more than an interest in the academic success of her students. Understanding that turmoil within the personal life of a student can manifest itself through poor behavior or academic achievement, Pierre makes a point of forming personal relationships with students and parents in order to build trust and offer assistance when able. “People think that in order to have a relationship you need money or status, but if you consider everyone a person, you can have a relationship with all,” notes Pierre. “If I see that there is something troubling in the home of a student, I address it after I form a relationship with the parent and student, not before. When I am building a relationship with them, I just want to ensure that they know they have value.”

As a result of the strong relationships Pierre has formed with parents, she has found success in planning parent meetings as a way of updating the parents on school events and student activities and reinforcing the importance of their children’s education. Despite parents at FOPJ often working long hours to provide for their families, many parents still place high priority on attending the meetings. Even if a parent is unable to attend, Pierre remarks that they often pass by the school as soon as possible to receive the information shared at the meeting. These meetings require great effort from Pierre and her team, as they spend hours calling parents individually to remind them about the meetings: distributing printed schedules was not successful with the school’s parents, who are predominantly illiterate. Pierre also stresses the importance of having multiple staff and teachers present at the parent meetings. “It is important for them to see we are a team,” says Pierre. “It is not only one person who is doing this work. They need to know that whatever happens, it is the whole team who will respond.”

Engaging parents in the education of their students requires additional time, effort and creativity on the part of school staff. It means taking a holistic approach that considers the academic and personal lives of students, while making meaningful connections with their families.

Alexis Kreiner is assistant representative for MCC Haiti. Esther Pierre serves as principal of Fodation Œcumenique pour la Paix et la Justice (FOPJ) in Port-au-Prince.

Learn more

Avvisati, Fransecso, Bruno Besbas and Nina Guyon. “Parental Involvement in School: Literature Review” Revue D’Économie Politque 120/5 (2010): 759-778. Available at

Islam, Assadul. “Parental Involvement in Education: Evidence from Field Experiments in Development Countries.” Monash Business School Discussion Paper No. 02/17 (2017). Available at publications2/0217parentalislam.pdf.

Lunde, Henriette. “Youth and Education in Haiti: Disincentives, Vulnerabilities and Constraints.” Oslo: Fafo, 2008. Available at

Participación comunitaria en la educación (Verano 2019)


[Articulos Individuales de la edicion de Intersecciones de Verano del 2019 se publican en este blog cada semana. La edicion completa puede ser encontrada en MCC’s website.]

El CCM invierte una cantidad significativa de recursos para brindar acceso a una educación de calidad, creyendo que este es un ingrediente clave para construir comunidades saludables y sostenibles. Este énfasis se alinea con el llamado a la educación primaria universal en los Objetivos de Desarrollo del Milenio de las Naciones Unidas (2000) y los Objetivos de Desarrollo Sostenible más recientes (2015), que en conjunto reflejan un consenso creciente de que, garantizar solo el acceso a la educación no es suficiente y, en cambio, debe haber un compromiso con “una educación de calidad inclusiva y equitativa” para todas las personas.

Basándose en una larga historia de apoyo a la educación mediante la colocación de personas trabajadoras del CCM como maestras y maestros en las escuelas y el pago de cuotas escolares para estudiantes individuales, el enfoque del CCM se ha ido orientando gradualmente hacia modelos que se centran más en fortalecer a las organizaciones educativas locales. Este cambio surge de la conciencia de que la educación—muy a menudo importada por los poderes coloniales y beneficiosa solo para unos pocos individuos seleccionados—debe estar conformada y pertenecer a las comunidades locales para lograr un cambio positivo a nivel comunitario.

Este número de Intersections explora las muchas maneras en que la participación comunitaria puede hacer que los esfuerzos educativos sean más efectivos, responsables, relevantes y sostenibles. Comenzamos con la importante pregunta de cómo el personal de la escuela puede desarrollar una buena comunicación y colaboración con las madres/padres y el estudiantado para reducir la desconexión que, a menudo, existe entre las escuelas y las familias. Luego profundizamos para ver cómo las estructuras formales tales como los comités de gestión escolar o los comités de supervisión pueden otorgar a los miembros de la comunidad un papel activo en la toma de decisiones sobre las prioridades escolares, responsabilizar a los docentes y administrar los recursos financieros y de otro tipo que pueden aprovecharse para mejorar el aprendizaje del estudiantado. También vemos la experiencia de una organización asociada en el apoyo a modelos liderados por la comunidad para la educación de la primera infancia y examinamos la importancia del papel de la comunidad en la protección infantil. Finalmente, aprendemos de una escuela tribal en Odisha, India, sobre cómo la apropiación de las comunidades indígenas en el nivel más profundo puede moldear el ethos e identidad de una escuela y, en última instancia, marcar la diferencia entre que la educación sea una herramienta de opresión impuesta por una cultura dominante o la herramienta de empoderamiento de la comunidad que aspiramos a que sea.

Lynn Longenecker es el coordinador de educación del CCM.

Community participation in education (Summer 2019)


[Individual articles from the Summer 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

MCC invests significant resources into providing access to quality education, believing this is a key ingredient for building healthy, sustainable communities. This emphasis aligns with the call for universal primary education in the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (2000) and the more recent Sustainable Development Goals (2015), which together reflect a growing consensus that access alone is not enough and a commitment instead to “inclusive and equitable quality education” for all.

Building on a long history of supporting education through placing MCC workers as teachers in schools and paying school fees for individual students, MCC’s approach has gradually shifted toward models that focus more on strengthening local education partners. This shift grows out of an awareness that education—too often imported by colonial powers and beneficial for only a select few individuals—must be shaped and owned by local communities if it is to truly bring positive change at the community level.

This issue of Intersections explores the many ways community participation can make education efforts more effective, accountable, relevant and sustainable. We begin with the important question of how school staff can develop good communication and collaboration with parents and students to reduce the disconnect that often exists between schools and families. Then we dig deeper to see how formal structures like school management committees or oversight committees can give community members an active role in making decisions about school priorities, holding teachers accountable and managing financial and other resources that can be leveraged to improve student learning. We also look at one partner’s experience with supporting community-led models for early childhood education and examine the importance of the community’s role in child protection. Finally, we learn from a tribal school in Odisha, India, about how Indigenous community ownership at the deepest level can shape a school’s ethos and identity and ultimately make the difference between education being a tool of oppression imposed by a dominant culture or the tool of community empowerment that we aspire for it to be.

Lynn Longenecker is MCC’s education coordinator.

Lessons in gendered project design: reflections from Cambodia


[Individual articles from the Spring 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Both large development actors, such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and small community-based organizations, like many of MCC’s partners, offer gender equality as a response to a wide range of social ills in the face of continued challenges. MCC affirms basic gender equality principles, such as women and girls having equal access to education, economic opportunities and resources. However, there remains a disconnect between funders’ theoretical perspectives on gender equality and local organizations’ capacity to design and implement projects that take gender seriously. For the most part, local partners are willing to work for gender equality; the disconnect, then, occurs because of unrealistic donor expectations that translate into ineffective project design at the local level. In this article, I examine challenges MCC’s Cambodian partners have faced when engaging funding organizations in designing and implementing development projects that seek to address gender equality.

For over three decades now, much of MCC’s work has been primarily carried out through partnerships with local actors (churches, community-based organizations and more). More recently, other development actors have also begun to affirm that localized partnerships are critical to community transformation. However, the partnership model brings its own challenges, including the challenge of how funding agencies communicate various expectations to their local partners. A particularly pertinent example is the difficulty of translating expectations regarding gender equality in project design and implementation, with continued gaps between funders’ expectations, on the one hand, and local partners’ reality, on the other.

As development efforts become increasingly professionalized, they come with an ever more complex vocabulary. Specialized vocabulary can create significant barriers to local partners. These barriers are particularly pronounced for language regarding gendered aspects of projects. For example, a recent call for proposals from an external funder to MCC asked that projects ideally be “gender transformative” as opposed to “gender
sensitive.” This choice of vocabulary led to confusion and apprehension by MCC’s partner organization that their project would not be approved if was not deemed “gender transformative.” While the partner indeed values the goals behind this term, they feared that their proposal would not be selected for funding because they had not used the funder’s exact terminology.

When gender-related concepts are unclear or poorly defined, they become unapproachable for local partners involved in project design, which disempowers those best positioned to structure projects in ways that address the needs of women and girls. Much development language is English-based, which presents significant barriers to development practitioners in small local organizations due to challenges in translating concepts into different cultural and linguistic contexts. This challenge is not limited to gender-related development matters, but it clearly plays out in this space. For example, several Cambodian organizations with which MCC partners have few employees who speak English, so concepts and ideas that are not easily translatable into Khmer remain inaccessible to much of the team. This experience has been referred to as the “untranslatability of concepts” (Footitt, Crack and Tesseur, 2018). The Khmer language, for example, does not include separate terms for gender, sex or feminism. Typically, when MCC’s Cambodian partners discuss how gender is being accounted for in project planning and implementation, they use English terms. It becomes difficult for the entire project team to fully understand how gender analysis is shaping project design and implementation since much of the information is subject to translation and contextualisation. In order to address such challenges, Footitt, Crack and Tesseur recommend more intentional work around language and cultural awareness among program teams as well as specific resources for language support for projects. MCC could do further work clarifying expectations around how conversations about gender are conducted and providing training for partner staff on what we mean when we talk about gender.

This challenge of language is compounded by differences in cultural expectations around gender. Gender equality is an often sensitive subject, so the imposition of foreign funders’ understanding of gender equality poses particular challenges. It can become tricky to balance respect for culturally embedded behaviours and practices related to gender while also maintaining a commitment not to unintentionally reinforce unjust systems that deny women’s freedom and agency. The significant power differential between funding agencies (like MCC) and community-based partner organizations means that partners will work hard to satisfy donor expectations. At its worst, this desire to please donors can result in projects that may check all the right boxes for the donor, but, when put into practice, fail to actually address gender inequality. Projects designed for funders versus those that truly address inequality are far too common.

The power dynamic is further felt in what local partners can experience as a double standard for funders and their local partners. Recently, an MCC partner organization in Cambodia asked why funders require local organizations to address gender equality in project staffing and design when funders themselves are not practicing gender equality in their own staffing practices. This conversation pointed to the double standards between local partners and funding institutions around accountability for certain practices. This double standard causes the local partner to distrust the funder. It also communicated that gender is not truly important to the funder, regardless of rhetoric used.

Addressing local gender dynamics in the design, implementation and ongoing monitoring and evaluation of development projects is essential to projects’ long-term success. At the same time, development projects that incorporate poorly-understood gender concepts into their design simply to meet donor requirements will not produce sustainable change. How to work with local partners in a way that addresses gender equality in a contextually meaningful way thus represents an ongoing challenge for organizations like MCC. There are no perfect solutions to this challenge. That said, an important starting point is awareness of language used when communicating with local partners. Language must be fully accessible to local partners; otherwise, it becomes meaningless while reinforcing imbalanced power dynamics. Also, if funding agencies push local partners for gender parity within their organizations, they must seek to follow standards of gender equality in their own staffing. Sustained attention to gender equality truly has the power to transform societies. However, if funders’ expectations and behaviours are not responsive to local partners’ capacities, it will be impossible for projects to sustainably address gender inequality.

Tyler Loewen is MCC Cambodia planning, monitoring, evaluation and reporting coordinator.

Learn More

Footitt, Hilary, Angela Crack and Wine Tesseur. Respecting Communities in International Development: Language and Cultural Understanding. Arts and Humanities Research Council June 2018. Available at: Listening_zones_report_-EN.pdf.

To know and be known: reflections from a woman leader


[Individual articles from the Spring 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

How has my identity affected how I work with and support churches and communities? From the inside out, in the place of formation—a woman created, knitted together in my mother’s womb. Born into a world that shouts your identity and tries to define you before you are personally self-aware, I had to take a journey in what I call “core confidence,” knowing who I am as a beloved daughter of God, “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14).

As the oldest daughter of parents of two children, both girls, I observed early the outside world’s perspective on our family. My father, a pastor, often had male mentees who would assume there was a vacant place for a son. Many of them lamented for my father, suggesting that something was incomplete in his life, in our lives, because there was no male child in our family to learn the way of the “family business.” Well, are ministry, service and calling a family business? These mentees made statements like, “I’m your son, Pastor. Teach me, I’ll be by your side.” It was as if they were on a rescue mission for my father’s ministry, calling and gifts, which might be lost because there was no male to whom to pass on his ministry. Were my sister and I not enough?

There was a great deal of gender bias that I absorbed and was a part of, as well, in my own projections of myself and of other women. Growing up, my sister and I never thought we would be leaders in the church or in church-affiliated organizations. Our service in the church would be as a Sunday school teacher, worship team leader or youth leader, and we were content with that. The thought of any leadership roles in the church never crossed my mind, nor did anyone ever ask about or name our gifts with titles that were traditionally reserved for males. In my late twenties, I started to experience a shift in the types of responsibilities and service to which I was feeling called and drawn. How could these callings be living in the skin I’m in—Camp Pastor, Program Director, Conference Speaker, Lead Pastor, Oversight Minister?

A pouring came into my life, a flood of opportunities. “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh” (Joel 2:28). My gifts, professional skills and experience were opening doors and leading to invitations for roles in my local context that had been traditionally filled by and reserved for males. Our communities and cultures are so deeply steeped in tradition, a tradition that has often been mistaken for the Gospel. But Jesus modeled the value of women in spaces despite the customs, rituals and traditions of his day. His active love moved to heal, restore, liberate and empower women. Throughout the gospels, Jesus hears the voices of women and does not silence them. They, too, were a part of his inner circle. Women provoked, inspired and even filled Jesus with expanded compassion.

As I responded to these calls, the way I had been knit together started to emerge, gradually revealing the me as I was before the seeming restriction of my body. Like a child in the womb, developing so she can later become free and evolve, I slowly discovered that my gifts were areas for growth, not restriction. Before I could expect others to accept me for who I am in my varied roles, I had to admit my own inner worth, value and purpose, and commit to those truths daily. Difference and gender can be spaces that easily unhinge confidence and cause an internal tug and pull of self-worth. If I am welcomed and joyfully received everywhere, but internally doubt my value, then I will always be emotionally tossed back and forth by every word of praise or disregard.

During this season in my life, I began to seek out mentors, other women in leadership and pastoral roles who could walk alongside me, sharing the journey together. One of the essential spaces in this area of development has been a mentoring group, Radical Anabaptist Women (RAW). This group of women supports and mentors other women as they discern call, ministry and service. This group has helped me on the journey as one of God’s leading ladies.

Even with these supportive mentors, I still faced challenges as I took on leadership roles. For about eight years, my husband and I were co-pastors of the congregation formerly led by my father. On one occasion, the church hosted an event with a Christian comedian. Due to another obligation, my husband could not attend, so I was representing both of us. When the comedian arrived, I was introduced to him as the pastor. During his show, I sat on the front row, and, every time he did something that included audience participation, he would refer to me as the “first lady.” In many African American churches, the title “first lady” is reserved for the pastor’s wife. Yes, I was the pastor’s wife, but I was also a pastor. After about the third time he used this reference, several men and women in the audience yelled back “PASTOR!” This Christian brother could not and would not acknowledge me in my pastoral role; he could only see me from one perspective. He was in a box and wanted to keep me in one, too.

Our narrow spaces can become our equipping spaces. There is a difference between social boundaries for development and imposed boundaries of oppression. Learning to live into the who and the how of my identity started with embracing a fundamental truth in my life: I’m fearfully and wonderfully made, and God pours out his spirit on all flesh. These scriptures, among many others, have become a protective covering for the truth that I have hidden in my heart and embrace with my life. I have come to a place of personal declaration. This same truth compels me to be gracious to those who attempt to box me into their definition of “me.”

There are times when my voice or contributions have been minimized and rejected because of gender. I have learned that my value and worth as a woman cannot be defined by the imposed traditions of others. Staying rooted in God’s words anchors me in spaces that historically reject and minimize me. Whether I am considered as a woman, black woman, leader, mother, wife, pastor, colleague, friend, sister or neighbor, I am fearfully and wonderfully made!

Hyacinth Stevens is the New York City program coordinator for MCC East Coast.


Learn More

McKenzie, Vashti. Not Without a Struggle: Leadership for African American Women in Ministry. Cleveland, Ohio: The Pilgrim Press. 2011.

Adapting family planning initiatives to respond to the needs of faith communities in Senegal


[Individual articles from the Spring 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

In recent years, Senegal has made significant strides in several development areas, including gender parity and access to family planning services. Maternal and child mortality have decreased significantly since 2005 but remain high compared to global rates. Many of these deaths are from avoidable causes. Improving maternal and child health, notably through family planning, is a priority for Senegal’s government. Although the contraceptive prevalence rate has doubled since 2012, only 27.8 percent of married women are currently using any method of contraception. Another one in five married women wants to use a contraceptive method, but currently cannot do so.

Religious institutions and beliefs shape many aspects of life in Senegal, but systematic approaches to linking these dimensions to development policies and programs have been rare. Despite recognition that faith leaders can play important roles in family planning, some stakeholders have been cautious to engage them out of concern that influential leaders may take firm, anti-family planning positions. At the same time, rumors have circulated about what faith traditions say about family planning, with little clear guidance from faith leaders. In that context, World Faiths Development Dialogue (WFDD) facilitated discussions in 2014 with a group of Senegalese faith leaders to explore issues of maternal and child mortality and family planning. After building consensus on what religious teachings say about family planning, the group formed into the Cadre des Religieux pour la Santé et le Développement (CRSD), an interfaith association that brings together leaders from prominent Sufi orders of Senegal, other major Islamic institutions and the country’s Catholic and Lutheran churches.

As faith leaders with a deep understanding of religious sensitivities, CRSD members have developed strategies that align with religious teachings and are appropriate for the local context in order to encourage broad shifts in attitudes and behaviors related to family planning. Activities include visits to meet with the leaders of Senegal’s principal religious communities; workshops for community groups of religious women; workshops during significant religious events and holy periods, such as Ramadan; and media outreach through radio, television and print. This mix of approaches targets religious leadership at both the national and local levels.

Engaging women through religious networks, both Christian and Muslim, has emerged as a central and particularly successful strategy for family planning efforts. In 2015, CRSD partnered with a midwife to develop workshops that bring technical and religious perspectives into the same conversation. The workshops educate participants on family planning, addressing common myths and rumors and explaining various methods. After piloting the program, CRSD scaled up the work through a training-of-trainers model, directly reaching over 40,000 Senegalese in all 14 regions of the country.

CRSD’s workshop focuses on dispelling misinformation by providing accurate and accessible information on family planning. For example, one commonly held belief is that religion is against family planning, so messaging focuses on the holistic well-being of the family, emphasizing to participants the need to be able to provide for the children they do have. Another common misconception is that family planning is a Western effort to reduce the number of Muslims in the world, with some Sengalese making comments like, “If you look closely, you ask yourself whether Westerners are promoting birth spacing, or if they’re really aiming for birth limitation.” The workshops for Muslim communities, therefore, draw on the Qur’an and the hadith (sayings about the Prophet Muhammad) to show that traditional methods of family planning exist in Islam and that religious teachings promote healthy timing and spacing of births. Discussants draw parallels between the traditional methods found in Islam and the modern methods available today. Some people also believe that women who want to use family planning are promiscuous; by partnering with a midwife to provide accurate medical information to participants, CRSD counters such beliefs and emphasizes that family planning has health benefits for mothers and children.

Although the workshops initially targeted women, men’s engagement has emerged as a priority area. CRSD members have noted that few couples have substantive discussions about family planning. In many cases, men are or perceive themselves to be the principal authority on family planning decisions. Men’s focus groups revealed a range of perspectives on decision making, but many participants echoed this statement from a man who was asked whether or not he had ever discussed birth spacing with his wife: “No, no, no. Regarding birth spacing, well, that’s my decision. If my wife has a kid, it’s me who can let her go five years without giving her a child.” CRSD has worked to convince men to attend workshops with their wives and has included more messaging around joint decision-making. And that effort has paid off—in 2017, 31 percent of participants in CRSD’s workshops were men.

WFDD and CRSD have made considerable progress in dispelling myths about what religious teachings have to say about family planning, but several key challenges persist. Among married women and men in Senegal, the ideal number of children is largely unchanged; society remains staunchly pro-natalist, yet there is a lack of awareness that high fertility rates are linked to maternal and infant mortality. Moving forward, we are continuing to work with CRSD to develop new and innovative approaches that respond to these challenges.

Lauren Herzog is program coordinator and Wilma Mui is program associate at the World Faiths Development Dialogue.

Changing health behaviors, especially our most personal behaviors, is extremely difficult. Trying to do this against the grain of local values, traditions and religious beliefs and without local support is generally ineffective and often counterproductive. Doing effective “behavior change communication” (as it is often called) in the diverse contexts where MCC works requires deep local knowledge, ability to adapt to local realities and creativity in finding ways to engage with local power structures and religious communities in a way that takes cultural beliefs and understandings of gender into account. So-called best practices, however well-intentioned and research-based, can rarely be successfully copy-and-pasted between different cultural contexts.

Providing women’s health education in the highly rural Central Highlands of Afghanistan, for example, is only possible with the full support of local Islamic religious leaders, community elders and men more broadly. Getting such buy-in for the MCC-supported maternal and child health projects in that area has required deep adaptation to and respect for local traditions and beliefs, including allowing male religious leaders to be present during group sessions, supporting male relatives to accompany local female staff in their work and prioritizing approaches that are realistic for women to implement within this context. It is not always comfortable or straightforward to negotiate these dynamics, especially when working across wide cultural and religious divides, but doing so is essential if we care about making progress on women’s health across the varied contexts of MCC’s programs.

The article by Herzog and Mui about WFDD’s family planning work in Senegal shows what this negotiated contextualization of programming can look like when scaled up to a national level and when that contextualization is seen as part of the intervention itself, rather than just one step in project design. MCC has similarly found through its work with partners to improve women’s health that taking local understandings of gender into account when planning, implementing, monitoring and evaluating those women’s health initiatives is vital to their success.

Paul Shetler Fast is MCC’s health coordinator.

Learn More

Levy, Noam N. “Pope Francis Isn’t the Only Religious Leader to Give a Surprising Boost to Contraception.” Los Angeles Times. February 19, 2019. Available at

Herzog, Lauren. “Building Consensus for Family Planning Among Senegal’s Faith Communities.” World Faiths Development Dialogue Briefing. July 2017. Available at

Impact Staff. “Muslim Leaders in Senegal are Improving Women’s Access to Contraceptives.” Vice Impact. Sept 21, 2017. Available at

Gender equality as presupposition: the story of ANADES in El Salvador


[Individual articles from the Spring 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Founded among women of rural base communities towards the end of El Salvador’s brutal civil war of the 1980s, the Asociacion Nuevo Amanecer de El Salvador (ANADES) has a long history of accompanying colectivos (collectives) of women in urban and rural communities across the country. Staff and leadership at ANADES have spent decades refining their development approach, an approach marked by a commitment to gender equality and women-centered education, community development and public advocacy efforts. ANADES’ continuing self-reflection and analysis have generated a rich body of knowledge and learning around gender equality in development work. In November of this past year, I sat down with three staff members from ANADES—Ana Mirian Ayala, Nery Rivas and Gilma Escalante—to talk about what they have learned over these many years of work. What follows is a summary of our wide-ranging conversation, including lessons from ANADES about what have been critical components in its work to promote
gender equality.

ANADES’ formation among colectivos of women widowed by violence during El Salvador’s bloody civil war grounds and anchors its work with women and gender. According to Ayala, ANADES’ vision is shaped by what justice “looks like” to these communities of marginalized women in El Salvador: through its work with the colectivos, ANADES supports these women’s groups in striving toward a future of justice and equality. Ayala, Rivas and Escalante view this shared history as an advantage for ANADES’ day-to-day work, because it makes gender equality something of a “presupposition” or shared assumption for all that ANADES undertakes. For Rivas, the long and continuing history of ANADES’ work and self-reflection in the area of gender equality is an essential dimension of its identity.

Rivas and Escalante both underscored the practical necessity of gender equality in ANADES’ education, development and public advocacy work. If ANADES is going to have a long-term, sustainable impact on the social, political and economic structures that generate inequality, injustice and exclusion, it must work with the most marginalized populations, in this case, women. While acknowledging the marginalization of other populations in communities across El Salvador, ANADES focuses on promoting gender equality through women’s colectivos, because these women have faced human rights violations and extreme exclusion due to their gender. Without a focus on gender equality, Rivas contends, instead of achieving “inclusive and holistic development … we merely end up replicating the same social structure, maybe with a few more resources at each level of the structure, but we still have the same discrimination and exclusion, with people better off, but still facing the same social realities.”

While ANADES’ history of rootedness in El Salvador’s colectivos is of course particular to that country’s context, ANADES’ experience could suggest a lesson for other organizations, namely, the importance of developing and maintaining a narrative framework or a story that connects an organization’s individual initiatives to a vision of a more just and equitable world. Instead of viewing gender equality solely as a pragmatic matter of improving project outcomes, the lesson of ANADES is that gender equality needs to be part of a vision and a story that guides an organization, representing a coherent philosophy that grounds its work.

MCC supports ANADES in multiple ways, including by placing young adults from MCC’s Serving and Learning Together (SALT) and Young Anabaptist Mennonite Exchange Network (YAMEN) programs at its day care centers in San Salvador and rural Perquín and through grant support for ANADES’ agroecology, youth and health programs. These programs emerge from the priorities set by the colectivos of women, but also are part of a strategy to address gender equality at all stages of life. In Ayala’s words, gender equality work requires engagement with children in their day care centers and participants in youth groups.

Working across the life course allows ANADES to better address one of the most significant challenges in gender equality work, namely, the unequal distribution of work in the domestic sphere. While ANADES works to increase women’s participation in the social, political and economic life of their communities, women routinely remain responsible for the tasks of child rearing and housekeeping. Women who seek engagement in their communities add on a “third shift” to their first and second shifts of housework and paid work outside the home. Ayala laid out how the day care exists to support women’s participation in community life outside of the domestic sphere and how day care staff work tirelessly to engage fathers in the raising of their children. When resources are available, community development projects work with men to build buy-in and support for women’s participation in project activities and to engage men in discussions of male identity and patriarchy.

All three ANADES leaders emphasized the importance of public advocacy to local and national governments to increase and improve social welfare provisions. Small, non-profit organizations like ANADES, they stressed, do not have the capacity to provide broad-based social welfare programs that can free women from some of their domestic tasks and allow for greater participation in community life.

Ayala and Rivas underscored the importance of ANADES constantly working to ensure that its own institutional practices match its vision of gender equality. Ayala proudly ticked off the gender representation ANADES has achieved from the governance level to all staff levels: the board president and treasurer are women, two of the four remaining board members are also women, while 27 of ANADES’ 39 full-time staff members are women.

Provocatively, Ayala followed up this listing of ANADES’s achievements in gender representation by stating that “this means nothing to me if the women are themselves machistas” (a Spanish term referring a particular kind of misogyny based in certain patterns of shared Latin American culture): ANADES wants women leading its efforts not solely on the basis of their gender, but because of their commitment to gender equality. Ayala explained that “it is important to constantly train staff, to engage in self and collective reflection and have written and enforcement policies in the organization that lay out what are the expectations for staff in the area of gender discrimination.” Project participants also need to be aware of ANADES’ codes of conduct for its staff and of mechanisms for lodging complaints if staff do not live up to these expectations. Escalante concurred that striving for gender equality requires a constant learning process for individual staff members and for ANADES as an organization. Rivas added that the challenge of working for gender equality within ANADES mirrors the broader challenge of working for gender equality across El Salvador’s marginalized communities. When ANADES develops policies, procedures, professional development programs and codes of conduct related to gender equality, these serve as signposts and guardrails on the road to developing an organizational culture that matches ANADES’ vision of more just, more inclusive and more equal communities in El Salvador.

A key lesson from ANADES’ gender equality work that is easy to overlook is the foundational importance of trusting women. Rivas expresses it well: “our work in ANADES can’t violate an already violated population.” If the goal of gender equality work is to create spaces of freedom and liberation for women to achieve their individually- and collectively-generated goals and personhood, the methods used to achieve those goals must allow women to experience and practice that kind of liberation and freedom.

Having men (or women) from an outside institution scolding women for lack of participation or treating them as children in need of enlightenment must end, ANADES’ leaders emphasized. Instead, ANADES insists on treating women who take part in its programs as adults in need of spaces for free expression of their needs, desires and dreams. The question is not whether women will succeed or fail in some narrowly defined sense, but rather whether through their collaborative work they will begin to exercise freedom and experience liberation from the exclusion and injustice that mark their lives.

One hour-long conversation cannot, of course, do justice to all that can be learned from the successes and challenges of ANADES’s long history of gender equality work. The discussion with ANADES leaders did, however, highlight several potential lessons from ANADES’ experience that may be relevant for other ways that MCC and its partners work for gender equality in other contexts: ground gender equality efforts in a shared story and vision of justice and equality; work with women at various stages of life; address the impact of the domestic sphere on women’s broader participation in society; embed gender equality principles within one’s own institutional policies and practices; and trust in women’s insights and capacities. Taken together, these lessons from ANADES’ experience give MCC important clues about how to work with our partners to reduce gender-based discrimination and exclusion.

Jack Lesniewski is MCC representative for Guatemala and El Salvador, together with his spouse, Sarah. He interviewed three ANADES leaders: Ana Mirian Ayala (executive director), Gila Maritza Escalante (social promoter) and Nery Misael Rivas (civic participation coordinator).

Learn More

ANADES website:

Elevating and empowering women’s voices in Palestinian gatherings in Lebanon


[Individual articles from the Spring 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

The Popular Aid for Relief and Development (PARD) is a grassroots, rights-based non-governmental organization (NGO) that aims to promote gender equality and the rights of marginalized groups, especially among the Palestinian gatherings in Lebanon. [Gatherings are communities of Palestinian refugees outside the twelve United Nations-administered refugee camps for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.] Palestinian refugee women living in Lebanon are deprived of many basic human rights and face multiple difficulties, including but not limited to insufficient education, limited reproductive health services, unemployment, low socioeconomic status and discrimination stemming from both their status as refugees and their position as women. PARD places a special emphasis on empowering women by identifying and redressing power imbalances and providing them with more autonomy by procuring access to healthcare and education, environmental health and sanitation services and community awareness and advocacy trainings.

Approaching gender issues using a culturally relevant and sensitive approach is essential for good relief and development work in any setting, but particularly so when working in a context where addressing gender issues is extremely delicate. Such is the case for the communities in which PARD operates. In these communities, one cannot address gender issues directly. It therefore becomes not only necessary, but deeply advantageous, to adopt a gender-mainstreaming approach, understood as “the process of assessing the implications for women and men of any planned action, including legislation, policies or programmes, in all areas and at all levels” (UN Office of the Special Advisor on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women, 2002).

For the past thirty years, PARD has worked in the Palestinian gatherings in Lebanon and has consequently garnered a significant amount of trust and respect from both the gatherings’ governing bodies and the individual inhabitants themselves. PARD believes that the acceptance and relationships it has built up are essential components of its work: without the communities’ trust, PARD would not have the access or ability to address gender issues to the degree that it does. In contrast, other NGOs have sought to carry out programs in the Palestinian gatherings around gender-related issues such as family planning, gender-based violence and early marriage, but they were not invited or welcomed by the communities, because these NGOs lacked the trusting relationships that PARD has fostered with residents of the gatherings.

Despite PARD’s success and far-reaching work related to gender issues, these efforts have encountered some resistance. PARD has had to exercise a high level of creativity in the ways that it helps educate and empower women as it implements its programs related to gender equality and justice. In one example, a local sheikh (a Muslim religious leader) approached a PARD staff member and told her that she could not hold a scheduled session on family planning. To work around this restriction, the staff person decided to host a session regarding children’s nutrition instead, making the topic more acceptable to local community leadership, while still being able to incorporate ideas about family planning, gender rights and women’s empowerment into discussions about household nutrition. As the assembled women discussed malnutrition and healthy lifestyles, the PARD community worker spoke with these women about the difficulties of providing for ten children without having an income and thus integrated family planning concepts in a culturally appropriate and indirect way that was better-accepted and understood.

Another integral component of PARD’s work in addressing gender inequality is working with local Women’s Committees in the gatherings. These Women’s Committees are made up of women who have undergone PARD’s comprehensive training program aimed at strengthening decision-making and problem-solving, in which participants acquire skills relevant to their individual, familial and community needs. Participants learn how to carry out community mapping, conflict mediation, needs-assessment and advocacy for their rights as women and as refugees. Women’s Committee members also serve as a community alarm system, help shape and implement relief and development projects and serve as spokespeople to the male-dominated Popular Committees that govern the Palestinian gatherings.

The Women’s Committees in these gatherings differ from the Popular Committees in several ways. Firstly, the Popular Committees are composed almost entirely of men, with few exceptions (and even when women serve on the Popular Committees, they are typically not integrated successfully, nor taken seriously). The members of the Popular Committees are appointed by political parties. The Popular Committees were not originally receptive to the idea of Women’s Committees: even today, the relationships and the levels of coordination and cooperation between the Popular Committees and the Women’s Committees vary depending on the gathering. In some gatherings, heavy competition over governing authority exists between the Popular Committees and Women’s Committees. While the Popular Committees are on paper the governing bodies in the gatherings, in practice the Women’s Committees have more influence and can even overrule the Popular Committees: so, for example, the Women’s Committee in the Jim Jim gathering forced through a plan against the will of the Popular Committee to construct a road with the help of an engineer from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

As it carries out its work in the gatherings, PARD coordinates closely with the Women’s Committees, given that their active involvement in project development and implementation is essential for the success of PARD’s relief and development programs. PARD staff meet with each Women’s Committee at least once a month and are available to meet more frequently if necessary. As the women serving on the committees are themselves members of these communities, they already have knowledge and insight into the issues facing the gatherings and can significantly influence and shape the projects that PARD undertakes. PARD supports and empowers women in these communities by providing training-of-trainers opportunities to help women become social workers and undertake fieldwork themselves (e.g., conducting needs assessments and community mapping exercises, developing action plans and advocacy campaigns, etc.) The Women’s Committees thus play a significant role in the development and design of projects as well as in the monitoring of projects.

In addition to its programmatic focus on gender mainstreaming and its work with Women’s Committees, PARD also utilizes an operational framework to address gender equality and women’s empowerment with three main dimensions: capacities and education, access to resources and opportunities and security. The first of these refers to capacities as measured by education, health and nutrition, elements fundamental to an individual’s well-being and the means through which women can access other forms of well-being. Access to resources and opportunities, the second dimension, addresses equality in opportunity to use or apply basic capabilities through access to economic assets and resources, as well as political opportunity, because without to access to economic and political opportunities, women’s ability to employ their capabilities for the well-being of themselves, their families and communities will be limited. Security, the third dimension of PARD’s gender equality framework, refers to reducing women’s vulnerability to violence and to conflict that results in physical and psychological harm, violence that diminishes the ability of individuals, households and communities to fulfill their potential. Moreover, violence directed specifically at women and girls often aims at keeping them subjugated through fear.

PARD recently underwent a gender audit, which in turn led to some noteworthy organizational changes, including the revision of PARD’s bylaws for women’s protection and the institution of rights regarding maternity leave and work leave for menstruation. According to Lebanese law, women are given seven days annually off work for menstruation; PARD changed its practice to go beyond the provisions of Lebanese law, allowing women to claim up to twelve days a year for menstruation leave. Additionally, Lebanese law permits women 40 days of maternity leave, but PARD extended this to 60 days and decided to give women an hour for breastfeeding at work as well.

PARD’s operational framework for gender equality not only paved the way for changes to the organization’s bylaws, but also has helped to assess PARD’s organizational culture, policies and efforts to examine organizational leadership through a gender lens. PARD has found that if women are in power, not only are their voices heard, their voices are louder. Having a critical mass of women both in leadership and in field work positions gives greater voice and attention to women’s issues within PARD’s work. PARD employs 60 women and 14 men, all belonging to the communities targeted by PARD’s relief and development efforts. These women hold key leadership positions at all levels of the organization, including executive director, chief accountant, program coordinator, community health workers, kindergarten coordinators, psychosocial activities coordinator and project leaders.

PARD believes that women’s empowerment is crucial for sustainable development and human rights for all. Gender-mainstreaming is at the forefront of its holistic approach to addressing gender issues in a locally-driven manner, influenced by PARD’s partnership with the Women’s Committees. When women are empowered, whole families and communities benefit, and these benefits have ripple effects for future generations.

Paula Holtzinger is MCC’s emergency response assistant for Lebanon and Syria. Rita Hamdan is the executive director of The Popular Aid for Relief and Development (PARD).

Learn More

The Popular Aid for Relief and Development. The Popular Aid for Relief and Development Annual Report 2017. Beirut: PARD, 2018.

United Nations Office of the Special Advisor on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women. Gender Mainstreaming: An Overview. New York, 2002. Available at

Addressing gender issues using Participatory Rural Appraisal processes among the Maasai community in Kenya


[Individual articles from the Spring 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

In 2015, MCC Kenya conducted a Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) in ten communities in Kajiado, Kenya, where its partner, Maasai Integrated Development Initiative (MIDI), works. Kajiado is predominantly inhabited by the Maasai community. It is a water-stressed county, where community members must travel up to ten kilometers in search of water. The area is also food insecure and suffers frequent droughts. MCC carried out this PRA in order to gain a better understanding of the food security situation in Kajiado through participatory engagement with community members. Results from the PRA helped to inform collaborative work between MCC and MIDI to plan new food security initiatives.

The PRA approach, widely used by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other agencies to incorporate the knowledge and opinions of rural people in the planning and management of development initiatives, can also help organizations understand how gender dynamics shape community development. MCC and MIDI used PRA gender analysis tools to identify specific needs for men and women and to gain a better understanding of their different roles and socio-economic positions.

MCC first trained MIDI staff in PRA skills and mentored them in how to facilitate the process. To ensure that the appraisal process would identify relevant gender dynamics at play within the Maasai community where MIDI planned to work, facilitators organized separate focus groups for men and women. In these focus groups, participants analyzed their daily workloads using a method called Daily Activity Clocks. Dividing men and women into separate groups gave the younger women an opportunity to interact and speak freely about issues that would otherwise be difficult for them to discuss with men present, since the Maasai community is male dominant. In the Daily Activity Clocks exercise, group members name what they usually do during the day at a specific time of the year, starting from the time they usually get up. The exercise elicits information about who works the longest hours, who concentrates on a few activities, who does several tasks in a day, who has the most leisure time and sleep and how much time is spent on different activities by men and women.

The Daily Activity Clocks exercise revealed different patterns for how women and men in the community typically spend their days. Participants found that women’s chores usually begin early, around 5:30 am. Women wake up to milk the cows and goats and to monitor and report to their husbands about any sick or pregnant animals. After milking, women proceed to prepare breakfast for the entire family and then embark on other important chores. Fetching water and firewood may take the whole day, with women in this Maasai community having to travel long distances (up to six kilometers) in order to carry out these vital tasks. Other work carried out by women includes cleaning the home, making food for their children and engaging in beadwork for their husbands and children and for commercial purposes. In the evening, women make the fire before everyone comes home, bring calves and goat kids into their enclosures and then milk the cows again before preparing more food for the entire family, including any visitors.

Participants also noted that men usually wake up between six and eight o’clock in the morning. They monitor the village to check for any theft or loss of livestock during the night. Their work also includes protecting the village. After breakfast, they take the cattle to graze. Most grazing work, however, is done by young boys (ages nine to 14). Adult men search for better pastures and watering holes for their cattle and protect them from predators, like lions. Those who remain at home mend fences around the village while tending calves. These responsibilities last until the evening. Some men spend the evening drinking traditional beer and playing games.

After reflective sessions in which women and men considered their respective Daily Activity Clocks, men realized that women work more hours than men. On average, women work for 14 hours a day, rest for four hours and sleep for six hours. Men spend four hours working, 12 hours resting and eight hours sleeping. They also realized that women do much of the physical work, and their chores are rather repetitive, while men’s work is managerial in nature and often involves decision-making. Men’s managerial roles and women’s reproductive roles take a great deal of time, but generate little income.

Given the changing gender situations among the Maasai, the groups felt they needed to identify alternative activities that would not only ease women’s workload but also improve their communities’ household food security and incomes. Men resolved to support initiatives that could help solve gender-related challenges identified by the community, including constructing sand dams, building water tanks to harvest rain water, planting trees for firewood and fodder and installing solar lamps in their homes for energy needs. They also agreed to set up kitchen gardens in their homes and fence grazing spaces for livestock.

The PRA succeeded in creating awareness about the important role women play in the day-to-day affairs of their homes and the wider community as well in bringing forward women’s voices about their own situation. The PRA exercise also highlighted that even though women are marginalized, they make immense contributions to the wellbeing of their families and communities and to solving their communities’ food security problems. The PRA even helped the community identify development initiatives that would improve women’s lives. These types of steps towards greater gender equality, however, are limited: women in Maasai society still lack equitable access to resources and decision-making power. Men continue to dominate some sectors and the most powerful positions in society. Longer-term movement towards equality for Kenya’s rural women will require improved access for women to education and material assets and the formation of strong women’s movements.

William Kiptoo is MCC Kenya peacebuilding coordinator.

Learn More

FAO. The Group Promoter’s Resource Book. A Practical Guide to Building Rural Self-Help Groups. Rome, Italy: FAO, 1995, 1997. Available at: T1965E00.htm.

Freudenberger, Karen Schoonmaker. “Rapid Rural Appraisal (RRA) and Participatory
Rural Appraisal (PRA): A Manual for CRS Field Workers and Partners.” Catholic Relief Services. Available online:

Institute of Development Studies. “Participatory Methods.” Available at

Sontheimer, Sally, Karel Callens, and Bernd Seiffert. “PRA Tool Box.” Conducting a PRA Training and Modifying PRA Tools to Your Needs. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: FAO, 1999. Available at: .

Listening to local voices on gender (Spring 2019)


[Individual articles from the Spring 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Over the last few decades, the importance of considering gender dynamics in specific contexts when planning development and humanitarian responses has become a topic of increased attention among both governmental and non-governmental actors. Heightened emphasis on women’s participation in humanitarian and development initiatives has resulted in the inclusion of gender-specific development goals set by the United Nations for both short-term and long-term development and in a push for “gender mainstreaming,” or the use of gender analysis at all levels of policy and program development. The gender mainstreaming approach calls on humanitarian and development agencies to take gender into consideration in the design, implementation and ongoing monitoring and evaluation of their work. Some fear, however, that, as they push to mainstream gender across their programs, development and humanitarian actors are imposing an external, neocolonial agenda that fails to appreciate the cultural dynamics within the communities in which they work.

Such critiques have some validity. That said, significant work is being done by local actors at the community-based level on gender issues, work that takes cultural dynamics into account and is too often inadequately recognized. These local voices also call for consideration of gender issues, but gender issues as they understand them. Development and humanitarian actors, we argue, must pay attention to these local voices and perspectives on gender. Organizations such as MCC must ask ourselves: How do we affirm our partners’ agency and leadership in identifying contextually-meaningful ways to work for gender equality, thus avoiding a top-down, patronizing approach of ‘empowering women’? How do we support local voices and initiatives for gender equality as they work to create lasting change in their communities?

Too often, efforts to mainstream gender across development and humanitarian programs have focused on what we would like to achieve, rather than the more challenging and important process of how we achieve these goals in a way that can be sustainable and transformative. As the following articles from MCC, partner and peer organization staff from Kenya, Lebanon, El Salvador, New York, Senegal and Cambodia highlight, locally-oriented listening processes are key to transformative change. Though these articles vary in focus, all reflect the importance of working for gender equality in culturally-sensitive ways. Authors also recognize the necessity of moving beyond the imperative but basic step of incorporating women in relief, development and peacebuilding efforts towards an emphasis on the equitable treatment of women, men, boys and girls. While the broader push toward gender mainstreaming may have wide support from powerful actors, these articles demonstrate that more deeply transformative change requires listening well to how local voices define and demand change around gender dynamics and relations at the community-based level.

Annie Loewen is an MCC humanitarian response and disaster recovery coordinator, based in Winnipeg. Martha Kimmel is an MCC learning and evaluation coordinator, working in Akron, Pennsylvania.

Learn More

Bradshaw, Sarah. Gender, Development and Disasters. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing, Inc. 2013.

Cornwall, Andrea, and Jenny Edwards. “Introduction: Beijing +20—Where Now for Gender Equality?” IDS Bulletin, 46/4 (2015): 1-8.

Eyben, Rosalind. “Gender Mainstreaming, Organizational Change, and the Politics of
Influencing.” Feminists in Development Organizations:Change from the Margins. Ed. R. Eyben and L. Turquet, 15-36. Rugby, UK: Practical Action Publishing. 2013.

Sand dams: providing clean water?


[Individual articles from the Winter 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Located in the semi-arid region southeast of Nairobi, Kenya, the region known as Ukambani maintains a substantial maize-growing agricultural population. However, inconsistent and low rainfall presents challenges to providing enough water for crops, livestock and household usage. Communities and organizations have adapted by building thousands of sand dams and taking advantage of the region’s conditions (sandy soil, variable slopes and defined rainy and dry seasons) to harvest and store water in seasonal riverbeds for later use.

Part of the attraction of sand dams as a solution in this region lies in their purported ability to filter rainwater as it percolates through the sand pores, providing not only a consistent source of water, but one which is safe to drink. However, this is an assumption which had gone untested. Recently, MCC Kenya engaged with two partners, Utooni Development Organization (UDO) and Sahelian Solutions Foundation (SASOL), to test the water harvested from the sand dams to see if it was indeed clean and safe for drinking. Contrary to expectations, water from scoop holes had consistently high levels of fecal coliform bacteria. This finding spurred a recognition that additional efforts are needed to ensure safe use of water from sand dams. This experience with UDO and SASOL underscores the importance of rigorously testing assumptions about project effectiveness: doing so can reveal previously unrecognized conditions, which can then in turn spur action to achieve better project outcomes.

With a rapidly increasing population putting pressure on water supplies, sand dams can be an elegant and effective solution to providing water for communities in semi-arid regions such as Ukambani. The principles of sand dam function are conceptually simple to understand, and the results can be dramatic. Concrete dams constructed across seasonal streams cause coarse sand to accumulate behind the dam, and pore space in the dam then holds water which can be accessed by the community for many subsequent months of dry seasons.

In well-functioning dams, a patch of emerald green vegetation flourishes at the dam site well into the dry season, and visitors to the region can easily find examples of communities with thriving grasses and grain, vegetable gardens and orchards that depend on water from sand dams. A recent evaluation undertaken by MCC Kenya, in collaboration with UDO and SASOL, added to the body of evidence outlining the various benefits of accessing this water source. Community members identified benefits that varied dramatically with gender and age. Men and boys near sand dams stressed that water from sand dams was beneficial for brick-making. Girls, meanwhile, noted that better access to water allowed for better sanitation and hygiene, which in turn led to improved school attendance. Women, for their part, cited the benefits of reduced time needed to fetch water.

Sand can be an effective filter, and in fact sand filter technology is one of the WASH solutions widely adopted in WASH projects around the world. Water clearly does filter through the sand into scoop holes (simple holes in the sand, which are the most common method used by communities to access the water), suggesting that sand dams could provide a purifying role for the water held in the dams. With the help of a donation of bacterial testing materials from an MCC constituent with extensive experience in water testing, we went about testing this assumption. Kenyan partner staff and local university students received training in techniques needed to answer if sand dams do in fact purify water held in the dams. We then randomly selected sites from a list of existing dams and evaluated a combination of biophysical and social parameters related to water quality at each of these sites.

The results of this study were clear: 84% of dams in the dry season had more than 100 fecal coliform colonies per 100 ml. This is well above the World Health Organization standard for fecal coliforms (zero), and in the high- to very high-risk category. Surprisingly, it was not statistically different from surface water (nearby areas that had standing water on the stream or dam surface). These results were consistent with a study by another group in the region, which likewise found consistently high fecal coliform levels in scoop holes. Together, these studies point to a previously unrecognized health hazard.

Equipped with the knowledge that untreated water from sand dam scoop holes presents a health hazard, MCC and its partners have worked to identify potential solutions. One approach is to change the method of water harvesting by relying on sealed pump wells rather than scoop holes, a solution that had already been implemented by SASOL in some areas. Water from pump wells was in fact much cleaner on average, but still showed fecal coliform contamination in 25% of cases; this approach also suffers from well-known challenges of maintaining the pump wells.

For its part, UDO responded to the finding of contaminated scoop hole water by implementing a pilot water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) program in three communities aimed at identifying locally appropriate approaches to improve health measures associated with water quality, including water purification. Over a one-year period, UDO staff worked with 177 households to offer training in and support for improved WASH facilities and practices. Some WASH behaviors did improve during this period, such as the percent of households practicing water treatment, which went from 31 to 76%.

Why would the water from sand dams not be clean? A quick perusal of the surface of sand dams gives the observer clues to this unexpected result—the area on and around most sand dams is usually littered with animal dung. While the intention at sand dams is to limit livestock access to water sources in order to avoid contamination, in practice this proves difficult to maintain, and the distance from animal dung to the scoop hole typically is not far. Although we could not specifically test whether dung was the source of the contamination, we hypothesize that contamination originates with this livestock, just as it does in waterways in Canada and the United States where livestock access is not controlled.

Perhaps more puzzling is the question of why it was assumed and reiterated by villagers and promoting organizations alike that water from sand dams was clean. Our survey of communities that utilize sand dams indicated that in 74% of communities, most or all believed that the water was clean, and in 71% of communities, most or all did not treat water before drinking. This does not imply people are willfully ignoring the problem, or that there is a lack of expertise on the part of villagers or organizations. It does point towards the power of narratives. Indeed, the assumption of clean water fit well into a narrative of sand dams providing multiple benefits that were well-suited to local conditions. The known effectiveness of sand filters also provided a powerful analogy, and it was logical to assume that sand dams would function in a like manner to these sand filters. These biases led to untested assumptions, and points to the importance of experimental investigations. By rigorously testing our assumptions about development projects, we can uncover areas where our biases and perceptions might lead us to erroneous conclusions.

Doug Graber Neufeld is professor of biology and director of the Center for Sustainable Climate Solutions at Eastern Mennonite University.

Learn More

Quinn, Ruth, Avis Orlando, Manon Decker, Alison Park and Sandy Cairncross. “An Assessment of the Microbiological Water Quality of Sand Dams in Southeastern Kenya.” Water 10 (2018): 708-722.

Kostyla, Caroline, Robert Bain, Ryan Cronk and Jamie Bartram. “Seasonal Variation of Fecal Contamination in Drinking Water Sources in Developing Countries: A Systematic Review.” The Science of the Total Environment 514 (May 1, 2015): 333-343.


Successfully adapting ‘Community Led Total Sanitation’ to the Haitian context


[Individual articles from the Winter 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Despite decades of targeted foreign aid, Haiti has struggled to make significant progress on curbing infectious waterborne diseases or improving basic water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). While official statistics (WHO/UNICEF, 2017) report that 24% of Haitians have access to latrines or other improved sanitation (similar to the global average for low-income countries), in most rural areas where MCC works, less than 5% of households have latrines, open defecation is commonplace, handwashing with soap is rare and people are dependent on untreated surface water sources for drinking and washing. This combination of challenges has led to persistently high rates of infectious waterborne diseases (including cholera), high rates of malnutrition and stunting and high mortality. According to the World Health Organization (2016), 41% of Haiti’s total disease burden is due to poor WASH infrastructure and practices (the fifteenth highest in the world). One of the promising innovations in WASH programming globally has been ‘Community Led Total Sanitation’ (CLTS). This approach has been imported to Haiti by major funders in recent years with mixed success. Following Hurricane Matthew in 2016, MCC, along with its local partners in the Artibonite region, piloted an adapted version of CLTS that has been extremely successful, leading to zero new cholera cases in the implementation area in nearly two years since the project began (compared to an estimated 1,818 cases over the prior 18-month period). 

CLTS was developed in 2000 by Kamal Kar in rural Bangladesh. The approach was a response to decades of failed WASH programming, which tended to assume that WASH problems could be solved simply by installing infrastructure (latrines, water systems, etc.) along with education by non-local experts on WASH topics. This approach all too often led to extreme waste of resources, underuse/nonuse of latrines and WASH infrastructure and deepening dependence on outside resources and expertise. CLTS works at the community level to facilitate a locally-led analysis of WASH problems leading to a community commitment to ending open defecation and a plan (sometimes with outside subsidy) to develop and install appropriate sanitation infrastructure (latrines, handwashing stations, etc.) and enforce new norms of behavior based on community priorities. When it works, CLTS has been demonstrated to generate community ownership for WASH problems and solutions, be cost-effective from a donor/NGO perspective, create rapid change in health outcomes and produce durable behavior change at the community level. These very positive findings from early CLTS projects have resulted in the approach being zealously promoted by most major health-focused international groups in over the last 15 years.

Unfortunately, CLTS has not proven to be the panacea its promoters hoped for. In many contexts, it has been very challenging to implement and has faced deep cultural resistance from local communities. This resistance is generally produced by the way in which CLTS facilitators mobilize communities and use the power of group norms to push change. Specifically, CLTS relies on strong negative emotions, including guilt, disgust, shame and fear to ‘trigger’ and galvanize communities to eradicate the ‘bad’ behavior of open defecation. In some documented cases this has included shouting insults at and humiliating ‘violators’ for endangering the community. As the CLTS manual explains, the approach specifically “shocks, disgusts, and shames people” as it believes this is more effective than non-judgmental or positive health messaging (Kar 7). This approach is controversial, and in some contexts a cultural non-starter. Additionally, in cases of extreme poverty and immediate post-disaster rebuilding, the demands for locals to bear full responsibility for the costs of WASH changes may be unrealistic, unnecessarily slow the pace of change and potentially humiliate and further marginalize the most vulnerable who are the least able to make the necessary investments. 

Haiti is a good example of CLTS failure in recent years, despite millions of dollars in international resources supporting the model. Since 2010, the list of organizations promoting CLTS in Haiti touches all the major players, from various ministries of the Haitian government, to United Nations agencies, to large international non-governmental organizations. However, the vast majority of these efforts have had disappointing results. A Plan International evaluation in 2015 found that only 8% of communities achieved their goals of ending open defecation and/or achieving near universal latrine access. A similar UNICEF evaluation in the Artibonite region (the same area as MCC’s work, described below) found only 15% success in achieving its goals. Both evaluations noted strong resistance from local leaders, local government officials, local health workers and participant communities to the shame and disgust-based approach to motivating change. Others noted that while top governmental and NGO leadership in Haiti’s capital of Port-au-Prince had read the CLTS literature and signed on to the approach, local implementation was weak, and communities refused to enforce the negative norms as required by the model. A UNICEF evaluation team in 2012 concluded that “the key learning here is that a more nuanced understanding of community and individual motivation is required to implement CLTS programmes in future [in Haiti]. A solution to this difficulty has not yet been identified” (Plan International Haiti, 2012). 

Following Hurricane Matthew in 2016, MCC began a series of pilot WASH projects in the Artibonite Department of central Haiti. These projects used many CLTS elements but built on the positive Haitian cultural tradition of konbit (a rough equivalent to the Amish barn raising tradition) to build positive and inclusive community engagement rather than taking a negative, shame-based approach. The focus on WASH programming was driven by the communities themselves, who identified the eradication of cholera and other deadly diarrheal diseases as their number one priority for MCC accompaniment. Community-led mapping was done to identify the catchment areas that would maximize impact on community-selected WASH outcomes (in this case prioritizing communities living near to and uphill from shared community water sources). Neighbors were organized in groups of 10 to 15 to jointly contribute the labor for latrine construction (digging the holes, transporting materials and collecting locally available materials such as wood, water, stones and sand), which allowed for disabled, elderly and single parent families to fully participate. Local leaders, government officials and health professionals volunteered to work with MCC staff to facilitate community meetings on latrine construction and maintenance, water source protection, hygiene, disease prevention and the importance of complete community engagement in the project. MCC contributed local staff to lead trainings and conduct home visits and subsidized the purchase of some latrine supplies (cement, metal roofing and piping). 

This phase of the project expanded several times, as neighboring communities asked to participate after seeing the plummeting infection rates and strong community engagement. Noting the success of this work, a follow-on project working at the commune level (equivalent to a county in the United States) brought together volunteers from the local hospitals, local water authority, public health department, all local primary schools, local disaster response committees and the local government to implement a larger scale version of this work. This second phase of the project used a similar approach to the prior projects, but also included getting the voluntary support of all 213 primary schools in the commune (representing 26,068 students) to install sanitary handwashing facilities and filtered drinking water stations and provide recurrent education to students on WASH topics.  

While direct causality is impossible to prove, the rates of infectious waterborne disease, including cholera, have plummeted in the project catchment area since this WASH intervention began. In the 18 months prior to the project’s start, this area saw 1,818 cases of cholera. The 18 months following implementation have seen zero. By adapting the CLTS approach to the local context and listening to the local cultural priorities of respect, inclusiveness, positive group engagement and mutual solidarity, the project achieved rapid success in making durable change, gathering strong community support and participation, keeping costs low and promoting stronger community cohesion and cooperation. As organizations look to implement ‘best practice’ models like CLTS, the lesson from Haiti has been to take the cultural context seriously and adapt thoughtfully. 

Paul Shetler Fast is MCC’s health coordinator, based in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Learn more

Kar, Kamal, and Robert Chambers. Handbook on Community-Led Total Sanitation. London: Institute of Development Studies, 2008. 

Bongartz, Petra, Naomi Vernon and John Fox. Sustainable Sanitation for All: Experiences, Challenges, and Innovations. Rugby, Warwickshire, UK: Practical Action Publishing, 2016. 

Plan International Haiti. Water, Sanitation and Hygiene in 60 schools and 60 Communities in the North‐East and South‐East Haiti: Narrative Report. Port au Prince, Haiti: Plan International, 2012. 

World Health Organization (WHO). Global Health Observatory: Mortality and Burden of Disease from Water and Sanitation. Geneva, Switzerland, 2016. 

WHO/UNICEF. JMP Progress on Drinking Water, Sanitation and Hygiene: 2017 Update and SDG Baseline. Available at 

Drinking water user committees: sustaining impact in Nepal


[Individual articles from the Winter 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Stories of dilapidated water taps, broken pipes and rusted equipment with no means for repair are common in the development world. To help ensure the lasting impact of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) initiatives, incorporating community-level mechanisms for long-term monitoring and maintenance into project design is critical. In Nepal, government and nongovernment actors collaborate to create village user committees that provide technical support for WASH initiatives, systematically collect money for repairs of water infrastructure and cultivate community ownership of drinking water and sanitation schemes. 


Kupchet Village, Dhading District, Nepal

The village of Kupchet—the northern-most community in Dhading District before reaching Nepal’s mountainous border with the Tibetan region of China—presents one example of a community that has developed a user committee to sustain drinking water schemes supported by MCC and its partner, Shanti Nepal. While another organization had previously built several water taps in the village, years of use, compounded by Nepal’s shattering earthquake of 2015, left the taps largely dysfunctional. With technical input and survey work initially conducted by the Shanti Nepal team, Kupchet now receives water from a clean source atop the steep hill towering over the village. Water flows through 230-meter long pipes connected to a cable suspended across a deep, rocky valley, an engineering feat deemed impossible in prior surveys. The subsequent formation of a drinking water user committee now allows for ongoing impact in an isolated community that is several days’ walk from the nearest road. Kupchet’s story highlights key best practices and learnings from Shanti Nepal’s many years of engaging with drinking water user committees.


Kupchet’s cable/pipe system

First, user committees offer a local, immediate and cost-effective means of technical support. Shanti Nepal paid for two people on Kupchet’s seven-member committee to attend a basic course in construction and water pipe repair. These members were selected based on their prior relevant experience related to construction. The two trainees then led the new water system’s construction and installation processes, following the design of Shanti Nepal’s lead engineers and technicians. Active engagement from the very initial stages of project implementation allows user committee members to more deeply understand the purpose and design of water and sanitation schemes, develop a keen eye for regularly monitoring infrastructure and gain critical skills in maintenance and repair. Repairs beyond the scope of the user committee members’ skill sets may receive support from Shanti Nepal or be outsourced to other technicians. In such instances, user committees play a key role in connecting to local government bodies (in Nepal’s case, ward and municipality offices) that may contribute toward major repairs.  

Second, user committees ensure proper infrastructure maintenance through the regular and systematic collection of fees from all households that benefit from water and sanitation schemes. In Kupchet, all 67 households contribute Rs. 100 (approximately US$1) per month to the user committee. This fund covers the cost of basic repairs as well as regular monitoring of the water system. Unlike other tax collection systems—the benefits of which may be less visible to a remote village family’s eye—local-level collection ensures greater accountability and a more direct cost-benefit relationship.  


Mr. Tak Tamang, Chairperson of Kupchet’s Drinking Water Committee

Finally, the influence of user committee members builds momentum toward an entire community’s collective ownership over water and sanitation projects. Dr. Krishna Man Shakya, executive director of Shanti Nepal, researched WASH projects for his doctoral studies in public health and explains that, “user committees institutionalize the community’s involvement and contribute to leadership development as well.” In the case of Kupchet, the influence of the user committee resulted in 65 people from the village participating in the installation of the water system’s pipes. Lined up along a precarious trail, these 130 hands grasped the cable and pipes as they were swung across a gorge and attached to cement pillars. Tak Tamang, chairperson of the drinking water system user committee, shares that there were many torn palms, but no one complained. There was a deep sense of pride and ownership in having installed a much-needed system through the village’s collective strength. 

As in other community-based organizations, the selection and diversity of WASH user committee members is key to impact. While Shanti Nepal aims for 30-40% of committee members to be female, those with appropriate technical background tend to be male. Tak Tamang explains that women too can play important roles on committees, such as treasurer and secretary, thus contributing toward greater gender equity. 

While the engagement of drinking water user committees brings many benefits, there are challenges that may impede project impact if left unaddressed. According to Dr. Shakya, these challenges may include: motivating committee members to consistently monitor water schemes, teaching them to handle funds transparently and mobilizing all users to feel a long-term sense of ownership over the scheme in order to keep up with repairs. As with any infrastructure scheme, community drinking water systems may create or exacerbate conflicts related to water use, drainage and maintenance. While a thorough conflict analysis in the project design phase helps reduce this risk, user committee members may find themselves challenged to treat all users with fairness and equity. Despite these challenges, Shanti Nepal and MCC have found that, when coupled with well-thought-through project design and appropriate levels of support, WASH user committees that monitor drinking water systems at the community level in Nepal significantly contribute toward the long-term use and maintenance of water systems and the sustainability of sanitation and hygiene outcomes. 

Daphne Fowler serves as MCC’s representative for its Nepal program and lives in Kathmandu. 


Community members from Kupchet celebrate the opening of the new water system, as well as a new primary health care outreach clinic

WASH as part of an integrated community development plan in Nicaragua


[Individual articles from the Winter 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

In 1984, a group of Nicaraguan university students who felt called to emphasize their faith in action founded the organization Acción Médica Cristiana (AMC). This group of doctors and other health professionals started out by sharing their gifts in medicine through mobile medical care in the rural, war-torn areas of Nicaragua. In October 1988, after its humanitarian response to Hurricane Joan, AMC began a more permanent presence in the Caribbean regions of the country. Initially, AMC’s response to health needs was primarily clinical, but as time passed the organization recognized the need for a more holistic community development model, and in 1990 AMC shifted toward community health prevention and promotion. Addressing the basic need for clean water and sanitation was a central part of this shift. AMC leaders and staff observed that, without clean water, medical care was only a short-term solution for communities. In the years that followed, AMC leaders included water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) interventions in the organization’s strategic plan. AMC uses a holistic approach that integrates WASH projects into its larger community development strategies. An additional principle for AMC is for WASH education and infrastructure to go hand-in-hand. AMC has both enjoyed successes and faced challenges as it incorporates WASH strategies into its health and development outreach.  

Over the past thirty years, AMC has focused mainly on rural communities in the Autonomous Caribbean Regions of Nicaragua. These regions are home to many of the poorest municipalities in the country, where drinking water and sanitation systems are limited. The root causes for malnutrition and dehydration in the regions include waterborne illnesses, making WASH interventions essential. AMC has expanded into other areas of development beyond WASH, but with the ongoing limited availability of drinking water and sanitation infrastructure, AMC has worked to keep WASH in its strategic plan. At the same time, AMC collaborates and advocates closely with local and municipal governments in WASH initiatives as more government regulations are put in place and as access to clean water and sanitation becomes a priority within the public sphere, stressing that the success of WASH initiatives is crucial to the overall success and sustainability of general health outcomes. 

AMC’s philosophy that WASH projects are a basic community development strategy has led the organization to incorporate WASH into various levels of their work. AMC uses a holistic model in which infrastructure, education, peacebuilding and spirituality are intertwined. Currently MCC is partnering with AMC in both WASH and education projects in and around the city of Bluefields in the South Autonomous Caribbean Coast Region. AMC’s focus is to invest at the community level, especially in schools. Support for education without any assistance to address school infrastructure is often received by communities as shallow and insufficient since the schools in this region of Nicaragua have substantial infrastructure needs, including WASH infrastructure, such as wells for schools to access potable water. At the same time, building wells without education has led to contamination and disrepair. From AMC’s perspective, infrastructure and education must go hand in hand. 

AMC works hard to integrate and involve community members from project design through to implementation, monitoring and evaluation. AMC’s experience shows that community participation is fundamental to the success any development project. This involvement ensures ownership by the community. AMC also works together with the community to ensure that whatever system or tool is being offered is appropriate for the location. For example, a community with only sporadic electricity may benefit more from a hand pump on a well than an electric one.  

Community members are also involved in the actual manual labor of the project. Gerardo Gutierrez, AMC Project Director, tells the story of one community where the men were not interested in helping with the project because the water storage system was located up a large hill and they felt the work was too intense. The women, however, felt the need for clean water in the community was great, since they were the ones who walked for kilometers to the river to collect buckets of water for daily chores. The women started taking the plastic pipes one by one up the hill and digging trenches. The men felt ashamed to be outdone by the women and children and decided in the end they should join in as well. The water system was completed and the project has been administered exclusively and successfully by the community for 20 years, demonstrating the community ownership of the project.  

The community is also empowered as it makes decisions about the design, the education process and the community potable water committee that functions after the official projects have ended. With increased community participation, AMC has used input from the community to develop gravity-based water systems, hand-dug and -drilled wells and water treatment systems using filtration, chlorine, ozone or ultraviolet treatment, depending on the context and need. AMC also has ample experience in the construction of different types of latrines based on the geographic and cultural conditions in the area.  

While AMC staff are positive about their efforts, they also face many challenges. They continually work to be culturally sensitive in a region with substantial cultural diversity. They also face challenges to foster community participation when other groups, both nongovernmental and governmental, come in and do projects for free or even pay beneficiaries, while failing to slowly build community ownership for WASH initiatives. A serious concern in the region where AMC operates is climate change that is increasing the already heightened risk for disasters, especially flooding, which contaminates soils and destroys infrastructure. Despite this, AMC has witnessed the improvement of health, education and community organization, all as a result of making WASH part of an integrated community development model. 

MCC has been privileged to work with AMC over the past thirty years. We as an organization have learned from their experiences in community development and specifically WASH projects. AMC’s collaboration with the community has been especially meaningful as it aligns with MCC’s own values as an organization and provides evidence for the benefits of community involvement in projects.  

Rebekah Charles is the MCC Nicaragua representative. Jeannette Kelly is AMC’s project coordinator in Bluefields, while Gerardo Gutierrez is the AMC Project Director. 

The impact of a school WASH project in Kenya


[Individual articles from the Winter 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

After many years of supporting water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) activities in Kenyan schools, MCC asked one school, Mukuru Mennonite Academy, located in an informal settlement of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, what impact its WASH program has had on the broader community. The school serves over 350 students from kindergarten through eighth grade. Most pupils live in rented, makeshift houses that have poor ventilation and lack water and sanitation facilities. Seventy-five percent of homesteads in the settlement use community pay toilets. Some have private toilets and others use the “flying toilet” method of defecating in a plastic bag and then throwing it out into the alleyway. Almost all (98%) inhabitants use community pipes for their water supply. Residents buy this water from the Nairobi city water supply and the pipe infrastructure is fraught with leaks, often passing through open sewer ditches. According to the local Rueben Health Center, more than 30% of common recurrent diseases that they treat are water- and sanitation-related. 

The long-term goal of the WASH program at Mukuru is that “the Mukuru community will be healthier with children having fewer incidences of diseases caused by poor personal and environmental sanitation. In addition, good hygiene practices will become a social norm within the Mukuru community.” Specific goals of the program include: educating community members and school children on methods of treating their drinking water; educating households on the importance of proper human waste disposal; facilitating community clean-up days to remove litter and clear drainage ditches; and increasing the attendance rate at the school by reducing waterborne diseases.  

In responding to the question of what impact the WASH program has had on the community, the WASH promoters tell stories of improved relationships—both relationships between the school and students’ parents and relationships between the school and community leaders (clan elders and chiefs). One component of this WASH program is that every three months the WASH promoters visit the household of each pupil. The benefit of these household visits has gone beyond the original goals of educating the family on WASH practices. As the promoters visit parents, they develop a trusting relationship with them, fostering a feeling among parents that the school is concerned about the well-being of their child, not simply managing the school for personal gain. This has improved the engagement between parents and the school. Often during these visits, curious neighbors come and join the visit and learn about WASH practices as well. An additional benefit of this relationship between parents and the school is a high retention rate of pupils. In this densely populated community, there are many schools (most of them private) to choose from and it is not uncommon for a student to stay at one school for only one year or one term before changing to a different one. When WASH promoters regularly visit pupils’ homes, the opportunity for that student to succeed in school is greatly improved.  

Another positive outcome of the household visits by the WASH promoters is an increased security in their community due to the positive relationship between the community administrators and the school. The community administrators see the promoters educating parents in their homes, regardless of what family or tribe they are from, and appreciate that the school is actively promoting community health. This positive relationship bears fruit when the community administration calls for community clean-up days where the whole community works together to clean out drainage ditches, pick up litter and learn more about environmental sanitation. Since the WASH promotors have been training on the importance of good hygiene and sanitation, more people participate in the clean-up days. The promotors also note that as they build rapport in the communities, more families welcome them into their households for training.  

Together with the Kenyan government, Mukuru WASH promoters also observe international Water Day, Handwashing Day and Toilet Day. During these celebrations, community members are encouraged to actively improve hygiene and sanitation by physically opening drainage systems, collecting litter and constructing ‘leaky tins’ or ‘tippy taps’ for improved handwashing. Promotors model good handwashing behavior and establish places to wash hands in the school and community. 

The respectful relationship between parents and WASH promoters can help dispel some commonly held myths. One myth that some families believe is that young children get diarrhea because their teeth are coming in. This leads parents to not intervene when a child gets diarrhea, leaving the child vulnerable to dehydration and malnutrition. A second myth is that children’s feces are safe, and one cannot get diseases from them. This can lead families to not properly dispose of a child’s feces because they believe they contain no pathogens. During the WASH visits, myths like these can be discussed and parents learn healthy WASH behaviors. WASH promoters report that parents have increased their practice of WASH behaviors and they have become a regular part of their lifestyle. For example, the number of families using flying toilets has decreased by 34%. The Mukuru WASH promotors attribute the success of behavior change to the consistent follow-up visits within the community and the WASH-related murals painted at community gathering points. Parents self-report that they are washing their hands after using the toilet and overall toilet usage has increased by 78%. Households have also reported improvement of garbage disposal habits.  

Promoters report that 233 families of students are treating their drinking water and 182 families use the Solar Water Disinfection (SODIS) method for improving the safety of drinking water. Promoters report that a few households (5%) have installed a ‘leaky tin’ handwashing station at their homes to encourage more frequent washing of hands as well as to conserve water. Mukuru Mennonite Academy has several of these leaky tins installed at their school where children wash their hands. Parents also report that they spend less time taking their sick children to medical facilities and less money on medicine. This change is attributed to practicing WASH behaviors. 

The private schools in the community belong to a cluster of schools that meet together regularly to collaborate. Mukuru Mennonite Academy administrators noted that as they adopted WASH behaviors on their school grounds, other schools followed suit as they were able. For example, now some schools have installed one toilet and one handwashing station model for their students to use during the school day when previously there had been no facilities available. And now some schools are purchasing water for their students to drink after learning from Mukuru Mennonite Academy about the importance of water for one’s health. 

The WASH program has achieved a positive impact in the community. This has been a result of good relationships within project staff and beneficiaries. Relationships have led to open discussion of good WASH practices and helped in tackling myths which sometimes prevent adoption of good hygiene and sanitation. The participants share challenges as they brainstorm together for concrete solutions to the problems they experience while trying to maintain good hygiene and sanitation. As the health goals are being realized in Mukuru Mennonite Academy, the WASH program has also created peaceful and trustful relationships between the school, students’ parents and the community. 

Krista Snader works with MCC Kenya in its WASH projects. The Mukuru Mennonite Academy WASH team is an MCC Kenya partner.


School WASH clubs in Uganda


[Individual articles from the Winter 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Flooding is not only dangerous, but also dirty, particularly when the area flooded is underdeveloped and densely populated. High waters flush sewage, refuse, corpses and general debris back up into inhabited areas. Regaining access to clean water and sanitary living conditions after a flood takes significant time and resources. It can be easy to forget that dirty water is simply a fact of life for many rural communities, with or without the complication of flooding, and progress toward better water access is usually fragmented and slow. When the need is as broad as in rural Uganda, finding a place to begin is one of the biggest challenges, and one emergent pattern of development, more pragmatic than philosophical, is that long-term visions often get their footing as relief aid. In Western Uganda’s Kasese district, in the foothills of the Rwenzori Mountains that divide Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the catalyst to begin addressing widespread water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) concerns in rural schools was disastrous flooding, which in May 2013 wiped out the health stability of several primary schools and their communities. 

MCC works through partnership with local organizations which have the experience and connections to effectively navigate the local economic, political and cultural considerations that any relief or development project must address. MCC’s partner in Kasese is the development department of the Church of Uganda’s South Rwenzori Diocese (SRD). After reaching out to MCC in 2013, SRD conducted surveys of the area, looking for schools most impacted by flooding. SRD staff found high incidence of disease among students, mostly typhoid, cholera and dysentery from untreated drinking water further contaminated by flooding. The flooding had also destroyed many existing drainage systems, resulting in more stagnant breeding pools for malarial mosquitoes. The immediate concerns caused by the floods also highlighted endemic health issues at the schools, such as inadequate and under-maintained washing and toilet facilities and no established practices or systems to purify drinking water. MCC and SRD agreed on a short-term relief project, running from January through August 2014, that focused on returning identified flood-affected schools to a baseline of operation through the provision of food, school supplies and counseling to help students continue studying despite having lost homes and possessions. This partnership for limited relief activities opened the door for an ongoing partnership with SRD to address the WASH needs in these rural schools. 

To counter the spread of waterborne illnesses, MCC and SRD focused at first on improving the WASH infrastructure at the schools, supporting the construction of latrines, washrooms, hand-washing facilities and water tanks to collect rain runoff from the school roofs, ensuring that this project met the standard humanitarian guidelines for the infrastructure required to meet the water, sanitation and hygiene needs of students at the schools. Building infrastructure, however, is insufficient: such construction efforts must be coupled with programs that seek to bring about behavioral change. To promote specific sanitation and hygiene practices, SRD and MCC supported the schools in setting up school WASH clubs. These clubs are active in spreading messages about WASH within the school and the surrounding community through songs and drama. These messages encourage students to practice good hygiene and use sanitation facilities appropriately. 

Another club activity is to make ‘talking compounds,’ which are signs that are displayed in the schoolyard that share short health concepts such as “menstruation is normal.” Students and teachers are also provided with training on how to purify drinking water and maintain personal hygiene. Students learn to making ‘tippy taps,’ simple and inexpensive hand-washing stations consisting of a small jug of water suspended from a wooden frame: WASH clubs construct such stations throughout the school compound. Children are in turn encouraged to bring these techniques to their homes: follow-up visits by project staff have found that students have in fact begun erecting tippy taps in their homes and communities.  

Perhaps the most progressive and promising aspect of the school WASH project is the provision of materials and training to young women to make re-usable menstrual pads (RUMPs). In many places, girls have a disproportionately low rate of school completion due to absenteeism because they have no simple and effective way to manage menstruation. The project staff provided training and materials to assist girl students in production and use of RUMPs. The entire school, including staff, receives education on menstrual hygiene to help break the pervasive stigma that menstruation is dirty and shameful. The project has resulted in reduced absenteeism, increased completion rates and improved performance for girls in the schools where SRD and MCC have introduced RUMPs. 

The choice of where to direct resources is never easy, and sometimes commitment to a new development project needs the motivation and tangible impact of a relief effort to gain traction. In one region of Uganda, MCC and a church partner were able to build on a disaster relief response to address longer-term health needs in the community. Initial results from the construction of WASH infrastructure and the mobilization of WASH clubs show promise in preventing the spread of waterborne illness and reducing absenteeism and increasing school participation, including by adolescent girls. 

Joshua Kuepfer was a SALT participant with MCC Uganda for the 2017-2018 year.


Sanitation for women and girls in Nairobi’s informal settlements


[Individual articles from the Winter 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Walking in the informal settlements of Mathare, Korogocho and Viwandani in Nairobi, one is confronted with a disturbing smell of human waste mixed with raw sewage and rotten garbage. Within the first few minutes, the Kenyan heat acts to intensify these smells which burn the eyes and nose. Amidst all this waste, the streets are busy with women, men, girls and boys living and tending to their everyday lives. Within these settlements, access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) is a challenge. Lack of awareness of safe water, sanitation and hygiene practices can affect all members of the family, both adults and children. Women and girls, meanwhile, have distinctive sanitation needs: WASH programs designed to address these needs make vital contributions to the overall empowerment of women and girls (WaterAid 2018). 

Women in Kenya typically have the responsibility for both procuring and using water for their households. A woman who cannot clean her house, provide food and keep the water pot always full of drinking water is scorned and loses the trust and love of her husband. Due to this cultural norm, women struggle to find water at any cost and may end up providing their families with water from questionable sources. Women in informal settlements are disproportionately affected by the lack of access to water and sanitation, with challenges ranging from unsafe drinking water and absence of proper sanitation to lack of hand washing facilities. The work of fetching water and accessing poor sanitation facilities can also put women and girls at risk for violence. 

Conversations with women in these informal settlements revealed how they cope with lack of toilet facilities. During a focus group discussion, women confided that they find it difficult to go to the toilet, especially at night, due to fear of being raped while walking to a distant toilet facility. To mitigate the danger of leaving the safety of their homes at night, women have resorted using the “flying toilet” method of disposing of human waste. This practice requires one to defecate in a plastic bag and throw it as far as possible from the house, usually in the late night or early morning hours. This practice exacerbates the problem of poor sanitation within the settlements. 

Women also reported that finding water to prepare food, wash family clothes and clean the house is a challenge. Without access to city-supplied water, women depend on vendors who unscrupulously break into the water pipes that pass through the informal settlement and steal water, which is then sold to residents of the informal communities at exorbitant prices. Due to this practice, women with limited income find it difficult to cope with household water needs. 

Households in informal settlements routinely buy food from street vendors because it is quick and easy, requiring minimal energy of preparation. Families also save on fuel, time and water for washing up the dishes when they buy food from street vendors. However, the hygienic practices of the street vendors are questionable at best. Purchasing this convenient food on the street can contribute to illnesses within the family. 

The WASH challenges facing households in Nairobi’s informal settlements are varied and numerous. One way that MCC and its partners seek to address the WASH challenges faced by these households—and especially by women and girls in these households—is through school-based initiatives that focus on the distinctive hygiene needs faced by adolescent girls and that increase access to safe drinking water.  

In a survey carried out in an informal community in Nairobi, a group of 25 schoolgirls aged 12 to 15 years highlighted the challenges these girls face regarding menstrual hygiene and the negative impact these challenges have on their schooling. Up to 60% of the girls found it difficult to come to school during menstruation and stated that they missed an average of 36 days of school in a year. The girls attributed their absences to cramps, the lack of a place to dispose of sanitation materials and not having proper sanitary towels to protect them during the day at school. Several of MCC’s partners are addressing the need for schoolgirls to have access to menstrual hygiene supplies by providing reusable and disposable sanitary pads. These projects are recording a decrease in absenteeism for girl students, a decrease attributed to the girls’ access to sanitary products.  

MCC funding also makes it possible for Kenyan organizations to increase access to safe drinking water for households in the informal settlements by training children and families how to purify drinking water using the Solar Disinfection (SODIS) method. This method uses transparent PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles and the sun’s ultraviolet rays to purify water. SODIS represents a low-cost solution that even economically marginalized families can use. WASH teams organized by MCC’s Kenyan partners offer training to introduce the SODIS method and provide ongoing follow-up to support families as they begin using this sustainable water purification method. 

These school-based WASH initiatives emerged after listening to women and girls about what challenges they face when it comes to ensuring their families have clean water and to meeting their hygiene needs. Both the menstrual hygiene and the solar disinfection programs have contributed to significant improvements in the lives of students and the broader population of Nairobi’s informal communities. School teachers, administrators and parents have all bought into these initiatives and testify to their impact. The community- and family-based ownership of these WASH initiatives will help guarantee the sustainability of the positive impacts of these efforts to assist Nairobi’s informal communities in having adequate water, sanitation and hygiene resources.  

Jane Otai previously served as a consultant for MCC Kenya school WASH project and currently works for Jhpiegoan international, non-profit health organization affiliated with The Johns Hopkins University.

Learn More 

Amnesty International. “Risking Rape to Reach a Toilet: Women’s Experience in the Slums of Nairobi, Kenya.” July 7, 2010. Available at documents/AFR32/006/2010/en/ 

Bitew, Bikes Destaw; Yigzaw Kebede, Gashaw Andargie Biks; and Takele Tadesse Adafrie.  “The Effect of SODIS Water Treatment Intervention at the Household Level in Reducing Diarrheal Incidence among Children under 5 years of Age: A Cluster Randomized Controlled Trial in Dabat District, Northwest Ethiopia.” July 31, 2018. Available at  

Office of the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights (OHCHR), in cooperation with UN-HABITAT and the World Health Organization (WHO). “The Right to Water.” Fact Sheet No. 35. 2010. Available at Publications/FactSheet35en.pdf. 

WaterAid. “Water, Sanitation and Hygiene: A Pathway to Realizing Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women and Girls.” 2018. Available at 


Water, sanitation and hygiene (Winter 2019)


[Individual articles from the Winter 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

In July 2017, when reporting on global progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the United Nations Secretary General stated that “Access to safe water and sanitation and sound management of freshwater ecosystems are essential to human health and to environmental sustainability and economic prosperity” (UN, 2017). Water is a basic human need. Both during emergency responses and in longer-term development efforts, securing access to safe water and improving sanitation for vulnerable populations are top priorities. Communities affected by emergencies and poverty are generally more susceptible to disease and illness than other populations. Much of this increased vulnerability can be attributed to lack of access to safe water for drinking, cooking and washing, which contributes to poor sanitation and hygiene. 

Unfortunately, UNICEF (2015) reports that the two- to five-year failure rate of water and sanitation projects is 30-50%. Research indicates that this failure rate can primarily be attributed to lack of effective sustainability planning, including community participation in planning and implementing these initiatives, rather than to the technical dimensions of the projects. Successful water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) responses build on the capacities of communities and local governments to ensure safe, sustained and equitable access to appropriate and adequate WASH services (Sphere, 2018.) Other factors that improve success rates of WASH projects include an understanding of the socio-political, cultural and economic contexts of participating communities on the part of organizations carrying out WASH projects. Strong community participation and involvement of local structures and experts improve long-term outcomes. 

MCC and its constituents have long championed the importance of assisting vulnerable communities with safe water and sanitation. MCC records indicate that the first multi-year project to address the provision of safe drinking water took place in 1964 in Grande Riviere du Nord, Haiti. In the project, MCC workers collaborated with the community to tap a natural spring and pipe its clean water to the village. Working to connect communities to clean water and to support community efforts to improve sanitation and hygiene have remained vital MCC initiatives over the ensuing half century. MCC supporters, meanwhile, have demonstrated a persistent and growing interest in WASH-related projects. This issue of Intersections offers articles examining different ways in which MCC and its partners are responding to needs in Kenya, Uganda, Nepal, Nicaragua and Haiti for safe, potable water, improved sanitation and hygiene promotion. Taken together, the articles underscore the need for strong community participation and for considering the distinct needs of women and girls to achieve successful implementation of WASH projects. 

Beth Good is MCC’s representative for its Kenya program and lives in Nairobi.

Learn More

The Sphere Handbook: Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response. 2018. Available at 

UN ECOSOC. (2017). “Progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals.” Retrieved September 1, 2018, from: 

UNICEF. (2015). “Accountability in WASH: Explaining the Concept.” Retrieved September 1, 2018, from: Explaining _the_Concept.pdf  

Closing the loop: accountable communications in a digitally-connected world


[Individual articles from the Fall 2018 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

In March, shortly after a group of MCC staff travelled to Syria, MCC Canada Executive Director Rick Cober Bauman wrote a reflection featuring the story and photo of a woman we had met. We used a pseudonym to protect her identity. Four days later, we received an email from the MCC representatives to Lebanon and Syria that the woman, Rahaf Abdo, had seen the story on Facebook (after a friend shared it with her) and she wrote to request that we use her full name.

It was an easy change to make, but a good example of how storytelling changes in a more digitally connected world. MCC has long reflected on whose stories we are telling and what role partners and participants play in shaping those narratives: new forms of digital communications prompt renewed consideration of such questions. MCC has an opportunity to hear directly how our stories are seen by the people featured in them. This will be an especially valuable lesson for a communications team, and an organization, that is overwhelmingly white and from Canada and the U.S.

For many years, the stories MCC told were primarily distributed in print and in person (at church meetings, for example). If there was feedback from the people in the stories, it would come much later. Today it is easy for the people featured in the stories to read the posts and articles and watch the videos we have made about them—and for those people to tell us what they think.

This can be a positive experience for everyone when the stories are told well. When we shared the story of Boniface Anthony, a peacemaker in Nigeria, on Facebook, he commented on the post, writing: “Thank you MCC for sharing my story and [I] hope it will inspire others to join the peacebuilding train.”

But sharing stories online can also lead to painful lessons, sometimes learned publicly. Recently we posted a story on a school that brings together students who are Jewish-Israeli and Palestinian citizens of Israel. The original headline to the story was “Jewish, Arab children learn together.” When the story was posted on Facebook, two commenters criticized the headline. One comment took issue with using the general term Arab because they felt it erased the Palestinian identities of the children, while the other felt the headline and was incorrectly comparing a religion (Judaism) with a nationality or ethnicity (Arab). After internal conversations between communications and program, we took the story down, reassessed the language and wrote a new headline.

Taking criticism publicly on social media or the web for communications mistakes doesn’t feel good. But the opportunity to get that feedback quickly and directly from the people featured in our stories, or who are part of those communities, is an important opportunity to improve MCC’s communications.

Online communication also provides opportunities for international MCC partners to share their stories directly—for MCC to amplify their voices, while also telling MCC’s story of collaboration with them. This is an area where MCC can and should do better. We have started to share more stories online and on social media from staff and from participants in young adult exchange programs. But this content continues to consist primarily of stories from around the world told by white people in the U.S. and Canada. MCC could seek out and share more content created by MCC’s local partners and participants in our programs (although that would of course mean dedicating some of MCC’s limited time and resources for communications to such efforts). We have on occasion used content produced directly from partners, such photos from Syria. But there is space for improvement on this score.

The internet continues to break down the barriers between organizations and the people with whom they work and serve. MCC needs to continue to grapple with the question of how much we can or should shape the narrative and how much to let go and allow the individuals and communities with whom we work to both inform our stories and tell their own.

Emily Loewen is digital content coordinator for MCC.

Communications principles in the day-to-day work of fundraising


[Individual articles from the Fall 2018 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

In Representations of Global Poverty, Nandita Dogra advances several critiques of international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) public fundraising and advocacy messages. Some of Dogra’s key areas of concern include:

  • the inclination of INGOs to use negative messages that highlight needs, crisis and disaster and that paint a picture of weakness, inferiority and dependence;
  • a tendency for INGOs to focus on their own achievements;
  • the portrayal of the developed world as ‘active givers’ and the majority world as ‘passive receivers’;
  • the erasure of complexity and context when INGOs communicate about relief and development to such an extent that they end up communicating ‘safe’ and overly simplified messages that do not say much.

Dogra’s critiques are serious and INGOs must grapple with them. In this article, I analyze my own practice as someone who has extensively communicated to MCC’s donors, using Dogra’s concerns as a guide.

MCC’s brand guide, which addresses many of Dogra’s critiques, provides basic information meant to shape the “communications of all MCCers”, including donor relations, or fundraising, staff. The priority in all MCC communications is to “share stories and information about our international programs and the people we serve in order to actively engage donors in our work, to broaden people’s worldview and to increase our donor base.” MCC messaging aims to: focus on people (“characterized by dignity, agency and value”); reveal both need and strength (“We report honestly about the needs we encounter while affirming the dignity and agency of each person”); and show compassion, as modeled in Jesus’ concern for the poor and marginalized.

Donor emails, however, are a ubiquitous form of communication that fall outside of MCC’s formal and edited communications and are not always consistent with the standards outlined in MCC’s brand guide. For this study, I reviewed 118 donor thank-you emails that I sent to MCC donors between January 3 and 13, 2017. Roughly one in six emails (19 out of 118) had an “impact report” attached, supplementing the content of the email with more detail.

In reviewing each of the emails I had sent to donors, it became clear that many of Dogra’s critiques applied to them. The emails are short and give minimal detail, especially those without a link to an impact report. They are generic and simple, avoiding complexity and context, echoing Dogra’s criticism of simplified, “safe” messaging. In the few words used in the emails (50 words per email was typical), the main actors are the donor (“your generous gift”, “know that your gifts have made a real difference”; all emphases here and below are added for this article) and MCC (“your partnership with us”, MCC’s work, “as we respond”). The project partners, communities and participants (i.e., “beneficiaries”)—central to the story of MCC’s relief, development and peacebuilding projects—are rarely mentioned. Furthermore, while compassion makes an appearance, the emails do not balance need and strength in alignment with MCC’s stated guidelines when beneficiaries are included (“those in need around the world”; “refugees in crisis”; “your gifts have made a real difference in the lives of families in need”).

What implications does this analysis have? From a fundraiser’s perspective, it would be unrealistic and problematic to stop sending these short thank-you emails or to substantially lengthen the thank-you emails to include everything named in the brand guide that is important to communicate. Either course of action would overlook some critical realities: we need to say thanks and we only have about 11 seconds to do so.

We need to say thanks because, along with our communications guidelines, we are committed to the Associate of Fundraising Professionals code of conduct and ethical code, which mandates timely stewardship (including acknowledgement and thanks for the gift). And saying thanks is itself one of the communications principles from our brand guide: “we take every opportunity to acknowledge and thank supporters who make our stories possible.” Donors are a central part of the story of MCC’s relief, development and peacebuilding work, and they should know this!

There are some significant challenges that donor relations staff face in this critical work. For one, people’s attentions spans are short. Litmus Email Analytics has shown that the average time that people spend reading an email is 11 seconds. Another challenge is the sheer volume of emails required if we want to thank everyone who makes a gift. In 2017, approximately 7000 unique donors in Ontario alone made financial contributions to MCC. The combination of short attention spans and the need to reach out to so many donors lends itself to a short email. Put another way, a short email directly correlates to a higher number of donors receiving a thank you and actually reading it (assuming the same number of hours invested in the task). The result is an imperfect solution (a brief
email) to an imperative (the need to say thanks).

The question thus becomes: how might we improve the imperfect imperatives that are donor thank-you emails? A 50-word email will never avoid all of Dogra’s critiques (a short email must by its nature be an oversimplification), nor do justice to MCC’s own communication guidelines. But there are some simple tweaks to these short emails that are possible, such as avoiding negative messages that highlight needs or crisis. And as we saw with 19 of the 118 emails analyzed in this study, fundraising staff can quite easily attach impact reports that align with MCC’s brand standards (balancing needs with strength and highlighting the agency of beneficiaries and implementing partners rather than the achievements of MCC) and also address Dogra’s critiques. While it does not completely resolve the tension among Dogra’s critiques, short attention spans and limited staff time available for donor engagement, a clear improvement and next step for fundraising staff is to more consistently attach impact reports that align with MCC’s brand guide to donor thank-you emails whenever possible.

Allan Reesor-McDowell worked as MCC Ontario donor engagement manager and currently serves as executive director of Matthew House Ottawa.

Learn More

Dogra, Nandita. Representations of Global Poverty: Aid, Development and International NGOs. London: I.B. Tauris, 2014.

Sharing stories and images from the Kasai crisis


[Individual articles from the Fall 2018 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

For the last year, MCC has been responding to the humanitarian crisis in Kasai region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (D.R. Congo). MCC has been trying to increase awareness of MCC supporters and the broader Anabaptist community about this low-profile and significant humanitarian crisis. In order to mobilize resources to meet urgent needs, MCC has shared stories and images of people who have suffered horrific violence and remain very vulnerable. This article draws on my personal experience leading MCC’s response to the Kasai crisis, including collecting stories and images of displaced people, and will explore the dilemma of collecting and sharing stories and images of people affected by humanitarian crises.

The conflict in Kasai erupted in 2016. What started as primarily an antigovernment movement evolved and exploited historical ethnic tensions and political allegiances. At the height of the crisis, 1.4 million people were displaced; entire villages have been destroyed and over 3,000 people have been killed. Many Congolese have witnessed and directly suffered terrible acts of violence. Last year the United Nations declared D.R. Congo a Level 3 crisis—the most severe humanitarian crisis. While the humanitarian situation is grave and deteriorating, there has been little media coverage of the crisis in D.R. Congo overall, let alone the crisis in Kasai. Thus, it is critical that MCC collect and share compelling stories and images to mobilize supporters and raise awareness.

DRC intersection - 1

MCC has given high priority to this response because of the scale of the crisis and due to the historical and ongoing relationship between MCC and the large number of Mennonite and Mennonite Brethren churches in the region. To date, MCC has allocated over US$1 million to provide food assistance, hygiene items, shelter and educational support in partnership with Congolese Mennonite and Mennonite Brethren denominations. In this response, MCC has worked in partnership with various other Anabaptist mission agencies who also want to mobilize their church members to respond. This puts additional pressure on MCC to collect powerful images and narratives to share with other agencies.

MCC staff have gathered photos, video and stories in various locations in Kasai. Due to logistical challenges, MCC staff gathered this material while also undertaking other activities, including during the situation assessment carried out to determine needs and available resources and during the planning and implementation of the relief response. MCC communications policy requires that individuals give permission before their photos are taken and an explanation is provided for why MCC is collecting the photos. While some people were asked to tell their stories, others came forward on their own. Overall, displaced people from Kasai were very willing to share about their experience and to have their photos taken. They shared painful stories of fleeing their villages and seeing family members killed. They were also able to communicate their priority needs, including food, health care and education for their children.

DRC intersections - 2

The presence of visitors in the community and being invited to tell one’s story can provide hope to people in desperate circumstances—a hope that other people around the world will hear about their situation and be moved to provide support. At the same time, soliciting stories from people in crisis can also raise expectations that the community will be provided with assistance. While the response was at the planning stage, no promise of assistance could be provided; however, it could be viewed by some that telling one’s story would lead to a greater chance of being selected to receive humanitarian assistance.

During the assessment and planning phase of the response, I was able to visit several communities and hear the stories of community members. But due to limited resources, the security situation and logistical challenges, MCC was not able to assist all who shared their stories. As an example, I travelled with local church leadership to one remote village which was still an active military zone and not accessible for humanitarian assistance. In this case, providing food assistance could have potentially endangered the lives of people—two weeks later, there was a massacre in the village. In other cases, due to limited resources, MCC prioritized resources for the most vulnerable. This meant that some people who contributed to the fundraising effort by sharing their stories of displacement did not receive support from MCC.

In some instances, MCC is able to share the published stories and photos back with families. MCC interviewed Agnes Ntumba during the first distribution of food and education supplies in Kabwela. During a followup visit, I was able to show the images to her and her family that were printed in Mennonite World Review. The entire family was delighted to see their story and photos; knowing that others have heard their story and seen their faces can bring joy and restore dignity to uprooted people.

Gathering stories, photos and videos of people displaced by an active conflict presents significant logistical challenges and raises ethical questions of how to collect this material in a transparent fashion and without making promises or raising expectations. Facing these challenges and addressing these questions are essential parts of MCC’s work to meet basic human needs. By sharing the stories of people affected by the Kasai crisis, MCC has been able to slowly increase the number of displaced Congolese families from Kasai who receive assistance.

Mulanda Jimmy Juma is the MCC representative for the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola.

Learn More

Dennison, Luke. “New phase of lawlessness grips Congo’s Kasaï region.” IRIN. August 28,
More information about how MCC is responding to the Kasai crisis is available through MCC’s website:

Advocacy as translation: representing partner voices


[Individual articles from the Fall 2018 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

MCC Canada’s Ottawa Office engages in advocacy to government on behalf of, and together with, MCC partners in Canada and around the world. We often describe our work as a two-sided coin. One side is political engagement. This is the work we do to speak directly to government and to the political system: through letters, face to face meetings, written or oral presentations to committees and more. The other side of the coin is public engagement: this is the work we do to help our constituents hear the stories, understand the issues and become advocates themselves.

We have found inspiration in the words of Samantha Baker Evens, a mission worker in Cambodia, who wrote: “We are not ‘a voice for the voiceless’—we lend our privilege as a megaphone.” In the Ottawa Office, we like to think of our advocacy work as amplifying the voices of our partners.

In representing the message of our partners to a wider audience, we often find that our work requires translation. We need to express the message in a way that both Canadian parliamentarians and constituents can understand and, we hope, act on. With parliamentarians, we translate concerns into the language of law and human rights; with constituents, we use the language of biblical theology and concepts such as justice, mercy and compassion.

We hope that in our translation we are bearing faithful witness to the advocacy message our partners urge us to speak. But sometimes we ask ourselves: Does it really do that Sometimes we wonder if our decisions about how to represent these voices is weakening or distorting their message. We wonder if, in our efforts to make the message work in the Canadian context, we are losing the essence of what our partners ask of us. A few examples illustrate this dilemma.

Some years ago, an MCC group travelled to Guatemala to learn about the activities of Canadian gold mining giant, Goldcorp, in the San Marcos region. While there, we heard about the mine’s contamination of water and soil, its tearing of the social fabric of the community and its failure to adequately consult with Indigenous people regarding the use of their land. We learned how the mine had devastated the community. At the end of the week, we sat together with local people who said clearly to us, “This mine is destroying our lives. Get rid of it.”

Our hearts sank. We knew there was no way we could get rid of the mine. We were only a small nongovernmental organization with a handful of advocacy staff. And, although we were part of a larger coalition back in Canada, we simply had no capacity or mandate to take on a mining corporation. What we could do was commit to pressing for changes in Canadian law that would make it much more difficult for companies like Goldcorp to act like it had in San Marcos.

Working with other advocacy groups back home, we had some success in pushing for corporate accountability. The Canadian government made it mandatory for companies to report all payments made to local authorities to gain mining contracts, with the aim of eliminating bribery. It also created the office of an independent ombudsperson to hear and adjudicate complaints by people harmed by Canadian corporate activity in their countries.

In that instance, we translated the messages we heard from MCC partners in Guatemala into requests for action that made sense and were achievable within the Canadian political system. We didn’t attempt to get rid of the mine. Should we have?

As indicated above, we also translate for our constituents. We do that, we say, to move people gently from their comfort zone and into their “learning zone,” rather than thrusting them into a “panic zone.” We translate our partners’ advocacy messages so that these messages can be heard by constituents who may feel deeply anxious or threatened when their worldview is turned upside down. An example from MCC’s work related to Palestine and Israel illustrates this dynamic.

In 2005, Palestinian civil society—including some of MCC’s Palestinian partners—initiated a call for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel until it complies with international law and universal human rights principles. From this call has emerged a global grassroots movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions, popularly known as BDS. Palestinians and their Israeli allies have urged the international community to engage in academic and cultural boycotts and to undertake economic measures such as divestment and sanctions in order to bring about an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, to achieve equal rights for Palestinian citizens within Israel and to respect, promote and protect the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties. Over the years, some of MCC’s partners urged MCC to participate in and promote the BDS campaign. The Kairos Palestine document from 2009, written by Palestinian Christian leaders, also urges churches around the world to explore divestment and economic and commercial boycotts of goods related to Israel’s military occupation. Over more than a decade, MCC has organized learning tours for church leaders to Palestine to hear directly from Palestinian Christians and from Palestinians and Israelis working for peace, including from people who have pressed Mennonites to join the BDS movement. Some MCC boards, meanwhile, have taken steps to divest from companies connected to oppression of people, including the Israeli military occupation. Yet MCC has also determined that it will not take a position on the BDS movement, but will instead use other language and strategies to call for a just peace in Palestine and Israel.Cry for Home - english

A current campaign led by MCC in Canada is called “A Cry for Home.” The campaign calls for safe and secure homes—and a safe and secure homeland—for both Palestinians and Israelis. It invites Canadian constituents to consider the situation of Palestinian children in military detention and urges them to act by raising this issue with their Member of Parliament. Our hope is that the plight of Palestinian children will open the hearts and minds of both constituents and politicians, while also providing an entry point into the larger and deeper reality of occupation and oppression. How should MCC balance diverse, sometimes conflicting, partner perspectives on potentially contentious advocacy issues like this? How should MCC balance these various calls from partners with the diverse perspectives of its supporters?

As indicated at the outset, in “translating” for our constituents, we try to represent the messages of partners so that they can be heard, understood and acted upon by our constituents and to maintain strong support for MCC. Like many Christian nongovernmental organizations, MCC works hard to maintain a strong support to carry out its work of relief, development and peacebuilding in the name of Christ. Traditionally, MCC could count on strong and steady financial and other support from Anabaptist churches and households. Today, that support cannot simply be taken for granted. MCC must work hard to seek out and sustain its support. Thus it might feel easier to emphasize MCC’s relief and humanitarian assistance work over more potentially controversial initiatives, including advocacy work.

As Anabaptists in Canada and the U.S., we do not want to hear that we are implicated in other people’s suffering, whether through lifestyle choices, racial privilege, distorted theology, colonial history or support for unjust government policies. Advocacy messages that imply complicity—or that simply point to the realities of systemic injustice—not surprisingly sometimes encounter resistance. Yet it is often these very realities that partners call us to address. It takes courage for organizations like MCC to act out of solidarity and call for justice when doing so may harm the bottom line. I am grateful for the times MCC has acted courageously.

In summary, advocacy together with and on behalf of our partners requires that we translate their concerns so that politicians and constituents in Canada can comprehend and act on them. Doubts and questions about how we represent their stories will—and no doubt, should—always remain with us. Nevertheless, we hope and pray that our translation bears faithful witness to our partners and helps to amplify their voices and ultimately leads to greater justice and greater peace.

Esther Epp-Tiessen worked for MCC for over 28 years, most recently as public engagement coordinator for MCC Canada’s Ottawa Office.

Learn More

For information on MCC’s A Cry for Home campaign, visit MCC’s website:


Does fundraising need pity?: representation and donor response


[Individual articles from the Fall 2018 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

In the 1980s, millions in the Global North were exposed to shocking images of famine in East Africa. It was certainly not the first time that such stark, desperate portrayals of hunger and poverty had been widely published, but it marked a new level in the proliferation of a certain type of imagery adopted in the service of fundraising appeals. The images showed widespread death and devastation. Subjects were usually visibly
malnourished, sick and depicted as passive and alone. In the years that followed, these fundraising tactics received deep criticism: for their oversimplification and decontextualization; for their attempt to appeal to charity rather than rights and justice; for the unequal relationship they suggested between the receiving victim and the heroic Western giver.

Afar, Ethiopia - intersections

But these efforts had worked, countered the defenders of these images, arguing that many thousands of lives had been saved through the ensuing humanitarian response.

In the years that followed the famine of the mid-1980s, many relief and development organizations moved away from this sort of negative, one-dimensional portrayal of those who participate in and benefit from their humanitarian efforts, often adopting codes of conduct to guide their communications efforts. Most organizations have begun to employ more positive imagery, attempting to portray dignity and agency in those pictured. Yet the question persists: by avoiding images that show devastation and provoke pity, have organizations raised less money for their work?  If a fundraiser’s primary concern is maximizing an organization’s ability to respond to crisis, is the loss of humanitarian capacity worth the less tangible virtue of using more positive imagery?

Responding to this line of questioning requires taking a step back and asking whether such a trade-off has in fact occurred. Do donors respond more to a particular type of appeal? Thanks to a young and rapidly developing field of social science research, we can explore these questions with more precision, studying why people choose to give and what factors accelerate or mitigate the impulse. By better understanding donor behaviour, we may find a model for effective fundraising communication that prioritizes positive and dignified representations—and we can also turn our attention to what happens after a decision to donate is made.

Fundraising appeals attempt to trigger particular cognitive or emotional responses in their audience. In recent years, the study of “helping behaviour” has led to some agreement among researchers that empathy— which is predictive of charitable giving—is composed of both affective (emotional) and cognitive dimensions. Giving decisions tend to be driven by either one or the other, but affective giving decisions comprise the bulk of responses to a typical charity appeal.

It might be tempting to pretend that these emotional processes do not matter, and to suppose that donors should simply give based on a reasoned determination of doing what’s right. It may also be tempting to suppose that a particular organization’s audience is special and somehow immune to these affective processes. But this would not accurately reflect the social and cognitive landscapes in which organizations like MCC work, contexts in which affective processes influence the majority of donations.

Deborah Small has cited several studies that demonstrate how people respond more generously to those with whom they feel affinity. One factor that contributes to “felt closeness”—similarity—is dependent upon social and cultural conditioning through “in-grouping.” Studies grouping people into an “in” group and an “out” group found more generous feelings among subjects toward in-group members. Surprisingly, this tendency held even when these groupings were completely arbitrary. The “categorization of others as belonging to the same social group as oneself”—no matter how spurious the in-grouping—“arouses feelings of greater closeness and responsibility, and augments emotional response to their distress.”

This social science research finds that individuals engage in different levels of processing and decision-making depending on the perceived similarity of a “victim.” Out-group members are likely to be processed more abstractly, with less emotional response (see Kogut and Ritov). These “cold cognitions” are less likely to motivate people to give than emotions, which create a “mental spotlight,” initiating an internal process that calls for immediate action.

Feelings of similarity or dissimilarity contribute to other cascading effects on a potential giving decision. When an individual perceives those affected by a disaster as dissimilar rather than similar, the impulse to help is interrupted in at least three distinct ways. First, feelings of dissimilarity can affect perceptions of how severe a situation is. Second, those feelings influence perception of the adequacy of whatever response is already in place. And finally, feelings of dissimilarity increase the likelihood of viewing those affected by a negative situation as responsible for their own suffering.

When an audience believes the subjects described in a fundraising appeal are at least partly responsible for their own situation, not only are the effects of empathy reduced, but a different set of emotions is also triggered: victims perceived to share responsibility for their situation tend to generate negative affective reactions, which further dampen altruistic impulses.

Individuals’ giving behaviour is also sharply influenced by their perceptions of others’ behaviour. Social norms have great power to sway individual behaviour and that social information can either encourage action or promote inaction. One study found that “downward” social information—the awareness that others are not giving or are giving little— can have twice as much impact as positive social information. In other words, if individuals perceive that others are not responding to an appeal, that information has double the influence on their impulse to give than if they perceive that others around them are responding.

While humanitarian organizations may launch crisis appeals as isolated events, concerning themselves with maximizing revenue on each individual appeal, their messages have always been received within particular social and psychological contexts. Before a viewer has the chance to react to the specific visual choices made by an organization in its fundraising appeals, these contextual and emotional factors are already at play, biasing the viewer either toward or away from a donation decision.

These social forces present interesting prospects for the creative communicator. Through their communications efforts both during and prior to an appeal, organizations have opportunities to encourage feelings of similarity, reduce social distance, use social information to encourage positive behaviour and counteract prejudice—positive outcomes on their own which also increase the likelihood of donor response.

The various determinants of giving behaviour, such as the dimensions of social distance identified by Deborah Small, are closer to spectrums than they are dichotomies. There is room to nudge an audience in a desirable direction. For example, studies have found that proactive in-grouping through an appeal can positively impact giving behaviour. In other words, fundraising that frames recipients as similar and proximate rather than as helpless, distant and “other” may in fact prove more effective.

It would be misleading to deny the effectiveness of pity-based appeals. They are proven to work. They are not the only fundraising strategies that work, but they may be the easiest fundraising strategies that work. David Hudson and Jennifer vanHeerde-Hudson measured the impacts of various emotional pathways triggered by fundraising appeals and found pity-based appeals to be effective at increasing giving decisions by provoking both anger and guilt. The emotion of “hope” was a similarly strong predictor of giving behaviour but was much more difficult to trigger than pity. However, when they extended their analysis to look at the impact on their audience after an appeal, a different picture emerged. After measuring the links between different emotional responses and their impact on decisions to give, Hudson and vanHeerde-Hudson also measured potential long-term effects on givers. They found a clear pattern where those who felt pity were likely to make an immediate giving decision, but also expressed reduced confidence in their gifts making a difference and a reduced sense of hope for the future. In other words, they gave to ameliorate an uncomfortable, temporary feeling, but in the process, they became less likely to give in the future. Humanitarian organizations interested in cultivating a strong, sustainable donor base should be concerned not just with immediate results, but with the long-term effects of their fundraising efforts.

No serious humanitarian organization should allow itself to define its communications objectives solely in terms of a dollar amount. A fundraiser’s first concern may be the bottom line, but the real impacts of their public communications extend beyond an organization’s revenue sheet. An organization’s decisions about how to portray its work carry real-world implications not only for itself, but for both potential donors and the beneficiaries of its work. The ethical weight of these decisions should never be forgotten.

Raising funds by telling other people’s stories is a complex endeavor, but for the organization willing to question its habits and learn from research, there should be a clear conclusion: successful fundraising and dignified portrayals of beneficiaries do not need to be mutually exclusive—and they may go better hand-in-hand.

David Turner, MCC Manitoba communications coordinator, lives and works on Treaty One territory.


Learn More 

Einolf, Christopher J. “Is Cognitive Empathy More Important than Affective Empathy?” Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy (2012): 268–271.

Banfield, Jillian C. and John F. Dovidio. “The Role of Empathy in Responding to Natural
Disasters.” Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy (2012):276–279.

Hudson, David, Jennifer VanHeerde-Hudson, Niheer Dasandi and N. Susan Gaines. Emotional Pathways to Engagement with Global Poverty: An Experimental Analysis.” University College London, 2016.

McManus, Jessica L. and Donald A Saucier. “Helping Natural Disaster Victims Depends on Characteristics and Perceptions of Victims.” Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy (2012): 272–275.

Oppenheimer, Daniel M. and Christopher Y. Olivola. The Science of Giving: Experimental
Approaches to the Study of Charity. Psychology Press, 2011.

Partner and participant responses to photographs in Haiti


[Individual articles from the Fall 2018 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

The community of Wopisa is high in the mountains in Haiti’s Artibonite department and is only accessible by a walking path that requires several ascents and descents, including scaling a waterfall. This challenging environment necessarily limits access to the community by government and aid agencies. Wopisa is extremely vulnerable to damage from natural disasters, erosion and waterborne diseases such as typhoid and cholera. MCC significantly increased our working presence in this community in 2016 following Hurricane Matthew through agricultural livelihoods and latrine projects. Photographs from Wopisa have been used in MCC materials promoting reforestation and latrine projects, most notably in last year’s Christmas giving catalogue. For this article, I made the trek up to Wopisa to get some feedback from project participants on how their images have been used to generate support for MCC. I also spoke with MCC’s Haitian staff to get their feedback about how these images have been used and about how
MCC uses photographs of project participants in general.

MCC’s work in Wopisa is managed out of our office in the town of Desarmes, where MCC has been working since the 1980s. The current work is Wopisa is part of a three-year disaster response project started after Hurricane Matthew. Most of MCC’s other work in Haiti’s Artibonite department is part of a five-year project funded by Canadian Foodgrains Bank (CFGB). All these projects, many of which are in communities as remote as Wopisa, receive weekly visits from MCC staff members, mostly Haitian nationals. MCC agroforestry technician Michelet Elisamar says that in the community of Kabay, which is part of the CFGB project, the trust built over the course of MCC’s long relationship with the community means project participants feel comfortable having MCC staff take their photos for promotional purposes.

Previl Pierre - intersections

In Wopisa, community leader Previl Pierre echoed that his gratitude for MCC’s work in his community means he has no problem having his photo used to generate support for MCC, but also said he would be happy to collaborate with anyone making an investment in the community. He sees MCC’s photographs as providing a way for donors and supporters elsewhere to understand the reality of life in his community. To that end, Pierre advocated for balance in representation: he wants outsiders to see both the difficult and the beautiful aspects of life in Wopisa. He also expressed a feeling of abandonment by the state and international organizations, a sentiment MCC staff hear frequently when visiting remote communities: “they don’t even know we exist.” Pierre hopes that by sharing photographs of his community, MCC can help raise awareness of the struggles they face on a day-to-day basis. When asked how he felt about photos of his community being used to support latrine projects in other countries, he said he had no problem with this because “Haiti is not the only country that has problems,” and would also be supportive of photos from other countries being used to support projects in Haiti.

Haiti hpoto - intersections

Melise Michaline and Louis Vivra, two of the subjects of the second photo, echoed many of Pierre’s sentiments. When I asked them what kind of photos they wanted to see of themselves, both mentioned work. Louis said he likes to see photos of himself working hard, “like a peyizan.” [The Creole word peyizan (French paysan/ne) is generally translated “peasant,” but has roughly the same cluster of meanings that the Spanish campesino/a has elsewhere in Latin America: both in the pride taken by self-identifying peyizan, and in the way it has been mobilized in the service of discrimination and resistance.] Melise, similarly, said she doesn’t like to see photos where people aren’t working. Both said they liked simple, dignified portraits as well.
christmas giving - intersections

However, not all MCC photos are taken in communities where we have pre-existing long-term relationships, including some of MCC Haiti’s most widely circulated disaster pictures. After a disaster like an earthquake or hurricane, MCC Haiti staff work to communicate the context and reality of people affected by the situation and to share this information as quickly as possible with the wider MCC audience. These early stories and pictures are more about contextualizing and personalizing the crisis and are less project-connected. Our goal is to produce these stories in the first 72 hours after the disaster, before projects are developed or approved. Jean-Remy Azor, program coordinator in the MCC Desarmes office, acknowledges that this requires MCC staff to be very clear with community members about why we are taking photos and especially about what we can and cannot promise. For example, after Hurricane Irma caused flooding and landslides in the Artibonite department in the fall of 2017, MCC worked with local authorities to visit some of the people affected within 48 hours. MCC staff made sure to explain that the purpose of our photos was to show our constituents the damage that had been caused, but that we did not yet know whether we would be able do a project in that area. This kind of clear, transparent communication is necessary to avoid misunderstandings which have the potential to cause considerable conflict in situations where people are already extremely vulnerable. Transparency and clear communication with project participants are essential to ensure that we maintain the positive relationships MCC has worked so hard to build in the communities in which we work.

I cannot claim that the responses I received to MCC photographs on my visit to Wopiya represent a thorough or objective assessment of how Haitians view MCC’s photography and communications efforts. I may have received very different feedback had I visited people who were photographed shortly after a disaster, or longer-term MCC partners who have welcomed MCC photographers and writers multiple times. In addition, I conducted these interviews both as a foreigner and as a representative of a funder of community projects. So, while the feedback I received was generally positive, it is important to keep in mind that all individuals have their own preferences as to how they would like to be photographed or whether they would like to be photographed at all. Every context is different. My hope is that if we approach photography and communications in terms of collaboration and relationship-building and are continually engaged in honest self-reflection, we can ensure that the stories we tell are meaningful, honest and respectful of those with whom we work.

Annalee Giesebrecht is MCC’s advocacy and communications coordinator in Haiti.

Learn More

Giesebrecht, Annalee. “Where There is No Road.” MCC website. December 19, 2017. Available at stories/where-there-no-road.

Oswald, Ted. “Lifesaving Latrines.” MCC Haiti blog. December 14, 2016. Available at the-fight-againstcholera?rq=wopisa.

Giesebrecht, Annalee. “Faces of the Storm.” MCC Haiti blog. September 16, 2017. Available at bb5j9366b?rq=hurricane%20irma.

Photography as constructed reality


[Individual articles from the Fall 2018 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Photography is often seen as a medium that portrays an objective reality, showing the truth of a situation. Yet the subject, framing and composition of a photograph are all shaped by the subjective choices of the photographer. In other words, every photograph tells a story about the version of reality it is portraying. What is included in the frame (and what is left out), what the photograph makes its central focus and even the angle used to picture the subject all influence what message a photograph conveys.

The job of coaching program staff, volunteers and partner staff to make photos that are useful to MCC’s communications and fundraising work requires teaching culture, values and composition. Photographers need to learn what kind of photos MCC constituents in Canada and the United States will find engaging and inspiring and what MCC’s own internal values are around how people and projects are represented in images. This means showing project participants as active agents of change in their families and communities, even in times of adversity. Action shots, with smiling expressions, or portrayals of positive social interactions, represent the photographs used most often in MCC’s communication materials. Furthermore, effective MCC photographs must be grounded in strong technical composition, such as use of light and framing.

photograhy as constructed reality 1

In my work making photographs of MCC projects in Nepal and in coaching MCC Nepal staff and partners in making photographs for MCC use, I emphasized two main points. First: every photo tells a story. We tell stories about people who are triumphing over adversity, who have hopes and dreams for their future and who are taking action in their homes and communities to make positive change. The photos we make tell a story of Nepalis who are facing difficult circumstances, but who are resilient and capable, actively working for a better future for themselves and their country. Second: MCC is a partner in this work, not the owner of it. We show this through photographs that portray project participants as active and engaged rather than as passive subjects. Captions are also an important part of this, naming all people pictured in a photograph and explaining the role of the partner organization. Many partner organizations rely on MCC communications channels to help them share about their mission and work with the wider world. By agreeing to be photographed, or by providing photographs for use, both project participants and partner organizations are trusting MCC to tell their stories in a respectful way.

Yet there are tensions to be addressed as well. MCC’s preferred style of photography can at times clash with photography practices in other organizational cultures. In development organizations in Nepal, photographs are often used as evidence that project activities were completed. It is not uncommon for photographs to accompany a financial report as supporting documentation to back up the expenses made.

intersections article 3 image

Therefore, in the local organizational culture, the purpose of a photograph is to show that participants attended a training, or that relief supplies were delivered to survivors of a disaster. Evoking an inspiring emotion in the observer is less important than providing a visual proof that resources reached the intended beneficiaries.

Another common use of photographs in the culture of Nepal’s development organizations is to show the “neediness” of a situation to provide a justification for funding activities. When new staff members joined the MCC Nepal team, they required coaching and training in MCC’s culture of photography. Rather than focusing on documenting project activities, MCC focuses on telling impact stories of the positive changes happening in people’s lives because of their new access to resources. Instead of portraying people as needy victims, we portray people who are experiencing difficult situations, yet are resilient and capable of acting toward a better future. We show people who, with the support of MCC and partner organizations, act to bring positive change. My main coaching tool in training new staff members to take photographs for MCC was to look at photographs together in MCC calendars or other publications and ask the question “What story does this tell?” We then did the same exercise together looking at photographs taken by the staff members of local projects.

Cultural clashes in photography can also occur for social reasons. For example, in the case of Nepal, the general preference for photography is posed and formal, with the subjects dressed in their best clothes, and often with serious expressions. Many homes have family portraits like this on their walls. When a photographer for MCC wants to take spontaneous photos of people working their fields, or doing other manual labour, it can be uncomfortable for the persons being photographed since it is at odds with their preferences for how they want to present themselves in a photo. To address this, it is important for the photographer to understand and respect a person’s right to refuse to be photographed. This might also mean waiting for someone to go change out of their work clothes so that they can be photographed in their best clothes rather than their old clothes, even if the photos will still be taken of the person working in their field or tending their animals.

On a day hike in the Kathmandu Valley, I once took a photograph of some women carrying loads of manure from a pile by the road to spread in a nearby field. They were talking and laughing together as they worked, and it made a beautiful picture with their colorful clothes against the dark brown manure. When the women realized that I had taken their picture without asking their consent, they were very angry with me. I was a foreign stranger and had taken a photograph of them doing work that they were not proud of and felt demeaned by. I deleted the photo to respect their wishes.

In contrast, when I visited farming projects with MCC partners, the people I interacted with were receptive and willing to be photographed working in their fields. They knew and trusted the local partner staff members who had organized my visit. They knew who I was and why I was there. Often on these visits we would meet people at their homes and hear their stories of how they were involved with local projects, and then they would give us a tour of their farm, always willing to give a demonstration of working in their field or caring for their animals. The open communication and trusting relationship helped to break down cultural barriers so that people were open to being photographed in MCC’s action-oriented, positive style. If the photographer can succeed in explaining the purpose of the photos and how they will be used, and if they can explain the reasoning for why an action shot is more helpful to MCC than a posed shot, the person or group being photographed is usually willing to transgress their cultural norms to help the photographer achieve the desired photo.

Even after all the value sharing, cultural interpretation and relationship building work has happened, a photo will only be useful if it is also clear, in focus and well-framed. This requires that the photographer have a basic knowledge of photographic techniques, such as making sure the subject is not back-lit, and finds ways to compensate for the glaring mid-day sun in outdoor photos. In the end, an effective photo may look like a candid snapshot, but it is the result of many conscious and unconscious choices by the photographer to tell a particular story.

Leah Reesor-Keller was a food security advisor for MCC in Nepal from
2012 to 2014 and then MCC representative for Nepal from 2014 to 2017.

MCC and visual identity


[Individual articles from the Fall 2018 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Brands are most often recognized by their logos, but for most organizations a brand has more to do with expressing a shared ethos and value system. When it is working well, a brand’s visual language should support and reflect the intangible characteristics that define it. MCC’s brand is no exception. Beginning with photographs of famine in the post-World War I Soviet Union, MCC has relied on visual content to share stories of need, assistance and cross-cultural exchange. This emphasis on visual story-telling continued to guide the development of MCC’s brand identity in the 1970s and 1980s, as MCC worked to standardize a branding system that would be versatile enough to accommodate an expanding roster of programming. This article provides a brief overview of MCC’s visual brand, exploring some of the rationale behind design decisions that continue to influence MCC’s communications and fundraising work in the present.

MCC Logo

Symbols and typography

Along with images that accompany stories, MCC’s visual identity is defined by the typefaces, colors and symbols that frame its content. In its nearly one hundred years, MCC has been represented by only two different logos. The first, designed by Arthur Sprunger in the 1940s, combined recognizable symbols and hand-rendered type into an emblem logo. Here, each component remains static and distinct, with a clear hierarchy in the arrangement of the symbols (see fig.1). The elements continue in the second mark, developed by Kenneth Hiebert, but they have undergone a radical transformation (see fig. 2). Drawing on Swiss design—a style based in simplicity, functionality and objectivity—Hiebert created an abstract logomark that has remained relatively unchanged since it was first used in 1970, the year of MCC’s fiftieth anniversary.

Upon adoption of Hiebert’s logomark, MCC’s style manual explained some of the thinking that guided its development: “An attempt has been made to create a symbol which utilizes the universal language of the visual. It was intentionally designed to require a moment of very active participation by the viewer to understand its content.” The mark was later paired with sans serif typefaces (first Univers and later Helvetica) for a signature, now commonly referred to as the “MCC logotype” (fig. 2). While Helvetica’s extreme legibility makes it appear more neutral and commonplace, the MCC mark’s unique fusion of symbols (cross and dove) invites scrutiny. Aesthetically, the two are well matched. They belong to the same strain of modern design, resulting from attempts to reduce complex sets of symbols to recognizable forms that are at once unified, concise and evocative.

MCC’s Graphic Standards Introduction from 1987 echoes this attempt to balance accessibility with engagement, particularly when it comes to creating promotional images. “The symbol and graphic standards set the tone for our publicity as being simple, honest and direct on the one hand and imaginative and participatory on the other. Graphics which both clearly inform and stimulate to new understanding and action are the goals of the publicity program.”

Photography as collaboration

Along with the graphic standards (including the mark, typography and a strong emphasis on grid-based layout), photography is a crucial part of MCC’s brand and has played a major part in helping MCC locate a middle ground between accessibility and meaningful engagement for its audience. Feeding the Hungry, the popular book by two of MCC’s founders, P.C. Hiebert and Orie O. Miller, combined more than a hundred haunting images with reports from MCC workers in Russia. As Robert S. Kreider and Rachel Waltner Goossen noted in their book, Hungry, Thirsty, a Stranger, these reports originally news releases sent from the early Scottdale, Pennsylvania, headquarters of MCC to editors of church papers—were the first iteration of MCC “information services,” now known as communications.

Over the years, photo-gathering for MCC has taken many forms. As cameras became more ubiquitous in the 1970s, so too did MCC’s reliance on its workers and alumni for visual, oral and written content that could be circulated among constituents. Through the eighties and nineties, Howard Zehr helped develop photo guidelines for MCC workers and regularly contributed a column to Intercom, MCC’s newsletter to MCC staff and alumni. These guidelines stressed the collaborative nature of photography: they encouraged photographers to work with their subjects and even suggested that MCC photographers invite those who are being represented to take ownership of the process.

Zehr’s columns, meanwhile, alerted MCCers in Canada and the U.S. to the ways in which photography can help build bridges, or just as easily establish cultural hierarchies and reify harmful stereotypes. With their images, wrote Zehr, MCC photographers should “seek to convey respect, not arouse pity, to humanize rather than depersonalize,” to instill a sense of partnership and inspire their audience to action.

From images to application

Photos have traditionally served as hooks for fundraising and advocacy initiatives or as anchors for reporting. As a field report from 1994 puts it, “Photographs are a good way of letting people see for themselves what is happening.” Although the straightforward objectivity of this statement appears naive, visual transparency remains the goal of MCC photography. MCC’s current photography guidelines describe it as a “documentary” approach, where “the photographer is unobtrusive and the subject is depicted as naturally as possible” so that photographs “communicate on an emotional level, bringing the viewer closer to what is portrayed.”

But the meaning of a photograph, not least the intention of a photographer, changes as soon as it is used in a design application. Every promotional piece that MCC produces decontextualizes and recontextualizes its subject matter in some way. For this reason, MCC’s photo guidelines stress the importance of captions and permissions (including location and names of those pictured, as well as connection to MCC’s work and the photo credit), stating that “use of MCC photographs should accurately represent the context in which they were taken” and that “MCC photographs must appear in a context connected to MCC.” These are important safeguards, but they can only go so far.

Thrift poster - intersections

MCC increasingly produces promotional material (for entities such as Thrift shops, relief sale committees and more) where captions are regarded as inappropriate and clunky and are therefore simply left off. (See figure 3, designed by Barefoot Creative, and fig. 4.) These kinds of pieces focus on real participants in MCC’s work, but in these examples, their images are not being featured to fill out a story. Rather they are meant to be representative of people benefiting from MCC. To try and counteract this, MCC Thrift shops recently created shelfcards (fig. 5) to supplement poster designs (fig. 3) featuring the same individuals, with the original photo backgrounds left in and contextual information provided. However, it is hard to measure the success of initiatives like this, especially because shops have the option of whether or not to display these sorts of materials.

Shelf card - intersections

Looking ahead

MCC could once take for granted that its primary audience would be the individuals and congregations of constituent churches. In that context, MCC was responsible for designing materials that would sometimes use images without accompanying captions, thus leaving out biographical and contextual information about the people represented. In many cases, this was done to challenge preconceived ideas about poverty, conflict and inequality (see figures 6 and 7). Today, as the reach of MCC’s brand grows, the use of images will likely continue as a foundation of MCC’s brand identity, but that identity will just as certainly continue to evolve with its audience.


MCC continues to promote high standards in photography, as is evident in the storytelling focus of publications like A Common Place, news articles on the MCC website and even in flagship promotional pieces like MCC’s annual calendar. Advertising and wide-ranging marketing initiatives require compelling images to broaden MCC’s audience and find new donors. But the tensions addressed in this article will continue to raise questions for MCC staff. How will MCC’s critical approach to representation and photography inform future communications and fundraising efforts? And how, in turn, will MCC’s shifting priorities influence the standards of its visual identity?

Jonathan Dyck, MCC Canada graphic designer, designed and illustrated Unsettling the Word: Biblical Experiments in Decolonization (Winnipeg: CommonWord, 2018).

Learn More

Hiebert, Kenneth. Graphic Design Processes: Universal to Unique. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1992.

Hiebert, P.C. and Orie Miller. Feeding the Hungry: Russia Famine, 1919–1925 (Scottdale, PA: 1929).

Kreider, Robert S. and Rachel Waltner Goossen. “Reporting the MCC Experience: Images and Posters.” Hungry, Thirsty, a Stranger: The MCC Experience. 193–209. Scottdale: Herald Press, 1988.

Pater, Ruben. The Politics of Design: A (Not So) Global Manual for Visual Communication. Amsterdam:BIS Publishers, 2016.

Zehr, Howard. “The Photographic Metaphor.” Intercom (March 1991): 5.

—. “Photographing People of Color.” Intercom (May 1991): 6.

Representing relief, development and peacebuilding (Fall 2018)


[Individual articles from the Fall 2018 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Intersections MCC logo

Much of the world we encounter comes to us mediated by representations. From complex arrangements of images and stories to the subtleties of typography, color and form, representations inform our understandings of people and places that we cannot access directly.

The topic of representation inevitably raises questions of perception, intention and power. This is especially true when representation is guided by a communications strategy, which is, by definition, constructed to convey particular messages to specific audiences. This issue of Intersections explores MCC’s approach to representation and some of the ethical questions that organizations like MCC confront in their communications and fundraising efforts.

Representations of individuals and communities—particularly in the form of images and narratives—sometimes diverge from how the subjects of these representations understand themselves. In reporting on its work with partners, MCC positions itself as source for reliable information about underrepresented parts of the world communities recovering from disasters, living through difficult conditions or facing injustice. MCC therefore bears a clear responsibility to provide accurate and trustworthy accounts to its audience.

Everything that MCC produces contributes to narratives about MCC, its partners in program, the people who benefit from this collaborative work and the people who support MCC in multiple ways. Different communications initiatives have different emphases—the impact of a project, the agency of project participants, the values and commitments of supporters and the systemic factors and ways in which MCC’s audiences might be implicated in a problem (and how they might be part of a solution).

A major task of MCC’s communications and donor relations staff has always been to determine what kind of stories to tell. Photographs can quickly convey complex meaning and can reinforce values of trust and transparency. For these reasons, photography has been a key element of MCC’s storytelling strategy since the organization’s earliest days.

But communication is never simply an act of transmission and photography has never been neutral. Not only has the camera been a valuable tool in the creation of state propaganda, it also played a key role in European colonial expansion. By representing non-European lands as blank slates and by cataloguing non-European peoples according to racial hierarchies, colonizers convinced themselves of their own ethno-cultural superiority and their right to land and resources. Colonial photography represented Indigenous peoples as less developed, exotic or depraved. The stillness of the photograph also lent a fixed quality to constructions of non-Western peoples, allowing Europeans to position such populations in contrast to a narrative of development (with colonized peoples presented as static, homogenous and infant-like in contrast to the supposedly dynamic, diverse and advanced West).

For international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) based in Europe and North America, the 1980s were a pivotal time of education and awareness around power and representation in communications and fundraising. Photography’s problematic history was an essential part of the conversation. MCC’s own internal discussions of communications practices, with a heavy emphasis on photography, date back at least to
1983. From the beginning of these discussions, MCC appears to recognize that photography “in the field” brings with it questions of power, dilemmas of cultural difference and opportunities for peaceful collaboration. Photographers like Howard Zehr regularly cited their medium’s potential for meaningful cultural exchange and collaboration, while acknowledging image-gathering as a potential source of exploitation and conflict.

However, conversations about how to portray an organization’s work generally stop short of asking a more fundamental question about power: to whom are communicators and fundraisers accountable? Historically, those portrayed by INGOs have often had limited agency in decisions around their representation, and organizations have not typically been accountable to subjects for the use of their stories and images. The communications preferences of INGOs and their implicit beliefs about fundraising efficacy have long been the primary determining factors for decisions about representation.

To an extent, MCC has distinguished itself among INGOs through a long history of critical reflection about photography and representation. But questions about the ethics of representation remain active as MCC adjusts to new forms of communication and to new contexts and challenges for communications and fundraising. As MCC approaches its centennial year, this issue of Intersections seeks to root itself in an ongoing legacy of self-reflection and continue this conversation by asking how ethical considerations about representation interact practically with various aspects of our work.

Jonathan Dyck is a graphic designer for MCC Canada. David Turner is MCC Manitoba communications coordinator.

Learn More

Azoulay, Ariella. Civil Imagination: A Political Ontology of Photography. New York: Verso, 2009.

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill and Wang, 1979.

Cole, Teju. “The White Savior Industrial Complex.” The Atlantic. March 21, 2012.

Kennedy, Denis. “Selling the Distant Other: Humanitarianism and Imagery—Ethical Dilemmas of Humanitarian Action.” The Journal of Humanitarian Assistance. February 28, 2009. Available at

Sontag, Susan. On Photography. London: Picador, 2001.

Wehbi, Samantha and Deane Taylor. “Photographs Speak Louder than Words: The Language of International Development Images.” Community Development Journal 48/4 (October 2013): 525–539.

Indigenous peoples in the United States and mass incarceration


[Individual articles from the Summer 2018 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Painting a full picture of mass incarceration in the United States requires a reckoning with how Indigenous peoples in the U.S. are disproportionately arrested and sentenced in comparison to the broader population. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, North Dakota chief federal district court judge Ralph Erickson confessed that “No matter how long I have been sentencing in Indian Country, I find it gut-wrenching when I am asked by a family member of a person I have sentenced why Indians are sentenced to longer sentences than white people who commit the same crime.” Erickson’s experience prompted him to initiate a federal review of how Indigenous defendants are sentenced and to analyze disparities between their sentences and sentences imposed on the broader population. A similar review was conducted over ten years ago, but resulted in few changes. That no meaningful steps have been taken to address the criminal justice system’s disproportionately negative impact on Indigenous communities would not come as a surprise to Indigenous peoples themselves, who have endured over five hundred years of genocide, oppression and marginalization.

The number of Indigenous persons incarcerated in federal prisons continues to rise. In South Dakota, the state with the fourth largest percentage of Indigenous peoples, 60% of the federal caseload consists of Indigenous defendants, even though Indigenous persons represent only 8.5% of the total state population. This trend repeats itself in other states. So, for example:

  • Past studies by the Bureau of Justice Statistics show that Indigenous peoples face a 38% higher incarceration rate than the national average.
  • The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice reports that Indigenous people are more likely to be killed by police than all other racial groups.
  • The Lakota People’s Law Project has found that Indigenous men are incarcerated at four times the rate of white men, while Indigenous women are incarcerated at six times the rate of white women.

The inequities within our legal system are evident not only in statistics but also in comparison of specific cases. In the Report of the Tribal Issues Advisory Group from May 2016, Judge Myron Bright points to the ten-year sentence given to a 25-year-old Indigenous mother of three for the death of her newborn, while during the same year, in the same state, for an identical crime, a non-Indigenous woman received a sentence of three years’ probation.

The fact that the national conversation on mass incarceration (when it happens at all) tends to omit the realities faced by Indigenous peoples further perpetuates Indigenous erasure within our communities. Just as some have argued that mass incarceration represents a continuation of the legacy of enslavement of African Americans, so should the criminalization of Indigenous peoples be viewed as a continuation of the colonization and confinement that Indigenous peoples have endured.

This legacy of colonization and genocide of the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island has its roots in the Doctrine of Discovery, a theological, philosophical and legal framework established by papal decrees that provided European governments moral and legal rights to invade and seize Indigenous lands and dominate Indigenous peoples. The Doctrine of Discovery’s legacy is felt in multiple ways in how the judicial system treats its Indigenous peoples, such as the referral of Indigenous defendants charged with felonies on reservations to federal jurisdictions, meaning that they are not tried by their own tribal authorities and face the longer sentences imposed by federal courts.

What hope can be found for Indigenous communities facing a discriminatory legal system that disproportionately sentences Indigenous peoples to prison? Activist and author James Kilgore calls for renewed anti-colonial efforts to empower tribal courts. These courts, he argues:

have embodied a restorative justice that focuses on healing and community building rather than punishment. Today, many tribal courts sit in peacemaking circles rather than vesting all authority in one judged seated on high. While politicians seek answers to mass incarceration in metadata and cutting-edge risk assessment tools, they might find a more genuine alternative by listening to Native people.

Kilgore’s words provide an important reminder that the struggle against mass incarceration, which so disproportionately impacts communities of color, including Indigenous communities, must be led by and be accountable to those communities.

Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz is MCC U.S. restorative justice coordinator.

Learn more

Flanagin, Jake. “Native Americans are the Unseen Victims of a Broken U.S. Justice System.” Quartz. April 27, 2015. Available at

Frosch, Dan. “Federal Panel Reviewing Native American Sentencing.” Wall Street Journal. April 21, 2015.

Greenfield, Lawrence and Steven K. Smith. American Indians and Crime. Report produced by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice. February 1999.

Kilgore, James. “Mass Incarceration since 1492: Native American Encounters with Criminal Injustice.” Truthout. February 7, 2016. Available at

Lakota People’s Law Project.

Males, Mike. “Who Are Policy Killing?” August 26, 2014. Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice. Available at

Report of the Tribal Issues Advisory Group. United States Sentencing Commission. May 16, 2016. Available at


Supporting returning citizens


[Individual articles from the Summer 2018 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

The rise of mass incarceration means that the number of former prisoners is greater than ever. Returning citizens who receive spiritual and livelihoods support upon their release from prison fare markedly better than those who do not, with lower rates of recidivism. As former inmates themselves, Dwayne Harmon of Fresno Pacific University’s Circle of Support and Accountability (COSA) program and Ron Muse of MCC East Coast bring distinctive perspectives about the difficulties that returning citizens face. In this article, Harmon and Muse reflect on those difficulties and respond to questions about their work and how community members can be more responsive to the needs of newly released prisoners.

What work are you doing with incarcerated individuals or returning citizens? What motivates you?

Harmon works with both incarcerated individuals and returning citizens through Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA), a program of Fresno Pacific University that accompanies offenders living in a half-way house and prepares them for reintegration into the community. As someone who spent 20 years in and out of prison, Harmon knows first-hand the obstacles returning citizens confront upon their release. “I took courses to become a water technician and had numerous interviews,” Harmon shares, “but the moment they found out I was an ex-felon everything stopped . . . no more emails or phone calls.”

Harmon also works with incarcerated individuals through the Victim Offender Education Group (VOEG), an Insight Prison Project program in California that supports incarcerated persons in developing new perspectives on their life choices and the life circumstances that resulted in their imprisonment. Insight’s 18-to-24-month curriculum utilizes tools of restorative justice to better address crime and violence within communities and is offered in numerous prisons, jails and reentry facilities for men, women and youth. During the year-and-a-half that participants meet together for the course, many of them speak openly for the first time about their crimes and the impacts of those crimes on themselves and others and reflect together on what their futures might look like after prison.

Harmon also works with Ahimsa Collective, a network of people creating relationship-based ways of addressing violence through restorative approaches. The Ahimsa Collective engages men about what has impacted their lives adversely and encourages them to identify ways to deal with their own victimization so that they can begin to acknowledge the impact of their crimes on others.

Muse, for his part, serves as chaplain in the county prison of Philadelphia and supervises religious services, provides counseling, shares the gospel and offers resource literature to inmates. As a pastor, Muse also helps returning citizens make the spiritual and life adjustments necessary for them to successfully reenter their communities.

What has been most challenging for you as a returning citizen?

“I was released from prison on March 26, 2006, and made the decision to complete my education so I would be able to find a respectable job,” Harmon shares. “I received my bachelor’s degree in organizational management to create better opportunities for employment. But as an African-American man and ex-offender I found more barriers than opportunities.” Harmon continues that he spent three-and-a-half years looking fruitlessly for meaningful work. Not finding any, “I did what I had to do. I worked in ship yards, picking up cigarette butts, because that’s the job I was assigned. I worked in the construction field as well as a union iron worker, but I kept running into walls of discrimination.” Harmon observed that there was “no one who looked like me in positions of authority. I would be hired for time-limited projects, like helping to build one of the women’s prisons in California. I would usually be given the most strenuous job on construction sites and instead of moving me to a different job when the contract was finished, I would be let go.”

What does support look like for returning citizens?

Harmon points to the blessing of having a loving mother and father. “Their love was unconditional,” he states. “They loved me enough to let me go out on the streets and figure it out for myself. But they never turned their back on me.” Harmon continues:

The church was also there for me. I converted to Islam for over 20 years while repeating cycles of recidivism. My home church was always there with prayer, clothing, inviting me to their space. I’m grateful for that support and it’s a well I’m drinking from today. I made the choice to go to church and figure out what it meant to hang out with people I saw as winners. I started choosing something different that I never gave a chance to before.

Harmon also underscores his own motivation. Before his incarceration he was a student at Arizona State on a football scholarship. In prison, he became a jailhouse lawyer and realized how important education was. It made a space for him to go inside and pull things out. “I became very creative inside and out,” Harmon notes. An Arts in Corrections program provided him with an opportunity to pursue creative writing, film-making and photography, activities that sustained him through difficult times. Harmon underscores the importance of support he received from the California Department of Rehabilitation upon his release that helped him reintegrate into society. He also notes that his parole officer assisted him in getting a $500 loan to get his photography business started, financial assistance that helped keep him on his feet.

Muse emphasizes that support must come from the communities from which returning citizens originate, because those communities have typically already dealt with and overcome the obstacles that hinder returning citizens from avoiding recidivism and establishing themselves in secure livelihoods. It is transformed people who transform people, Muse insists. Most secular and Christian programs fail to adequately support returning citizens, Muse contends, because they rarely have staff persons who themselves have experienced how God can transform the lives of prisoners and returning citizens and who are thus well-positioned to give relevant advice to released prisoners. In many organizations that work with returning citizens of color, Muse observes, most of the decision-making is done by degreed or compassionate white people who have not themselves been through the struggle, yet think they have the answers or solutions to the problems returning citizens face. Support looks like partnering with communities of color who are already doing the work and getting results.

What would you want people to know about returning citizens?

Both Muse and Harmon highlight the humanness of returning citizens. They are more than statistics or labels. Know that people who come out of prison have skills, they emphasized. Many were able to develop skills while in prison. They can use those skills if only given a second chance. Sometimes ex-felons feel like jacks-of-all-trades and masters of none. Given more opportunities to use their skills and draw upon their experiences, they can be successful.

What would you say to people who want to be helpful to returning citizens? What can or should they do?

“Our communities need to be more involved and recognize that mass incarceration has negative effects for all of us,” Harmon argues. “We need circles of people to support people through the transition—every day. That support should come from the community, not just the church.” Harmon explains that

Returning to our communities feels lonely because you are often on your own and it’s all an uphill battle when you come out with $200 in your pocket and a bus pass. Our communities need to provide more in the way of circles of support and accountability. Returning citizens also need advocates. Someone who can be there day in and day out. Not just on Sunday mornings. Provide assistance navigating housing, employment, transportation. Help to implement an action plan.

Muse insists that people seeking to work with returning citizens prayerfully discern their motivation and equip themselves. “As a soldier of Christ, make sure that he has called you to this demographic of people,” Muse urges. He concludes with sober counsel:

For some reason white people think they can serve anywhere their little heart desires. As soldiers we cannot choose our place of deployment. Understand that mass incarceration has many parts and we have to find what part God desires for us to play if he has called us to it. If you are called, now it’s time to get trained. Training is mandatory. Most people fail with this demographic of people because they failed to realize the constant demand from inmates and returning citizens and they burn out fast.

Together, Harmon and Muse remind people accompanying returning citizens that their work is a high calling that must be approached with great seriousness.

Dwayne Harmon works with Fresno Pacific University’s Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA) program. Ron Muse is prison ministry advocate for MCC East Coast.

Get involved: prisoner care kits

In partnership with Crossroads Community Center in North Philadelphia, MCC East Coast is welcoming donations of prisoner care kits to distribute to people in the greater Philadelphia area who are currently incarcerated or who are participating in reentry ministries after leaving prison.

MCC East Coast staff member Ron Muse shares that receiving a gift of basic hygiene supplies when he was incarcerated made him feel “loved in an unlovable place.” For more information on assembling prisoner care kits, visit

Piloting peace clubs in prisons in Zambia


[Individual articles from the Summer 2018 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

The peace clubs model, first developed by Issa Ebombolo, founder of Peace Clubs Zambia and now MCC Zambia peace coordinator, has been widely adopted in schools across Zambia and has been adapted in over a dozen countries across Africa and even beyond. Through peace clubs, participants learn nonviolent conflict transformation techniques and develop leadership skills. Three years ago, another MCC Zambia peace coordinator, Mturi Kajungu, had the idea to utilize the peace clubs model in a different context within Zambia, founding a peace club within the Choma Correctional Facility in Zambia’s Southern Province. Kajungu had a passion for victim-offender reconciliation work and was inspired by the peace club curriculum module, Journey Toward Reconciliation. The adoption of peace clubs in Choma Correctional Facility has increased the potential for rehabilitation and reintegration.

Much of my work in the Choma Correctional Facility is a continuation of what Kajungu started. In these efforts, I have enjoyed a lot of support from the facility’s top leadership and the inmates. As I give leadership to the facility’s peace club, I work alongside the prison chaplain inspector, Fred Musiwa, a committed Christian who is loved and respected not only by the inmates, but also by his colleagues.

The need for peacebuilding work in Zambia’s prisons is great. Inmates experience violence in Zambian correctional facilities through corporal punishment and bullying. Zambian correctional facilities are also overcrowded. For example, Choma Correctional Facility was meant to accommodate about one hundred inmates, but most of the time it houses over three hundred people. Prison officers in Zambia too often have negative stereotypes and prejudices towards inmates. For example, many officers believe that all prisoners are criminals and dangerous to society and in turn relate to prisoners in a punitive and fear-driven manner. These negative beliefs about and attitudes towards prisoners in turn serve as justification for corporal punishment, the imposition of longer sentences with hard labor and the denial of food, all in the misguided belief that such punitive measures will promote rehabilitation.

Given these prison conditions, many inmates experience traumatic stress, expressing feelings of shock, fear, grief, anger and difficulty in feeling love. This traumatic stress manifests itself through varied behaviors, such as low energy, eating too much or too little, poor hygiene and poor impulse control. Some inmates experience suicidal thoughts. Upon their release, returning citizens regularly experience feelings of distrust, irritability, rejection and abandonment and may withdraw from or get into increased conflicts with others.

The peace club at the Choma facility is designed to transform the attitudes of correctional officers and to equip inmates with skills to cope with the challenges of imprisonment and to prepare for reintegration into society. Training prison officers is critical for transforming their attitudes about prisoners and for equipping them to promote and support rehabilitative outcomes for prisoners. While I provide overarching training for inmates and officers, inmates themselves give leadership to the peace club on a day-to-day and week-to-week basis. All peace club members meet at least every Friday. Together, they work through the peace club curriculum to learn about alternative ways to address conflict, the problem of gender-based violence and how to walk along a journey toward reconciliation in their lives. This past January we trained a total of 50 people (45 inmates and five prison officers) in peace and conflict resolution. Several months later, 36 of the 45 prisoners trained continued to participate in the peace club, while the remaining nine had been released.

In my role supporting the peace club in Choma, I visit the correctional facility at least twice a month, and more often as the need arises. My primary role with this peace club project is to provide counseling to inmates in the Choma facility. I try to provide a welcoming space for prisoners, listening to their feelings, accepting them in genuine care and remaining respectful of their experience. I assist them in remembering past experiences of getting through difficult times, inviting them to tell stories of themselves, their families and their communities and encouraging them to both to express gratefulness for victories and to mourn and share feelings of loss. In our conversations, inmates imagine life after prison and we discuss opportunities and challenges they will face after release. I also advocate for them to the higher authorities and help connect them with their families and friends for moral and material support.

The Choma peace club has had a positive impact during its short lifespan. The facility has the highest percentage of early releases in Zambia, due to inmates’ good behavior, which prison officers attribute to the positive impact of peace clubs at the institution. Outside the prison, five former Choma peace club participants founded a government-registered organization called the Popota Peace and Environment Club. Former inmate Zebulon Mwale explains the reason for founding Popota thus: “We have chosen to live for the sake of others.” Through Popota, the five former Choma inmates share the conflict transformation techniques they learned in prison, training civic, traditional and religious leaders as well as teachers and farmers. Using the peace club curriculum, the group meets twice a week to discuss issues affecting the community and to brainstorm alternatives to violent conflict.

In addition to strengthening interpersonal relationships and reducing violent conflict between people, Popota promotes better relationships between people and the environment. Group members plant trees and sensitize the community to the importance of environmental protection. Popota’s members are all volunteers, meeting after normal work hours. Since Popota’s founding, the community has witnessed a reduction in crime. Popota also hopes in the future to introduce the peace clubs model to Zambian correctional facilities beyond Choma.

Issa Ebombolo and Mturi Kajungu are currently in the process of adapting the school peace club curriculum to the prison context with the hope that the Choma model could extend to other prisons throughout Zambia. As MCC continues to support work for peace in Zambia’s prisons, capacity building for prison officers will be especially critical, helping them understand their correctional services role as rehabilitative. MCC must also focus on how best to reintegrate returning citizens into their communities and to find ways to assist returning citizens in supporting their families after serving their sentences. The peace clubs pilot at Choma has shown promise: now MCC must work to build on that promise.

Keith Mwaanga is peace and justice coordinator for MCC Zambia.

Learn more

Peace club curricula from Zambia, South Africa, Kenya, Burundi and Mozambique can be found here:

Restorative justice and the prison system in Haiti


[Individual articles from the Summer 2018 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Haiti’s prison system is considered one the world’s worst. In 2018, the World Prison Brief ranked Haiti’s prisons as the world’s most overcrowded, at 4.5 times over capacity. With less than 0.5 square meters of space available to each inmate, prisoners must sleep in shifts. Despite Haitian laws to the contrary, children are often housed with adults in prison. This crowding, combined with underfunding, frequently leads to preventable deaths from malnutrition, violence and disease. Additionally, due to a dysfunctional and overburdened judicial system, most of Haiti’s 11,000 prisoners have never been tried for a crime and many do not even know the crimes for which they stand accused. According to the Haitian Directorate of Prisons, 74% of prisoners (including 82% of women and 95% of girls) have not had their cases heard before a judge. Without the ability to pay for a lawyer and court fees, even innocent people languish in prison for years.

One 18-year-old, recently released through the intervention of an MCC-supported project, had been in prison for four years without seeing his family, a lawyer or a judge after getting into a fist fight on the street as a 14-year-old. Unfortunately, regardless of actual guilt, the future of people released from prison in Haiti is especially challenging. The cultural stigma associated with imprisonment means that released prisoners are often cut off from family, friends and community. Without these essential supports in place, the recidivism rate for released prisoners is high.

Responding to the stark realities of the Haitian prison system, MCC in Haiti has recently shifted from a strategy of public policy advocacy and provision of humanitarian assistance (such as blankets, food and hygiene kits) to a strategy of restorative justice, legal aid and wraparound support to aid with reintegration after release. After a series of pilot projects to test new approaches, MCC is now supporting two distinct models of work with prisoners.

Pro bono legal aid and community connections for imprisoned parents

MCC’s largest restorative justice project is led by Alliance Chrétienne pour la Justice (ACJ), a Haitian organization which coordinates volunteer lawyers who provide free legal aid to prisoners in pretrial detention who are accused of minor nonviolent crimes in pretrial. The project focuses on incarcerated parents, particularly single parents, with minor children. MCC supports training for the volunteer lawyers and required court fees. The lawyers donate 100% of their time. To help with reintegration, the project links willing incarcerated participants with their home congregations (or a new church in their home community) as well as a volunteer community and spiritual mentor from their faith perspective. Due to a primarily volunteer model, the project is highly cost effective at US$191 per planned released participant. Additionally, the ACJ projects have so far achieved 123% of the planned releases for the same budget, yielding a realized cost per participant released of US$155. So far, 75% of all released participants have remained in contact with their churches and mentors three months after release, with no known cases of recidivism or reincarceration.

The strengths of this approach include strong local buy-in and voluntarism, cost effectiveness and a holistic approach to spiritual and community reintegration after release. The weaknesses of the approach include reliance on highly qualified professionals to volunteer their time and the lack of additional wraparound supports (such as medical, economic or psychological assistance) that address the common health and financial challenges released prisoners often face. MCC is scaling up its support for this project over the next three years as ACJ grows in capacity. During this time, ACJ aims to facilitate the release and reintegration of 175 parents.

Holistic wraparound support for children in prison

MCC’s other restorative justice project, in its second pilot phase, partners with the Haitian organization Zanmi Timoun to provide a more comprehensive wraparound model for supporting children in prison. Given the extreme vulnerability of children both while in prison and post-release, a more holistic and structured model of support is required. The project utilizes paid staff to provide psychological counseling, basic medical aid, preparation for post-release reintegration and education. The project also addresses the stigma families feel from having a child in prison, offers mediation between families and their children upon their release and economic assistance for the most vulnerable children to attend school or start a small business. Due to its resource-intensive approach, the cost per released participant is US$302. The project’s transportation and logistical costs are also high because the imprisoned children which Zanmi Timoun assists are spread out across all 17 Haitian prisons (only one of which is designated as a juvenile detention center). With MCC’s support, Zanmi Timoun works with approximately 200 children per year in the prisons (about one-third of all incarcerated children in Haiti) and follows 100 of them through to release. Cases receiving full legal accompaniment are prioritized based on the inability of their families to pay for legal aid and the severity of their accused crimes (with priority going to those accused of minor nonviolent crimes). To date, the two pilot projects with Zanmi Timoun have resulted in the release of 47 children, among whom there have been zero known cases of recidivism or reincarceration.

The strengths of Zanmi Timoun’s approach include the comprehensive nature of the wraparound services provided, the way in which family reintegration is emphasized and supported and the involvement of paid staff to provide greater consistency and control over quality and timeliness of services. The approach’s greatest weakness is its resource-intensive nature and dependence on paid staff throughout the process.

Next steps

MCC’s work in Haitian prisons through these two models has been successful because each model is adapted to the population it serves. Additionally, both approaches include advocacy to the Haitian government about prolonged pre-trial detention, which results in people waiting in jail for years for a trial. The more pared down volunteer model of ACJ allows for the maximum number of adults to be helped with a limited budget and capacity. The more comprehensive model of Zanmi Timoun allows for the higher level of support incarcerated children and their families require given their heightened vulnerability. ACJ is currently out of the pilot phase and at the start of a three-year initiative to scale up its work. Zanmi Timoun is in the middle of its second-year pilot project as it continues to refine its approach. Over the coming years, MCC Haiti staff will collaborate closely with both organizations to learn more about how both models can be improved.

Paul Shetler Fast is MCC’s health coordinator, living in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Designing accountability and transformation


Imagine you had to sit down and deal with a serious conflict with a family member or face a friend hurt by something you said or did. The conversation between the two of you is going to be difficult. Now, picture a room or space in which you would prefer to have that interaction. What would that space look, feel and smell like? How might that space influence how you would feel, think and act, both during and after the conversation? People rarely notice, let alone consciously think about, the impact of spatial design—be it buildings, rooms or outdoor spaces—on their physical, mental and emotional well-being. Yet architecture and design matter, including when considering questions of justice and mass incarceration. How can we design spaces that foster both accountability and transformation?

Justice architecture and design serve as visual representations of justice theories. For example, the judge sitting on a raised dais in the courtroom is symbolic of the judge’s power and expertise. Defense and prosecution sitting side-by-side, not facing each other, but rather facing the judge, hints at the competitive nature of the justice process. Crime victims observe judicial proceedings from the back of the courtroom, behind a barrier, physically sidelined in a way that parallels the exclusion of their experiences and needs from the justice process.

Mass incarceration within better designed correctional facilities is still mass incarceration. We are challenged to start from scratch, inquire about our desired justice philosophy goals, and design new spaces with those goals, and design research, in mind


The architecture and design of correctional facilities also communicate. Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, built in the early eighteenth century by prison reformers, offers an early example of the link between design and justice theory. The single-person cell with a low door and a solitary ceiling window that opened toward the heavens was designed to isolate and humble the prisoner to facilitate penitence. Today, more modern prison designs have sought to move beyond cellblock prison models—long units that house hundreds of prisoners in multiple tiers of cells, common areas with heavy furniture bolted to the floor and building material that consists of little more than cement, steel and cinder block—to the creation of more home-like settings with comfortable and moveable furniture, pleasant colors and fewer prisoners. While the cellblock model communicates a punitive and marginalizing message through its warehouse-like architecture, more modern prison designs aim to normalize the prison environment, making it more conducive to rehabilitating prisoners and facilitating their reentry into society.

Architecture and design impact our well-being, including our social, mental and emotional health. Prisons are no exceptions. Access to small and flexible spaces, for example, facilitate improved communication and social support in times of crisis. Privacy makes it possible for people to deal with social harms, reflect on their lives and re-energize after periods of intensity. Considerable research shows that interaction with nature, even just through a window view, can improve physical health and mood and reduce depression and anxiety. Research conducted specifically in the correctional environment shows similar outcomes for incarcerated individuals, especially as it relates to interaction with nature through horticultural and gardening programs. My own research with incarcerated women found that they view nature as a critical design feature of spaces in which they can meet personal and rehabilitative goals. The women also desired homelike spaces with a variety of rooms and spaces (both indoor and outdoor) for socializing as well as privacy.

The impact of facility design on correctional employees has also gotten recent attention, including from the National Institute of Justice. Correctional work is stressful and dangerous. Research finds that many correctional and security officers experience compromised mental health in the form of depression, anxiety, trauma symptomology, substance abuse and suicide. Facility design has the potential to exacerbate these outcomes for the way design can increase risk of assault and limit privacy and quiet. Research suggests that correctional staff of all kinds desire areas in which to decompress, especially outdoor spaces with trees, water and flowers. These types of spaces have a good chance of decreasing stress, given evidence that views of a simple nature mural reduce heart rates and stress among correctional intake staff.

Private, homelike and nature-based are not words typically used to describe correctional facilities. Yet we have reason to believe that spaces with such design characteristics may assist in a process of accountability that grows out of reflection, transformation of previous victimization and improved mental health. We would do well to consider how to renovate and re-envision the design of correctional spaces to better serve justice goals. We cannot, however, simply make correctional facilities more beautiful and salutogenic while simultaneously retaining the underlying message of punishment for the sake of punishment. Designing for accountability, transformation and humanization requires more than just making the cellblock feel more homelike or sitting in gardens within the confines of a barbed wire fence. Mass incarceration within better designed correctional facilities is still mass incarceration. We are challenged to start from scratch, examine our desired justice philosophy goals and design new spaces with those goals in mind. A society focused on the rehabilitation of persons who commit crimes would likely not design prisons at all, even for those times when some temporary separation from community may be warranted.

Furthermore, addressing the crisis of mass incarceration will entail confronting the dehumanizing impact of architecture and design at the street level. So-called “million dollar blocks”—i.e., city blocks in which US$1 million is spent annually incarcerating its citizens—are typically characterized by brown fields, vacant lots and industrial sites, all void of green space. Indeed, the design of incarceration, marginalization and dehumanization begins at home.

This article began with an invitation to consider a space in which you could deal with a serious conflict or face someone you had hurt. It is probably safe to assume you did not envision anything punitive in design, let alone anything close to a correctional facility. What can we learn from your space about how to design justice spaces in which those who criminally offend can take steps toward accountability and experience transformation?

Barb Toews is an Assistant Professor at the University of Washington Tacoma. She is the author of The Little Book of Restorative Justice for People in Prison.

Learn more

 Toews, Barb. The Little Book of Restorative Justice for People in Prison. Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2006.

Learning about the pipeline to prison


In March 2017, I participated in an MCC-organized Pipeline to Prison learning tour in Louisiana. Over the course of the week, which included a visit to the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary (commonly referred to as Angola Prison), our group confronted the scope of mass incarceration in the United States and its racialized nature.

The U.S. leads the world in incarcerating its people. One-fourth of all the prisoners in the world are held in U.S. prisons. The scope of incarceration in the U.S. has ballooned dramatically over the past decades. In 1970, 357,292 men and women were incarcerated. By 2014, 2.3 million prisoners were held in America’s jails and prisons, of whom nearly a million were African-American.

The blight of mass incarceration is particularly evident in Louisiana, the state with the highest per capita rate of incarceration, with one in three African-American men behind bars (compared to one in 17 white men imprisoned). Our group heard from speakers who linked contemporary mass incarceration to ways that southern states like Louisiana, following the Civil War, began using the criminal justice system as an institutional form of slavery by creating laws specifically crafted to convict and incarcerate African Americans, compelling them to work to rebuild the war-devastated states. Legal scholar Michelle Alexander, meanwhile, has argued that mass incarceration of people of color represents a new form of Jim Crow-era laws that disenfranchised African Americans.

A visit to Angola Prison underscores how legacies of slavery live on in contemporary mass incarceration. Angola sits on 18,000 acres of land that formerly belonged to four slave plantations. Today, it houses more than six thousand inmates, three-fourths of whom are black, many of whom can expect to spend most, if not all, of their lives there. Angola is a stark example of multiple facets of the so-called prison-industrial complex, including how prisoners are used as a source of cheap labor by corporations. Industries at Angola include making wheel chairs, license plates and caskets. Inmates also raise dogs that are crossbred with wolves to sell outside the prison. Vegetable farming by prison labor provides income for the prison, with most of the produce sold rather than being served to inmates. Companies such as Walmart, Koch Industries, AT&T, Aramark, Horizon Health Care, JCPenny, Victoria’s Secret and others benefit from the work of cheap labor provided by incarcerated persons. Prisoners are paid US$.02/hour for unskilled field labor and US$.20/hour for skilled labor.

Our tour group met Earl Truvia, an unjustly convicted African-American man who spent 27 years at Angola before being exonerated in June 2003. Truvia explained that “Everyone in Angola is victimized. Morally, everyone in there is a victim.” Truvia’s experience reflects how African Americans experience a different system of justice in the United States than whites.  Arrested at age 17, the court system waited until his eighteenth birthday, when he could be legally sentenced as an adult, to convict him. He was given a life sentence with eligibility for parole in 40 years. During his nearly three decades of incarceration, Truvia at times chose to go into isolation, allowing himself time to study the prison system and educate himself on what had happened to him.  He discovered that the district attorney concealed evidence from the police report that would have exonerated him had it been given to his defense attorney. Without this information, it took the jury only 12 minutes to convict him. Truvia was eventually released through the assistance of The Innocence Project.

Throughout the learning tour we heard from speakers who analyzed the reasons behind contemporary mass incarceration—both the increased numbers of inmates and the racial disparities in the expanding prison population. The so-called War on Drugs from the early 1980s led to the imprisonment of blacks at a much higher rate than whites. African Americans were arrested at a 13% higher rate for marijuana possession than whites, even though studies show marijuana use at the same rates for both groups. At the same time, the War on Drugs promoted stricter sentencing guidelines for crack users compared to powdered cocaine users. This led to longer prison terms for African Americans, since crack users were usually black. Cocaine users tended to be white.

The 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (commonly known as the “Crime Bill”) exacerbated the escalating problem of mass incarceration with the creation of mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses and the introduction of habitual offender (or “three-strikes”) policies. The efforts by the American Legislation Exchange Council (ALEC) to draft bills for submission to Congress and state legislatures around prison policy is particularly noteworthy. These draft bills pushed for mandatory minimum sentences and the creation of private, for-profit prisons. ALEC thus played a damaging role in the rise of mass incarceration.

The Pipeline to Prison learning tour challenged me to recognize my “whiteness,” and the ways that in our racialized society it shields me in ways that people of color do not experience. I’m still processing what I saw, heard and felt during this intense week. It was indeed a learning tour.

Elaine Ewert Kroeker of Bingham Lake, Minnesota, a graduate of Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas, holds a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from Kansas State University.

Learn more

Alexander Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press, 2010.

The New Jim Crow Study Guide and Call to Action. Atlanta: Bookbright Media, 2013.

13th. Film. Directed by Ava Duvernay. 2016 Available on Netflix.

MCC has organized Pipeline to Prison learning tours in Philadelphia and New Orleans. From August 5-10, 2018, MCC will host another Pipeline to Prison learning tour in and around Goshen, Indiana. For more information, visit

You Got Booked: developing a tool to teach about mass incarceration


[Individual articles from the Summer 2018 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

What are effective ways to help people in the United States learn about the history, scope and pervasive impact of mass incarceration in the country? That question animated an MCC U.S. working group tasked with developing learning resources for congregations, schools and other groups about the many flaws in the U.S.’s criminal justice system, including enormous racial disparities from arrest to sentencing to imprisonment. Recognizing that participatory activities can help people learn more effectively, the working group focused its efforts on developing a life-sized board game experience called You Got Booked (to be released sometime in 2019). Participants are assigned identities and resources which will impact their outcomes throughout the activity. These identities highlight the privileges and disadvantages that groups of people face based on their race, gender, citizenship status, culture, age, community and criminal background.

In You Got Booked, participants are split into seven groups. Each group chooses a representative to participate in the experience. The players have a goal to make it around the board once, while building their resources and avoiding a life term in prison. As in reality, each player begins with different resources. Some start with more money, housing, jobs and education. Others start without some of these resources. Others even start the game with a criminal record. All players are expected to reach the same goal, despite their differences in starting resources.

Over the course of the learning experience, participants learn about different facets of mass incarceration in the United States today, including:

  • the exponential growth in the prison population over the past few decades;
  • how the war on drugs, the introduction of mandatory minimum sentences and the design of bail systems have helped fuel that growth;
  • how poverty, the ongoing effects of genocide and slavery and the lack of secure housing and access to mental health resources make people more vulnerable to imprisonment;
  • how racism pervades the criminal justice system and how, especially in communities of color, youth of color get channeled in to what sociologists have called the “school-to-prison pipeline”;
  • how the broken immigration system contributes to the mass incarceration crisis; and
  • the challenges faced by returning citizens upon release from prison.

This learning tool emerged after MCC Central States sponsored a “pipeline to prison” learning tour in Louisiana. In that learning experience, two dozen people visited prison facilities, met with returning citizens and participated in a learning exercise that highlighted the impact that poverty, charter schools and suspensions have on the likelihood of juveniles entering the criminal justice system. After the learning tour, MCC staff agreed on the need to develop a resource that would help others learn of the many pipelines that contribute to mass incarceration and how policies and structural systems impact various groups differently.

Mass incarceration is a pressing moral crisis that the United States has failed to address. The U.S. incarcerates more people than any other nation in the world. This crisis of mass incarceration is primarily driven by racial injustice at all levels within the criminal justice system and by high levels of recidivism. Prisons in the U.S. today are not serving as facilities that rehabilitate citizens to thrive in their communities, but instead serve solely punitive purposes. In prison, many people are not given the resources they need to reintegrate into society successfully upon release.

Harsh sentences for non-violent drug offenses (disproportionately levied against people of color) and a failing mental health care system that leads to prisons functioning as warehouses for persons with mental illness have contributed to the mass incarceration crisis. So long as the U.S. fails to reform its criminal justice system and to address the root causes of most offenses, such as poverty, racism and economic inequality, the mass incarceration crisis will continue.

Prison records present severe obstacles to returning citizens. Participants in the mass incarceration learning activity struggle to remain active players on the board after going to prison just once. Prison records, in the activity as well as in real life, create barriers to finding employment, housing and government assistance. Meeting parole requirements also presents challenges. “You do the crime, you do the time,” goes the popular motto: the mass incarceration learning tool shows that “doing time” continues far after prison release.

The learning tool also highlights the role that families have on outcomes for people in prisons and the impact that those in prison have on their families. For persons in prison, their families can potentially provide financial and mental support, including through visits and phone conversations. Families, meanwhile, face trauma when loved ones are taken to prison. For some, their imprisoned family members were the primary financial providers or caregivers for the household. Then, when relatives are released from prison, families in assisted-living or government-funded housing may be forced by government rules to move or separate from their formerly incarcerated family members in order to continue receiving assistance.

The impact on children of having an incarcerated parent is profound. More than 300,000 children go to bed each night with a parent who has been incarcerated. As Nell Bernstein has observed, “these children have committed no crime, but the price they are forced to pay is steep. They forfeit, too, much of what matters to them: their homes, their safety, their public status and private self-image, their primary source of comfort and affection” (3).

The mass incarceration learning tool allows those who feel completely disconnected from the issue of mass incarceration to gain a lived, albeit second-hand, experience of the stark realities of mass incarceration and of how the racial, class and other identities placed on participants shape their outcomes. Participants who are connected to mass incarceration through their families and communities have a chance to receive an overview of their experiences and relate to how a flawed system may have impacted or could impact them. Participants may experience feelings of anger, guilt and bitterness during the activity: a debriefing exercise is essential for processing feelings, but also for discussing opportunities to act to counter and dismantle the unjust system of mass incarceration through public policy advocacy.

MCC hopes that You Got Booked will be an effective resource for church congregations, schools, advocates, returning citizens and others wanting to better understand mass incarceration and that participants will leave the exercise ready to act. Let us change the way we think and speak of those in and returning from prison. Let us embrace all people and challenge unjust policies.

Cherelle Dessus is legislative assistant and communications coordinator for the MCC Washington Office.

Learn more

You Got Booked will be available to borrow from MCC’s regional offices in 2019. Contact information for the MCC office nearest you can be found at

Bernstein, Nell. All Alone in the World: Children of the Incarcerated. New York: New Press, 2007.

The U.S. struggles to find a balance between justice and punishment. Many times, the criminal justice system creates more problems than it solves. Isaiah 1:17 issues a call to learn to do good, to seek justice and correct oppression, to enhance the voices of those sinned against and disadvantaged. Sign up for Washington Office action alerts to contact your members of Congress about important issues at

To learn more about and to borrow an MCC exhibit about the children of incarcerated parents, visit

Accompanying People in Prison, Countering Mass Incarceration (Summer 2018)


[Individual articles from the Summer 2018 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves (Luke 10:27), challenging us not to place limits on who our neighbor is and whom we are called to love. However, we generally prefer to name for ourselves whom we identify as our neighbor. Too often we have been guilty of marginalizing those deemed unworthy because of acts they have committed, or simply because of who they are. Jesus calls us to the kind of love that refuses to be complicit in the marginalization of people, the kind of love committed to justice by opposing all that exploits and neglects. It is our hope that this issue of Intersections takes us further on the journey of compassion and justice for persons too often rendered invisible in our society—specifically, those incarcerated and formerly incarcerated persons who are, and remain, our neighbors.

In recent years, MCC has become increasingly active in responding to the realities of imprisonment and to the needs and hopes of prisoners and returning citizens. In the United States, MCC’s response has been shaped by the rise of mass incarceration and a prison-industrial complex marked by systemic injustice and racial disparities. In this issue, several authors examine different dimensions of mass incarceration in the U.S. Elaine Ewert Kroeker and Cherelle Dessus reflect on different MCC efforts to raise awareness among Anabaptist churches in the U.S. of the harms and the racialized character of mass incarceration, while Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz examines the impact mass incarceration has had on Indigenous peoples in the United States. Through an interview, Dwayne Harmon and Ron Muse, themselves former prisoners, reflect on the challenges returning citizens face and the best ways to accompany people upon their release from prison. Barb Toews, meanwhile, presses us to think about physical space, justice architecture and design in the context of mass incarceration and asks us to imagine what a correctional facility would look like that was truly focused on rehabilitation, accountability and healing.

Meanwhile, MCC also supporters restorative justice and peacebuilding efforts in prisons outside the U.S. Paul Shetler Fast and Keith Mwaanga describe and analyze MCC efforts in Haiti and Zambia to support people both while in prison and upon their release. Together, the articles in this issue of Intersections challenge those who would follow Jesus in the U.S. and around the world to discern what loving our neighbor looks like in the context of mass incarceration.

Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz is MCC U.S. restorative justice coordinator. Krista Johnson Weicksel works as peacebuilding coordinator in MCC’s Planning, Learning and Disaster Response department.

The promise and challenge of intercultural service teams


[Individual articles from the Spring 2018 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

While MCC teams across the past
century have almost always had some form of intercultural composition, the
intercultural character of MCC teams has become more pronounced in recent years.”

Many years ago, during an MCC country program review in Latin America, the evaluation team I was on engaged in a lengthy discussion about the “perks” that expatriate workers from Canada, the United States and Europe enjoyed during their MCC service term. Our local context expert, a professional who worked for a major aid organization, was dumbfounded that MCC would cover 100% of the costs of child care and private school tuition for service worker families and provide work for both spouses as a matter of course. At some point in the discussion, however, we realized that all along he had assumed that service workers were paid a salary commensurate with his own. When he realized that international service workers were what we used to call “volunteers,” he said, “Never mind! I thought you all had salaries! I completely withdraw everything I just said. Now it makes perfect sense.”

And yet, despite the “perfect sense” that it makes to differentiate support packages received by international workers serving outside their countries of nationality from the salaries and benefits received by national staff employed by MCC in their country of nationality, conversations and debates persist within MCC about the challenges that such differentiated support packages pose to creating truly intercultural teams. I strongly
suspect that no MCC country program has fully succeeded in satisfactorily resolving these tensions generated by different types of support packages, because every country program is operating within a context of power and privilege and within hierarchies shaped by the legacies of colonialism. MCC operates within and at times reflects and reproduces these broken structures and can only imperfectly redress the wrongs that they produce. Immigration and labor laws vary from one country to another, dictating
in part how compensation is organized. The ways that family members understand one’s commitment to working with MCC may differ widely as well. However, creative approaches to policy at the country program level can at least partially correct the persistent imbalances and foster more equivalence among team members who come from disparate situations, in turn nurturing a shared sense of mission.

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul claims that Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (Philippians 2:6–7, NRSV). This vision of Jesus’ self-emptying in service has arguably animated and infused MCC’s understanding of service in the work of accompanying hurting people. This conception of service as self-giving and self-emptying is in turn translated into organizational commitments:

  • Witnessing to God’s upside-down kingdom, MCC embraces God’s partisanship for the poor and is committed to working amongst marginalized communities for human rights and poverty reduction.
  • As a response to the Biblical commandment to love God, our neighbors, and our enemies, MCC serves and learns in community and builds bridges across cultural, political, religious and economic divides.
  • Working towards a vision of God’s reign on earth, MCC is committed to dismantling barriers of racial, economic and gender-based oppression and to ensuring that all community members are active participants in program design and decision-making.

While it is clear (at least in theory) how these principles apply to community work—e.g., participatory decision-making, grass-roots accompaniment—MCC has paid less attention to how the principles play out within intercultural MCC teams. As teams become more diverse, especially in terms of national origin, the lines defining who are the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed become somewhat blurred as categories of social class intersect with ethnicity and national origin. Determining what constitutes equitable treatment becomes challenging. Is a national staff person with a master’s degree and 15 years of experience working for non-governmental organizations poor, marginalized and oppressed in comparison to a 20-year-old SALTer from Goshen, Indiana? If that
national staff person is still paying off an educational loan from a family member, can MCC help her make payments as it would for some expatriate workers? What if the national staff person has an urgent medical need, but her health insurance provider will not give her an appointment until next month, while the international service worker at the next desk can see any specialist in the city that day and be fully reimbursed?

What does it look like, in the words of MCC’s operating principles, to learn in community and build bridges across cultural, political, religious and economic divides? How do these principles of equity and commitment to dismantling discrimination work in practice within an international team that includes staff from the country and that includes
some staff compensated through regular salaries and benefits (national staff serving in their country of nationality), while others are compensated as volunteers (expatriate service workers, who receive a stipend, but also generous benefits such as housing, full health insurance and, where applicable, children’s education costs)?

MCC, to be sure, is not the only international non-governmental organization that grapples with the complexities involved in working towards equity and fairness in the compensation of members of intercultural teams that include national staff from the specific country of operation. Houldey (2017) and Roth (2015) suggest that in some contexts as many as 90% of all aid workers are national staff working in their countries of origin. As these national staff work alongside international workers from other contexts, workers inevitably observe different types of and disparities within compensation and support. A writer for the “Secret Aid Worker” blog (2015), for example, poignantly questions the justifications offered by international NGOs for differentiating the medical insurance packages offered to international and national staff.

MCC works at this challenge by giving its country programs flexibility to create internal policies aimed at fostering equality within program teams that are contextually relevant. For example, when my spouse and I served as MCC representatives for Colombia, we instituted a $400-per-person-per-year emergency medical fund within our budget for
national staff to draw on in situations where their national insurance was woefully inadequate.

While MCC teams across the past century have almost always had some form of intercultural composition, the intercultural character of MCC teams has become more pronounced in recent years. The number of multi-year international service workers who come from the Majority World (i.e., not from Canada, the United States or Europe)
is steadily growing. The Young Adult Mennonite Exchange Network (YAMEN) program in which young adults from Majority World countries serve in other Majority World countries has rapidly expanded. MCC’s two-year Seed units for young adults are deliberately designed as intercultural teams that bring young adults from Seed countries like Bolivia and Colombia together with young adults from the broader region and from Canada and the United States. The growing intercultural character of MCC teams pushes MCC actively to grapple with the tensions involved in working towards greater equity within intercultural teams. If we don’t deliberately address such tensions, the implicit
biases in our actions and decisions will inevitably default to maintain the status quo, leaving colonial relationships unquestioned. At its best, MCC constantly operates in a dynamic tension, like the strings of piano or guitar, or human vocal cords, vibrating into harmonic music, ever changing, responsive and expressive.

Elizabeth Phelps works as a consultant and previously served as MCC co-representative for Colombia.

Learn more

Aid Worker Voices. Blog. Available at

Houldey, Gemma. “Why a Commonly Held Idea of What Aid Workers Are Like Fails
to Tell the Whole Story.” The Conversation. November 6, 2017. Available at

Roth, Silke. The Paradoxes of Aid Work: Passionate Professionals. London:
Routledge, 2016. “Secret Aid Worker: It’s One Standard for Local Staff and
Another for Expats.” The Guardian. June 16, 2015. Available at

Strengthening the impact of young adult exchange programs


[Individual articles from the Spring 2018 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

In August 2016, as part of its ongoing commitment to learn from and strengthen its program initiatives, MCC initiated a study of the impact of its three eleven-month programs for young adults: the International Volunteer Exchange Program (IVEP), in which young adults from around the world serve in Canada and the United States; the Serving and Learning Together program (SALT), in which young adults from Canada and the U.S. serve around the world; and the Young Anabaptist Mennonite Exchange Network program (YAMEN), a shared program of MCC and Mennonite World Conference (MWC) in which young adults from outside Canada and the U.S. serve in other countries, primarily in the global South.

The study’s objectives were twofold. First, the study explored the effects of YAMEN, IVEP and SALT on sending churches, participants’ faith journeys, participants’ skills and passions and participants’ global citizenship. The study used an understanding of global citizenship based on a definition developed by Oxfam Canada as including awareness of
the wider world, respect for diversity, involvement in social justice causes, action to make the world more sustainable and contribution to local and global communities. Second, the study built on these findings to formulate recommendations for how best to improve the three programs.

For the IVEP and YAMEN parts of the study, the research team chose Colombia, Indonesia and Zambia for in-depth examination. In these three contexts, MCC has, or has had, extensive experience with its young adult programs, along with active engagement with Anabaptist churches. In each country, researchers organized focus groups and interviews of IVEP and YAMEN alumni. They also conducted interviews with Mennonite World Conference representatives, denominational representatives and pastors
and other leaders from congregations that have sent and received IVEPers and YAMENers.

For the SALT portion of the study, the research team emailed a confidential web-based survey to all SALT alumni with email addresses on file who served between 1981 and the 2015-16 program year, or approximately 78% of alumni. To assess how church leaders in Canada and the U.S. view SALT, researchers sent a short, web-based survey to pastors from a sample of Anabaptist sending churches, as well as to leaders of Anabaptist
denominations, conferences and mission programs with knowledge of SALT.


Through these surveys, interview and focus groups, the research team collected input from a total of 380 respondents. Through in-person interviews and focus groups in Indonesia, Zambia and Colombia, researchers heard from 86 IVEP and 11 YAMEN alumni, 35 pastors and MWC representatives, 45 lay leaders (other than pastors) and two
community leaders. The SALT surveys resulted in responses from 177 alumni, seven pastors and 17 Anabaptist denominational leaders.

The study found that alumni link their participation in IVEP, YAMEN and SALT to growth in their faith, personal and vocational skills and engagement as global citizens. To maximize this growth, however, the study found that participants need more consistent emotional support during and after the program. Additionally, the results show that the
primary impact of these exchange programs occurs in the lives of individual participants, rather than in sending and receiving congregations. This finding suggests that MCC should pay closer attention to discerning with church partners what changes sending and receiving churches want to come about through these exchange programs.


IVEP and YAMEN alumni across Indonesia, Zambia and Colombia noted that participation in these programs strengthened their commitment to service, increased their sense of independence or confidence, led to increased empathy and hospitality toward foreigners in their own country and contributed to the dismantling of stereotypes that participants held of others. The most cited effects for SALT alumni included: increased appreciation of diverse faith perspectives; new or improved language skills; new or increased interest in building bridges and/or community between people of different faiths, ethnicities and races; and new or increased interest in working on social justice causes such as poverty, inequality and racism.

While respondents generally reported largely positive effects from their participation in these exchange programs, they also identified negative outcomes, including spiritual struggles, stalling of careers, difficulty reconnecting with the church and depression. These negative impacts, in turn, were linked by participants to feelings of not having had either adequate emotional support during the service terms or emotional and vocational support upon reentry. Not having adequate support in place to help young people process and integrate their experiences can limit the ways in which the transformative experiences during their year of service can shape their lives.

IVEP and YAMEN alumni in Colombia, Indonesia and Zambia requested more emotional support after their year of service. In all three countries, alumni stated the importance of connections with other alumni to process their experiences and the challenges they faced upon re-entry, even decades later. Alumni affirmed the countries that organized IVEP and YAMEN alumni reunions and encouraged MCC to organize more such reunions
in the future, while also using social media to foster connections among alumni. Study participants also suggested that MCC and sending churches create mentorship opportunities, in which older alumni could serve as mentors for recently returned alumni, providing a listening ear and walking with them as they reintegrate into their home communities and look for work or return to school. Additionally, for alumni who desire confidential emotional support or who have had traumatic or challenging
experiences during their year of service or reentry, MCC needs to make confidential counseling resources more accessible to participants. These resources need to be presented in a way that lessens stigma and normalizes the use of professional counseling.

Unlike IVEP and YAMEN alumni, SALTers did not expect MCC to provide them with ongoing support during re-entry. SALTers did, however, note the need for more consistent accompaniment and emotional support during the program. While many noted that they experienced growth during challenges, functioning under ongoing stress and trauma is not ideal for growth and should not be normalized. MCC should continue
to provide in-country supervisors with clear expectations for supporting SALTers, including frequency and types of check-ins, and resources related to self-care, such as confidential counseling. All in-country supervisors should receive ongoing training on trauma and sexual violence so that they can better respond to SALTers who experience trauma and can also proactively create environments in which SALTers know that disclosing sexual violence or other traumatic experiences will result in a life-giving,
trauma-informed response.


In her article, “The ‘Third World’ is Not Your Classroom,” Courtney Martin explores how learning happens during study and work abroad experiences. Martin argues that “the best learning happens not just when you’re thrown off a bit . . . but when you have the context of real, complex relationships within which you can find your footing again.” The study findings suggest that MCC needs to do more to facilitate opportunities for participants and alumni to find their footing during and after these exchange programs
within the context of complex relationships that provide them with the space to process and integrate their experiences into their lives.

At the level of the sending church, the pastors and congregations interviewed for this study voiced their affirmation for the positive impact IVEP and YAMEN have on participants, including increased leadership skills, strengthened commitment to service and an improved understanding of Anabaptism and the global church. The extent to which church leaders noted a pronounced effect at the level of the local church is variable, however, with many suggesting that the impact of these programs are
focused at the level of the individual.

Several pastors in Colombia, Indonesia and Zambia, however, believed that connecting local churches to the global church is an important objective of these programs, although they thought that more could be done through the programs to strengthen those connections. While not an explicit objective of YAMEN or IVEP, strengthening church-to-church connections is certainly a complementary objective to current program objectives to “build the church together” (YAMEN), “share gifts between churches”
(YAMEN) and “strengthen bonds of Christian fellowship” (IVEP). Connecting participants’ receiving and sending churches intentionally and systematically may be a way to strengthen these programs’ overall ability to strengthen the church, break down barriers, bring people of a common faith together despite diverse expressions of that faith and further support the work of Mennonite World Conference. If MCC desires IVEP, YAMEN and SALT to effect change at the level of the church, MCC should work with MWC and its church partners to determine what local churches want to achieve through church-to-church connections and then intentionally administer these three young adult exchange programs in such a way that better facilitates connections between sending and receiving churches.

IVEP, YAMEN and SALT have led to transformative effects in the lives of participants in the areas of faith, personal growth, skill development and global citizenship. Providing more consistent emotional support to participants and intentionally connecting sending and receiving churches will allow MCC to strengthen program effects for participants and their churches.

Meara Dietrick Kwee is an MCC learning and evaluation coordinator.

Learn more

Clark, Janet and Simon Lewis. “Impact Beyond Volunteering: A Realist Evaluation of the Complex and Long-Term Pathways of Volunteer Impact.” Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), United Kingdom, March 2017. Available at

Martin, Courtney. “The ‘Third World’ is Not Your Classroom.” Bright. March 7, 2016. Available at

Brigham, Margaret. “Creating a Global Citizen and Assessing Outcomes.” Journal of Global Citizenship & Equity Education, 1/1 (2011): 15-43. Available at

Building unity within diversity in cross-cultural exchange work in Indonesia


[Individual articles from the Spring 2018 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Young adult exchange programs in Indonesia offer a good case study of the relevance of investing in cross-cultural skills needed to navigate life in multicultural settings. For young adults from Indonesia, and I suspect many other countries, the development of these skills is helpful to their ability to navigate their identities and interactions both at home and abroad. In the Indonesian context, young adult cross-cultural exchange
programs help to promote unity within the vibrant diversity of Indonesian society.

MCC’s work in Indonesia has taken place in many different parts of the country. In the past, MCC has worked in multiple parts of Indonesia, including Borneo, Sumatra and Java, all parts of the Indonesian archipelago with distinctive cultures, languages and ethnicities. Over the years, the MCC team brought together people not only from Canada,
the United States and Indonesia, but also from many other countries and cultures. At its best, MCC was a vibrant site of multicultural, or intercultural, service in Indonesia. The team’s multicultural character in turn reflected the fundamentally multicultural character of Indonesia itself.

People from the multicultural societies of the United States and Canada, in my experience, often tend to view other nations as monocultures. Many MCC workers who came to Indonesia from Canada and the U.S. to serve were surprised to realize that Indonesian Christians generally and Indonesian Mennonites specifically are already engaged in intercultural service.”

People from the multicultural societies of the United States and Canada, in my experience, often tend to view other nations as monocultures. Perhaps rooted in colonial assumptions about what constitutes a nation, this unreflective assumption of “one country one people” means that many MCC workers who came to Indonesia from Canada and the U.S. to serve were surprised to realize that Indonesian Christians generally and Indonesian Mennonites specifically are already engaged in intercultural service. Indonesia, after all, is made up not only of scores of islands, but is also marked by many different languages and ethnicities. Javanese culture, for example, is very different from the culture of East Indonesia. Even within Java itself, culture varies markedly between eastern, western and central Java, while more than ten languages are spoken on the island.

Today, MCC is not implementing any of its own program in Indonesia, but instead supports the work of Indomenno, a church-based association begun by the three Mennonite synods in Java. At present, Indomenno encourages youth to participate in both international and more localized exchange programs. Through the Young Anabaptist Mennonite Exchange Network (YAMEN), a shared program of MCC and Mennonite World Conference, and MCC’s International Volunteer Exchange Program (IVEP), churches from the three Indonesian Mennonite synods send their young adults to Canada, the United States and other countries around the world. When the young people who participate in these eleven-month MCC exchange programs return to Indonesia, they have gained many skills related to cross-cultural work. They have immersed themselves in new cultures in their placement countries and have learned how to accept and adapt to new cultural patterns, mixing those new patterns with cultural practices from their home communities. When they return to Indonesia, they have re-adapt to their home culture, while discerning how to use their newly-developed skills in cross-cultural exchange.

The Mennonite synods of Indonesia offer Indonesian Mennonite youth ways to further develop their cross-cultural skills. One Mennonite synod has a youth program called Youth for Peace, in which young adults work together to identify creative ways to promote peace within Indonesian society. IVEP and YAMEN alumni have found the Youth for Peace program to be one outlet for using their new cross-cultural skills.

Other Indonesian Mennonite churches have developed a “live in” program aimed at equipping Indonesian Mennonite young adults with a deeper understanding of cultural diversity within Indonesia and with the skills to form friendships across cultural divides. The program sends participants to rural parts of the country to live with local families for a brief stay, ranging from a couple days to up to three weeks. During this time, young
adult participants learn skills such as wood craft from their host families. Participants also serve in their placement community’s local church and carry out community service. Usually the participants come from big cities and have never experienced the culture of rural Indonesian life. Through this program, Indonesian Mennonite young adults develop an appreciation for the diversity of Indonesian society and the goodness of different ways of life.

Intercultural service in the form of cross-cultural exchange equips participants for a peacebuilding mission of building unity amidst diversity.”

The cross-cultural youth movement supported by MCC through Indomenno does not only happen in church, but also between religions. Because Indonesia is so diverse, Indonesia has many communities with adherents of different faiths. Learning to be a Christian peacemaker in Indonesia means learning the value of tolerance and the ability to live in peace and harmony with people who are different, including people of different religions. Indonesian Mennonite churches, with support from MCC, provide young adults with opportunities to learn the importance of tolerance and good relations between members of different faiths. Through conversation with people of other religions, stereotypes of those religions can begin to break down: Indonesian Mennonite youth gain a deeper understanding about what other religions believe and practice, while also helping non-Christians gain a deeper understanding of what Christians believe and practice. By breaking down stereotypes, this program, which brings together young
adults from Sumatra, Borneo, Sulawesi and other parts of Indonesia, builds bridges of peace and helps create unity amidst diversity.

Intercultural service in the form of cross-cultural exchange equips participants for a peacebuilding mission of building unity amidst diversity. Through participation in a variety of exchange programs, Indonesian Mennonite youth contribute to this peacebuilding mission.

Anielle Santoso is the Indomenno connecting peoples coordinator.

Serving “with” and not “for” in the United States


[Individual articles from the Spring 2018 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Oppressive missional models of service that only want to do to or for others have been labeled the White Savior complex, reductive seduction or poverty tourism. These outdated service models tend to exploit and seek to control and retain power over others, in the process devaluing the leadership gifts within local communities. Many within MCC are aware of the challenges that need to be navigated when conducting short-term missions. Awareness of theory, however, does not automatically provide immunity from inadvertently participating in cycles that further oppression: deliberate action and ongoing reflection are needed. When it comes to the topic of short-term missions, with is a key word. MCC’s Summer Service program in the United States has been designed out of a conviction that true transformation occurs when individuals and communities are able to exercise their own agency, with MCC simply playing a supporting, or accompanying, role.

The primary focus of MCC U.S.’s Summer
Service program is on empowering local leadership, on equipping young adults from within communities of color to identify and work for the changes that are needed within their own communities.”

What I find powerful about the MCC Summer Service program in the U.S. is that it is specifically for people of color to serve in their own communities. Its primary focus is on empowering local leadership and building up young adults of color. The program is not about sending young adults to disadvantaged communities for the summer to make a change, but rather about raising up local leadership from within communities of color to identify and work for the changes that are needed within their own communities. MCC’s role in this program is to partner with churches of color. MCC does not impose a uniform model of ministry or seek to control the service projects of young adults of color in their communities. MCC works with leaders from the contexts in which Summer Service
participants work, trusting that these communities have the solutions and resources to accomplish their goals.

People of color can sometimes replicate patterns of colonialism as we work at leadership development and missions. As a person of color leading the Summer Service program, I need to be aware of when I’m operating out of the dominant culture and not working with churches and young adults. I want to avoid dominant culture patterns that emphasize perfectionism, quantity over quality, paternalism and power hoarding.

I learned the value of working with others during my first year as an urban youth pastor. On sunny, warm days, local pastors would go the community park and carry out activities with the neighborhood kids. One young boy would always be there. He loved playing outside and working in our community garden. After a few weeks, I noticed a pattern. Even though he was eight years old and could physically swing by himself, he would always ask to be pushed on the swing by an adult. Or when tying shoes, he would often ask an adult to do it. I began to wonder: Is he doing it for attention? Does he lack the skills? Is it easier for him not to learn, knowing others will do it for him? Peter Block, an author about community building, claims that “Every time you help someone, you’ve colonized them.” This is strong language, but I think it is true. When we do things for or to people, we take away their agency. If you do that for long enough, people begin to believe they can only receive and never give, that they lack the ability or skills to make change and in turn they lose their sense of dignity and worth. The boy in the park had things done to or for him for far too long. As pastors, we didn’t want to fall into the trap so many other churches have of perpetuating oppression. We had to think critically
about what it meant to form lasting relationships and work with others inour community. We wanted to learn the role of the church in addressing trauma and to avoid perpetuating a cycle of oppression.

MCC needs to be aware of when it is acting out the dominant culture and not living out the kingdom of God. I believe if MCC creates space for more people of color in leadership, we can break away from the old models of short-term missions and dominant culture patterns. By including people of color in leadership and at the planning stages within MCC, we avoid perpetuating oppression, we share power and we recognize that there is not one right way to lead. As MCC provides mission and service opportunities, may we remember the incarnational model of Jesus Christ who walked with us, proclaimed good news to the marginalized and restored right relationships between us and God and with one another.

Danilo Sanchez is MCC U.S. Summer Service national coordinator.

Learn more

Banister, Doug. Seek the Peace of the City: Ten Ways to Bless the Place Where You Live. Knoxville, TN: All Souls, 2013. Available at

Block, Peter. Community: The Structure of Belonging. Oakland: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2009.

Corbett, Steve and Brian Fikkert. When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor or Yourself. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2014.

Martin, Courtney. “The ReductiveSeduction of Other People’s Problems.” Bright. January 11, 2016. Available at

Navigating gender dynamics in service


[Individual articles from the Spring 2018 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Women from Canada and the United States working in international assignments live with one foot in two worlds. Aware of and impacted by the cultural realities and gender dynamics of their country of service and their sending country, they navigate implementing a programmatic lens rooted in a North American perspective and a daily reality shaped by their country of service. This past year, with long-overdue attention paid to questions of sexual violence and gender discrimination in the United States
and elsewhere, women from the U.S. and Canada serving globally with MCC arguably felt these tensions more acutely than ever.

Women from Canada and the United States working in international assignments live with one foot in two worlds.

In the U.S., Canada, Europe and beyond, a groundswell of activism has brought renewed attention to sexual harassment and discrimination, unequal pay and lack of equal respect for women in the work place. #MeToo has become synonymous with a new movement of women’s empowerment. Yet many MCC workers live in contexts in which the concept of a hashtag is just as unfamiliar as the sentiment behind it. How can women serving with MCC globally who care deeply about the importance of working for greater gender equity in the United States and Canada appropriately address these issues in the societies in which they work?

Over the past decade, MCC has worked to improve how MCC and its partners incorporate gender analysis into planning and implementing projects. When partners plan a new food security, education, peacebuilding, disaster response or health project, MCC staff work with them to ask how women and girls are considered in the process and how
gender dynamics more broadly are accounted for. During the design phase of a recent education project in Mozambique, project planners asked: How is the quality of education in this context different for boys and girls? By asking that question, they found that

Children, as well as teachers and administrators, bring their own early socialization into the education process. Frequently, girls are raised not to value themselves highly, and without a sense of the basic human rights to which they are entitled. Boys may not question traditional gender roles that reinforce notions of male dominance and which may influence gender relations throughout the life cycle. Discrimination against girls during adolescence can reduce their readiness and ability to participate and learn, and results in fewer opportunities for them to develop to their full potential.

The project in Mozambique will work to address some of these discrepancies in education that begin in childhood when girls are taught to undervalue themselves. Designing project activities in a way that incorporates rigorous gender analysis presses MCC and its partners to look more closely at how a society’s gender norms shape daily realities for women and girls as well as men and boys.

While MCC has prioritized the incorporation of gender analysis into project planning, women in intercultural service with MCC do not have a clear-cut guide for how to navigate gender discrimination they may face during their terms of service. To be sure, women in the United States and Canada face specific forms of discrimination and navigate patriarchal systems every day. When these women enter new cultural contexts for service, they in turn must navigate different patriarchal systems with their own specific forms of discrimination.

“Women in MCC service often hold dual identities, carrying with themselves concern and passion for renewed movements against sexist discrimination in the United States and Canada, while also navigating new forms of
sexism in their contexts of service.”

In Burkina Faso, the country in which I serve, women arguably enjoy a relative degree of empowerment in comparison to women in many other African contexts. Women serve in the police and top governmental positions, while gender equality is protected under the country’s constitution. Day-to-day life, however, tells a different story. Women farmers, for example, are expected to work in the field all day and then return home to fulfill their other obligations of child rearing, wood gathering and water collecting. Men, on the other hand, can typically relax when not at work.

As MCC’s co-representative for Burkina Faso (together with my husband), I routinely encounter paternalistic attitudes and discriminatory assumptions about my abilities, though obviously to a lesser degree than Burkinabe women working in the fields. While my husband was granted immediate respect from our male project partners, I had to work to earn it. [Of course, women working in the United States and Canada can also face discriminatory expectations in the workplace!] In the beginning, partners would address all questions and concerns to my spouse, assuming he was the ultimate decision maker. Partners expressed surprise that I had the strength and endurance of a man to drive long distances over rough roads to visit them in their villages. After the birth of our third daughter during our term, many friends and colleagues in partner organizations assumed that we would continue to have children until we got a son. No MCC gender tool exists that helps women in intercultural service within MCC to navigate cultural assumptions around gender and the corresponding expectations and challenges women in service face.

Recently our office helped to facilitate a training for farmers about conservation agriculture. Because MCC is working to integrate gender analysis across programming, we dedicated a session to addressing how gender roles and expectations in Burkinabe society shape how an effective conservation agriculture project should be constructed. Together with MCC’s conservation agriculture technical officer, I facilitated the session.
We divided the men and women farmers into two groups to allow for candid conversation before coming back together. The women immediately bonded over discussing their extra responsibilities beyond working in the fields. “Why do our husbands get to come home and relax?” “They have no idea what it’s like to work with a baby strapped to their backs.” They said they had never discussed these topics with their husbands because challenging these expectations is not a realistic option. Men are the
traditional “chiefs” of the home.

Back in the plenary session, the women shared with the mixed group what we had discussed. Empowered by their collective voice, they led the conversation about the unfairness they experience. It was a lively discussion handled well by the men. So much so that the women felt comfortable enough to bring up the topic of their social obligation of plowing the fields while wearing dresses and coiffed hair, while men are allowed more comfortable and practical attire. Men acknowledged the major roles women play in a successful harvest and in managing the home. Participants discussed how women could potentially be given a more equitable share of decision making power in household and farming decisions, given the significant roles they play.

Women in intercultural service with MCC encounter many of the same patriarchal and discriminatory attitudes that women where they serve experience. At the same time, the #MeToo movement reminds us that women in the countries of the global North experience other forms of patriarchal discrimination. Women in MCC service often hold dual identities, carrying with themselves concern and passion for renewed movements against sexist discrimination in the United States and Canada, while also navigating new forms of sexism in their contexts of service. In holding these dual identities together, women in intercultural service have opportunities to make connections between different forms of sexist discrimination and to work for a future of empowerment and equality for women everywhere.

Sarah Sensamaust is MCC Burkina Faso co-representative.

Shifting discourses about service


[Individual articles from the Spring 2018 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

The notion of service has stood at the heart of MCC’s self-identity for decades. Yet, at the same time, the meaning of service has shifted over MCC’s nearly century-long history. Or, perhaps better put, the nature of service has been an ongoing point of contestation within MCC. In this article, I trace shifting meanings of service across MCC’s history, examining how MCC workers have critiqued and reimagined service.

Service in MCC’s early decades had two primary meanings. Service represented first and foremost an act of discipleship, a lived response to Jesus’ command to his disciples to give food to the hungry and water to the thirsty (Matthew 25:31-46). Service, from this vantage point, is roughly synonymous with relief efforts to meet basic human needs. For
many supporters of MCC today, this approach to service shapes their understanding of MCC’s mission—and, indeed, through the distribution of comforters, relief kits, canned meat and more, a vital part of MCC service is a reaching out to the Christ whom we encounter in those who hunger and thirst.

A second primary meaning of service in MCC’s first half-century was service a Christian alternative to military service through programs such as Civilian Public Service (CPS), Pax and the Teachers Abroad Program (TAP). Such alternative service was often understood as a different way of contributing to the good of one’s country. So, for example, MCC’s executive committee declared in a September 16, 1943, statement that CPS work “has meaning to the men who perform it as an expression of loyalty and love to their country, and of their desire to make a contribution to its welfare.”

The 1950s saw the emergence of a preoccupation that has reverberated up to the present, namely, a worry that MCC service runs the risk of becoming decoupled from Christian witness. At a 1958 consultation about MCC’s work attended by Mennonite, Mennonite Brethren and Brethren in Christ mission agencies, Brethren in Christ church leader and chair of the MCC board C.N. Hostetter asked, “In the light of MCC’s function as a relief
organization and not as a church, is there no danger of an overemphasis on purely social service? Such danger does exist. It is important that our relief ministry ‘In the Name of Christ’ be more than a nominal cliché. . . . Unless our workers know Christ, give themselves to Christ as they give themselves for others and witness positively for Christ, our program falls short as Christian relief.”

Was MCC concerned with the need of Anabaptists from Canada and the U.S. to serve, or with the self-identified priorities of churches and communities in the countries where MCC operated?”

This concern about the potential separation of “word and deed” has surfaced repeatedly over the ensuing decades, with an insistence that MCC service is carried out in the name of Christ. In an influential article in 1970 on the occasion of MCC’s fiftieth anniversary, Peter Dyck articulated a “theology of service” that would resist a “fragmented approach” that assigned “Christian mission” exclusively to Anabaptist mission boards. Authentic Christian service, argued Dyck, was “eschatological hope made visible,” a testimony within a fallen world to God’s redemptive love. In a slightly different vein, long-time MCC worker in Central America Susan Classen argued in 2003 that “If MCC is to continue into the future, we will need to root ourselves in a spirituality of service.” Service, Classen continued, “is not finally a ‘should’ so much as a ‘therefore,’ a response to God’s prior
work in our lives.”

Even as service in MCC’s early decades was viewed as a one-way response of discipleship from the United States and Canada to the rest of the world, narratives within MCC complicated this unidirectional picture. Writing in 1970, former MCC administrator and long-time Mennonite church leader Robert Kreider described MCC as a “continuing education” program for North American Mennonites, reflecting on the fact that MCC workers testified to how much more they had learned and received during their service terms than they had given or taught. In the 1990s, MCC executive director Ron Mathies expanded Kreider’s argument by conceptualizing Christian service as transformative education and portraying MCC as an “educational institution.”

The 1970s also saw the start of creative ferment and rethinking within MCC about the nature of service. In 1976, for example, Urbane Peachey, then MCC’s Peace Section executive secretary and Middle East director, penned a provocative article for MCC’s internal publication, Intercom, entitled “Service—Who Needs It?” “We’ve really done our best to send skilled personnel who could make a needed contribution,” Peachey wrote, “but now there are a number of countries which are interested in our aid but not our personnel.” MCC should ask itself: “Who is asking for the relationship? With whose needs are we primarily concerned?” Was MCC concerned with the need of Anabaptists from Canada and the U.S. to serve, or with the self-identified priorities of churches and communities in the countries where MCC operated (which might not include the placement of North American workers)? Such questions about what role, if any, service workers from Canada and the U.S. might fruitfully play internationally became more
pressing as countries around the world gained greater independence from former colonial powers and with the rise of a professional class and the growth and development of civil society organizations in those countries. These types of questions also gained in intensity as MCC moved from direct implementation of program to greater partnership with and accompaniment of local churches and civil society organizations.

During this period, service started to be redefined as learning. Responding to Peachey’s 1976 Intercom article, Atlee Beechy, a member of MCC’s executive committee, wondered if “perhaps it is time to redefine the meaning of service, to recognize more fully the two-way dimension of service, including the notion that learning from others is an act of service.” Such pondering was accompanied by active debates within MCC over the following decades about colonial and racialized assumptions about who is serving whom and where, with some visions of service critiqued for their implicit assumptions of service as a unidirectional initiative of white Mennonites of European heritage to the rest of the world. Reflecting back on these debates in the late 1990s, Judy Zimmerman Herr summarized these concerns in the form of questions: “Does being in a giving posture demean those we send our help to? . . . Is our service really an expression of power? How do we prevent our service from becoming an attitude of self-righteousness?”

The redefinition of service as learning was crystallized in a 1986 review of MCC Africa’s work led by Tim Lind. “Africans have suffered under centuries of words and theories of change/development coming from the North,” Lind observed. “It is in this context that servanthood for us today means abandoning all of the good and useful things we have to say in Africa in favor of a listening stance.” MCC workers from Canada and the U.S., Lind argued, needed to take a “back seat” and adopt a “waiting” posture. Revisioning service as listening and learning, Lind recognized, “may seem to some less than exciting and creative, particularly as it involves a shift in our thinking about ourselves as initiators and planners of activities and responses to need. However,” he continued, “we feel that this posture is in fact highly creative as it allows space and visibility to approaches to service and development which are different from our Western approaches, and which can mix with our own approaches in new and exciting ways.”

This reconceptualization in the seventies and eighties of service as a multidirectional
movement of listening, learning and sharing has shaped MCC service programs up to the present. This new understanding of service was reflected in the name adopted by MCC when it inaugurated an eleven-month service program for young adults from Canada and the U.S. to the rest of the world: Serving and Learning Together, or SALT. [MCC Canada had also earlier operated a voluntary service program inside Canada under
the SALT name.] In later years, the Serving with Appalachian Peoples (SWAP) program changed its name to Sharing with Appalachian Peoples. Meanwhile, MCC service programs have expanded understandings of who is engaged in service and where. MCC U.S.’s Summer Service program and MCC Canada’s Summerbridge program have provided opportunities for young adults of color to serve in their local communities. The Young Anabaptist Mennonite Exchange Network (YAMEN), operated in partnership with Mennonite World Conference, offers eleven-month service opportunities for young adults outside of Canada and the U.S. to other parts of the Majority World, opportunities through which the global church shares gifts of service with one another. And the International Volunteer Exchange Program (IVEP), initially established in 1950 to provide European Mennonites with one-year service opportunities in the United States and
Canada, now includes participants from over 25 countries.

The broader contexts within which MCC service takes place are ever evolving. Increased restrictions on visas by many countries, including Canada and the U.S., present barriers to intercultural service programs like those operated by MCC. Organizations receiving service workers have greater expectations of those workers bringing professional and even specialized skills. The meanings of service within MCC will undoubtedly continue changing as MCC enters its second century and as MCCers engage in vigorous discernment about what constitutes service in the name of Christ.

Alain Epp Weaver is co-director of MCC’s Planning, Learning and Disaster Response department.

Learn more

Classen, Susan. “A Spirituality of Service: Freely Give, Freely Receive.” MCC Occasional Paper, No. 29. January 2003.

Dyck, Peter J. “A Theology of Service.” Mennonite Quarterly Review. 44/3 (July 1970): 262–280.

Fountain, Philip Michael. “Translating Service: An Ethnography of the Mennonite
Central Committee.” Ph.D. dissertation, Australian National University, 2011.

Koontz, Ted. “Commitments and Complications in Doing Good.” In Unity amidst Diversity: Mennonite Central Committee at 75. Akron, PA: MCC, 1996.

Kreider, Robert. “The Impact of Service on American Mennonites.” Mennonite
Quarterly Review. 44/3 (July 1970): 245–261.

Lind, Tim and Pakisa Tshimika. Sharing Gifts in the Global Family of Faith: One Church’s Experiment. Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2003.

Malkki, Liisa. The Need to Help: The Domestic Arts of International Humanitarianism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015.

Mathies, Ronald J.R. “Service as (Trans)formation : MCC As Educational Institution.” In Unity amidst Diversity: Mennonite Central Committee at 75, 69-81. Akron, PA: MCC, 1996.

Schlabach, Gerald. To Bless All Peoples: Serving with Abraham and Jesus. Scottdale, PA: 1991.

Service (Spring 2018)


[Individual articles from the Spring 2018 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

The concept of service—specifically, of Christian service—has been central to MCC’s identity over the course of its nearly century-long history. Yet service is more than a concept: it takes embodied form. Theology, identity and action all come together in the praxis of Christian service. When embodied service crosses international, socio-economic and cultural boundaries, questions and complications emerge. Legacies of colonialism, racism and unequal power and wealth distribution shape the identities of people engaged in service and the communities in which service takes place. The experience of service is as much shaped by the individuals participating in a term of service as it is formed through the structure and ethos of the organization and program through which they serve.

In Black Faces, White Spaces, African-American academic Carolyn Finney contends that one’s experience of a place is intertwined with that location’s socio-economic and cultural histories. One’s embodied experience of service will thus in turn be shaped by the histories of the place where one serves. How can Christian service programs, such as those offered by MCC, best recognize and honor these diverse histories and factor those histories into how service programs are structured?

A recent experience underscored the importance of such questions for me. I serve as the Canadian coordinator of the International Volunteer Exchange Program (IVEP), a program in which young adults from the global South come to Canada and the U.S. for eleven months of service. Recently, as I drove a group of IVEP participants across Canada on the way to their mid-year conference, I shouted out, “We’re crossing the border from Manitoba to Saskatchewan!” “Ah yes,” replied an IVEPer from Zimbabwe, who was serving at an Indigenous centre in Winnipeg, “we are crossing from Treaty 2 territory into Treaty 4 territory.” This young woman from Zimbabwe had lived in the country of my birth for less than six months, yet spoke far more profoundly about the reality of the land we were driving across than I had. I was humbled. This experience reminded me that again and again I need to relearn the history of the place I inhabit. Sometimes it takes outside eyes to see this. Everything I have ever experienced is through the body of a white, straight, educated Canadian of middle-class background, with ready access to a passport and family support. I need other perspectives to see more fully.

Service is more than a concept: it takes embodied form. Theology, identity and action all come together in the praxis of Christian service. When embodied service crosses international, socioeconomic and cultural boundaries, questions and complications emerge

Preparing people for cross-cultural service and exchange means addressing different cultural assumptions about our embodied selves. For IVEP, that means preparing young adults from 28 different countries for a year of negotiating cultural assumptions in Canada and the United States while in service. A recent review by MCC in Zimbabwe of Zimbabwean host families’ experiences in receiving and hosting young adults from
around the world for one-year service assignments helped me initiate conversations with IVEP orientees about the challenges to negotiate in life in cross-cultural service. The review found that Zimbabwean hosts reported that the young adults from Canada and the U.S. living with them sometimes did not bathe or dress properly, while engaging in a variety of other behaviors that seemed out of place or even inappropriate to the
Zimbabwean hosts. These host families wondered how best to address these situations. This report changed the way I was able to discuss crosscultural living with IVEP participants who were about to meet their own U.S and Canadian host families. After asking IVEP participants to read the report, we asked them what challenges Canadian and U.S. hosts might face in hosting them. Suddenly, orientees recognized service as multi-directional, not just from the global North to the global South, as an opportunity for cross-cultural learning from one another across multiple lines of difference.

This issue of Intersections explores shifting understandings of service across MCC’s history and various dimensions of how Christian service involves our embodied selves and of how factors such as gender and nationality shape experiences of service. It also includes a summary of key findings of a study that examined the impact of MCC’s eleven-month service programs for young adults. Together, these articles reveal some of
the complexities, challenges and opportunities involved in serving in the name of Christ.

Kathryn Deckert is the Canada coordinator for MCC’s International Volunteer Exchange Program (IVEP).

Learn more

Finney, Carolyn. Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors. Raleigh, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2014.

Reflecting on the blanket exercise


[Individual articles from the Winter 2018 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

The KAIROS Blanket Exercise (KBE) is a tool developed in 1997 by KAIROS: Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives in which participants learn about European colonization of Turtle Island (North America), the accompanying dispossession of Indigenous peoples (reflected by the steady removal of blankets upon which participants stand) and Indigenous resistance and efforts to reclaim land and rights. Faith-based and secular groups across Canada and the U.S. have used the exercise, sometimes adapting it to reflect specific geographies and communities. Here, two KAIROS and two MCC staff members reflect on lessons learned from the blanket exercise.

The KAIROS Blanket Exercise was created two decades ago in response to Canada’s Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP), but is only recently being widely used. What changed to spur this interest?

Miriam Sainnawap (MCC): What sparked the change was the need to connect Canadians to the grim side of Canada’s history regarding its relationship with Indigenous peoples, which has recently emerged into public consciousness thanks to growing social movements and as a way of responding to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Calls to Action.

Ed Bianchi (KAIROS): The TRC Calls to Action were released during a time of heightened awareness of Indigenous peoples and rights, the result of decades of activism by Indigenous peoples and their allies, including churches. Public response to the RCAP report in 1997 was very similar to the response to the TRC’s Calls to Action. After only a year or two, the momentum generated by RCAP dissipated. Now, two years after the release of the TRC Calls to Action, and after 22 additional years of education and advocacy, momentum remains strong. What has changed is that ongoing efforts to educate have created a receptiveness to the challenges presented by the TRC.

Sara Anderson (KAIROS): The TRC brought the challenges of reconciliation to the forefront of the Canadian public consciousness. This movement towards learning and unlearning the truth of the history of this land has been augmented by the resurgence and amplification of Indigenous voices and views through movements such as Idle No More.

Erica Littlewolf (MCC): I think the interest has increased because of the TRC process. People were curious about boarding schools and began asking questions. The questions led to wanting to learn the underlying issues of how boarding schools came to be. Because of the interest in Canada, the exercise was translated into a U.S. context and now has gained traction in ecumenical circles.

What roles have Indigenous and settler peoples played in developing and implementing the blanket exercise? How does this compare to the historical roles of these peoples?

Sainnawap: For Indigenous peoples, the challenge is finding a space to participate in the spirit of the promises, rights and ways of life gifted to us. Settlers need to stop taking up space for us and need to start listening. The exercise does play a role in retelling the stories of our remembered past, reaffirming the dignity and agency of Indigenous peoples and recognizing the active role of Indigenous peoples in reclaiming and restoring our communities and cultures and resisting ongoing injustices. While it is important for people to know our history, there is an underlying power dynamic around the issue of who owns the story and who gets to tell the story on behalf of Indigenous peoples.

Bianchi: From the beginning, the blanket exercise has involved Indigenous peoples and settlers. It was created with input from Indigenous peoples, including the education department of the Assembly of First Nations. Since then, the script has evolved in response to feedback from Elders and Indigenous and non-Indigenous facilitators and participants. In the last few years, the number of Indigenous facilitators, including Indigenous youth facilitators, has increased. Increased Indigenous leadership has resulted in respecting Indigenous protocols and ensuring that health supports are in place to respond to trauma the exercise might generate.

Littlewolf: Prior to this exercise, it seemed Indigenous peoples were responsible to educate settlers about history. Now settler people have taken the lead in educating other settlers. This approach has greatly reduced the stress on Indigenous peoples to educate settlers and has allowed Indigenous peoples to work within our own communities.

What role does education play in overcoming the Doctrine of Discovery? Is the role of education different for Indigenous and settler peoples?

Sainnawap: Canadians resist confronting Canada’s racist history and policies. That past still lives in the present day. In my opinion, the blanket exercise is not able to challenge the Doctrine of Discovery in practicality. It allows one to remain a passive learner, not an active doer dismantling the oppressive systems and confronting the racist attitudes held deeply in the national psyche.

Bianchi: RCAP said we cannot successfully address the current challenges in the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada without knowing how those challenges arose. This includes the Doctrine of Discovery and how it continues to impact the beliefs, attitudes and behaviors reflected in our governments, legal structures, education systems, churches and society in general. Education addresses the ignorance at the root of the discrimination and racism that influences so much of what happens in our society and in the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.

Anderson: I heard an Elder say there is a reason truth comes before reconciliation. If settlers are not aware of how the practices, policies and normative framework of the Doctrine of Discovery are still being implemented or how they themselves directly benefit from this Doctrine, then overturning this structure will be very difficult.

Littlewolf: Through education we begin to see the roots of the Doctrine of Discovery and how embedded in structures it has become. As an Indigenous person, education opened my eyes to a systemic world that I was taking on as my personal shortcomings. Through learning, I was able to separate what was mine to deal with from things that are out of my control and where I can advocate. Within MCC, we have developed a Doctrine of Discovery Toolkit for use by MCC workers in facilitating different types of workshops and learning events for both settler and Indigenous communities about the DoD and its destructive legacies. The educational task is a vital first step towards action to overcome the Doctrine of Discovery.

What impact does the blanket exercise have on participants? What do we know about how their attitudes or behaviors have changed as a result of participating in the exercise?

Sainnawap: Often participants experience strong emotional reactions such as guilt and shame. This is the beginning of the journey for them to question and analyze within, coming to understand the role of the privileged and confronting their prejudices. It is a choice how they want to change.

Bianchi: A Montreal police officer said the KBE helped him do his job better by helping him understand why so many Indigenous people are homeless and on the streets. After the KBE, he encountered an Indigenous person on the street and knew enough to ask, “Where are you from?” rather than “What’s wrong with you?” The heightened awareness that came from the KBE helped him take a more positive approach and reduced the risk level of the situation. Indigenous peoples undergo a similar transformation, especially those not aware of the history taught through the KBE. Following a KBE involving mostly young Indigenous men, one participant said, “This exercise helped me understand that it’s all about the land. It’s not about me.”

Anderson: The talking circle which follows every blanket exercise is the most powerful part of the whole experience. Some express anger that they didn’t learn about this before, or sadness at the injustice, while others feel guilt or a sense of shame. We always encourage people to move past those feelings of guilt and shame, because they are not productive, and often will not lead to concrete actions.

Littlewolf: A lot of settlers feel sad and guilty and are quick to want change, whereas Indigenous people have been sitting with it for lifetimes and look toward holistic healing. I have hope that people will change as a result, but I remove myself from controlling this aspect as much as I can. As an Indigenous person, my job is to bring the perspective in a good way and allow for the spirit to move as it will. I feel good knowing that people can no longer claim ignorance and leave it all as a mystery.

Looking back over the 20-year history of this exercise, what key lessons have been learned?  What challenges lie ahead?

Sainnawap: The challenge for Indigenous peoples is continuing to receive education and to educate our own people. You know not many Indigenous peoples know our histories, cultures and knowledges. This is one of the gaps in our communities.  I think this is missing in our conversation: that Kairos needs to consider how they support Indigenous peoples and their communities.

Bianchi: Each time the blanket exercise is delivered, we are reminded of the importance of education and dialogue. RCAP called for a new relationship. The TRC called for reconciliation. Both identified education as key, and both saw education as an active, ongoing, experiential, participatory process that involves building cross-cultural connections. Justice Senator Murray Sinclair said that “it is in our daily conversations and interactions that our success as a nation in forging a better place will ultimately be measured.” The KBE helps initiate and inform these conversations. The challenge will be in maintaining the momentum while protecting the integrity of the exercise and ensuring the safety of the participants. Over the past two decades, we have learned that the KBE has the power to transform, as well as the power to traumatize. We have learned that with this power comes a responsibility to ensure that the KBE continues to contribute to reconciliation through education, and in a way that does no harm.

Anderson: One of the main challenges that I see ahead is responding to the question of “What can I do next?” in a more intentional way. This might mean developing another activity to follow the KAIROS Blanket Exercise, or it might be an invitation to direct action and a call for further learning.

Littlewolf: One of the key lessons that I have learned is the way in which Indigenous people are all different but in order to get across the systemic nature of the issues we have to lump them in as one group. I think the interesting part is to take it back apart and to realize that each policy affected people differently. That in fact there are similarities and at the same time there are differences. Holding both of these at the same time is often difficult.

I think the biggest challenge is keeping the momentum going. Where do we go next? Can we go there? And with whom do we go?

Miriam Sainnawap is the National Indigenous Neighbours Program Co-Coordinator for MCC Canada. Ed Bianchi is KAIROS’ Programs Manager. Sara Anderson is KAIROS’ Blanket Exercise Regional Coordinator–Central. Erica Littlewolf works with the Indigenous Visioning Circle of MCC Central States.

Reflections from Standing Rock


[Individual articles from the Winter 2018 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

I recently led college students in an exercise comparing two fascinating maps (see Learn More sidebar for links). The first, a map of the route of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) near the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota, was created by contributors to the Decolonial Atlas website. The place names are written in the Lakota language, with the four directions represented by the medicine wheel. South is at the top and north at the bottom, the reverse of what I’m used to seeing, yet a common Lakota custom. The second is a map of the DAPL route through North Dakota created by Energy Transfer Partners, the parent company of the pipeline already carrying crude oil from the Bakken shale in North Dakota to Illinois refineries. North is at the top. County and state boundaries are clearly marked. The DAPL path and terminal locations are prominent, with other place names barely legible. A comparison of these two maps is a compelling study in orientation and disorientation, what is being communicated and to whom and what map-makers view as important and unimportant.

This history on Lakota land, like other histories around the world, unveils the colonizing perspective: land and water are resources to be exploited and extracted

In September of 2016, I went to the Standing Rock encampments formed in nonviolent resistance to DAPL as part of a delegation of settler Mennonites from the Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery Coalition. Upon arrival, my map of the world was turned upside down (or perhaps right-side up). I was no longer in white-dominant space. There were different social protocols to follow as well as different understandings of the physical-spiritual world. Kitchen volunteers served food first to elders as a sign of respect, then to those of us waiting in line. The fire at the center of camp was not for chit-chatting around like a bonfire—it was a sacred prayer fire for offering tobacco.

Prayer was physical and a source of power, embodied in ceremony, daily prayer walks to the site of DAPL construction and even actions like chaining oneself to construction equipment. “They’re afraid of our prayers,” one woman told me matter-of-factly, explaining why the state police and DAPL private security forces were not disrupting the camp that week. In disarming contrast with the dominant culture where almost nothing is free, the whole camp operated by a gift economy. No money was exchanged and everything was shared, from food to supplies. When we arrived into camp at nightfall, we found that a woman had already set up a tent for us. She welcomed us, saying, “I knew people would come tonight who needed a place to stay.” We were camped on the frontlines of destruction, and yet were in decolonizing territory, a place undergoing deep healing from centuries of capitalism and colonization.

The most striking difference between decolonizing territory and the world to which I was accustomed was how people talked about water. Michael Sharpfish, a 23-year old descendant of Sitting Bull, told how he came to protect the Missouri River because water is sacred. He knows how precious water is because he grew up on a reservation without running water. Michael repeated the simple phrase that had become the rallying cry at Standing Rock, “Water is life: Mni Wiconi!” “We are the river, and the river is us,” Donna Brave Bull Allard wrote about why she founded the Sacred Stone Camp that prayed the other Standing Rock camps into existence and resistance. “Why would we hurt our sister, or our very selves, by channeling toxic oil underneath the river? We cannot be separated from water; she is sacred and very much alive, along with the rest of the earth.”

At Sacred Stone camp, I realized that the destructive disconnect between current colonizing and Indigenous perceptions of the world is nothing new to the Lakota people. They remember the long history of conquest as if it happened yesterday, just as they still remember the names their ancestors gave to the land and sacred sites. The name for Sacred Stone camp comes from the Lakota name for the river, Íŋyaŋwakağapi Wakpá, “Stone-Make-For-Themselves River,” so named because of the round stones that once formed at the confluence with the Missouri River before the Missouri was dammed. The people called these stones Iŋyaŋ Wakháŋagapi Othí, “Sacred Stones,” using them in prayer and ceremony and viewing them as enspirited, part of all our relations, like the river, plants and animals.

When European explorers and colonizers first came to the region, they also saw the rivers’ spherical stones shaped by the churning waters where they met the Missouri River. But instead of sacred stones, what did they see? Stones shaped like cannonballs. They saw stones akin to ammunition for war, so they re-named Íŋyaŋwakağapi Wakpá the Cannonball River. Sacred stones or cannonballs?

Perspective shapes practice, from the re-naming of the Cannonball River to the 1874 expedition that led to a gold rush and the U.S. government’s illegal seizure of the Black Hills (an area long held as sacred by the Lakota people) to the more recent damming of the Missouri River by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1950s. The hydropower dam flooded ancestral burial grounds and medicinal plant harvesting areas. The people say many elders died of heartbreak when they saw the flooded lands. This history on Lakota land unveils the colonizing perspective in which land and water are resources to be exploited and extracted. From an Indigenous perspective, land and water are living relatives to be respected and protected, sacred gifts of Creator inseparable from our very lives. Two vastly different perceptions, two very different maps of the world.

This history of difference in perception dates back to the Doctrine of Discovery, if not before, as globalized imperialism was birthed in Europe under the blessing of Constantinian Christianity. The Doctrine of Discovery was and is a profound invalidation of Indigenous cosmologies and ways of relating to the other-than-human world developed over centuries of learning how to live in life-sustaining balance. The United States, having assumed ownership of Indigenous lands through the “right of discovery,” imposed and continues to force its abstract maps and perceptions of the world upon already-named and intimately known homelands. And now profit-driven corporations like those building DAPL are given free reign to do the same, with perilous consequences. As climate change, resource depletion and the loss of biological and cultural diversity around the world testify, the colonized maps cemented upon the world are suffocating all life. Yet even cement can be cracked.

Surely one step toward dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery will be dismantling our internalized and externalized destructive maps by embracing a more life-giving way of seeing the world. For those of us who are not Indigenous, I pose the questions that my time at Standing Rock offered me: Will we wake up and perceive all Earth as sacred and alive? Will we allow ourselves to be disoriented and reoriented by Indigenous ways of seeing and being? Will we join Indigenous people, water and Earth herself in cracking the concrete of industrial civilization to make way for healing, decolonizing territories?

Katerina Friesen lives in traditional Yokut land in Fresno, California. She edited the Study Guide for the Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery Coalition, available for order or download at

Learn more

Brave Bull Allard, LaDonna. “Why the Founder of Standing Rock Sioux Camp Can’t Forget the Whitestone Massacre.” Yes! Magazine. Available at

The Decolonial Atlas—Dakota Access Pipeline Indigenous Protest Map. Available at

Energy Transfer Partners’ Map of Dakota Access Pipeline route from North American Shale Magazine. Available at:

Cuidado y educación de la primera infancia liderados por la comunidad

[Articulos Individuales de la edicion de Intersecciones de Verano del 2019 se publican en este blog cada semana. La edicion completa puede ser encontrada en MCC’s website.]

Samuel, de cuatro años, inicialmente tuvo problemas para ingresar al preescolar. Su madre, Christina, una refugiada en El Cairo, Egipto, había sido despojada de su red de apoyo familiar cuando huyó de Sudán y, por lo tanto, se vio obligada a dejarlo en casa mientras trabajaba largas horas para mantener a la familia. Así, Samuel pasó sus primeros años en gran parte aislado de la interacción humana, y temía a la gente, la luz y las bulliciosas calles. A pesar de sus largas horas de trabajo, Christina no podía pagar el cuidado de Samuel—los centros preescolares en el área eran demasiado caros y los pocos preescolares gratuitos estaban llenos. La programación holística y sostenible dirigida por la comunidad es esencial para que las niñas y niños refugiados como Samuel tengan acceso a los beneficios de la atención de calidad de la primera infancia, que incluye efectos cognitivos, psicosociales y de salud que se extienden por toda la vida.

Las madres y padres refugiados en Egipto deben hacer frente a la interrupción de la vida familiar, pobreza extrema, trauma, desempleo o empleo inseguro y falta de apoyo social. Muchas de estas personas refugiadas, por lo tanto, tienen dificultades para brindarles a sus hijas e hijos el apoyo que necesitan para el desarrollo de la primera infancia. Algunos barrios en los que viven las personas refugiadas han creado iniciativas accesibles dirigidas por organizaciones basadas en la comunidad, en la que miembros de la comunidad local fungen como docentes, y en la que las madres y padres refugiados se sienten cómodos dejando a sus hijas e hijos. Estos centros preescolares dentro de una comunidad tienen muchos beneficios: el personal preescolar está familiarizado con las madres y padres, pueden realizar visitas a los hogares y las madres y padres no tienen que viajar largas distancias para dejar y recoger a sus hijas e hijos. Sin embargo, el desafío continuo de mantener suficientes recursos, espacio y maestros(as) capacitados(as), a menudo, pone a estos centros preescolares comunitarios en riesgo de cierre.

St. Andrew’s Refugee Services (StARS), una organización liderada y gobernada por personas refugiadas en El Cairo que es asociada del CCM, estaba bien posicionada para ayudar a las comunidades a enfrentar estos desafíos. StARS tenía relaciones bien establecidas en los vecindarios más vulnerables, experiencia y conocimiento de las mejores prácticas al administrar dos escuelas preescolares propias y una gran dedicación al trabajo dirigido por las personas refugiadas, lo que significaba que la pertenencia a la comunidad era una parte fundamental del proyecto. A partir de estos antecedentes, StARS desarrolló un proyecto innovador de bienestar de la primera infancia, basado en los tres principios identificados anteriormente: comunidad en el centro de la programación; cuidado holístico; y crecimiento sostenible.

Programación liderada por la comunidad: En octubre de 2017, el equipo de desarrollo de la primera infancia de StARS trabajó con el programa de promoción comunitaria de StARS, que ya había realizado un extenso mapeo de la comunidad, para identificar a las comunidades con más probabilidades de beneficiarse de su proyecto de bienestar de la primera infancia. StARS luego realizó grupos de enfoque con miembros de la comunidad para comprender las estructuras comunitarias existentes para el cuidado de la primera infancia y obtener sugerencias sobre lo que se podría hacer para fortalecerlos. Una preocupación común era cómo aumentar los recursos financieros, ya que las escuelas no podían sostenerse a sí mismas a través de las contribuciones de la comunidad o las cuotas escolares sin hacer que los centros preescolares fueran inaccesibles para las comunidades a las que procuraban prestar servicios.

Sobre la base de estas discusiones de grupos focales, StARS colaboró con las organizaciones comunitarias en cada vecindario para elegir un equipo de administración y diseñar un modelo de respuesta. Los(as) cuidadores(as) votaron sobre las prioridades que deben abordarse y se desarrolló un paquete de capacitación personalizado. Por ejemplo, a diferencia de la mayoría de los centros preescolares, algunos preescolares necesitaban cuidar a bebés muy pequeños y, por lo tanto, requerían espacio y capacitación adecuados.

Más adelante en el proyecto, los centros preescolares también recibieron un pequeño presupuesto para invertir cuando lo consideraron oportuno. El compromiso de StARS con la programación liderada por la comunidad les permitió brindar asesoramiento relevante y especializado a las maestras y maestros. Así, por ejemplo, cuando un estudiante dibujó una pistola durante la clase, las maestras y maestros de StARS, que son refugiados, pudieron proporcionar una capacitación intensiva de dos semanas para maestras, maestros y cuidadores(as) en la comunidad sobre cómo ayudar a las niñas y niños a desarrollar conductas positivas y hacerle frente al trauma. Las maestras y maestros de la comunidad informaron más tarde que los pequeños estudiantes ya no exhibían agresión y que el ambiente de la clase había mejorado. En conjunto, este enfoque liderado por la comunidad significa que los planes se adaptan a las particularidades de las comunidades, lo que genera confianza en la comunidad y pertenencia del proyecto mientras que, a la vez, reduce los costos.

Cuidado holístico: El enfoque liderado por la comunidad de StARS proporciona a aquellas personas que cuidan a niños y niñas en edad preescolar una comprensión más amplia de las razones subyacentes de la negligencia en el desarrollo infantil. Además de capacitar a las maestras y maestros sobre las mejores prácticas, como la forma de dar la bienvenida a los alumnos y alumnas y crear actividades de juego, el personal de bienestar de la primera infancia participa en reuniones semanales con las personas que cuidan niñas y niños. Esto ha creado vías de remisión a otros departamentos dentro de StARS (facilitando, por ejemplo, el acceso a consejería, asesoramiento legal, educación y micro subvenciones médicas) para las madres, padres y estudiantes. Cuando StARS notó que las madres y padres de niñas y niños con discapacidades necesitaban asistencia, establecieron un grupo de apoyo entre pares y crearon canales para remitirles a un proveedor de subvenciones educativas para niñas y niños con necesidades especiales. Con este enfoque holístico, StARS hace lo que puede para eliminar las muchas barreras al desarrollo de la niñez.

Crecimiento sostenible: No es suficiente capacitar a maestras y maestros de la comunidad y proporcionarles recursos para ofrecer educación de la primera infancia para la niñez refugiada. Si estas escuelas se cerraran debido a la falta de recursos o, para poder mantener sus operaciones deberían aumentar las cuotas escolares, y por lo tanto, excluir a las mismas familias a las que el proyecto debía ayudar, las metas fundamentales de las escuelas no se alcanzarían. StARS, por lo tanto, entró en el proyecto con una estrategia sostenible. A corto plazo, trabajar con los equipos de administración del preescolar para establecer fuentes de ingresos alternativas, como proporcionar clases de idiomas para personas adultas en el centro durante las horas en que el preescolar está cerrado. A largo plazo, conectar el equipo de gestión preescolar con otros posibles financiadores.

Al capacitar a los miembros de la comunidad como maestras y maestros y al equipar a las madres y padres con habilidades de crianza positivas, el proyecto espera aumentar el reconocimiento del bienestar de la primera infancia como un aspecto esencial de la vida familiar, y así aumentar las oportunidades para la niñez más allá de los parámetros del proyecto. En última instancia, StARS busca tener un amplio impacto en la vida de la comunidad, incluyendo una mejor comunicación entre los miembros de la familia y el fortalecimiento de las relaciones con la comunidad. La programación diaria y sostenible del cuidado infantil para la niñez refugiada permite que las familias de personas refugiadas, especialmente las familias monoparentales, como la de Christina, participen en actividades asalariadas y sepan que sus niñas y niños reciben cuidados en espacios seguros, centrados en el desarrollo y basados en la comunidad.

Daniel Davies es Oficial de Política e Incidencia para los Servicios para Refugiados de St. Andrew (StARS) en El Cairo, Egipto. Otros miembros del personal que dirigen el Proyecto de Apoyo al Bienestar de la Primera Infancia también contribuyeron a este artículo.

Aprende Más

Manning-Morton, Julia. “Well-Being in the Early Years.” Teach Early Years website. Available at

National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. “The Science of Neglect: The Persistent Absence of Responsive Care Disrupts the Developing Brain.” Working Paper No. 12. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Center on the Developing Child, 2012. Available at

St. Andrew’s Refugee Services website.

Comités de gestión escolar y mejora escolar

[Articulos Individuales de la edicion de Intersecciones de Verano del 2019 se publican en este blog cada semana. La edicion completa puede ser encontrada en MCC’s website.]

¡La educación es un derecho humano! El Comité de Gestión Escolar (CGE) es la fuerza impulsora responsable de garantizar este derecho a todos los niños y niñas en su comunidad. Un CGE tiene la responsabilidad de administrar su escuela con una mentalidad empresarial y de determinar la manera más efectiva de utilizar recursos limitados para brindar servicios de educación de calidad en la comunidad que representa el CGE.

Los movimientos que buscan mejorar y responsabilizar a las escuelas han desafiado a las mismas y a sus distritos a desarrollar planes sobre cómo producirán mejores resultados. El gobierno de Zimbabue, buscando mantener su reputación dentro de África por su educación de alta calidad y conservar la alta tasa de alfabetización del país, ha ideado muchas innovaciones para mejorar la calidad de la educación en todas las instituciones de enseñanza / aprendizaje del país. Una de esas innovaciones fue introducir la gobernanza descentralizada de las escuelas, para dar a las comunidades locales más participación en la gestión y administración de las escuelas a través de la formación de Comités de Gestión Escolar.

Los CGE suelen estar compuestos por madres, padres, docentes y directores(as). Sin embargo, el CCM de Zimbabue, en consulta con los administradores escolares y CGE, se ha dado cuenta de que los CGE son aún más fuertes si también incluyen líderes locales (por ejemplo, jefes, líderes tradicionales de las aldeas, miembros del consejo local, líderes de la comunidad empresarial) y estudiantes.

Los CGE tienen una variedad de roles, pero uno de los más importantes es su rol en la administración del uso de recursos financieros y otros recursos locales para el mejoramiento de la escuela. Los comités administran los fondos de las cuotas pagadas por los padres/madres y las pequeñas subvenciones del gobierno cuando están disponibles. Durante las reuniones periódicas con las madres, padres y otras partes interesadas (incluyendo los funcionarios del Ministerio de Educación y el liderazgo local, como los jefes y líderes de las aldeas), la visión de la comunidad se hace pública para que las autoridades escolares la implementen junto con el CGE. Los planes presupuestarios se presentan durante las reuniones y luego las decisiones de gasto se toman en última instancia mediante los votos del comité.

Algunas veces, organizaciones no gubernamentales se asocian con escuelas para pagar las cuotas escolares de estudiantes con necesidad. Cuando esto sucede, los CGE seleccionan a los(as) estudiantes que califican para recibir asistencia y administran el uso de los fondos pagados por las organizaciones asociadas.

Los informes financieros se comparten y se presentan a los padres/madres y otras partes interesadas locales durante las reuniones regulares que generalmente se llevan a cabo tres veces al año para que todas las personas participen en el monitoreo de cómo se gastan los fondos acumulados. El nivel de retroalimentación y rendimiento de cuentas es claro y transparente. En los casos en que los fondos no se han utilizado según lo planeado, los padres/madres como partes interesadas clave tienen el derecho de destituir a los miembros elegidos si encuentran que las razones para no usar los fondos según lo planificado no son satisfactorias.

Un desafío en las zonas rurales de Zimbabue es que la mayoría de los padres/madres tienen dificultad de pagar las cuotas escolares requeridas, por lo tanto, los CGE también tienen dificultades con cumplir su mandato debido a restricciones financieras. Donde hay restricciones financieras, generalmente también es difícil movilizar a las comunidades para el trabajo no calificado.

Las partes interesadas clave, como los jefes, líderes de aldea y concejales de barrio, son importantes para superar estos desafíos. Cuando estos líderes encabezan la implementación, esto genera confianza en las comunidades y, por lo tanto, promueve la respuesta, percepciones y participación positivas de la comunidad. Estos líderes son los puntos de acceso para otros miembros de la comunidad a la escuela y, por lo tanto, pueden influir y movilizar a la comunidad para proporcionar recursos y participar activamente en la escuela. El liderazgo local es muy influyente en el contexto de Zimbabue, de modo que los líderes locales tienen una gran autoridad para fomentar respuestas positivas.

Los CGE efectivos también buscan movilizar a jóvenes para que contribuyan a la escuela. Los jóvenes que no están trabajando pueden ser contratados para proporcionar mano de obra no calificada que tanto se necesita, algo que a su vez les da a los jóvenes un sentido de pertenencia en la escuela, fomentando el sentimiento de que los miembros de la comunidad son micro donantes de la escuela en lugar de esperar financiamiento de otro lugar.

Otro desafío es la necesidad de fortalecer las capacidades de los CGE. El CCM Zimbabue orienta a los CGE a través de los procesos de elaboración de informes y presupuestos para priorizar y administrar los recursos limitados. Para ayudar aún más a los comités a ganar confianza en la administración de fondos, el CCM Zimbabue proporciona aportes financieros a las escuelas y los CGE son responsables de cómo se utilizan estos aportes. Planifican, presupuestan y compran, y el personal del CCM juega un papel de asesor.

En el distrito de Binga, las comunidades han emprendido proyectos masivos, como la construcción de bloques de aulas a través de la participación de la comunidad movilizada, en la cual los miembros de la comunidad donan material disponible a nivel local, como piedra y arena. A través de los esfuerzos de los CGE, también se han producido cambios notables en los entornos de aprendizaje de las escuelas. La planificación ha llevado al uso eficiente de fondos para comprar materiales de aprendizaje y enseñanza. Además, también ha habido un aumento en el número de estudiantes que aprobaron sus exámenes nacionales después de estas mejoras.

Se ha observado a lo largo del tiempo que si las comunidades están habilitadas y dejan de verse a sí mismas como subordinadas, entonces comienzan a ver sus entornos de manera diferente, ganando una nueva confianza en su capacidad para cambiar su status quo. Por ejemplo, muchas comunidades en las zonas rurales de Zimbabue tienen muchos recursos a su alrededor que pueden usar para su provecho, pero debido a la falta de previsión, terminan esperando que una persona o entidad externa vengan en su ayuda. Sin embargo, el establecimiento de los CGE en Zimbabue ha fomentado el desarrollo en las escuelas a través de su esfuerzo coordinado para movilizar a las comunidades hacia objetivos establecidos. Los CGE han creado transparencia y, a su vez, la confianza de la comunidad también ha aumentado, creando un ambiente educativo fértil para las niñas y niños de esa comunidad.

Tinodashe Gumbo es oficial de programa de educación del CCM Zimbabue .

Comités de supervisión ayudan a responsabilizar a las escuelas

[Articulos Individuales de la edicion de Intersecciones de Verano del 2019 se publican en este blog cada semana. La edicion completa puede ser encontrada en MCC’s website.]

En Honduras, como en muchos otros países del mundo, el derecho a una educación de calidad está protegido por la constitución. En la práctica, sin embargo, la mayoría de las niñas y niños no alcanzan niveles satisfactorios de aprendizaje en el sistema educativo. El Informe de Rendimiento Académico Nacional de 2017 mostró que, en los grados 1 a 9, el 60% del estudiantado obtuvo una calificación de “necesita mejorar” o “insatisfactorio” en las materias principales de matemáticas y español. ¿Es esto solo el fracaso del sistema educativo estatal hondureño? ¿O hay otros actores que pueden contribuir a garantizar una educación de calidad para la niñez y adolescencia?

En nuestra experiencia, la participación comunitaria en “Comités de Veedores” ha ayudado a mejorar la calidad de la educación. [Veeduría También puede traducirse como monitoreo, observación, inspección o supervisión]. Estos comités, formados por miembros de la comunidad, vigilan sus escuelas locales y abogan por una mejor  calidad educativa al monitorear el desempeño de los(as) docentes y el nivel de aprendizaje del estudiantado. Un resultado concreto ha sido un aumento notable en el número de días en que las escuelas están abiertas, con los estudiantes diciendo: “¡Ahora no perdemos tiempo de clase!”. Por ejemplo, un comité de supervisión identificó un centro educativo que, durante un período de 40 días, suspendió las clases en 20 de estos por diferentes motivos. Después de implementar el proceso de supervisión, la misma escuela impartió con éxito el 99% de los días de clase requeridos por la ley el año siguiente.

Esta iniciativa surgió de una serie de reuniones organizadas por Transformemos Honduras. Estas reuniones, llamadas tarde de café con sabor a esperanza, reunieron a varios líderes y lideresas comunitarios en torno a un objetivo común, a saber, que sus comunidades tendrían centros educativos que brindan educación de alta calidad. Estos líderes y lideresas llevaron a cabo un diagnóstico comunitario que examinó la realidad que enfrentan cada una de las escuelas, incluyendo sus fortalezas y debilidades específicas, y el proceso llevó a una decisión de monitorear sistemáticamente las actividades de las escuelas y asegurar que los servicios que proporcionaron cumplieran con los estándares de calidad más altos.

Esta importante decisión comunitaria impulsó la implementación de procesos de vigilancia de la comunidad en todo el sector educativo, lo que dio lugar a reuniones con las autoridades locales y con las más altas autoridades educativas del país. Desarrollaron capacitación para miembros de la comunidad local sobre supervisión social y sobre las regulaciones legales relacionadas con los derechos y deberes de la ciudadanía. Luego coordinaron con las autoridades educativas en diferentes niveles, incluyendo directores y directoras de escuelas, para proceder con la implementación de los comités de supervisión escolar. El involucrar a estas personas que toman las decisiones fue fundamental para explicar que el proceso de supervisión está pensado como una oportunidad para mejorar la calidad de la escuela y, en última instancia, para beneficiar a la niñez.

Las reuniones del comité de supervisión se convirtieron en espacios de aprendizaje y empoderamiento ciudadano, ya que al principio los miembros tenían muchos temores de acercarse a los(as) docentes. Históricamente, ha habido una relación vertical entre docentes y miembros de la comunidad. En algunos casos, los(as) mismos(as) docentes habían enseñado a estos miembros del comité cuando eran menores, por lo que visitarles ahora como personas adultas en una función de supervisión se convirtió en un gran desafío. El constante apoyo técnico que el proyecto proporcionó a los comités en las primeras etapas de su implementación fue un elemento crítico para el logro de los resultados positivos que se disfrutan hoy.

Los comités de supervisión escolar han tenido éxito al presionar y monitorear el progreso escolar en áreas clave. Así, por ejemplo, los comités de supervisión han llevado a cabo ejercicios de monitoreo diarios que registran cuando las escuelas están abiertas, monitoreando el compromiso de las escuelas para cumplir los 200 días de escuela requeridos por la ley. Los veedores de los comités se distribuyen a los centros educativos y diariamente escriben en un cuaderno si las clases están en sesión, para verificar el cumplimiento de la ley.

Los veedores también recopilan información para documentar el uso del tiempo de clase en las escuelas, haciendo visitas a las escuelas sin previo aviso a los docentes. Completan un formulario para recopilar información sobre los horarios, la duración de las clases, las actividades que interrumpen las clases, la presencia de docentes, directores(as) y madres o padres en el centro y las buenas prácticas. Los resultados de los datos se utilizan para abogar ante las autoridades para que las mil horas de clase requeridas por año se usen de manera efectiva.

Los comités de supervisión consolidan y analizan la información que recopilan, generando un informe preliminar completo sobre las escuelas en sus comunidades, con hallazgos y recomendaciones para mejorar. Este informe se comparte con los directores o directoras de las escuelas para que lo revisen y validen. Si los directores o directoras de las escuelas tienen alguna observación sobre estos informes, pueden enviarlos al comité con la documentación de respaldo para hacer las correcciones pertinentes. Luego, el informe final revisado se entrega a las autoridades gubernamentales relevantes y se comparte con otras partes interesadas, tales como las madres, padres y docentes.

Se obtiene un compromiso de los directores o directoras para considerar las recomendaciones hechas en los informes y preparar planes de mejora, que incluyen acciones concretas que responden a las recomendaciones y mejoran la calidad del servicio prestado. Los planes de mejora son monitoreados por los comités de supervisión que usan una tabla para registrar qué actividades se llevan a cabo y cuáles no. Esta supervisión ejerce una presión saludable sobre las escuelas para cumplir con los planes.

El desafío de convertir a los comités de supervisión escolar en cuerpos verdaderamente efectivos que fortalezcan la calidad de la escuela y fomenten una mayor responsabilidad por parte de las escuelas para con las comunidades circundantes es constante y excelente. Sin embargo, como Doña Alma, miembro del comité de supervisión, comenta: “Aunque dos de mis nietos han sido asesinados, creo que tengo el deber cívico de luchar para que todos los niños y niñas de mi comunidad tengan un futuro diferente. Incluso si a algunos docentes no les gusta, continuaré con mi trabajo en el comité de supervisión porque no pierdo la esperanza de que la situación en mi país mejore”. Es verdaderamente responsabilidad de todas las personas garantizar la educación de nuestros niños y niñas. Los comités de supervisión escolar son una forma concreta en que las comunidades pueden ejercer esta responsabilidad.

Blanca Munguía trabaja con la Asociación para una Sociedad Más Justa en Honduras, asociada del CCM.

Aprende Más

Sitio web de la Asociación para una Sociedad Más Justa. Disponible en: (Español).