From my first days here in El Salvador, I started to notice a trend. People talked about initiatives and projects, but mostly they spoke about process. Everything was a process- from planning a meeting to running a program. I couldn’t escape the word.
The community organization process. The sustainable fishing process. The youth process. The sustainable agriculture process….
I’ve always been the type of person who likes results. I create check-list after check-list just to see the tasks crossed off and finished. I finish assignments, finish chores, and finish tasks, finding satisfaction in the results while forgetting or pushing aside the steps (and stress) it took to get there.
With my arrival in El Salvador last June, that desire for an end result clashed with the work culture. I quickly learned that I had to change that perspective. Sometimes tasks had an end, sometimes they didn’t but that wasn’t the most important part- the focus was on how you got there.
Without the community members working together to coordinate, meetings would never happen. Without the wetland rangers talking, training, and planning, patrols of the bay would never happen. Without community consultations, site visits, and numerous informal conversations, mangrove restoration would never happen.
It’s easy to plan a workshop, locked away in an office, on a topic you feel is relevant, but what kind of results does that bring? It gives you one morning to transfer your knowledge to the participants. If however, your focus is on the process, on building capacity in others to create community leaders who can carry out workshops on the issues they know affect the communities, the impact goes far beyond the few hours of the workshop. The change is lasting, the results become about more than just checking off your check-list.
What happens when projects fail? When initiatives become too big, too fast, or just not right? With the focus on process, you learn from those experiences, find the weaknesses, and build off of that new understanding to try again.
Many times community development becomes about check-lists. How many workshops were given? How many people were reached? How many communities? How many topics? While those indicators give us a tangible way to gauge impact, it’s not what our work in El Salvador is about. Our questions become how can we make this lasting? How can we include people to build capacity at every step of the way? How can we build off of past experience? How can we add value to the work on the ground?
These questions have come to guide my daily work, although sometimes I wander back to my checklists. After ten months living and working in the Bajo Lempa, I find myself explaining the process of soccer tournaments and the process of potable water to friends and family. As I prepare to transition back to life in the states, I take with me the knowledge and lessons I have learned here from my compañeros, and of course, my mind focused on the process of transitioning to a new International Fellow and a new adventure for me.
The time has come for me to say goodbye to the Bajo Lempa, but instead of goodbye I’ll say see you later. Thanks to EcoViva, the Mangrove Association, the communities, our allies, and our supporters- it has been a completely unforgettable experience.