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:

Why the Doctrine of Discovery matters in the journey towards reconciliation


[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.]

Focus on the Doctrine of Discovery? Really? Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church, located on the Haldimand Tract in Kitchener, Ontario, has journeyed for several years in building relationships with our Indigenous neighbours on the nearby Six Nations reservation. We were motivated after hearing searing stories of residential school harms and becoming aware of Indigenous land claims. A Stirling delegation traveled to Ottawa for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) closing events in spring 2015. Another delegation participated in an ecumenical retreat at Six Nations that fall to talk about how we as settler Christians and Indigenous peoples (both Christian and traditional) could live out the TRC Calls to Action on the Haldimand Tract. Arising out of that, we formed our own working group to lead our mid-sized congregation in working on some of the TRC’s 94 Calls to Action—particularly those addressed to churches.

Call to Action #49 asks all religious denominations to “repudiate concepts used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous lands and peoples, such as the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius.” While we agreed the concepts of the Doctrine of Discovery (DoD) were reprehensible, we questioned whether focusing on “outdated” documents should be a priority in our congregation’s reconciliation journey. We concluded that studying and repudiating the DoD as a congregation was a key piece of the journey towards truth and reconciliation. This article describes our journey with the DoD that has created a platform for addressing colonialism in partnership with our Indigenous neighbours.

Decolonizing our hearts, our churches and our country from the ravages of the Doctrine of Discovery is not something we can ever check off a list. It is a generations-long journey of relationship with God, ourselves, the land and our Indigenous neighbours.

Why should we look backwards, learning about the DoD, rather than focus on the future? If the DoD was a priority for the Indigenous voices who wrote the TRC Calls to Action, we realized it needed to be a priority for us. We planned two adult education classes on the DoD in April 2016. At the same time, we considered sponsoring a resolution to the Mennonite Church Canada delegate assembly repudiating the DoD. For several months, our TRC working group focused primarily on the DoD. As we studied, we learned that the DoD forms the basis of much of Canada’s legal system for Indigenous peoples.

Two adult education classes with biblical scholar Derek Suderman allowed the packed room of participants to study the documentary foundation of the DoD: the papal bulls Dum Diversas (1452) and Romanus Pontifex (1454). Issued half a century before Europeans arrived on North America, the papal bulls speak of subjugating the enemies of Christ, namely Saracens (Muslims), giving full and free authority to invade, capture, vanquish and reduce these enemies to perpetual slavery. Used first in Africa, this same logic gave license to settle North America. The land was considered empty (terra nullius) because there were no Christians in it. We also examined how the so-called Royal Psalms (such as Psalm 2:8-9), when taken out of context from the broader biblical narrative of Christ’s love for all people, could be used to justify the theology of conquest enshrined in the DoD.

The active congregational involvement in these classes, as well as strong engagement around Indigenous issues more broadly, empowered our church council to co-sponsor the Mennonite Church Canada delegate assembly resolution. After that resolution passed in July 2016, our focus on the DoD ended, but the insights we gained undergird our ongoing journey. What does it mean for us to continue to decolonize our church and ourselves? We continue to build relationships with our Indigenous neighbours, who help us see this path towards reconciliation.

In November 2016, we engaged the full congregation in a KAIROS Blanket Exercise. The blanket exercise is a participatory teaching tool to examine the historical and contemporary relationship between Canada’s Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in which participants stand on blankets placed on the floor symbolizing Indigenous land, with blankets progressively removed and participants either forced off blankets or confined to ever smaller spaces to represent European colonization and its impact on Indigenous peoples. We incorporated it into our worship service so the maximum number of people could be involved, and continued with time afterward to debrief the powerful experience. The blanket exercise deepened our journey with the DoD. As we walked through Canadian history from an Indigenous perspective, we witnessed the scourge of colonialism as our territory disappeared one blanket at a time, smallpox decimated our people and residential schools took our children.

In January 2017, we continued our journey of decolonizing ourselves and our church with a four-week worship and education series entitled, “Covenants with God, Land, and Our Indigenous Hosts.” We looked at foundational covenants to our faith, such as God’s rainbow covenant with Noah, as well as foundational covenants with our Indigenous brothers and sisters, like the Two Row Wampum and the Covenant Chain of Friendship. Indigenous elder Myeengen Henry shared an Indigenous understanding of land. Studying Leviticus 25:10-13 and Luke 4 further challenged us to see the land as God’s, not ours, and not held in perpetuity. We live and worship on the traditional territory of the Anishinabe, Neutral and Haudenosaunee peoples, land that is “ours” by the logic of the DoD. But what is the future to which these covenants and God’s Spirit call us?

Within our Covenant series, we examined the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) as a new covenant into which we are invited. The TRC Calls to Action identify the Declaration as the “framework for reconciliation.” When Steve Heinrichs, Mennonite Church Canada Indigenous Relations staff person, invited Stirling to participate in the Pilgrimage for Indigenous Rights, the congregation responded enthusiastically. Seventeen of us participated for part or all of this 600-kilometre pilgrimage from Kitchener to Ottawa in support of the Declaration and Bill C-262, a federal private member’s bill calling on Canada to adopt and implement UNDRIP. Many more church members participated in smaller ways, including hosting the send-off service for pilgrimage walkers, following the walkers on social media and praying for them.

Decolonizing our hearts, our churches and our country from the ravages of the DoD is not something we can ever check off a list. It is a generations-long journey of relationship with God, ourselves, the land and our Indigenous neighbours. Looking backwards at the DoD and recognizing our colonial lenses can help us walk forward towards reconciliation.

Sue Klassen and Josie Winterfeld are members of Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church in Kitchener, Ontario.


Learn more

Cober Bauman, Rick. “Unlearning the Doctrine of Discovery.” Available at

Heinrichs, Steve and Woelk, Cheryl. Eds. Yours, Mine, Ours: Unravelling the Doctrine of Discovery. Winnipeg: Mennonite Church Canada, 2016.

Keefer, Tom. “A Short Introduction to the Two Row Wampum.” Available at

Venables, Robert. “Guswenta and the Covenant Chain.” Available at

The Canadian parliament has moved to second reading of Bill C-262, a bill that will ensure Canada’s laws are in harmony with the UNDRIP. Learn more about Bill C-262 and how you can support it at

Do justice and do what you love to do!


[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 have two passions: riding my recumbent tricycle and Indigenous justice. A couple years ago, I decided to combine them to address the painful, destructive legacies of the Doctrine of Discovery.

In 2012, my family decided to sell my grandparents’ farm in Minnesota. My portion as one of the grandchildren was about 13 acres. Prior to white settlement, the land was Dakota homeland. Having learned about the Doctrine of Discovery and the resulting unjust benefits for white settlers and their descendants (like me), I asked my colleagues with the Indigenous Visioning Circle at MCC Central States for help. With their assistance, I decided to “pay back” half the proceeds from the land sale to Indigenous groups working for land justice. The largest reparations amount went to a Dakota non-profit group named Makoce Ikikcupi (Land Recovery).

I decided to ‘pay back’ half the proceeds from the land sale to Indigenous groups working for land justice.

In fall 2013, I pedaled my tricycle 2,000 miles in southern Minnesota to raise awareness about what can and should be done to return Minnesota land to Dakota people. I passed through 40 counties, stopping at the newspaper office in the county seat. I tried to get an article with a picture of me on the trike. I didn’t always succeed, but I ended up getting 29 articles. My goal was 30, so I fell one short.

At present I am living in Minnesota. I have a part time job with Clean Water Action, which allows me a lot of time to do education and fundraising among white Minnesotans for Dakota land return. I’m on my trike whenever possible, of course!

I know most people are not into cycling. But you probably have something you love to do. Is there a way for you to combine your passion with working for Indigenous justice? When I speak in churches on the topic of Indigenous justice, I offer several suggestions for what people can do:

  • Start with your location and your own family history. Find out who lived there before white settlement. Where and how are these people today? If possible and appropriate, make contact and start relationships.
  • There are lots of good books. See the books in the Learn More sidebar for examples of books that rocked me.
  • Tell the truth about what happened and is happening. We white people have ignored these issues for too long.
  • Teach your children, your children’s friends and their teachers. Let’s fight back against what James Loewen has called Lies My Teacher Told Me.
  • Repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery. Let’s release ourselves from a sense of entitlement to stolen land and develop a sense of fairness.
  • Take down symbols of racism. Let’s rename lots of things, like “Columbus Day,” “Redskins” teams, and “Custer” streets and parks.
  • Make reparations. Pay a portion of real estate sales and “back rent” to Indigenous groups working for land justice.

Those are seven practical suggestions. What do you love to do? How can you combine that with work for Indigenous justice?

John Stoesz previously worked with MCC Central States and currently devotes much of his time to Native land return.

Learn more

Waziyatawin (Angela Cavender Wilson). What Does Justice Look Like? The Struggle for Liberation in Dakota Homeland. St. Paul, MN: Living Justice Press, 2008.

Stannard, David. American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Loewen, James W. Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. New York: Touchstone, 2007

Overcoming the Doctrine of Discovery at Opwashemoe Chakatinaw/Stoney Knoll


Responding to the Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that addressed the ongoing legacies of residential schools that separated Indigenous children from their families, MCC in Canada declared that it “repudiates concepts used to justify European superiority over Indigenous peoples, such as the Doctrine of Discovery. Such concepts of superiority, coercion, violence and abuse are opposed to the gospel of Jesus Christ and to the inherent dignity and equality we believe all people have received from God.” This repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery is a fairly straightforward task on paper: it fits with our biblical and theological understandings of justice and reconciliation. However, extricating superiority from our settler souls, expunging discovered lands from our accumulated assets and exorcising the doctrine of dominance from our minds are daunting and elusive. The story of Opwashemoe Chakatinaw/Stoney Knoll, land in Saskatchewan of the Young Chippewayan Band, upon which German Lutherans and Mennonites settled, illustrates how challenging overcoming the Doctrine of Discovery can be.

We as settlers need to return again and again to humble learnings. We need our Indigenous relations to help us to a more interdependent understanding of the land and its resources and of the strengths of community and memory.


Opwashemoe Chakatinaw sits at the centre of 78 square kilometres of land near the present town of Laird, Saskatchewan. This fertile land, on the east banks of the North Saskatchewan River and close to the land of Beardy’s Band (relatives of the Young Chippewayan Band), was chosen by Chief Chippewayan and his people in 1876 when the chief signed Treaty 6 with the Canadian Crown at Fort Carlton, creating the Young Chippewayan Band #107. Shortly after the treaty’s signing, the Young Chippewayan Band moved south to Cypress Hills, following the remaining buffalo and staying away from the turbulent conflict at Batoche, Cutknife Hill, Frog Lake and Battleford.

In 1897, with the Young Chippewayan absent from their land due to conflict and starvation, the Canadian government unilaterally erased Young Chippewayan Band #107 from the reserve map, in turn offering that land to German-speaking Mennonite and Lutheran settlers. The government never consulted the Young Chippewayan Band, nor did it offer compensation. Over the ensuing generations, Mennonite and Lutheran farming families have labored and loved on this land—tending the earth, harvesting its bounty and burying their dead on what they named Stoney Knoll. The Young Chippewayan have lived exiled from their land amid endless bureaucratic plodding, seeking safety with relatives on reserves such Sweet Grass and Ahtahkakoop and in the diaspora. While settler farmers bequeathed their government-issued land titles to the next generations, the Young Chippewayan passed down oral stories of a great wrong done to their ancestors at the hands of the Canadian government.

On August 22, 2006, on the 130th anniversary of the signing of Treaty 6 and at the invitation of Chief Ben Weenie of the Young Chippewayan, Mennonite and Lutheran settlers and Young Chippewayan members gathered to share their stories of and love for Opwashemoe Chakatinaw/Stoney Knoll, to name losses and the devastating impact of government actions and inaction, to share food and gifts and to imagine a future of justice and sufficiency for all their children. Representatives of the three communities signed a Memorandum of Understanding that day entitled, “Declaration of Harmony and Justice,” which named shared understandings and desires:

  1. We are deeply grateful for the goodness of the Creator and the blessings which gave us this land and which give and sustain all our lives.
  2. We respect the sacred nature of covenants, which order our relationships and bring harmony to our communities and nations, including Treaty 6 which was entered into on our behalf, for the purpose of mutual benefit and maintaining our livelihood.
  3. We wish for ourselves and for future generations to live in conditions of peace, justice and sufficiency for all our communities. We will work together to help bring about these conditions through a timely and respectful resolution of the issues which history has left to us.

This memorandum of understanding has offered a guiding framework over the last decade as Mennonites and Lutherans have attempted to support the land claim of the Young Chippewayan, holding the Canadian government responsible for the injustice it created. The settler communities have raised funds to prepare a genealogy of the Young Chippewayan Band to document the band as an “identifiable community” meeting land claim requirements.

The 2016 documentary, Reserve 107: Reconciliation on the Prairies, tells the story of Opwashemoe Chakatinaw/Stoney Knoll. Created with input from the Young Chippewayan, Mennonite and Lutheran communities, the documentary dismantles the settler mythology that the land, prior to European arrival, was empty (terra nullius), uninhabited by people and memories. This story teaches us that reconciliation requires respectful relationships and restitution of resources.

Much remains undone in the journey toward justice envisioned by the Young Chippewayan, Mennonite and Lutheran representatives who gathered in August 2006 at Opwashemoe Chakatinaw/Stoney Knoll. Repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery is not done with a pen, but rather through community and responsibility, through conversation and struggle. We as settlers need to return again and again to humble learning. We continue to want to control and manage the process. We still think we know what is best for the land. We need our Indigenous relations to help us develop a more interdependent understanding of the land and its resources and of the strengths of community and memory. We take courage from Ezekiel’s image of hearts of stone turning to hearts of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26). We can learn to be human together on this good earth.

Eileen Klassen Hamm is the Executive Director of MCC Saskatchewan.


Learn more

Friesen, Jeff and Heinrichs, Steve. Eds. Quest for Respect: The Church and Indigenous Spirituality. Winnipeg: Mennonite Church Canada, 2017.

Heinrichs, Steve. Ed. Wrongs to Rights: How Churches Can Engage the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Winnipeg: Mennonite Church Canada, 2016.

Reserve 107: Reconciliation on the Prairies. (film). Rebel Sky Media, 2016. Available at https://www.

Changing education in Labrador


[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.]

Change in education is evident in Labrador, particularly in the field of Indigenous education. Indigenous education can refer to: education of Indigenous students; education by Indigenous educators; education controlled by Indigenous governments; education using Indigenous instructional approaches; and curricula that reflect Indigenous worldviews, histories and values. Indigenous education is essential for overcoming the legacies of the Doctrine of Discovery by revitalizing Indigenous ways of knowing and being and contributing to decolonization for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

Three main influences are shaping changes to education in Labrador. The first is the growing awareness of the ways colonizers used education as a tool of domination and control and the impact this has had on Indigenous people, families and communities. Pedagogies and curricula based in Eurocentric knowledge and values limited or negated Indigenous ways of knowing and being. The removal of Indigenous children from their families and communities to stay at residential schools represented colonial education in a stark form. The domination of one way of knowing over another in colonial education results in what Mi’kmaw scholar Marie Battiste calls the “cognitive assimilation” of Indigenous peoples (Battiste 6).

Indigenous peoples have the right to establish and control their educational systems and institutions, providing education in their own languages, in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching and learning

The establishment of Indigenous rights such as self-determination is the second influence on educational change. The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission established to address the harmful legacies of residential schools concludes that Indigenous peoples must lead and control the reform of education and that self-government is important in this reformation (TRC 148). The 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), meanwhile, insists that “Indigenous peoples have the right to establish and control their educational systems and institutions, providing education in their own languages, in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching and learning” (Article 14).

Indigenous rights within Canada are also recognized through land claim settlements. The Innu of Labrador had their claim settled in 2008 and now govern their schools in the communities of Sheshatshiu and Natuashish. Innu educators are teaching the Innu language, Innu-umin, in schools and weaving Innu culture into curricula from kindergarten through grade 12. The Nunatsiavut land claim, on the north coast of Labrador, was settled in 2005. Although it has jurisdiction over education, the Nunatsiavut Government (NG) has not yet taken over the school system. NG does, however, have an agreement with the Labrador School Board to offer their language, Inuttitut, in the schools and has begun offering traditional skills courses from kindergarten through grade 9. The NunatuKavut Community Council (NCC), representing the Southern Inuit, is advocating for the settlement of their land claim on Labrador’s south coast. In the 2016-2017 school year, nine schools piloted a project to integrate traditional skills into the school curricula. Meanwhile, the NCC is developing a locally-approved course that teaches the history of the area.

Finally, the third influence on educational change in Labrador is Indigenous teacher education. The Inuit Bachelor of Education (IBED) began in fall of 2014 through a partnership between the NG and Memorial University (MUN). The training of this cohort of teachers is a step towards NG taking control of education in its region. The IBED infuses Inuit culture in the teacher education program and focuses on developing teaching skills in culturally relevant education. The Labrador Inuttitut Training Program, developed by NG as part of its language rejuvenation strategy, prepares future teachers for a role in the on-going rejuvenation of Inuttitut.

In addition to undergraduate courses, MUN offers two graduate education courses developed for Labrador teachers enrolled in a master’s of education program. Both Indigenous and non-Indigenous teachers participate in graduate courses offered in Goose Bay, courses also accessible through videoconferencing to all communities in Labrador. In the Perspectives in Indigenous Education course, teachers critically examine how a curriculum framed by a dominant worldview can negate Indigenous worldviews and how approaches to teaching may exclude Indigenous pedagogy. Battiste defines decolonizing education as “a process that includes raising the collective voice of Indigenous peoples, exposing the injustices in our colonial history, deconstructing the past by critically examining the social, political, economic, and emotional reasons for silencing of Aboriginal voices in Canadian history, legitimating the voices and experiences of Aboriginal people in the curriculum, recognizing it as a dynamic context of knowledge and knowing, and communicating the emotional journey that such explorations will generate”(Battiste 20). In the Decolonizing Pedagogies course I teach, educators consider ways that individual teachers, schools and communities can contribute to decolonizing education. In a recent course, students collaboratively listed 144 ways for educators to be involved in decolonizing work. They have drawn on this list to create posters and brochures for colleagues. This sharing will have ripple effects through their schools and continue the work of educational change that helps to overcome the Doctrine of Discovery in Labrador.

Sylvia Moore is an Assistant Professor of Education at Memorial University and the faculty lead for Indigenous Community-based Teacher Education in Labrador. A member of the Mi’kmaw nation, the mother of four children and grandmother of six, she is also part of the KAIROS Blanket Exercise facilitation team of MCC Newfoundland and Labrador.

Learn more

Battiste, Marie. “Enabling the Autumn Seed: Toward a Decolonized Approach to Aboriginal Knowledge, Language and Education.” Canadian Journal of Native Education (1998): 1, 16-27.

Battiste, Marie. Indigenous Knowledge and Pedagogy in First Nations Education: A Literature Review with Recommendations. Apamuwek Institute, 2002. Available at:

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Honouring the Truth, Reconciling the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. 2015.

Kovach, M., Carrier, J., Montgomery, H., Barrett, M.J., and Gilles, C. Indigenous Presence: Experiencing and Envisioning Indigenous Knowledges within Selected Post-Secondary Sites of Education and Social Work. Available at

Black, C. Schooling the World. (film). 2010.

The Aboriginal Healing Foundation. From Truth to Reconciliation: Transforming the Legacy of Residential Schools. Available at

What would justice look like?


[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.]

Churches struggling for justice alongside Indigenous peoples sometimes ask: “What would justice look like?” The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), I would argue, provides answers to that question. UNDRIP articulates minimum standards for survival, dignity and well-being from an Indigenous point of view. Created by an international commission of Indigenous leaders to serve as a comprehensive body of policy that could be adopted by the nations of earth, UNDRIP can be incorporated into any national system of law or policy. Although the United Nations General Assembly adopted UNDRIP in 2007, the resolution is not legally binding on member states. Individual nations must incorporate it into their own legal and policy structures for it to become binding. While some nations have taken steps to do so, the United States has resisted adopting UNDRIP provisions.  Churches in the United States seeking justice for Indigenous peoples, I contend, should press for the U.S. to adopt UNDRIP provisions as an amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Indigenous leaders bothered to write minimum standards because many countries, including my own, have not provided survival, dignity or well-being to Indigenous peoples.

The U.S.’s historical and current policies toward Indigenous peoples serve as the backdrop of my life. Indigenous leaders created UNDRIP because many countries, including my own, have not provided survival, dignity or well-being to Indigenous peoples. My father, a Pueblo (Tewa), never knew his mother. In 1943, he was removed from his people at birth. He grew up in a home for Indian boys, subjected to habitual abuse, forced labor and malnutrition. He was not one of the exceptions that was able to rise above his conditions. As his daughter, I grew up facing abuse, homelessness and hunger. Like many Indigenous people of my generation, I came to understand my own story in middle age, through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) process that took place in Canada.

I learned much about the TRC from Chief Wilton Littlechild, whom I met in New York City at a World Council of Churches expert consultation in conjunction with the annual UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Chief Littlechild, a former member of Canadian parliament, was there as one of the three TRC commissioners. About a dozen of us sat in a small space, in the Church Center for the United Nations, in a room just big enough for the conference table at its center. A lifelong athlete, Wilton (known to his friends as Willie) is a tall, muscular man with a proud bearing. He filled the room, dwarfing the setting. Although he spoke quietly, the rest of us were overwhelmed by his presence and the power of his words.

Willie began by telling us about the furs and boots made for the children of his native village by their parents for protection of little bodies against the winter in the extreme north. School administrators seized and burned these furs and boots when taking children away from their families to live in compulsory residential schools. The residential school leaders deemed these lovingly crafted clothes to be the garments of savages, replacing them with cloth coats and shoes, inadequate against harsh winters. Teachers cut the braids from Indigenous boys’ heads. School administrators separated neighbors and even siblings. They forbade Indigenous children from speaking their tribal languages, inflicting corporal punishment on children who violated this norm. Teachers mocked and prohibited Indigenous spiritual practices.

All of this I knew already. But the visual image presented by Chief Littlechild of the piled-up boots and coats chilled me. Willie explained that these children knew viscerally that their comfort and protection were being stripped away. As he spoke, I pictured the piles of warm clothes heaped next to lines of exposed, humiliated children, shivering in their western clothes. Many would not see their families again until they were 18, and when they did, they would be unable to communicate with their parents, having been conditioned to speak only English. They would now lack the skills to survive in their Native communities. Willie endured this himself. He had watched his own leather and fur boots burn, the ones his mother had made for him. It hurt to witness the grief of a large and imposing man, a leader of his people, as he described a childhood of abuse and deprivation at the hands of the state.

Willie then began to describe the thousands of testimonies he had witnessed as a commissioner of the TRC. He recited the numbers of children who had died in residential schools. Of malnutrition. Of exhaustion and overwork. Of bodily injury from abuse. Of influenza and other viruses inadequately treated. Of criminal neglect. Many times, school administrators failed to inform parents that their children had died. Even when parents were informed, they were not given their children’s remains by the school. The TRC went about the macabre work of searching for thousands of tiny bodies buried in unmarked graves on residential school grounds.

Willie’s voice cracked as he described testimony after testimony where men stood and explained that they had never talked about what had happened to them at residential schools. Their stories of horror had rotted inside them. Many believed their parents would come for them and grew bitter waiting. Those who tried to run away were tied to their beds and beaten more severely for each attempt. Again and again, Willie heard fathers and mothers explain that they had never told their children, “I love you,” because they had become incapable of feeling or expressing love. Others explained how they had hurt their own children with either the constant rage they walked with or through emotional distance. TRC witnesses shared struggles with substance abuse and depression. Many wept openly, unable to control what had never been told before, sobbing so hard they could not speak.

As Willie spoke softly into that small room, the volume of his stories was deafening. I wept uncontrollably. I wanted to run from the room, and probably would have if I had had the space to maneuver around the awkward conference table. I wanted to cover my ears. For the first time, I understood my own story clearly. So much of what Willie shared of the testimony of survivors—the abuse, neglect and cruelty passed on to children—was the experience of my childhood. And I understood for the first time that my suffering and the suffering my father had endured growing up an orphan in a religious “boys home” were outcomes of U.S. domestic policy.

Most Americans are unaware of the history of compulsory boarding schools for Indigenous children in the United States. Children of Indigenous parents were forcibly removed as a matter of national policy, with the federal government paying Christian denominations to carry out the task of civilizing and assimilating Indigenous children. The work of Christianizing Indigenous children was believed to be the best way to relieve them of their Indigenous identities. Boarding schools in the United States existed until the 1990s: as a result, many Indigenous people my age and older grew up in boarding schools. Most people my age and older on the Yakama reservation, where I live, grew up in boarding schools, enduring childhoods without hope.

As an institution with moral authority, the Church has a mandate to express what justice could look like.

I often hear settler Christians who seek justice for Indigenous peoples ask: “But what can we do?” My answer: churches in the United States and Canada must press their governments to adopt the minimum standards for respecting Indigenous rights set out by Indigenous peoples in UNDRIP. Canada and the U.S. were two of the four countries that initially voted against the resolution when UNDRIP was passed. While Canada removed its objector status to the resolution in 2016 and the U.S. under the Obama administration in 2011 signaled its support for UNDRIP, the two countries have not adopted UNDRIP’s minimum standards into their laws. We are societies of laws. If we want to change our context, we are able, in our democracies, to change our laws. What would our countries look like we if we chose to incorporate UNDRIP’s minimum standards for recognizing Indigenous rights into our legal systems? As an institution with moral authority, the church is called to advocate for justice. Pressing the governments of Canada and the U.S. to adopt UNDRIP’s provisions is an essential way to follow the lead of and be accountable to Indigenous communities.

Sarah Augustine is the Executive Director of the Dispute Resolution Center of Yakima and Kittitas Counties in Washington state and adjunct professor of sociology at Heritage University. A descendant of the Pueblo people, she chairs of the structures committee for the Anabaptist Coalition to Dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery.

Learn more

United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. Available at

For more about the Indian Residential School system in Canada and the TRC, see the reports at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation’s web site:

The Washington Office encourages policy makers to enact legislation that acknowledges and addresses the injustices (both historical and ongoing) to the Indigenous peoples of this land. Currently, this involves protecting reservations against environmental disturbances such as border walls and pipelines and preserving Indigenous monuments. To take action, sign up for MCC action alerts at

Overcoming the Doctrine of Discovery (Winter 2018)


[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.]

As European settlers took more and more land, their governments restricted Indigenous peoples to increasingly smaller areas. Settler governments enacted laws to confine Indigenous movement to reservations or reserves.

The Doctrine of Discovery is a philosophical and legal framework dating back to papal bulls of the fifteenth century that provided theological justification and a legal basis for Christian governments to invade and seize Indigenous lands and dominate Indigenous peoples. Rooted in colonialism, capitalism, patriarchy and white supremacy, the Doctrine of Discovery imagined Indigenous lands to be terra nullius, meaning “land belonging to no one.” The patterns of oppression that continue to dispossess Indigenous peoples of their lands today are rooted in those papal bulls and perpetuated in numerous historical documents such as Royal Charters and U.S. Supreme Court rulings as recent as 2005.

This political and legal framework, rooted in Christian theological justifications, paved the way for colonial expansion in contemporary Canada and the United States in the name of Christ. As European settlers took more and more land, their governments restricted Indigenous peoples to increasingly smaller areas. Settler governments enacted laws to confine Indigenous movement to reservations or reserves. At the same time, these governments sought to forcibly assimilate Indigenous peoples to European Christian society: so, for example, in both Canada and the U.S., governments took Indigenous young children from their families and placed them in Christian-run boarding schools. In the United States, the vision for these schools was summarized by the stark phrase, “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.”

The Doctrine of Discovery framework has had a myriad of death-dealing ramifications for Indigenous peoples around the globe, providing justifications for the theft of Indigenous land and the suppression of Indigenous cultures. Yet even in the face of ongoing legacies of dispossession, Indigenous communities, joined by settler allies, seek to dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery. In Canada, for example, First Nations peoples have led the push for the Canadian government to pass parliamentary bill C-262 which would require the Canadian government to harmonize its laws with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In the United States, Indigenous determination to protect water and earth from oil pipeline construction at Standing Rock in Oceti Sakowin (Dakota, Lakota, Nakota) territory in present-day North Dakota called attention to the ongoing dispossession of Indigenous peoples. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Indian Residential Schools in Canada, meanwhile, has pressed Canadians to ask what justice and a future of reconciliation and right relationship might look like in the wake of the devastation to Indigenous families and communities wrought by residential schools. In this issue of Intersections, Indigenous and settler authors critically examine the harms perpetrated by the Doctrine of Discovery framework. Their reflections do not confine themselves to analysis, however, but push beyond it, charting paths forward on the journey of overcoming the Doctrine of Discovery.

Erica Littlewolf works with the Indigenous Visioning Circle of MCC Central States. Pam Peters-Pries is the Associate Program Director at MCC Canada.

Learn more

The Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery Coalition, a grassroots Anabaptist movement, has a wealth of information about the Doctrine of Discovery at

The role of Welcome Teams in the U.S. model of refugee resettlement


[Individual articles from the Fall 2017 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

While refugee resettlement in the United States has enjoyed longstanding support from lawmakers and communities, 2017 has seen the creation of policies aimed at limiting and decreasing arrivals. Resettlement efforts in the U.S. involve collaborations among governmental agencies, non-profit organizations known as Voluntary Agency (or Volags) and communities. Congregations and faith partners have played an important role since formal refugee resettlement efforts began in 1975. Now, even as refugee resettlement has become a political hot topic, churches continue to carry out a significant role in providing welcome, especially in terms of building lasting relationships and serving as community guides to newcomers from around the world.

From its inception, the U.S. refugee program intended for the public and private sectors to partner in the welcome and integration of refugees. The Refugee Act of 1980 formalized these partnership efforts at refugee resettlement, creating the Federal Refugee Resettlement Program. At present, nine Volags hold contracts with the federal government to welcome and assist refugees in their initial transitions to communities around the country. Each agency manages its local offices across the U.S., while each office interacts closely with the surrounding community. When congregations like Conestoga Mennonite Church in Morgantown, Pennsylvania, welcome refugees, they form partnerships with a Volag responsible for resettling families in their area. For Conestoga, the partnering Volag was my employer, Church World Service (CWS) of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

On a sunny afternoon in May 2017, a home in New Holland, Pennsylvania, underwent a special transformation. The brick house, down the street from a tractor supply store, was outfitted to become the new home for a Congolese family. While the Conestoga Mennonite Church Welcome Team was hard at work cleaning and organizing in preparation for their arrival, the Congolese family (a mother, father and their four children), were still waiting for their flight from Tanzania to New York.

It had been decades since congregants of Conestoga Mennonite had sponsored refugees. In early 2016, the congregation began conversations about welcoming another family to eastern Lancaster County. Pastor Bob Petersheim notes that “Conestoga has a long history of mission support local and global. . . . [We] have deep in our congregational DNA the Matthew 25 words of Jesus that state, ‘if done to the least of these, it has been done to me.’’’

Conestoga formed a committee, received a refresher on system changes since they had last sponsored and began the work to prepare for a family. The Welcome Team involvement has added additional support to the family’s resettlement journey, providing further assistance to integration efforts. CWS case manager, Alyssa Anderson, notes that “the stability and support the Conestoga Mennonite Team provides to the family is so crucial. The family knows that they have a community that not only welcomes then, but loves them, and that makes such a difference.”

Some churches want to help with refugee resettlement, but do not live within the permitted resettlement range of a registered Volag to be involved. Without a way to privately sponsor a family, these communities are limited in their ability to extend welcome. One such community currently navigating this situation is Gainesville, Florida. Richard and Eve MacMaster, members of Emmanuel Mennonite Church, began organizing interfaith and community efforts with the expectation that welcoming refugees to Gainesville would be the bulk of their work. They soon realized that their church is 75 miles from the closest resettlement agency. The congregation’s efforts have now shifted towards organizing volunteers and donations to be sent to newcomers in the closest resettlement town. If given the opportunity to either welcome a resettlement agency to Gainesville or privately sponsor a family, the MacMasters say they would “very definitely” jump on board.

An additional challenge for the U.S. refugee resettlement program is that the work of resettlement agencies is tied to the political will of the nation. The media coverage of the Syrian crisis has seen an increase in community interest to volunteer with refugees, but a decrease in the political will to fund the program and allow families to arrive. Regardless of community support and money raised, agencies are now faced with being unable to perform the vital work to which they have been called.

Community and faith partner support is invaluable to the work of resettlement agencies in the U.S. Many times, the relationships established within the first months of transition last a lifetime. Although this has been a turbulent year for refugee resettlement in the U.S., congregations like Conestoga Mennonite and communities like Gainesville are stepping up to show that there is space for refugees and immigrants in our communities as our neighbors.

Christine Baer is congregational resource developer for Church World Service’s Lancaster, Pennsylvania, office.

Learn more

United States State Department Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration:

United States Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement:

Private Refugee Sponsorship in Canada: an opportunity for mutual transformation


[Individual articles from the Fall 2017 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Resettlement of refugees from a country of asylum to a third country is one of three durable solutions for refugees, alongside voluntary repatriation and local integration. In Canada, the federal government’s Private Sponsorship of Refugees (PSR) program allows private citizens to sponsor refugees through organizations who hold sponsorship agreements with the government. While the central purpose of the program is the successful resettlement of refugees, a recent evaluation of MCC Manitoba’s work with its sponsoring groups shows that it also presents an opportunity to promote mutually transformative relationships as these groups learn what it means to accompany newcomers.

In late 2015, I conducted an evaluation of the interaction between what sponsors bring to the resettlement experience and the role of MCC Manitoba’s migration and resettlement program in helping sponsors navigate the resettlement process. Constituent groups that sponsor refugees have significant influence over the sponsorship process and settlement outcomes. MCC staff work through these sponsorship groups to serve refugees being resettled in Canada.

When asked to name the key challenges faced in the sponsorship and resettlement process, sponsors invariably turn to the practical and instrumental details of resettlement. The first weeks and months are intense and require daily hands-on support, from obtaining health cards and social insurance numbers to teaching newcomers how to run their appliances and take public transportation. While sponsors have access to checklists to cover off these tasks and prepare for them in advance of the refugees’ arrival, more complex variables are at play the instant the newcomers step off the plane. Navigating cultural differences and misunderstandings, managing the expectations of both newcomers and sponsors and learning how different personalities and experiences will impact resettlement are all factors that cannot be predicted in advance.

Many sponsors recognize that their responses to these unpredictable variables are key to successful settlement outcomes and at the same time often feel ill-equipped in their responses. This is particularly the case when attempting to help newcomers process the trauma they have experienced. Groups that have participated in multiple sponsorships have also gone through their own process of grappling with doing what they can to ensure a smooth resettlement and allowing newcomers to make their own decisions and learn from their mistakes. Previous research has identified the need to exercise caution in the language used to characterize newcomers so as not to negatively impact their ability to resettle successfully (Lamba and Krahn, 2003). Instead, the relationship between sponsor and newcomer should be framed as one of sharing and partnership that recognizes the years of education, professional experience and social networks that newcomers bring with them when they resettle (McKinnon, 2009; Lanphier, 2003).

MCC staff have much to offer in supporting constituent groups as they accompany newcomers and help these recently resettled newcomers make a successful transition to life in Canada. To be sure, constituent groups sponsoring refugees will naturally learn certain lessons over the course of the minimum one-year commitment they make to the resettlement process. Sponsors learn to expect the unexpected and to have their worldviews challenged and expanded. However, sponsors also express openness to engage in deeper planning for and walking through the sponsorship process. Specifically, sponsors have indicated that they want to understand at the outset of the resettlement process what the evaluation criteria might be for a successful resettlement. This provides an entry point for MCC staff to provide information on best practices for how sponsor groups can work together with newcomers on goal setting, to help sponsor groups understand their own cultural biases and positions of power and to emphasize the relational aspects of sponsorship. The evaluation of a sponsorship can also include mechanisms that pull in feedback from sponsors and provide them an opportunity to reflect not only on the outcome of the resettlement, but also on their supporting role in the process. These learnings can in turn inform future sponsorships.

Time and again, sponsors have identified building meaningful relationships as the most transformative part of the sponsorship process. Studies of past sponsorship initiatives have shown that, despite the dependence that others have argued is embedded in the program, most newcomers were able to establish relationships with sponsors that were trusting enough to overcome the challenges in the process (Neuwirth and Clark, 1981). Given its nearly four decades of experience with refugee sponsorship, MCC is well placed to encourage sponsoring groups to move to deeper levels of engagement with the individuals and families they sponsor. Through this support, refugee sponsorship has the potential to be a mutually transformative process of integration and community building.

Stephanie Dyck is an MCC humanitarian relief and disaster recovery coordinator.

Learn more

Lamba, Navjot K. and Henry Krahn. “Social Capital and Refugee Resettlement: The Social Networks of Refugees in Canada.” Journal of International Migration and Integration. 4/3 (Summer 2003): 335-360.

Lanphier, Michael. “Sponsorship: Organizational, Sponsor, and Refugee Perspectives.” Journal of International Migration and Integration. 4/2 (Spring 2003): 237-256.

McKinnon, Sara L. “‘Bringing New Hope and New Life’: The Rhetoric of Faith-Based Refugee Resettlement Agencies.” Howard Journal of Communications, 20/4 (2009): 313-332.

Neuwirth, Gertrud and Lynn Clark. “Indochinese Refugees in Canada: Sponsorship and Adjustment.” International Migration Review. 15/1 and 15/2 (Spring and Summer 1981): 131-140.

Colombian refugees’ stories of navigating settlement


[Individual articles from the Fall 2017 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Having to flee one’s home as a refugee is traumatic. Resettlement, which can be full of hope and seem like a way out of this trauma, is difficult as well. In 2013, I interviewed seven adults, now all Canadian citizens, who immigrated to Canada as refugees from Colombia over a decade ago. The study explored participants’ experiences of being refugees and starting new lives in Canada. Two key metaphors recurred throughout these interviews: uprooting and rebirth.

One source of refugee trauma stems from fleeing home. Agencies working to resettle refugees must understand and account for this trauma. A resettled refugee I interviewed, who had worked for the human rights of rural, small-scale farmers, offered an agricultural metaphor commonly used by displaced people from rural, agricultural areas to explain the essence of becoming a refugee:

Displaced people use a word that expresses very well what it means—arrancados—to be uprooted. . .  To arrancar is to grab a plant and rip it out of the ground roots and all, it doesn’t matter if it is bruised—bruise it!—but pull it up with its roots from the ground. I think this is like the reality of a refugee. We are roughly ripped up from our land, and this obviously creates deep wounds . . .  And so obviously you arrive with very profound feelings of emptiness.

He further explained that becoming a refugee is “a total life change and it is something that you are forced to do. It’s not a ‘free decision’ that you take because you want to look for a better life. No, it is something that you do because you have to, because you have no other option.”

Numerous study participants described the experience of resettling in Canada as a new birth, using metaphors of “being reborn,” “being a newborn,” “starting from zero” or “rebuilding one’s life.” One study participant explained what he meant by a new birth:

I want to leave all of that behind. I don’t want to go back. Never. I want to be reborn. I want to be another person and I want—yes, I would like to start a new life. That is to say, a new life, a new birth. Like I said, you don’t have English, you don’t know how to speak, you don’t know how to walk, you go out—you get lost . . . you don’t know how to read, you don’t know anything. You are a newborn here.

Another participant made references to losses in the process of being reborn:

Everything was lost. But it had to return. . . When we touched down on Canadian soil I said to my wife, “Here we will be reborn.” We have to learn the language, we have to learn how to survive, we have to learn how to make friends, we have to return to being a family. These are the big things that happen. And so each of us started.

Explaining the metaphor of being reborn further, he elaborated:

It’s like the stages of life, I think that it comes in stages. How was the birth? How difficult was the labor? My birth was difficult . . . with a whole lot of complications, which were my family beside me. . .  Then, how we developed and how we ourselves became the physicians that dealt with the situation. And we began to find solutions and make our own medicines. . . After that comes the process of maturing in English . . . between zero and three years you are learning to listen and learning the words. Later, it’s like getting to know the world, knowing who are going to be your parents, who are your siblings. It’s like the book of life—being reborn and doing all that in a short period of time.

The challenge of starting over as adults was described by another participant as “starting from zero, in every sense. The only thing is that we are 40-year-old bodies, but totally empty because we don’t have the language, we don’t have friends, we don’t have money, we have absolutely nothing.” Such vivid metaphorical descriptions of starting from zero and being reborn highlight the challenges refugees face as they rebuild their lives, often in middle age, in Canada. Perhaps not as obviously, these depictions of resettlement as rebirth also contain hints of possibility, hope and determination.

Having started again once before, participants emphasized that, while difficult, starting again is in fact possible. In speaking about the idea of resettlement as rebirth, one participant described what being reborn could imply in the long run: “You arrive here to be reborn, to start to study, to start to grow. . . to learn to volunteer, to volunteer more than you already do. . . and to give what you have to help people who arrive.” Several women in the study emphasized their ability to overcome obstacles and barriers in the settlement process, and one mentioned the importance of “having time for everything” (work, family, friends, helping others) in life. She explained “You have to give to receive. . . We say ‘we were blessed, we have to bless others.’ And we have done so a lot of times.”

The two images of uprooting and rebirth open a window onto the struggles of resettled refugees. While the beginning of the refugee experience is one of being roughly uprooted and starting from zero, this does not define the entirety of the refugee experience. As the new country becomes home and as life is re-established, an opportunity for rebirth arises. While rebirth is fraught with challenge, it can be a hope-filled image to guide refugees to settlement in their new homes.

Shalom Wiebe is a program manager for HOPE International Development Agency. She previously served with MCC in Colombia as a support worker for internally displaced people.

Learn more

Munoz, M.  “Continuum of Success: A Case Study of Colombian Refugee Women in Canada.” Doctoral dissertation, Faculty of Social Work, University of Calgary, 2011.

Riaño-Alcalá, Pilar, with Patricia Diaz, Amantina Osorio, and Martha Colorado. The Forced Migration of Colombians: Colombia, Ecuador, Canada. Corporación Región: Medellin, Colombia and Vancouver: School of Social Work, University of British Columbia, 2008. Available at

Wiebe, Shalom. “Colombian Refugees’ Stories of Navigating Settlement.” Master’s thesis, Faculty of Social Work, University of British Columbia, 2013. Available at

Changing power dynamics for resettled refugee families


[Individual articles from the Fall 2017 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

All families with children probably experience delicate tensions as the children become teenagers, with subtle struggles for power unfolding between parents and their adolescent children. For resettled refugee families (or newcomer families), the immersion in a new culture, language, norms and values exacerbates those challenges. When a newcomer family has experienced forced migration, the challenges are even greater. Agencies tasked with resettling refugees must attend to the impact of resettlement on family dynamics, especially on relationships between parents and their adolescent children.

Newcomer families often experience a shift in power dynamics within their family units. Youth are immersed in mainstream culture, language, norms and values through their participation in school. As such, they quickly become masters of their new environment. Parents, in contrast, typically have less exposure to the new cultural context, while also holding deeper connections to their native cultural contexts. They therefore not surprisingly often adapt more slowly to their new environment than their teenaged children. This contrast in adjustment periods lends itself to the scales of power being tipped in favor of the youth.

One way this power shift plays out is in language acquisition. Teenage newcomers’ developed language abilities often place them in the role of translator and cultural navigator for their parents. Parents might rely on their teenaged children at doctor’s appointments, school meetings, interpretation of government documents and more, placing newcomer children in a position of both responsibility for and power over their parents. The pressure of added responsibility experienced by resettled refugee youth can exacerbate familial tensions. It can also lead to awkward family dynamics. For example, children may be put in a position of communicating a parent’s intimate health condition to medical professionals.

School is another place for integration struggles. For youth who have experienced forced migration, interrupted schooling has a significant impact on their ability to resettle. The Canadian school system aligns students’ ages with their grades, which can result in students’ grade placement conflicting with their school experience. A 16-year old who only completed grade 5 may be placed in a grade 10 classroom. Such young people understandably often experience feelings of isolation and frustration at their difficulty in adapting to the curriculum and the expectations of educators and peers. As a result, newcomer youth sometimes become vulnerable to participating in destructive behaviors.

A further point of tension arises from conflict between the values held by newcomer students’ families and the values espoused by schools and service providers. Zeinab (not her real name), a young woman in high school whose family had recently resettled in Winnipeg after fleeing war in Somalia, was delighted to find out that she made the high school basketball team. Teachers and support workers at the local community center celebrated with her and encouraged her to pursue this extracurricular activity. In their eyes, this represented an opportunity for Zeinab to develop friendships and find her place in the new school environment. Zeinab’s mother, however, did not approve of this activity. As a single mother with three young children at home, she needed Zeinab’s help after school. Zeinab, feeling frustrated and confused at the diverging opinions of trusted adults in her life, soon began sneaking away from home to play basketball. When her mother challenges her behavior, Zeinab threatens to call 911.

Newcomer mothers and fathers cite feelings of a loss of authority in parenting their teenage children. The child protection policies meant to strengthen families in Canada can be misunderstood by parents and misused by youth. Stories of government authorities removing children from their homes circulate within newcomer communities—children’s threats in the heat of an argument with their parents to call an emergency helpline incites fear into newcomer parents and simultaneously strips them of their confidence to enforce boundaries or expectations. This shift in power dynamics within resettled refugee families can also lead to greater vulnerability of newcomer youth to engaging in destructive actions.

Organizations working with newcomers seek to strengthen newcomer family bonds during these times of stress. In Winnipeg, the General Child and Family Services Authority seeks to combat fears associated with their services within the newcomer community. The Authority developed and circulated a video resource among newcomer-serving agencies to familiarize newcomer parents with Manitoba’s child welfare system and parenting rights, responsibilities and laws and to facilitate dialogue, break down barriers and support newcomer families in their transition to life in Canada. Organizations supporting resettled refugee youth in Winnipeg provide programming that facilitates relationship building between parents and their children, such as the Newcomers Employment and Education Development Services (NEEDS) Centre’s Mentorship Program, which pairs newly arrived refugee youth and their families with a Canadian-resident mentor. Field trips to local events and activities allow parents and youth to interact in a neutral environment and create positive memories together.

The changing power dynamics experienced by resettled refugee families can produce considerable strain on the family unit. By supporting parent-youth relationships, service providers are laying a foundation for newcomer family success and simultaneously mitigating the vulnerability of newcomer youth to increased participation in destructive behaviors.

Katie Froese is MCC Manitoba International Volunteer Exchange Program coordinator. She has worked with resettled refugee youth at NEEDS Centre in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Learn more

Fast, Matt. “Making a Way When There is No Way: The Experiences and Challenges of Gang Affected Young Adult Refugees in Winnipeg.” Master’s thesis, University of Manitoba, 2013. Available at

General Child and Family Services Authority. “Sounds through the Wall.” Video available at

Rezania, Shahrokh. “Refugee Fathers in a New Country: The Challenges of Cultural Adjustment and Raising Children in Winnipeg, Canada.” Master’s thesis, University of Manitoba, 2015. Available at

Refugee resettlement and family reunification challenges


[Individual articles from the Fall 2017 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

As governments consider the current refugee crisis, one area of special concern must be the well-being of children and youth. Research in this area is scarce and data is limited. Nevertheless, organizations working at resettlement must continue to search for better practices and support systems for resettling children and youth.

In my work with MCC U.S., I encounter many children and youth in various stages of migration. My thoughts on the topic of resettling children and youth start with my own experience of the resettlement of our family in 1986 from Guatemala to Canada. On the evening of February 18, 1986, many people from our church community and neighbors in Guatemala City came to our home to say farewell. We were departing the next morning to reunite with my father who had fled Guatemala for Mexico in May 1980. He was ultimately accepted as a political refugee in Canada in January 1981. I was 15 years old when I left Guatemala. I remember being happy to jump on an airplane for the first time and travel to Calgary, Alberta, and reunite with my father. This reunification had been our family dream for years. In retrospect, I wish our family had been better informed regarding what was about to happen.

As I reflect on our migration and resettlement process, I have often described it as a new birth, with all the pain, pushes and pulls of labor. We knew a few things about Canada. My mother had cousins in Toronto who had fled there a few years earlier, so we had seen photos of Canada, including of the majestic Rocky Mountains where we would be living. However, no photos or stories could prepare us for what we were going to encounter. Upon our arrival, the government provided some support to help us settle. We received winter clothes at the airport, along with some money to help us start life in Canada. We were enrolled in the health care system and a social worker was appointed to us, although we rarely saw him and he did not speak Spanish.

The first challenges that many newcomers to Canada speak of is the weather. It was -20 Celsius (-4 Fahrenheit) when we landed in Calgary. We had never experienced that kind of weather in Guatemala. Like newborns out of the comfort of the mother land, we were cold all the time and had to be clothed differently. While the first few months of snow were part of our honeymoon, the extended winter, followed by a blizzard in early May, which left us stuck without electricity for three days, challenged us. We started to miss home. Within a few months of arriving, we started asking our father over and over if we could go back to Guatemala. Nevertheless, the weather was not an insurmountable challenge.

The system makes you believe that the one major hurdle is learning the language. However, I believe that too much emphasis is put on language learning.  Language will come with time and does not deserve the amount of importance that it is given. A bigger challenge for us was to become family again. My parents had their own communication issues, even though they spoke a common language. They had lived apart for a long time and developed their own survival modes of functioning. We children would side with our mother in their arguments and this would upset our father. Even when our family was reunited, we were more fragmented and fractured than when we were separated from our father. Supporting families with counseling and emotional support as they reunite and resettle must be a priority in the resettlement process.

In conversations with resettled refugees, I notice that a common tendency is to measure the success of the migration by what the family has accomplished in the new homeland. As I reflect on where we as a family are now, I am not so sure that is the best measure of successful integration. In many ways I am a success, because I learned English, got a series of good jobs and an education. However, thirty years after my family resettled from Guatemala to Canada, I am still trying to unpack the effects of our migration by different measures. It took only a couple of years to adapt to a Calgary winter and within four years of arrival my brothers and I were speaking English well. However, our family separated again. My mother has suffered from depression which lingers into the present. While my two brothers still live in Calgary, my mother and my sister returned to Guatemala. My father has a new family and lives in British Columbia. I live in Goshen, Indiana.

Looking back on our resettlement experience, I believe that supporting family reunification was an important piece of the resettlement process that was not adequately addressed. Because of this experience, I continue to seek ways to better understand how resettlement affects families and children. My hope is that resettlement agencies can adjust policies and practices to lessen the adverse impacts of resettlement on refugee families and to empower refugee families with children to make informed decisions about movement.

Saulo Padilla is the immigration education coordinator for MCC U.S.

Learn more

MCC U.S. advocates for the rights of asylum seekers who seek refuge in the United States and, in some locations, provides legal services to assist in the process of applying for asylum. See “7 Ways to Support Refugees” at:

Rousseau, Cécile, et al. “Remaking Family Life: Strategies for Re-Establishing Continuity among Congolese Refugees during the Family Reunification Process.” Social Science and Medicine 59/5 (2004): 1095-1108.

Choummanivong, C., et al. “Refugee Family Reunification and Mental Health in Resettlement.” Kōtuitui: New Zealand Journal of Social Sciences Online 9/2 (2014): 89-100. Available at

Church accompaniment with Colombian displaced families


[Individual articles from the Fall 2017 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

MCC’s partnership with the Teusaquillo Mennonite Church in accompanying internally displaced people (IDPs) is an example of a multilayered approach for dealing with the practical and personal aspects of forced displacement. With its presence both in Colombia and Canada, MCC connected the Teusaquillo Mennonite Church in Bogotá with churches in Canada to take advantage of Canada’s Source Country Class Program to resettle some IDPs to Canada who faced protracted threats from armed groups in Colombia. The uncertainty of this process required flexibility, discernment and patience in walking with displaced families through the resettlement process. Additionally, the church and MCC workers provided personal accompaniment, listening to families and paying attention to the emotional and spiritual elements of their journey.

While the conflict in Colombia is decades old, more IDPs began fleeing to Colombian cities such as Bogotá in the late 1990s, making the conflict more visible for people in the capital city. In an early effort of accompaniment, members of the Teusaquillo Mennonite Church in Bogotá supported IDPs who occupied a government building as they demanded their rights. These early church initiatives quickly turned into accompanying IDP organizers whose lives were threatened. The church eventually developed programmatic efforts to meet IDPs’ basic needs and to provide them with safety.

For some IDPs, fleeing to the city was insufficient to guarantee their safety, as armed groups operated across the country, threatening and killing persons who could incriminate them. In 2000, with more displaced families becoming a part of the Teusaquillo Mennonite Church community, the congregation made an intentional decision to accompany IDPs by forming the Justice and Peace Committee. At the same time, Canada’s unique Source Country Class (SCC) allowed IDPs in Colombia to apply for resettlement as refugees without leaving their country of citizenship. While Canada provided government selection and support for thousands of refugees who applied directly for resettlement at the Canadian visa office in Bogotá, Colombian IDPs could also be nominated for resettlement and sponsored through the Private Sponsorship of Refugees (PSR) Program.

At first, the Justice and Peace Committee of Teusaquillo Mennonite Church contacted Mennonite congregations in Canada directly to see if they would sponsor families identified by the committee as in need of resettlement. In time, a partnership was forged with MCC Canada’s Refugee Program, in cooperation with MCC Colombia. MCC Canada worked through the network of refugee program coordinators in the five provincial MCC offices in Canada to find sponsoring churches for IDPs identified for resettlement by the Teusaquillo congregation.

An important component of this work was the placement of an MCC worker to accompany and support the Justice and Peace Committee and assist IDPs identified for resettlement. The MCC worker also functioned as a liaison with the MCC refugee coordinators in Canada. This coordinated effort of the Teusaquillo Mennonite Church, MCC Colombia, MCC Canada and Canadian Mennonite churches helped over 70 families resettle in Canada between 2002 and 2015.

While the mechanics of this project came together, IDP accompaniment did not always lend itself to obvious answers. All parities faced challenges. For the Teusaquillo congregation, the decision to open its doors to the newcomers came after much discernment. Some in the church feared that the displaced population that would meet in the church building for prayer services and lunch once a week would bring threats from armed actors to the church. Others sensed that the church was giving more attention to displaced families at the expense of traditional members.

For the church’s Justice and Peace Committee, the process of accompaniment and of determining the threat level and the appropriate response for IDPs were not always clear. The capacity for resettlement depended on MCC staff in Canada convincing congregations to take on this ministry of resettlement. The Justice and Peace Committee often helped families move to different locations within Colombia, providing IDPs with food and help finding temporary work. In Canada, the lengthy processing time meant churches struggled to maintain motivation and funds. Preserving hope along with keeping expectations realistic became a critical factor in the collaboration between MCC and the churches in both Colombia and Canada.

The multilayered partnership between MCC and the Teusaquillo church not only refers to the variety of levels of project coordination but also to the personal attention given to victims of forced displacement. Such personal accompaniment was an important component of the program, because it touched not just those resettled to Canada. Colombian pastor Peter Stucky and his brother, the psychologist Paul Stucky, often reminded the Committee of the emotional and spiritual aspects integral to any accompaniment offered by the church. This included understanding the impact of trauma on displaced families and the importance of providing opportunities for healing. The church needed to be a spiritual guide, providing a sense of safety in community and newfound meaning even amid the ongoing traumatic stress of forced displacement.

This accompanying aspect of the work was perhaps the one of the most important and personally rewarding parts of this project. As I reflect on accompanying displaced families in Colombia, I fondly remember the simple act of sitting and listening deeply to the sadness and hope of resilient people looking for another opportunity at life. This personal attention and sense of human connection made MCC and the church’s accompaniment truly holistic and suitable for addressing the complexity of forced displacement and resettlement.

Nathan Toews is Seed program facilitator for MCC in Bolivia. He previously worked as a psychosocial accompaniment worker with MCC in Colombia.


Opportunities and challenges facing refugee resettlement: the perspective of a former UNHCR resettlement officer


[Individual articles from the Fall 2017 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

With decades-long conflicts preventing the return of millions of refugees and newer outbreaks of violence leading to ongoing mass outflows of refugees from numerous countries, global resettlement needs have increased significantly alongside rising refugee numbers. For UNHCR, resettlement to a third country is a crucial tool to provide the most vulnerable refugees with protection and support they could not otherwise access. It is a durable solution for refugees who can neither return to their country of origin nor integrate in their country of asylum. Providing refugees with the legal status and support to rebuild independent lives is a significant state contribution towards responsibility sharing with countries hosting large numbers of refugees.

Resettlement is a small part of the solution for refugees. The UNHCR Projected Global Resettlement Needs 2018 document estimates that close to 1.2 million of the post-WWII global high of 22.5 million refugees need resettlement. Despite the diversification of resettlement involvement to 37 states and a record number of refugee submissions in 2016, the number of resettlement places committed by states has dropped again, with global needs outnumbering the 93,200 resettlement places states have pledged to make available in 2018 by a factor of 13 to 1. This drop is a sharp reminder of the vulnerability of the resettlement tool to political changes and the fragility of public support in many countries for voluntarily accepting refugees through resettlement.

The Syrian crisis put a focus on growing resettlement needs, and states responded. Many new states answered the appeals to offer resettlement places, particularly to Syrian refugees, either through formal resettlement programs or through other humanitarian admissions schemes, but the greatest increase in total numbers was offered by the United States, already the highest contributor. The Obama administration set a goal of admitting 110,000 refugees from the around the world in fiscal year 2017 (which started on October 1, 2016), an increase from 85,000 in fiscal year 2016 and from 70,000 in each of the previous three years.

Increased targets and financial support enabled UNHCR submissions to reach a 20-year high in 2016, with at least 162,575 refugees referred to states for resettlement consideration. Significantly, 44,000 of these submissions were from sub-Saharan Africa, the highest number in almost 15 years, and over 107,000 of these 2016 UNHCR submissions were made to the U.S.

The decision by the current U.S. administration to cut the resettlement arrival numbers to 50,000 in fiscal year 2017 has changed global resettlement dynamics. The combined total of 93,200 new places made available by states this year is a 43% reduction in what was offered in 2016, with particularly severe reductions in sub-Saharan Africa. Refugees themselves are devastated by this blow to their hopes and expectations, especially nationalities resettled by very few countries other than the U.S., such as Somalis. This drop has also exacerbated UNHCR’s challenges associated with effectively identifying those refugees most in need of resettlement and selecting those to prioritize for submission. This significant reduction by the U.S. government has also highlighted how vital the support of the receiving domestic population is to resettlement.

UNHCR assesses refugee populations’ prospects for durable solutions to identify refugees in need of resettlement as part of its mandate. However, with places available for less than 10% of those in need, the final selection of individuals and families who will have their cases submitted to a resettlement state is among the most challenging aspects of the resettlement process.

The production of a UNHCR resettlement submission is time-consuming and labour intensive. Well-established and closely monitored standard operating procedures ensure that the process is tied to the protection strategy for individual population groups and managed with integrity and transparency, but many factors impact decision-making. Every effort is made to prioritize based on the needs of the refugees and to sensitively manage refugee expectations against the number of resettlement places allocated. However, state preferences, logistical factors related to the accessibility of the refugees to be interviewed and the availability of resources to assess protection needs and process resettlement cases within set timeframes inevitably also play a role.

UNHCR has closely collaborated with states and other resettlement partners for decades. States have endorsed UNHCR’s submission categories and are responsive to the vulnerabilities identified in countries of asylum as articulated in the Global Resettlement Needs document. UNHCR calls on states to make multi-year resettlement commitments to allow UNHCR to plan effectively, but also to be open to urgent and emerging needs and to accept diverse caseloads. Individual resettlement states also understandably follow their own criteria, and are subject to pressures at home, particularly regarding perceptions of the needs and integration prospects of specific nationalities and profiles. As a result, although countries may request submissions from among the vulnerable groups identified by UNHCR in a specific country of asylum, such as survivors of violence and torture, women and girls at risk, children at risk and refugees facing legal and physical protection needs, UNHCR may still not be able to submit the neediest cases for resettlement.

There are never enough places for emergency cases that need immediate resettlement or for those with severe medical needs. Families with many children, single men, people with certain political profiles and persons with mental health challenges are not accepted by some countries. Other factors include the refugees’ inability to articulate their own refugee claim, medical or social conditions that the country is not able to address or security or other logistical issues that arise and make certain camps or locations inaccessible for resettlement processing. Furthermore, states with smaller quotas may legitimately wish to restrict their selection to a few nationalities to simplify the post-arrival integration supports required, or restrict their interview locations to reduce costs. With needs so far outstripping available places, UNHCR must inevitably make compromises.

On a practical level, UNHCR resettlement caseworkers are driven by the need to produce a set number of completed resettlement cases each week from among those identified with resettlement needs. Detailed interviews are required to ensure that the refugee claim, resettlement needs and family links are thoroughly and accurately documented. As part of the preparations, staff must update registration data often collected years before, assess dependencies to retain family unity and ensure that the best interests of unaccompanied and separated children are considered. There are many logistical factors, including limited access to the registration database and to certain camps, which may delay the completion of individual cases and challenge the ability to meet set targets.

From the perspective of staff in direct contact with refugees, it is painful that even refugees facing extreme difficulties must be told that no resettlement places are available for them. Tragically, the loss of hope of being resettled, coupled with the restrictions placed by many states on family reunification, is driving desperate refugees to travel onwards from their first countries of asylum. In doing so, they expose themselves to the risks of trafficking, kidnapping, sexual and other abuse, the possibility of death on open waters and rejection in new countries of asylum.

While the reduction of resettlement spaces offered by states in 2017 is disheartening, a greater awareness of resettlement needs globally has developed alongside an encouraging growth in the engagement of civil society and the private sector. One hopes that the promises embodied in the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, endorsed by every member state of the United Nations, will truly lead to states increasing their commitment to help refugees find durable solutions through resettlement or alternative migration pathways and to being more flexible in their family reunification processing. The world’s refugees deserve nothing less.

Barbara Treviranus has facilitated Canadian private sponsorships and was founding manager of the Refugee Sponsorship Training Program (RSTP) which trains and supports private sponsoring groups in Canada. She rewrote UNHCR’s Resettlement Handbook in 2011 and has worked for UNHCR as a resettlement caseworker in Nepal and a resettlement officer in Kenya and Ethiopia. This article reflects the personal perspectives of the author rather than the official position of the UNHCR.

Learn more

UNHCR Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2016. June 2017. Available at

UNHCR. Match Resettlement Commitments with Action: UN Refugee Chief. June 12, 2017. Available at:

UNHCR Projected Global Resettlement Needs 2018. June 2017. Available at

UNHCR Resettlement Handbook. 2011. Available at

Challenges and opportunities in refugee resettlement (Fall 2017)


[Individual articles from the Fall 2017 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

The world is facing a global refugee crisis. With more than 65 million people forcibly displaced globally, many of them living in protracted situations of displacement, the work of enhancing, improving and expanding mechanisms to provide durable solutions for forcibly displaced people has rapidly increased in urgency.

The solutions for forcibly displaced people in part depends on the nature of their displacement. As the chart below shows, forcibly displaced persons around the globe can be grouped into four main categories. Internally displaced persons (IDPs) make up nearly two-thirds of the total number of forcibly displaced people. IDPs fled their homes because of violence, but did not cross an international boundary. A little over one-quarter of the world’s forcibly displaced persons, meanwhile, meet the refugee definition set out by the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. The convention defines refugees as persons who have a well-founded fear of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group and are outside of their country of citizenship or habitual residence. A smaller group of the world’s forcibly displaced persons are asylum seekers, refugees awaiting decisions on their applications to stay in the country to which they have fled. Finally, the more than five million Palestinian refugees globally fall within their own category. Their initial displacement predates the 1951 refugee convention and so the protection mandate of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) does not extend to them. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) addresses the humanitarian needs of Palestinian refugees; since the early 1950s, however, no United Nations agency has actively worked for durable solutions for Palestinian refugees.

number of displaced

As part of its protection mandate, UNHCR explores three types of durable solutions for persons meeting the convention’s definition of refugee: repatriation to one’s home country, local integration into the first country of asylum and resettlement to a third country. This issue of Intersections explores some of the challenges and opportunities of refugee resettlement.

Refugee resettlement is by no means the only durable solution for refugees promoted by MCC, its partners or global organizations. In many countries around the world, MCC works with local partner organizations to support displaced peoples in efforts to return to their homes or to stay closer to their homes. Meanwhile, through peacebuilding, livelihoods, food security, humanitarian response and other programs, MCC and its partners work to prevent the creation of refugees. Given the staggeringly large number of refugees globally and the comparatively limited number of resettlement placements, refugee resettlement cannot be the primary way the international community seeks to respond to the global refugee crisis. Nevertheless, refugee resettlement, alongside voluntary repatriation and local integration into host countries, represents an important tool for addressing the global refugee crisis.

Refugees themselves look at resettlement in different ways. For some, resettlement to a third country can feel like a denial of their true being and identity, which are inextricably tied to the land they left. For these refugees, voluntary repatriation to the land from which they were displaced may be the preferred solution. For others, resettlement appears as the only hope for a future.

In 2003, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR, also known as the UN Refugee Agency) began promoting the “strategic use of resettlement.” A central idea of this approach is that resettlement countries will demonstrate “burden sharing” (now called “responsibility sharing”) with the countries of first asylum who host the bulk of the refugees globally. So, for example, countries like the United States and Canada would share the responsibility of addressing the needs of Syrian refugees, the majority of whom have found first asylum in countries such as Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon.

The results of the “strategic use of resettlement” approach have been mixed. Selection of the most vulnerable refugees is challenging, while the task of integrating vulnerable refugees can be difficult for resettlement countries. Still, resettlement has remained an important part of the response to forced displacement globally. Access to other solutions seems to be dwindling as more conflicts drag on and appear intractable, making prospects of repatriation seem dim, and with host countries like Jordan buckling under the burden of more refugees.

MCC has a long history of supporting refugee resettlement, including support for Mennonite refugees from Europe to the U.S. and Canada. In 1979, in response to the war in Vietnam, MCC Canada became the first agency in Canada to sign a Master Agreement with the government of Canada to sponsor refugees as an organization. More recently, the refugee crisis related to conflict in Syria and Iraq has generated significant interest in refugee sponsorship again. Between September 2015 to July 2017, MCC Canada submitted 2,349 new applications to sponsor refugees, with 2,367 MCC-sponsored refugees arriving in Canada within that same period. This represents more than a tenfold increase in annual arrivals from 2014 to 2016.

Two key issues define the refugee resettlement challenge: selection and integration. While the UNHCR estimates that about 1.1 million of the 22.5 million refugees in the world require resettlement in both 2017 and 2018, only about 10% will have the opportunity for resettlement. These sobering numbers can make selection of refugees for resettlement extremely challenging. Those who do get resettled usually face a range of challenges in becoming integrated into their new home communities.

The articles in this issue examine the challenges of both selection and integration. Barbara Treviranus, who has extensive experience making difficult selection decisions as a UNHCR resettlement officer and as a Sponsorship Agreement Holder representative in Canada, writes about the current challenges in an environment in which the number of refugees is increasing and the number of resettlement spaces appears set to shrink. Nathan Toews explores a unique situation in which a partnership developed by Mennonite churches in Colombia and Canada and facilitated by MCC addressed the resettlement needs of internally displaced Colombians. The remaining articles by Saulo Padilla, Katie Froese, Shalom Wiebe, Stephanie Dyck and Christine Baer examine different dimensions of the challenges and opportunities facing efforts to support resettled refugees as they integrate into their new communities. Taken together, these articles help us think through the opportunities and challenges for Christians in Canada and the United States to respond to the biblical call to welcome the stranger (Matthew 25:35) through refugee resettlement.

Brian Dyck is the migration and resettlement program coordinator for MCC Canada. He is also chair of the Canadian Refugee Sponsorship Agreement Holder Association.

Learn more

Epp-Tiessen, Esther. Mennonite Central Committee in Canada: A History. Winnipeg, Manitoba: CMU Press, 2013.

Epp-Tiessen, Esther. “Tensions in MCC Canada’s Resettlement of Vietnamese Refugees.” Intersections: MCC Theory and Practice Quarterly 5/2 (2017): 11-13.

Molloy, Michael J., Peter Duschinsky, Kurt F. Jensen and Robert J. Shalka. Running on Empty: Canada and the Indochinese Refugees, 1975-1980. Montreal & Kingston: McGill Queens University Press, 2017.

 UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The Strategic Use of Resettlement: A Discussion Paper Prepared by the Working Group on Resettlement). June, 2003. Available at:

Churches working against climate change: four case studies


[Individual articles from the Summer 2017 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Since its inception a decade ago, Mennonite Creation Care Network has called congregations in Mennonite Church USA (MC USA) and Mennonite Church Canada to respond to environmental crises with reflection, repentance and action. While the Network has not focused its efforts specifically on climate change, some of its congregations have embraced the issue. Over the past ten years, Mennonite congregations have installed solar panels, challenged their members to reduce personal carbon consumption, made local ecosystems more resilient and engaged in political action. This article investigates the factors that motivate some congregations to act while many in Canada and the U.S. still ignore the carbon counts that tick steadily upward. I interviewed representatives (including pastors, lay leaders and other congregational members) from four congregations actively responding to climate change to find out what common actions they undertook and what motivated and sustained those initiatives.

All of the churches in this study were majority white and college-educated, located in towns or cities with a university. Apart from those similarities, their contexts were quite different. Tucson’s Shalom Mennonite Fellowship bakes in the Sonoran Desert, while at First Mennonite Church in Edmonton, Alberta, people joke that global warming is a good thing. Huntington Mennonite Church is located in Newport News, Virginia—one of the communities in the U.S. most vulnerable to sea level rise. Park View Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia, nestles in the Shenandoah Valley and draws strength from ideas and activities at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU).

The Park View and Huntington congregations have focused their environmental efforts specifically on climate change. Both churches aim to become completely independent of fossil fuels in the future and are approaching the issue systematically. At First Mennonite and Shalom, efforts have included climate change discussions, but have been focused more broadly. Most notable climate-related activities included an eco-footprint group at First Mennonite and water conservation measures at Shalom in response to increasing drought.

Each of the congregations interviewed share three characteristics that supported climate change action. First, each church has benefited from the leadership of a pastor with a long-term interest in creation care paired with one or more lay leaders with relevant professional expertise. At First Mennonite, the pairing involved a pastor with extensive experience in camp settings and an environmental sociologist. At Huntington, a NASA scientist whose job includes climate modeling teamed up with a pastor who “understood climate change from a theological perspective.” At Harrisonburg, a pastor who shared that “Creation care has been an interest of mine as long as I can remember” worked with a business professor who researches sustainability. Shalom’s pastor brought ten years of experience as the director of Christian Peacemaker Teams to her role. “It was work that CPT does in partnering with First Nations that made me understand how care of the earth and care of human rights are really the same thing,” she reported. Lay leaders at this church include a specialist in watershed management and several scientists who contributed to the congregation’s level of comfort with climate change science. While respondents were quick to state that their accomplishments were congregation-wide efforts, these teams were blessed with skilled pastoral and lay leadership.

Second, each of the congregations displayed an ability to integrate deeply held faith concepts with contemporary issues. A lay leader at First Mennonite told about the significance of God as Creator to his own conversion to Christianity and his ongoing work with climate change. A Shalom congregation member applied the language of stewardship to the congregation’s stormwater project, reflecting, “I believe God calls us to use science as a tool, to use religion as a tool and to put them together in some way that reflects reality, not what’s convenient for me.” Park View’s climate change reparations policy, meanwhile, reflects the congregation’s commitment to mirror God’s love and care for creation and God’s love and care for the vulnerable and poor of the world.” The Huntington survey respondent highlighted Jesus’ relationship with creation as a model for the church’s action today. Respondents expressed these convictions in a faith language accessible to other churches.

Third, respondents from each of the congregations recognized climate change as a threat to themselves or to people to whom they felt a connection. For Huntington residents living near the coast, rising sea levels are local issues. Shalom members described the drought they lived with and the ways climate change played into the plight of immigrants supported by the congregation. International students from EMU and the overseas experiences of Park View members connected the church to areas vulnerable to climate change. For First Mennonite, the issue was prominent in a different way. One respondent explained:

In Alberta, there’s lots of talk about the oil and gas basis for the economy. That raises the question of what we’re going to do about our carbon emissions. But people both inside and outside of our church rely on resource extraction. It frames the conversation and impacts how we look at things. We realize people’s livelihoods are part of this.

One way or another, climate change touched each of these congregations directly, propelling them towards climate action.

Findings from this study offer encouragement for people of faith hoping the church will put its moral weight behind climate change efforts. First, many people are ready to confront climate change. A survey created by the Center for Sustainable Climate Solutions, a program recently launched at EMU in collaboration with MCC and Goshen College, gauged responses to climate change within the Mennonite community. Almost two-thirds of MC USA respondents said they were alarmed by or concerned about climate change. This finding suggests that the majority of MC USA members are ready to engage climate change issues if provided with good leadership.

Second, effective communication goes a long way in enhancing support for climate change action. None of the four congregations reported conflict related to their climate change initiatives, possibly because their leaders were good communicators. Leaders used a variety of ways to communicate about initiatives and keep them on the front burner. These included announcements, children’s time, sermons and projects requiring hands-on labor from many volunteers. Furthermore, despite advanced levels of education, leaders explained the theological rationales for their climate change work in accessible language.

Finally, the study underscores the importance of leadership development. Both future pastors and potential environmental professionals now have opportunities to learn in faith-based settings where creation care is a priority. Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) expresses its desire to work at climate change through membership in the Seminary Stewardship Alliance, through curricular initiatives and by drawing energy from a large solar installation. Undergraduate opportunities abound, such as the three sustainability majors that Goshen College launched this year: these courses of study have the potential to develop more creation care leaders like the ones represented in this study.

For the Mennonite Creation Care Network, the most noteworthy finding from this congregational study is the conclusion that efforts to mobilize congregations to climate change action should focus more deliberately on pastors and their role as moral leaders and eco-theologians, as well as on environmental professionals within congregations. Secondly, the above research confirms the Network’s big-tent approach that encourages congregations to work at creation care in ways relevant to their own contexts. If people are motivated by threats they take personally, the most effective question for a congregation to ask may not be, “How can we fight climate change?” but rather, “What environmental concerns threaten us?” A zealous attack on air pollution will bring with it climate change benefits even if the motivator was childhood asthma, not a more abstract desire for carbon reduction. Healthy farms can sequester carbon no matter if the farmer fears climate change or soil erosion. By focusing on engaging pastors in creation care and encouraging congregations to find personal motivation for working on environmental issues, Mennonite Creation Care Network and other faith-based organizations can help to develop the characteristics within church congregations that lead to climate change action.

Jennifer Halteman Schrock is leader of Mennonite Creation Care Network and communications manager at Goshen College’s Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center.

Learn more

Mennonite Creation Care Network. Available at

Park View Mennonite Church. “Creation Care Council.” Available at

Park View Mennonite Church. “Approach to Climate Emissions.” (September 2015). Available at

Mennonite Creation Care Network. “Virginia Church Pays Climate Change Reparations” (April 2017). Available at

Mennonite Creation Care Network. “Net Zero Energy Grants” (n.d.) Available at

Stella, Rachel. “Virginians Put a Charge into Creation Care.” Mennonite World Review (August 2016). Available at

 Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. “Creation Care Efforts at AMBS.” Available at

Center for Sustainable Climate Solutions. Available at

Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. “Global Warming’s Six Americas.” (2008). Available at

The Green Climate Fund


[Individual articles from the Summer 2017 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

The greatest suffering from climate change impacts is being felt by those who already feel the most need—and who are the least equipped to respond effectively. These vulnerable communities are also the least responsible for causing climate change. Wealthy nations, including the United States, bear the greatest responsibility for climate change and therefore have a moral obligation to repair the damage and help communities adapt to new realities. In recognition of this moral obligation, MCC and other faith-based organizations have advocated strongly for increased U.S. government funding for international programs to help low-income communities adapt to the impact of climate change.

Unfortunately, the current U.S. administration has not only promised to halt funding for international adaptation efforts, but recently announced it would pull the U.S. out of the Paris accord, an international agreement on climate change mitigation and adaptation formulated within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and signed by all but two of the world’s countries.

Working with faith-based partners in Washington, D.C., MCC staff advocate directly to U.S. government officials and also work to educate constituents on the need for adaptation assistance, encouraging them to advocate to their members of Congress. In recent years, much of this advocacy has focused on the Green Climate Fund (GCF). In 2014, the U.S. pledged $3 billion to the GCF, but, in every year since, it has been an uphill struggle to secure congressional approval for these funds. Meanwhile, although the faith community has continued to support the GCF, a growing tension has emerged within faith-based climate change advocacy efforts between advocating for continued funding and at the same time criticizing the fund’s shortcomings.

The Green Climate Fund was created in 2010 by the UNFCCC. Currently one of several existing mechanisms for multilateral financing for climate-related projects, the GCF is expected to become the main mechanism for such financing in future years. The GCF is not an agency of the United Nations, but is a legally independent institution accountable to the UNFCCC. The fund is intended to be part of a paradigm-shifting, transformative response to climate change, implementing a country-driven, gender-sensitive approach to mitigation and adaptation.

The GCF board consists of 24 members with equal representation from “developed and developing countries.” Two civil society and two private sector representatives serve as non-voting observers to board meetings. The GCF funds projects for mitigation and adaptation efforts as well as for technology transfer and capacity building. Projects are funded through grants and concessional loans from the GCF, often in combination with local public or private sector funding. The World Bank is the interim trustee for the GCF until a permanent trustee is selected through an open, competitive process.

An initial fundraising campaign collected pledges for the GCF from 37 countries totaling $10.2 billion. Funds allocated for the GCF are intended to be new financing rather than the repurposing of funds from existing development assistance programs. By 2015, the GCF had received signed contributions for more than 50 percent of pledges, reaching a benchmark to enable the fund to begin approving projects.

GCF projects focus on a variety of mitigation and adaptation efforts, including efforts to develop renewable energy, improve energy efficiency, strengthen resilience to climate change impacts and protect sustainable livelihoods. All developing country members of the UNFCCC are eligible to receive GCF funds. Funding comes through accredited entities which can include national or regional development banks, government ministries, nongovernmental organizations and other national or regional organizations that meet accreditation standards.

At the end of 2015, the GCF approved its first eight projects totaling $169 million, including an energy efficiency green bond in Latin America and an early warning system for climate-linked disasters in Malawi. In 2016, the board approved an additional $1.3 billion worth of funding, including a $166 million food security and resilience project in India for solar micro-irrigation in the vulnerable tribal areas of Odisha and a $232 million hydropower project in the Solomon Islands.

In many ways, the stated goals of the GCF align well, at least in theory, with MCC goals in areas such as stakeholder engagement, gender sensitivity, local capacity building and reaching the most vulnerable. In reality, however, GCF board members and advocates have raised concerns about safeguards, consultation and transparency.

In 2015, the GCF came under intense pressure to start funding projects but, at the same time, the board was still in the process of developing policies and procedures. One board member commented: “We are building the plane as we fly the plane.” The continued rush to keep funds flowing means that even board members complain that they do not have adequate information to assess individual projects. Civil society representatives have raised objections about some accredited funding entities (most of which are multilateral and bilateral development agencies), noting links to the fossil fuel industry, financial mismanagement and human rights abuses.

The GCF is currently using the International Finance Corporation’s social and environmental safeguards until it develops its own. These standards incorporate some good elements, but lack a strong standard for local consultation and consent and contain insufficient protections for the rights of indigenous peoples as well as for national habitats and biodiversity. In 2015, a wetlands restoration project in Peru came under criticism due to concerns over whether indigenous communities had been properly consulted. Doubts persist about the adequacy of consultation with local communities and the transparency of the project approval process.

Other concerns have involved the need for more capacity building for local institutions, the process for considering high-risk projects, the benefits of large versus smaller-scale projects, the level and types of co-funding with the private sector, definitions of adaptation and mitigation and the use of grants versus loans.

The GCF continues to work to address concerns. Internal capacity issues plagued the fund early on, but it has since significantly increased staff capacity. This expanded staffing has allowed the fund to make initial improvements in communications and transparency. The GCF is currently developing its own environmental and social safeguards and has committed to the development of an indigenous peoples policy.

The board continues to discuss how to provide more funding for building capacity at the local level. Additionally, national development agencies, such as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), have begun to reorient some funding to reinforce GCF capacity building efforts.

Going forward, U.S. government participation in funding and shaping the GCF is in doubt, particularly in light of the impending U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. Total U.S. contributions to the fund thus far total $1 billion. The current administration, however, has stated it will not fulfill the remaining $2 billion of the U.S. pledge. Until now, advocates for U.S. funding of the GCF have maintained good dialogue with the U.S. representative on the GCF board, but it is unclear whether this access will continue. MCC and its partners will continue to push for positive changes using any avenues available, including dialogue with the non-voting civil society representatives to the board.

Though the GCF very much remains a work in progress, there is space for advocacy to call the Green Climate Fund into being what it was envisioned to be—a much-needed tool for helping vulnerable communities adapt to our changing climate.

Tammy Alexander is senior legislative associate for domestic affairs in the MCC U.S. Washington Office.

Learn more

Amerasinghe, Niranjali, Joe Thwaites, Gaia Larsen, and Athena Ballesteros. The Future of the Funds: Exploring the Architecture of Multilateral Climate Finance. Washington, D.C.: World Resources Institute, 2017. Available at

GCF 101: A Comprehensive Guide on How to Access the Green Climate Fund. Available at Green Climate Fund: Projects. Available at

Green Climate Fund: Projects. Available at

Schalatek, L., Nakhooda, S. and Watson, C. Overseas Development Institute. The Green Climate Fund. In Climate Finance Fundamentals 11 (December 2015). Available at

Additional resources on U.S. environmental policy available at

National Congress of American Indians on the impact of climate change on indigenous communities. Available at

Las represas de arena: ¿proporcionan agua limpia?

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

Ubicada en la región semiárida al sureste de Nairobi, Kenia, la región conocida como Ukambani mantiene una importante población agrícola productora de maíz. Sin embargo, las pocas e inconsistentes lluvias presentan desafíos para proveer suficiente agua para los cultivos, el ganado y el uso doméstico. Las comunidades y organizaciones se han adaptado construyendo miles de represas de arena y aprovechando las condiciones de la región (suelo arenoso, pendientes variables y estaciones lluviosas y secas definidas) para recoger y almacenar agua en los cauces estacionales para su uso posterior.

Parte de la atracción de las represas de arena como solución en esta región, reside en su supuesta capacidad para filtrar el agua de lluvia a medida que se filtra a través de los poros de la arena, proporcionando no solo una fuente constante de agua, sino también una que es segura para beber. Sin embargo, esta es una suposición que no se ha probado. Recientemente, el CCM Kenia se comprometió con dos organizaciones asociadas, la Organización de Desarrollo Utooni (UDO por sus siglas en inglés) y la Fundación de Soluciones Sahelianas (SASOL por sus siglas en inglés), para analizar el agua extraída de las represas de arena para ver si era realmente limpia y segura para beber. Contrariamente a lo esperado, el agua sacada de los hoyos de arena tenía niveles consistentemente altos de bacterias coliformes fecales. Este hallazgo estimuló el reconocimiento de que se necesitan esfuerzos adicionales para garantizar el uso seguro del agua de las represas de arena. Esta experiencia con UDO y SASOL subraya la importancia de probar rigurosamente las suposiciones sobre la efectividad del proyecto: hacerlo puede revelar condiciones no reconocidas previamente, lo que a su vez puede estimular la acción para lograr mejores resultados del proyecto.

Con una población en rápido crecimiento que ejerce presión sobre los suministros de agua, las represas de arena pueden ser una solución elegante y efectiva para proporcionar agua a las comunidades en regiones semiáridas como Ukambani. Los principios de la función de las represas de arena son conceptualmente de entender, y los resultados pueden ser dramáticos. Las represas de concreto construidas a lo largo de arroyos estacionales hacen que se acumule arena gruesa detrás de la represa, y ese espacio de arena porosa de la represa se llena de agua a la que la comunidad puede acceder durante muchos meses subsiguientes de estaciones secas.

En las represas que funcionan bien, una área de vegetación verde esmeralda florece en el sitio de la represa, incluso durante buena parte de la estación seca, y los visitantes de la región pueden encontrar fácilmente ejemplos de comunidades con pasto y granos, huertos de frutas y hortalizas que dependen del agua de la represa. Una evaluación reciente realizada por el CCM en Kenia, en colaboración con UDO y SASOL, se agregó al conjunto de evidencia que describe los diversos beneficios de acceder a esta fuente de agua. Los miembros de la comunidad identificaron beneficios que variaban dramáticamente con el género y edad. Los hombres y los niños cerca de las represas de arena destacaron que el agua de las represas de arena era beneficiosa para la fabricación de ladrillos. Mientras que las niñas indicaron que un mejor acceso al agua permitía un mejor saneamiento e higiene, lo que a su vez condujo a una mejor asistencia escolar. Las mujeres, por su parte, mencionaron los beneficios del tiempo reducido necesario para obtener agua.

La arena puede ser un filtro efectivo y, de hecho, la tecnología de filtros de arena es una de las soluciones WASH ampliamente adoptadas en los proyectos WASH en todo el mundo. El agua claramente se filtra a través de la arena hacia los hoyos (agujeros simples en la arena que son el método más común usado por las comunidades para acceder al agua), lo que sugiere que las represas de arena podrían jugar un papel purificador para el agua contenida en las represas. Con la ayuda de una donación de materiales de prueba bacterianas de un constituyente del CCM con amplia experiencia en pruebas de agua, fuimos a probar este supuesto. El personal asociado keniano y estudiantes universitarios locales recibieron capacitación sobre las técnicas necesarias para responder si las represas de arena realmente purifican el agua contenida en las represas. Luego seleccionamos al azar los sitios de una lista de represas existentes y evaluamos una combinación de parámetros biofísicos y sociales relacionados con la calidad del agua en cada uno de estos sitios.

Los resultados de este estudio fueron claros: el 84% de las represas en la estación seca tenía más de 100 colonias de coliformes fecales por 100 ml. Esto está muy por encima del estándar de la Organización Mundial de la Salud para coliformes fecales (cero), y está en la categoría de riesgo alto a muy alto. Sorprendentemente, no fue estadísticamente diferente de las aguas superficiales (áreas cercanas que tenían agua estancada en la corriente o en la superficie de la presa). Estos resultados fueron consistentes con un estudio realizado por otro grupo en la región, que también encontró niveles de coliformes fecales consistentemente altos en los hoyos excavados en la arena. En conjunto, estos estudios apuntan a un peligro para la salud no reconocido previamente.

Con el conocimiento de que el agua no tratada proveniente de los hoyos de la represa de arena presenta un peligro para la salud, el CCM y sus organizaciones asociadas han trabajado para identificar posibles soluciones. Un enfoque es cambiar el método de recolección de agua usando pozos de bomba sellados en vez de hacer hoyos excavados, una solución que SASOL ya ha implementado en algunas áreas. El agua de los pozos de bombeo era en realidad mucho más limpia en promedio, pero aún mostraba contaminación por coliformes fecales en el 25% de los casos; este enfoque también tiene los desafíos bien conocidos de mantener los pozos de la bomba.

Por su parte, UDO respondió al hallazgo del agua contaminada en los hoyos mediante la implementación de un programa piloto de agua, saneamiento e higiene (WASH) en tres comunidades con el objetivo de identificar enfoques apropiados a nivel local para mejorar las medidas de salud asociadas con la calidad del agua, incluyendo la purificación del agua. Durante un período de un año, el personal de UDO trabajó con 177 hogares para ofrecer capacitación y apoyo para mejorar las instalaciones y prácticas de WASH. Algunos comportamientos de WASH sí mejoraron durante este período, como el porcentaje de hogares que practican el tratamiento del agua, que pasó de 31 a 76%.

¿Por qué el agua de las represas de arena no está limpia? Un rápido examen de la superficie de las represas de arena le da al observador pistas sobre este resultado inesperado —el área alrededor de la mayoría de las represas de arena generalmente está llena de excrementos de animales. Si bien la intención en las presas de arena es limitar el acceso del ganado a las fuentes de agua para evitar la contaminación, en la práctica esto resulta difícil de mantener, y la distancia entre el estiércol del animal y el hoyo en la arena donde se saca el agua, suele no ser muy distante. Aunque no pudimos probar específicamente si el estiércol era la fuente de la contaminación, suponemos que la contaminación se origina con este ganado, al igual que lo hace en las vías fluviales en Canadá y Estados Unidos donde el acceso del ganado no está controlado.

Quizás más desconcertante es la pregunta del por qué las personas de las aldeas y las organizaciones promotoras por igual asumieron y reiteraron que el agua de las represas de arena estaba limpia. Nuestra encuesta de comunidades que utilizan represas de arena indicó que en el 74% de las comunidades, la mayoría o todas las personas, creían que el agua estaba limpia, y en el 71% de las comunidades, la mayoría o todas las personas, no trataban el agua antes de beberla. Esto no implica que las personas estén ignorando el problema voluntariamente, o que les falte experiencia. Apunta hacia el poder de las narrativas. De hecho, el supuesto de agua limpia encaja bien con la narrativa de que las represas de arena brindan múltiples beneficios que se adaptan bien a las condiciones locales. La eficacia conocida de los filtros de arena también proporcionó una poderosa analogía, y era lógico suponer que las represas de arena funcionarían de manera similar a estos filtros de arena. Estos sesgos llevaron a suposiciones no probadas y apuntan a la importancia de las investigaciones experimentales. Al probar rigurosamente nuestras suposiciones sobre proyectos de desarrollo, podemos descubrir áreas donde nuestros sesgos y percepciones podrían llevarnos a conclusiones erróneas.

Doug Graber Neufeld es profesor de biología y director del Centro para Soluciones Climáticas Sostenibles en la Universidad Menonita del Este.

Aprende Más

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.

Adaptación exitosa de ‘Saneamiento Total liderado por la Comunidad’ al contexto haitiano

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

A pesar de décadas de ayuda extranjera específica, ha sido difícil para Haití lograr avances significativos en la reducción de enfermedades infecciosas transmitidas por el agua o en la mejora de los servicios básicos de agua, saneamiento e higiene (WASH). Si bien las estadísticas oficiales (OMS / UNICEF, 2017) informan que el 24% de las personas haitianas tienen acceso a letrinas u otros servicios sanitarios mejorados (similar al promedio mundial para los países de bajos ingresos), en la mayoría de las áreas rurales donde trabaja el CCM, menos del 5% de los hogares tienen letrinas, la defecación al aire libre es común, el lavado de manos con jabón es poco frecuente y las personas dependen de las fuentes de agua superficial no tratadas para beber y lavar. Esta combinación de desafíos ha conducido a tasas persistentemente altas de enfermedades infecciosas transmitidas por el agua (incluido el cólera), altas tasas de desnutrición y retraso del crecimiento y alta mortalidad. Según la Organización Mundial de la Salud (2016), el 41% de la carga total de enfermedad en Haití se debe a la mala infraestructura y prácticas de WASH (la decimoquinta más alta del mundo). Una de las innovaciones prometedoras en la programación WASH a nivel mundial ha sido ‘Saneamiento Total Liderado por la Comunidad’ (SANTOLIC). Este enfoque ha sido importado a Haití por los principales financiadores en los últimos años con un éxito mixto. Después del huracán Mateo en 2016, el CCM, junto con sus organizaciones asociadas locales en la región de Artibonite, puso a prueba una versión adaptada de SANTOLIC que ha sido extremadamente exitosa, lo que llevó a cero nuevos casos de cólera en el área de implementación en casi dos años desde que comenzó el proyecto (en comparación con a un estimado de 1,818 casos durante el período previo de 18 meses).

El SANTOLIC fue desarrollado en 2000 por Kamal Kar en la zona rural de Bangladesh. El enfoque fue una respuesta a décadas de fracaso en la programación de WASH, la cual solía suponer que los problemas de WASH podrían resolverse simplemente instalando infraestructura (letrinas, sistemas de agua, etc.) junto con educación de expertos no locales en temas de WASH. Con demasiada frecuencia, este enfoque condujo a un desperdicio extremo de recursos, a la subutilización / no utilización de letrinas e infraestructura de WASH, y a una mayor dependencia de los recursos y experiencia externos. SANTOLIC trabaja a nivel comunitario para facilitar un análisis local de los problemas de WASH que llevan a un compromiso de la comunidad de ponerle fin a la defecación al aire libre y un plan (a veces con subsidio externo) para desarrollar e instalar la infraestructura de saneamiento adecuada (letrinas, estaciones de lavado de manos, etc.) y hacer cumplir nuevas normas de comportamiento basadas en las prioridades de la comunidad. Cuando funciona, se ha demostrado que SANTOLIC genera la apropiación de la comunidad de los problemas y soluciones de WASH, es rentable desde la perspectiva de un donante / ONG, crea un cambio rápido en los resultados de salud y produce un cambio de comportamiento duradero a nivel comunitario. Estos hallazgos muy positivos de los primeros proyectos de SANTOLIC han dado como resultado que los principales grupos internacionales enfocados en la salud hayan promovido con gran entusiasmo el enfoque en los últimos 15 años.

Desafortunadamente, el SANTOLIC ha demostrado no ser la panacea que sus promotores esperaban. En muchos contextos, ha sido muy difícil de implementar y ha enfrentado una profunda resistencia cultural de las comunidades locales. Esta resistencia generalmente se produce por la forma en que los facilitadores de SANTOLIC movilizan a las comunidades y utilizan el poder de las normas grupales para impulsar el cambio. Específicamente, el SANTOLIC se basa en fuertes emociones negativas, como culpa, disgusto, vergüenza y miedo para hacer “reaccionar” y mover a la acción a las comunidades para que erradiquen el comportamiento “malo” de la defecación al aire libre. En algunos casos documentados, esto ha incluido gritar insultos y humillar a los “infractores” por poner en peligro a la comunidad. Como lo explica el manual de SANTOLIC, el enfoque específicamente “conmociona, disgusta y avergüenza a las personas”, ya que esto se considera ser más efectivo que los mensajes de salud positivos o sin juicios (Kar 7). Este enfoque es controvertido y, en algunos contextos, no tiene carácter cultural. Además, en casos de extrema pobreza y reconstrucción inmediata posterior al desastre, las demandas de las personas locales de asumir la responsabilidad total de los costos de los cambios de WASH pueden ser poco realistas, desaceleran innecesariamente el ritmo del cambio y potencialmente humillan y marginan aún más a las más vulnerables que son las menos capaces de hacer las inversiones necesarias.

Haití es un buen ejemplo del fracaso del SANTOLIC en los últimos años, a pesar de los millones de dólares en recursos internacionales que respaldan el modelo. Desde 2010, la lista de organizaciones que promueven el SANTOLIC en Haití afecta a todos los actores principales, desde varios ministerios del gobierno haitiano, a organismos de las Naciones Unidas, a grandes organizaciones internacionales no gubernamentales. Sin embargo, la gran mayoría de estos esfuerzos han tenido resultados decepcionantes. Una evaluación de Plan International en 2015 encontró que solo el 8% de las comunidades lograron sus objetivos de ponerle fin a la defecación al aire libre y / o lograr un acceso casi universal a las letrinas. Una evaluación similar de UNICEF en la región Artibonite (la misma área en la que trabaja el CCM, que se describe a continuación) encontró solo un 15% de éxito en el logro de sus objetivos. Ambas evaluaciones observaron una fuerte resistencia de los líderes locales, funcionarios del gobierno local, trabajadores de salud locales y comunidades participantes al enfoque basado en la vergüenza y disgusto para motivar el cambio. Otras indicaron que, si bien los principales líderes gubernamentales y de organizaciones no gubernamentales en la capital de Haití, Puerto Príncipe, habían leído la literatura de SANTOLIC y habían firmado el enfoque, la implementación local fue débil y las comunidades se negaron a aplicar las normas negativas según lo que exige el modelo. Un equipo de evaluación de UNICEF en 2012 concluyó que “el aprendizaje clave aquí es que se requiere una comprensión más minuciosa de la motivación comunitaria e individual para implementar los programas SANTOLIC en el futuro [en Haití]. Aún no se ha identificado una solución a esta dificultad” (Plan Internacional Haití, 2012).

Después del huracán Mateo en 2016, el CCM comenzó una serie de proyectos piloto de WASH en el Departamento de Artibonite ubicado en el centro de Haití. Estos proyectos utilizaron muchos elementos de SANTOLIC, pero se basaron en la tradición cultural haitiana positiva de konbit (un equivalente aproximado a la tradición Amish de construir graneros) para crear un compromiso comunitario positivo e inclusivo en lugar de adoptar un enfoque negativo basado en la vergüenza. El enfoque en la programación de WASH fue impulsado por las propias comunidades, quienes identificaron la erradicación del cólera y otras enfermedades diarreicas mortales como su prioridad número uno para el acompañamiento del CCM. Se realizó un mapeo liderado por la comunidad para identificar las áreas de captación que maximizarían el impacto en los resultados de WASH seleccionados por la comunidad (en este caso, dar prioridad a las comunidades que viven cerca y cuesta arriba de las fuentes de agua comunitarias compartidas). Los vecinos se organizaron en grupos de 10 a 15 para contribuir con la mano de obra para la construcción de letrinas (cavando hoyos, transportando y recolectando materiales disponibles localmente como madera, agua, piedras y arena), lo que permitió que las familias con discapacidad, ancianos y monoparentales participaran plenamente. Los líderes locales, funcionarios gubernamentales y profesionales de la salud se ofrecieron como voluntarios para trabajar con el personal del CCM para facilitar las reuniones comunitarias sobre la construcción y mantenimiento de letrinas, protección de las fuente de agua, higiene, prevención de enfermedades e importancia de una participación completa de la comunidad en el proyecto. El CCM contribuyó con personal local para dirigir capacitaciones y realizar visitas a domicilio y subsidió la compra de algunos suministros de letrinas (cemento, techos metálicos y tuberías).

Esta fase del proyecto se expandió varias veces, ya que las comunidades vecinas solicitaron participar después de ver la reducción de las tasas de infección y el fuerte compromiso de la comunidad. Observando el éxito de este trabajo, un proyecto de seguimiento que funciona a nivel de la comuna (equivalente a un condado en los Estados Unidos) reunió a voluntarios de los hospitales locales, la autoridad de agua local, el departamento de salud pública, todas las escuelas primarias locales, los comités locales de respuesta a desastres y el gobierno local para implementar una versión a mayor escala de este trabajo. Esta segunda fase del proyecto utilizó un enfoque similar a los proyectos anteriores, pero también incluyó obtener el apoyo voluntario de las 213 escuelas primarias de la comuna (que representan a 26,068 estudiantes) para instalar instalaciones de lavado de manos sanitarias y estaciones de agua potable filtrada y proporcionar educación recurrente al estudiantado sobre temas de WASH.

Si bien la causalidad directa es imposible de demostrar, las tasas de enfermedades infecciosas transmitidas por el agua, incluyendo el cólera, se han desplomado en la zona de captación del proyecto desde que comenzó esta intervención de WASH. En los 18 meses anteriores al inicio del proyecto, en esta área se registraron 1,818 casos de cólera. En los 18 meses siguientes a la implementación han sido cero. Al adaptar el enfoque de SANTOLIC al contexto local y escuchar las prioridades culturales locales de respeto, inclusión, participación positiva del grupo y solidaridad mutua, el proyecto logró un rápido éxito en lograr un cambio duradero, reunir un fuerte apoyo y participación de la comunidad, mantener los costos bajos y promover una mayor cohesión y cooperación de la comunidad. A medida que las organizaciones buscan implementar modelos de “mejores prácticas” como el SANTOLIC, la lección de Haití ha sido tomar en serio el contexto cultural y adaptarse cuidadosamente.

Paul Shetler Fast es coordinador de salud del CCM y vive en Puerto Príncipe, Haití.

Aprende Más

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

Comités de usuarios de agua potable: impacto sostenido en Nepal

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

Las historias de grifos de agua en mal estado, tuberías rotas y equipos oxidados sin medios de reparación son comunes en el mundo del desarrollo. Para ayudar a garantizar el impacto duradero de las iniciativas de agua, saneamiento e higiene (WASH), es fundamental incorporar mecanismos a nivel comunitario para el monitoreo y mantenimiento a largo plazo en el diseño del proyecto. En Nepal, los actores gubernamentales y no gubernamentales colaboran para crear comités de usuarios en las aldeas que brindan apoyo técnico para las iniciativas de WASH, recolectan sistemáticamente dinero para las reparaciones de infraestructura de agua y cultivan la apropiación comunitaria de los sistemas de agua potable y saneamiento.


Aldea Kupchet, distrito de Dhading, Nepal

La aldea de Kupchet—la comunidad más al norte del distrito de Dhading antes de llegar a la frontera montañosa de Nepal con la región tibetana de China—presenta un ejemplo de una comunidad que ha desarrollado un comité de usuarios para sostener los planes de agua potable apoyados por el CCM y su organización asociada Shanti Nepal. Mientras que otra organización había construido previamente varios grifos de agua en la aldea, los años de uso, agravados por el devastador terremoto de 2015 en Nepal, dejaron los grifos en gran medida disfuncionales. Con el aporte técnico y el trabajo de inspección realizado inicialmente por el equipo de Shanti Nepal, Kupchet ahora recibe agua de una fuente limpia en la cima de una colina empinada que se eleva sobre la aldea. El agua fluye a través de tuberías de 230 metros de largo conectadas a un cable suspendido a lo largo de un cañón profundo y rocoso, una hazaña de ingeniería considerada imposible en estudios anteriores. La subsiguiente formación de un comité de usuarios de agua potable ahora permite un impacto continuo en una comunidad aislada que se encuentra a varios días de caminata desde la carretera más cercana. La historia de Kupchet destaca las mejores prácticas clave y los aprendizajes de los muchos años de participación de Shanti Nepal en los comités de usuarios de agua potable.


Sistema de cable / tubería de Kupchet.

Primero, los comités de usuarios ofrecen un medio local, inmediato y rentable de apoyo técnico. Shanti Nepal pagó por dos personas del comité de siete miembros de Kupchet para asistir a un curso básico de construcción y reparación de tuberías de agua. Estos miembros fueron seleccionados en base a su experiencia previa relevante relacionada con la construcción. Los dos aprendices luego lideraron los procesos de construcción e instalación del nuevo sistema de agua, siguiendo el diseño de los ingenieros y técnicos líderes de Shanti Nepal. La participación activa desde las etapas iniciales de la implementación del proyecto permite a los miembros del comité de usuarios comprender más profundamente el propósito y diseño de los esquemas de agua y saneamiento, desarrollar un buen ojo para monitorear la infraestructura regularmente y adquirir habilidades críticas en el mantenimiento y reparación. Las reparaciones que van más allá de la capacidad del conjunto de habilidades de los miembros del comité de usuarios pueden recibir apoyo de Shanti Nepal o ser subcontratadas a otros técnicos. En tales casos, los comités de usuarios desempeñan un papel clave en la conexión con los organismos del gobierno local (en el caso de Nepal, las oficinas de los distritos y municipios) que pueden contribuir a las reparaciones importantes.

En segundo lugar, los comités de usuarios aseguran un mantenimiento adecuado de la infraestructura a través de la recaudación regular y sitemática de tarifas de todos los hogares que se benefician de los sistemas de agua y saneamiento. En Keupchet, los 67 hogares contribuyeron 100 Rupias (aproximadamente US $ 1) por mes al comité de usuarios. Este fondo cubre el costo de las reparaciones básicas, así como el monitoreo regular del sistema de agua. A diferencia de otros sistemas de recaudación de impuestos cuyos beneficios pueden ser menos visibles a los ojos de una familia remota de la aldea, la recaudación a nivel local garantiza una mayor responsabilidad y una relación de costo-beneficio más directa.


Sr. Tak Tamang, Presidente del Comité de Agua Potable de Kupchet

Finalmente, la influencia de los miembros del comité de usuarios genera un impulso hacia la apropiación colectiva de toda la comunidad de los proyectos de agua y saneamiento. El Dr. Krishna Man Shakya, director ejecutivo de Shanti Nepal, investigó los proyectos de WASH para sus estudios de doctorado en salud pública y explica que “los comités de usuarios institucionalizan la participación de la comunidad y también contribuyen al desarrollo del liderazgo”. En el caso de Kupchet, la influencia del comité de usuarios dio como resultado que 65 personas de la aldea participaran en la instalación de las tuberías del sistema de agua. Alineadas a lo largo de un sendero inestable, estas 130 manos sujetaron el cable y la tubería mientras colgaban a lo largo del cañón y eran amarrados a pilares de cemento. Tak Tamang, presidente del comité de usuarios del sistema de agua potable, comparte que hubo muchas manos raspadas, pero nadie se quejó. Había un profundo sentimiento de orgullo y apropiación al haber instalado un sistema muy necesario a través de la fuerza colectiva de la aldea.

Al igual que en otras organizaciones basadas en la comunidad, la selección y diversidad de los miembros del comité de usuarios de WASH es clave para el impacto. Mientras que Shanti Nepal aspira a que el 30-40% de los miembros del comité sean mujeres, aquellos con antecedentes técnicos adecuados tienden a ser hombres. Tak Tamang explica que las mujeres también pueden desempeñar roles importantes en los comités, como ser tesoreras o secretarias, contribuyendo así a una mayor equidad de género.\

Si bien la participación de los comités de usuarios de agua potable brinda muchos beneficios, existen desafíos que pueden impedir el impacto del proyecto si no se abordan. De acuerdo con el Dr. Shakya, estos desafíos pueden incluir: motivar a los miembros del comité a monitorear constantemente los sistemas de agua, enseñarles a manejar los fondos de manera transparente y movilizar a todos los usuarios para que tengan una sensación de propiedad a largo plazo del sistema a fin de mantenerse al día con las reparaciones. Al igual que con cualquier esquema de infraestructura, los sistemas comunitarios de agua potable pueden crear o agravar conflictos relacionados con el uso, drenaje y mantenimiento del agua. Si bien un análisis exhaustivo de los conflictos en la fase de diseño del proyecto ayuda a reducir este riesgo, los miembros del comité de usuarios pueden encontrar el desafío de tratar a todos los usuarios con imparcialidad y equidad. A pesar de estos desafíos, Shanti Nepal y el CCM han encontrado que, cuando se combina un diseño de proyecto bien pensado y niveles adecuados de apoyo, los comités de usuarios de WASH que monitorean los sistemas de agua potable a nivel comunitario en Nepal contribuyen significativamente al uso y mantenimiento a largo plazo de los sistemas de agua y a la sostenibilidad de los resultados del saneamiento e higiene.

Daphne Fowler se desempeña como representante del CCM para su programa de Nepal y vive en Katmandú.


Los miembros de la comunidad de Kupchet celebran la apertura del nuevo sistema de agua, así como una nueva clínica de atención primaria de salud.

WASH como parte de un plan de desarrollo comunitario integrado en Nicaragua

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

En 1984, un grupo de estudiantes universitarios nicaragüenses que se sintieron llamados a enfatizar su fe en acción fundaron la organización Acción Médica Cristiana (AMC). Este grupo de médicos y otros profesionales de la salud comenzaron compartiendo sus dones en medicina a través de la atención médica móvil en las áreas rurales y devastadas por la guerra en Nicaragua. En octubre de 1988, luego de su respuesta humanitaria al huracán Juana, AMC comenzó una presencia más permanente en las regiones caribeñas del país. Inicialmente, la respuesta de AMC a las necesidades de salud fue principalmente clínica, pero a medida que pasaba el tiempo, la organización reconoció la necesidad de un modelo de desarrollo comunitario más holístico, y en 1990 AMC cambió hacia la prevención y promoción de la salud comunitaria. La atención a la necesidad básica de agua limpia y saneamiento fue una parte central de este cambio. Los líderes y el personal de AMC observaron que, sin agua limpia, la atención médica era solo una solución a corto plazo para las comunidades. En los años que siguieron, los líderes de AMC incluyeron intervenciones de agua, saneamiento e higiene (WASH) en el plan estratégico de la organización. AMC utiliza un enfoque holístico que integra los proyectos WASH en sus estrategias de desarrollo comunitario más amplias. Un principio adicional para AMC es que la educación y la infraestructura de WASH vayan de la mano. AMC ha disfrutado de éxitos y ha enfrentado desafíos al incorporar las estrategias WASH en su alcance de salud y desarrollo.

En los últimos treinta años, AMC se ha centrado principalmente en las comunidades rurales de las Regiones Autónomas del Caribe de Nicaragua. Estas regiones albergan muchos de los municipios más pobres del país, donde los sistemas de agua potable y saneamiento son limitados. Las causas principales de la desnutrición y deshidratación en las regiones incluyen enfermedades transmitidas por el agua, que hacen que las intervenciones de WASH sean esenciales. AMC se ha expandido a otras áreas de desarrollo más allá de WASH, pero por causa de la disponibilidad limitada continua de infraestructura de agua potable y saneamiento, AMC ha trabajado para mantener el WASH en su plan estratégico. Al mismo tiempo, AMC colabora y aboga estrechamente con los gobiernos locales y municipales en las iniciativas de WASH a medida que se implementan más regulaciones gubernamentales y el acceso al agua potable y saneamiento se convierte en una prioridad dentro de la esfera pública, lo que destaca que el éxito de las iniciativas de WASH es crucial para el éxito y sostenibilidad global de los resultados de la salud en general.

La filosofía de AMC de que los proyectos de WASH son una estrategia básica de desarrollo comunitario ha llevado a la organización a incorporar WASH en varios niveles de su trabajo. AMC utiliza un modelo holístico en el que la infraestructura, educación, construcción de paz y espiritualidad se entrelazan. Actualmente, el CCM se está asociando con AMC tanto en WASH como en proyectos educativos en y alrededor de la ciudad de Bluefields en la Región de la Costa Caribe Autónoma del Sur. El enfoque de AMC es invertir a nivel comunitario, especialmente en las escuelas. El apoyo a la educación sin ninguna ayuda para abordar la infraestructura escolar, a menudo, es recibido por las comunidades como poco profundo e insuficiente, ya que las escuelas en esta región de Nicaragua tienen necesidades de infraestructura importantes, incluyendo infraestructura de WASH, como pozos para que las escuelas tengan acceso a agua potable. Al mismo tiempo, la construcción de pozos sin educación ha provocado contaminación y deterioro. Desde la perspectiva de AMC, la infraestructura y educación deben ir de la mano.

AMC trabaja arduamente para integrar e involucrar a los miembros de la comunidad desde el diseño del proyecto hasta la implementación, monitoreo y evaluación. La experiencia de AMC muestra que la participación de la comunidad es fundamental para el éxito de cualquier proyecto de desarrollo. Esta participación asegura la apropiación de la comunidad. AMC también trabaja junto con la comunidad para garantizar que cualquier sistema o herramienta que se ofrezca sea adecuado para la ubicación. Por ejemplo, una comunidad con solo electricidad esporádica puede beneficiarse más de una bomba manual en un pozo que de una eléctrica.

Los miembros de la comunidad también están involucrados en el trabajo manual del proyecto. Gerardo Gutiérrez, Director de Proyectos de AMC, cuenta la historia de una comunidad donde los hombres no estaban interesados en ayudar con el proyecto porque el sistema de almacenamiento de agua estaba ubicado en una gran colina y sentían que el trabajo era demasiado intenso. Las mujeres, sin embargo, sintieron que la necesidad de agua limpia en la comunidad era grande, ya que eran las que caminaban kilómetros hacia el río para recolectar baldes de agua para las tareas diarias. Las mujeres empezaron a tomar los tubos de plástico uno por uno por la colina y a cavar trincheras. Los hombres se sintieron avergonzados de ser superados por las mujeres y los niños y al final decidieron que también deberían unirse. El sistema de agua se completó y el proyecto ha sido administrado de forma exclusiva y exitosa por la comunidad durante 20 años, lo que demuestra la apropiación comunitaria del proyecto.

La comunidad también está facultada para tomar decisiones sobre el diseño, el proceso educativo y el comité de agua potable de la comunidad que funciona después de que los proyectos oficiales hayan finalizado. Con el aumento de la participación de la comunidad, AMC ha utilizado los aportes de la comunidad para desarrollar sistemas de agua basados en la gravedad, pozos excavados a mano y perforados y sistemas de tratamiento de agua que utilizan filtración, cloro, ozono o tratamiento ultravioleta, según el contexto y necesidad. AMC también tiene una amplia experiencia en la construcción de diferentes tipos de letrinas basadas en las condiciones geográficas y culturales del área.

Si bien el personal de AMC es positivo con respecto a sus esfuerzos, también enfrentan muchos desafíos. Continuamente trabajan para ser culturalmente sensibles en una región con una diversidad cultural sustancial. También enfrentan desafíos para fomentar la participación de la comunidad cuando otros grupos, tanto no gubernamentales como gubernamentales, llegan y realizan proyectos de forma gratuita o incluso pagando a los beneficiarios, mientras que no logran construir la apropiación de la comunidad de este tipo de iniciativas de WASH. Una preocupación importante en la región donde opera AMC es el cambio climático que está aumentando el riesgo ya elevado de desastres, especialmente inundaciones, que contaminan los suelos y destruyen la infraestructura. A pesar de esto, AMC ha sido testigo de la mejora de la salud, educación y organización comunitaria, todo como resultado de hacer de WASH parte de un modelo de desarrollo comunitario integrado. El CCM ha tenido el privilegio de trabajar con AMC en los últimos treinta años. Nosotros, como organización, hemos aprendido de sus experiencias en desarrollo comunitario y específicamente en proyectos de WASH. La colaboración de AMC con la comunidad ha sido especialmente significativa, ya que se alinea con los valores propios del CCM como organización y proporciona evidencia de los beneficios de la participación de la comunidad en los proyectos.

Rebekah Charles es representante del CCM Nicaragua. Jeannette Kelly es la coordinadora de proyectos de AMC en Bluefields, mientras que Gerardo Gutiérrez es el Director de Proyectos de AMC.