When teenagers meet for the first time in a group setting, the result is the same, even in rural Guatemala. It’s the beginning of day 1 of the SERES “ACTIVATE” workshop that aims to inform and empower youth to change their world for the better. The girls are huddled together in small clusters, giggling quietly as the boys look down at their workbooks, shifting uncomfortably in the early morning light. It’s hard to imagine that by day 3 they would be friends working together to strengthen their communities and protect the earth.
Big-picture challenges in Guatemala
ACTIVATE workshops run once a month in various rural regions in Guatemala and El Salvador. In the rolling green hills in central Guatemala, small towns called pueblos are clustered far off the main highway up intensely winding roads that push car engines to their limits.
Garbage is scattered on the roadside like fallen leaves, marking the borders of fields of maize crops that stretch over the horizon. Adobe houses balance dangerously on small plots of land, housing up to an average of 11 family members in two rooms. Many houses lack safe drinking water and sanitation, and informal work is the norm.
In the pueblos that dot the landscape, there are few economic opportunities for the youth who make up over 60% of the population. Living in a nation with the 4th highest poverty rate in the world and one of the most susceptible regions to the effects of climate change, the work of SERES to bring young minds together to create community-led solutions is vital.
The youth-leading-youth model
Day 1 of the three-day ACTIVATE workshop begins with fun (much needed!) icebreakers. Everyone is outside standing in a circle, following crazy instructions that make them laugh out loud. Esteban, Juan and Glendy make up the team of Guatemalan youth facilitators that are running the event. They once attended this introductory workshop with SERES as young participants. They have since graduated as trained facilitators and ambassadors through the SERES leadership program.
Taking turns to speak in perfect synchronicity, the facilitators lead thegroup with warmth and compassion, connecting in a meaningful way that comes from relating to participants on cultural, social and generational levels. By the end of day 1, the participants are more at ease with each other, having shared thoughts, outlooks and laughter through various structured activities.
Uncovering the local in global environmental issues
In the following days, the leaders mix fun activities with short presentations around pressing environmental issues. Covering topics such as biodiversity, deforestation and climate change, attendees learn about the state of the natural world – the rate of deforestation, losses to biodiversity, and greenhouse gases warming the earth – and what impacts these have on the sustainability of a rapidly increasing global population.
One of the most poignant moments is when Esteban carves up an apple to show the portion of the earth which is habitable to humans. Holding a tiny strand of apple peel in his hands, the room is quiet as the importance of how we must protect our finite livable space begins to sink in.
Following this demonstration, participants learn to frame their knowledge in a local context by completing their own ecological footprint worksheet. They score their actions on their daily use of food sources, transportation, water, and energy. This newfound awareness of how local actions contribute to global environmental challenges gives them a starting point to make changes in their communities.
Creating local solutions
Once the participants gain a better understanding of global and local issues, they move to the action stage. Using SERES workbooks, they create three personal goals in their Community Action Plan, describing changes they can make every day to protect their environment and craft sustainable communities. One participant is determined to pick up 5 pieces of garbage a day to reduce river contamination. Another plans to join a reforestation project to help plant trees to clean their air. The SERES Facilitators will follow up to review how the goals were implemented, and the impacts they have made.
By day 3, the young participants bounce happily out the door with their newfound friends and fellow change-makers. Their transformation is physically visible in how closely they are connected, holding their heads higher with confidence, facing their walks home together with energetic determination. Through the SERES ACTIVATE program, they have been allowed a safe space where they, the next generation, can learn and inspire their communities to take positive actions towards protecting mother earth, Pachamama, to the benefit of all inhabitants.