Construye Tus Sueños. Build Your Dreams.
As a Community Economic Development (CED) Volunteer, one of the initiatives am expected to take part in is called Construye Tus Sueños (CTS). Peace Corps LOVES acronyms. Designed for young adults from the ages of 18-25, the course teaches business tactics, basic accounting and marketing, and the general process of creating your own business. Although our swear-in date did not give us the opportunity to participate in the course this year, we were still invited to take part in the national conference, which was amazingly inspirational. Basically, it works like this: at the end of the course, each student is encouraged to write a business plan for a potential business they would like to start. Every Dominican who submits a plan is invited to the conference, but only the top 15 are allowed to compete. The plans are all graded by us (PCVs), and the most feasible, well-thought ones are presented in front of a panel of judges (composed of micro-finance gurus, banks, business professionals, and other people of national importance) to determine a winner. Each winner wins the amount of money they have budgeted in their proposal to start their business.
This year there were about 40 young Dominicanos at the conference, and it was the highlight of my service to date. It was so overwhelmingly inspirational to see these kids with such talent and drive. In a country where everyone seems to be looking for a handout, these young adults have planned out their future and will do anything it takes to build their dreams.
But unfortunately, not everyone has that sort of drive. One of the things that Peace Corps Volunteers have to constantly battle is the assumption that as an American, you naturally have tons and tons of money. When I first got to this country, all the kids would always follow me around and say, “dame cinco! Dame cinco!” Naturally, I took it as an adorable gesture of them wanting a high five, right? Wrong. They just really wanted me to give them each five pesos. It never really bothered me too much, because who can get upset with children? But when grown adults start saying that they want you to gift them dollars, things start to get out of hand. “I know you have money in the bank, you’re American.” As extremely upsetting and off putting this attitude is, it is my job to not judge but rather to analyze the situation. Many foreigners frequent Montecristi through various organizations that specialize in “feel-good tourism” where they come and spend one week teaching English so they can claim to have saved the world. When these folks come, they generally bring things from the States and simply pass them out like candy. While I can’t say that this practice is in itself a horrible act, it presents the idea that Americans come here to give things out for free. Or that Americans always carry an iPhone in their pocket to take pictures with. Or that they never understand the local language and culture and are therefore easy prey to the “gringo tax” in stores. If you are reading this and thinking about doing a service project abroad, please do your part and be aware of the image you are creating. There are countless communities in this country where the people are so poor that they cannot afford to eat, but they all have new Abercrombie shirts and Nike shoes simply because they were given out for free by Americans with a guilt complex. So what do those people do when they have a desperate need? Wait. They wait for the next batch of gringos to come. There is quite a surplus of foreign aid organizations, but a real deficit in ones that actually care about the needs of the communities in which they serve.
Sustainability is hard. Making a measurable change in someone’s life is hard. Fighting stereotypes is hard. Acting in a way, however briefly, that confirms those stereotypes is easy. I’m not here to save the world. I’m not here to impart some great American wisdom on these people, either. I am here to make sure that Dominicans can believe in themselves. That they don’t have to rely on remittances from their cousins in “Nueva Yol.” That they don’t have to rely on handouts. That they have the resources and the know-how to make their own lives better. The big picture is there, they just have to step back and see it. Step back and build their dreams.