As my study abroad experience is beginning to reach its end, I can’t help but reflect on the scenes I have encountered and the stories I have heard from such a diverse spectrum of people. On one hand, looking back, it seems easy to feel despair about the current state of the world. In Vietnam, I was struck by how people had to wear air masks outside each day because of the contaminants in the air. But I was even more struck by how Westernization has caused people in Vietnam to be ashamed of their skin, wearing long sleeves and jeans in the 100-degree weather in an attempt to make themselves more “white.” In South Africa, I witnessed the very real effects of apartheid, including black communities remaining significantly more impoverished and faced with more crime than white communities; never mind the fact that there shouldn’t have been a separation between black and white communities in the first place, since “apartheid is over.”
Even in Argentina, there are so many injustices linked to global issues that cause an unimaginable amount of human suffering. Argentina also faces a huge disparity in living conditions and access to basic resources between the rich and poor. Similar to immigrants in the United States and South Africa, immigrants in Argentina face struggles of obtaining citizenship or assimilating into the country. Recognizing how these disparities have been issues across the world, I find moments where I can’t help but feel hopeless. How can problems of human suffering and lack of basic human rights even begin to be addressed when the problems seem so universal? How does one remain optimistic about creating change when there is so much politics or negativity against oneself?
Yet, while studying abroad has given me a broader perspective on the scope of world problems, it has also granted me insight into how to be part of the solution. It has demonstrated to me that, while one person can not eliminate an entire global problem, creating local solutions can make a huge difference in the lives of thousands of people and begin to inspire other communities around the world to create change. Through the power of story and sharing the successes of one community in addressing a problem, a global movement can begin.
When visiting a community impacted by environmental injustice, I witnessed the power of narrative firsthand. Isla Maciel is a low-income neighborhood in the Greater Province of Buenos Aires. It is located next to the Riachuelo River, one of the most polluted rivers in the world, and houses petroleum companies and a power plant. In Isla Maciel, not only are members of the community exposed to high amounts of environmental toxins, but they are also plagued with inadequate housing and lack of access to jobs. As one member of the community described, people live in this community because “the poor are forced to have the land that no one else wants.”
Nevertheless, the community of Isla Maciel has not succumbed to their hardships. Instead, they continue to implement their own solutions. The Isla Maciel Foundation has established “the micro-credit program” to tackle inadequate housing, “El Comedor,” a soup kitchen, and “Casa de Maria,” a “problematic substance consumption” intervention, to ensure access to basic needs. They have even created a job training program for youth, which includes a computer repair workshop, a screen printing workshop, and a healthy baking program.
During my visit to Isla Maciel, I had the opportunity to talk with the teenager who manages the screen printing workshop. It is impossible to describe how incredibly inspired I was by the light in his eyes as he discussed how the workshop made him excited for the future. Not only did the workshop mean he had an employable skill, but it also meant he had a passion that he could continue to share with other teenagers in the community.
But the narrative of resilience did not stop there. As I continued to learn about the community, the Isla Maciel Foundation continued to describe their work by telling me about the lives of community members or children whose lives they had changed. In doing so, they utilized the power of story to illustrate how local solutions can contribute to a global movement. At the end of my visit to Isla Maciel, the coordinator told us that the foundation encourages people to visit their community so that they may “defeat barriers, destigmatize communities, and form relationships with people who wouldn’t otherwise know.” In doing so, they spread knowledge of interventions and serve as a voice for similar communities around the world. And I can guarantee that they succeeded. Upon leaving the community, I told everyone about the strength and solutions of Isla Maciel, and I am still motivated to do so because I find Isla Maciel a story of hope and a testimony that meaningful change is possible.
Through Isla Maciel and my time in Argentina, it has become evident that Argentina is only one place in a global network where social justice movements begin. Around the world, communities are implementing solutions for injustices, sharing those stories through the power of narrative, and therefore creating global movements. It is also an example of why communities need to continue to advocate for their own rights and create new solutions, even if it feels as if the problem is simply too great to be solved.
As Swatties, it can be easy to become disheartened by our fight for social justice, especially as we learn about the scale of a problem or the barriers to creating change. However, it is important to remember that every action toward making a difference counts, no matter how small. By creating change locally, you are not only helping the lives of people in that community, but you are also implementing innovative solutions of change that can be scaled up across the world. Through the power of narrative, a dialogue of solutions is created, allowing innovative programs to be replicated in a larger context.