Saturday, May 23, 2009

Using my privilege: Clarifications & additional thoughts

I’ve been doing some more reflecting on my last post about exploiting my privilege in my work as a human rights accompanier, and I realized that I oversimplified things quite a bit and perhaps left readers with an incorrect picture of how human rights accompaniment works. In that post I equated the treatment I receive from low-level Colombian functionaries based upon how I look with my effectiveness as a human rights accompanier in preventing harm to the members of the Peace Community. In fact, the power of accompaniment does not lie in the fact that I have blond hair and green eyes, and is only partially due to my U.S. passport (my possession of which one might guess at, but not be sure of, just by looking at me). The majority of our power is based upon all the work we do behind the scenes: meetings with local, regional and national civilian and military officials; the political lobbying and other kinds of political pressure that FOR does in the U.S.; the media coverage we generate. True, my passport gives me greater access to the offices of many Colombian officials (and of course the U.S. embassy) than most Colombians have. But without all of the work we do to open communication channels and demonstrate our ability to exert political pressure, that passport would not allow me, for example, to call up the cell phone of the general who commands the brigade that operates in this region when a combat breaks out nearby or a particular community member is threatened.

That is not to say that accompaniers of color (FOR is unique among accompaniment organizations in Colombia in that it has had several Latinos – and a Sri Lankan-American who looks Latino – serve as accompaniers) don’t have different experiences in certain situations than I do. Several years ago, for example, the road between San José and Apartadó had a paramilitary checkpoint – or at least that’s what FOR heard, because every time accompaniers traveled on the road, the checkpoint was nowhere to be found. Then one day the aforementioned Sri Lankan-American was traveling on the road without his FOR t-shirt on, and the jeep on which he was riding was stopped at the paramilitary checkpoint. Clearly, my blond hair and green eyes do have an effect on the armed actors here, but are neither necessary nor sufficient conditions to be an effective accompanier.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Using my privilege, for better or worse

Before I left for Colombia I wrote a question-and-answer post about what I would be doing in Colombia and why. At the time, I wrote:
I fully acknowledge that accompaniment presents a bit of a paradox: my privilege, based on a system of racial and cultural hierarchy that I disavow, helps keep me safe, even while I am taking on a role of solidarity. I do wrestle with this contradiction, and will like write more about it as I carry out my work in Colombia. For the time being, I will say that the role of the accompanier is not to enter people’s lives with an agenda – a way to change, educate, or “help” the community. We come with humility; the community members are the ones who are doing something amazing and we are there simply to support them in their project.

The other day I had an experience that reminded me of my promise to reflect and write about my role as a foreigner here. One of my friends in the community asked me to do a favor for her; she needed someone to pick up a couple of different official forms so she could register her son for his first year of high school (the Peace Community doesn’t have a high school, so kids have to go study in a city, usually Apartadó). She couldn’t go both because the jeep ride to and from town is relatively expensive, and because she had a big corn harvest to attend to. I was going to town anyway, so I agreed to help out.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

See first-hand what I write about: August delegation to Colombia

Visit the Peace Community and other organizations working to peacefully end the armed conflict in Colombia, and hang out with me! I'll be helping lead this delegation, so can promise that it will be fantastic.

August 15-29, 2009
Delegation to San José Peace Community, Medellín and Eastern Antioquia

Witness the incredible commitment and experience of the Peace Community of San José and other Colombian grassroots initiatives. $1500 from Bogotá. For information contact John Lindsay-Poland, To download an application, please click here.

2009 FOR Delegation to Colombia Program Highlights:

  • Travel to the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó
  • Meet with people whose family members have been killed by the US-funded Colombian army and are non-violently working for justice for these crimes.
  • Meet grassroots activists who courageously and creatively advocate for truth, justice and integral reparations.
  • Experience unparalleled access to understand both impunity and advances to justice for a massacre in San José that shocked the international community.
  • Understand the U.S. media blanket on Colombia and get a glimpse of the side of Colombian life that rarely arrives to the U.S.

Witness the incredible commitment and experience of the Peace Community of San José and other Colombian grassroots initiatives. $1500 from Bogotá. For information contact John Lindsay-Poland, To download an application, please click
click here.