This is going to be one of my more pedantic, academic ones, both because I’m following up on an earlier similar post and because I’ve got to synthesize two political-sciencey subjects. So, you know,
In The Grass Roots, I explained a bit about civil society, how it exists between government and private citizens, how it’s essential for a functioning democracy, how its traditional forms are ailing the world over (bowling leagues, knitting societies, clubs like the Masons and the Elks, etc.), and how many nations that fall outside the liberal-democratic range have created a kind of official or at least government-fomented simulacrum (work brigades in Cuba, official unions across the communist and fascist worlds, so on, so on). I may also have mentioned, though I don’t recall, that one of the reasons these governments create these pseudo civil societies is that they make it easier to interact with their populace.
That can be a bad thing. The Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación or SNTE (sen-tay) which counts on the mandatory membership of every schoolteacher makes it simple for the government to regulate teaching as a profession—they’ve just got to deal with the top few people at the union—and for the union to organize against said regulation—since those same few people can use the massive financial resources of the SNTE to pay rural teachers to occupy the Zócalo in Mexico City. The problem is that the union doesn’t do a whole lot for either students or all the teachers who don’t run in the higher circles of the organization.
Sometimes these constructed entities can be a good thing, or at least as good a thing as a part of a genuine civil society. Work brigades during the golden days in Cuba when Soviet money was still rolling in were a source of both mass community service and of intense social bonding, part of what knitted that country so closely together (and part of the source of the social fabric that helped to see it through the hard years after the fall of the USSR).
That post I keep mentioning talked about Ecochavos being a constructed form of civil society. The organization is the creation of my boss, Chava, and until recently it was his creature. Now the higher-ups of the National Parks Service are involved, as well as Germany’s version of USAID. In the Sierra, where I live, it’s still all Chava’s, and I want to write about some of the consequences of that artificiality.
I was pretty enamored of the movimiento (as we insist on referring to it) when I started working and when I wrote the last post, but now I’m developing reservations. Chava does a lot of maintenance. He visits each school two or three times per semester to help the groups set up their projects, to make sure they’re getting along, to facilitate elections, and to sign up new members. Each of these groups has its own coordinator, a professional teacher, who volunteered for the position. Why, then, do they need so much upkeep, and why do they fall so quickly into disrepair without it?
I was a Boy Scout from fifth grade to twelfth, and I finished at Eagle.
In all that time, our tiny, barely-established troop received zero visits from the Detroit Area Council, the regional scouting authority, and our only contact therewith was getting merit badge approvals and the final go-ahead on our Eagle applications. So why isn’t Ecochavos like that? Why do these groups need so much help, and why did we need hundreds of thousands of euros from abroad to expand the program into more states and reserves?
The answer, I think, comes in two parts. The movement is both too-constructed, too much the territory of the government, and there’s no culture here of civil societal upkeep and participation. People aren’t used to taking ownership because they’ve never had to (or even been given the opportunity). If an activity isn’t championed by some party or some government office, then it just dies out. At first I imagined that the movement was just too young, that it hadn’t yet institutionalized enough to be self-supporting. After all, Scouting has a national council to regulate troop formation, over 100 years of culture and institutional memory (and liability litigation), a thorough manual (how many other youth group handbooks start out with a section on how to avoid sexual abuse?), and a broad national understanding of the organization’s purpose and activities (a random adult wants to take your kids into the woods, no way, but a Scout Master, well, then, at least he’s been vetted by the Council and the PTA).
My thoughts weren’t wrong, because until recently we had none of that stuff, and we still don’t have most of it. But all those deficiencies together aren’t enough to explain the movement’s handicap. There was an organization almost as well put together as the Scouts here in the Sierra—the Ecoclubs.
Ecoclubs started in Argentina and spread worldwide. They’ve got a plethora of manuals and resources at their disposal, the kind of leaders’ guides and trainings that are part and parcel of what makes Scouts (what made Scouts) such a successful young men’s organization, and decades of collaboration with Peace Corps volunteers to boot.
Chava worked with Ecoclubs in the Sierra for ten years under the auspices of the Grupo Ecológico (that’s a sordid history I explored in that past blog post); he expanded until he had 65 groups and thousands of kids. It used to be a huge deal to be his president—he brought the regional council to the DR, to the US, to South America; he toured most of this hemisphere and had a hand in writing manuals not only across the Mexican Republic but the one to the north as well. Now, three years gone without his tireless and micromanagerial leadership, how are the Ecoclubs in the Sierra doing? Even with the anæmic help of the Grupo, they’re almost defunct, with not more than ten groups that exist on anything but paper. The Director of the Grupo even tried and failed to abdicate her responsibility and unilaterally add them all to Ecochavos a few months back.
Why did even a well-established organization with a decade of ties to the region fall apart overnight? To start, Chava never surrenders much leadership. We haven’t yet set up a student-run regional government for the Ecochavos, but if it works the way that any of the individual groups’ Directive Councils work, Chava’ll be making the orders and letting them filter through the puppet body. I don’t think he means to do it that way, but I’m not sure any other method occurs to him—right now, all the planning on the kids’ part is a sham. How else could every one of our thirteen groups end up with the same projects: plastic collection, vertical gardens, murals, and puppet shows?
We have these meetings where he asks the kids what their biggest environmental problem is, and when it doesn’t shoot out of them, he assigns them one by not-so-gentle suggestion. The key is that he makes them say it, he nudges them until they give him what he wants. The same happens when they’re coming up with the objectives and activities they need to tackle on the way to solving said problem. If they come up with anything unorthodox, he blows it off and moves on until they have the same litany of collections campaigns and marionettes. And then he says Ya, has me take a picture of the whiteboard, and seals the thing in stone.
The other half of the maintenance problem comes from the people. There isn’t much of a true civil society here, not one that isn’t sponsored by the municipal, state, or federal governments or the Church—and The Church here is a different thing. What the absence of legitimate voluntary citizen associations creates is a corresponding lack of initiative in my and the outlying communities, a vacuum where in the States there might be a crowd of interested teachers and parents wanting to take part not just to enrich the lives of their kids but just to have something to do other than pasear and chat on streetcorners.
The idea that out-of-school activities might be good is catching on at least in town, since my kids in high school have a certain number of extracurriculars they have to take, but they’re all run through the school. They jive with the assumption that if some’s supposed to be doing something, then an authority is going to require them to do it, provide the means to do it, and hopefully reward them for doing it.
It’s my impression that the carrot-stick approach was the one used in the old days with the Ecoclubs. The Grupo would request a certain number of students, the schools would provide them, and either gave the kids extra credit for participating or docked them for missing. Which explains the massive numbers they put up compared to our lackluster performance between meetings with Chava (and the dwindling few who come to my group, which is associated with no school and gives no time or credit for their participation, along with my lack of aptitude for teaching and youth mentoring).
In the States, even out in small rural communities like this one, it would be a strange thing for the kids to grow up uninvolved. I went through little-leagues, golf clubs, theater clubs, kayaking clubs, bands, Scouts, a Party internship, all because I wanted to (or my parents wanted me to). There’s Future Farmers of America and 4H and the Catholic Youth Association, the YMCA, the Rotary Club, day and sleepaway camps. For all that adult-oriented civil society in the States is dying out or at least going through radical change, for the young we’re still chockablock at home. And that, even the idea of it, why it might be good, how to go about it, it’s absent here.
Some of my few readers, some of my relatives, I suspect, might now start thinking down the roads I tend to discourage on this blog—the amateur anthropology that leads us to think, “Ah, yes, I agree, they’re just as lazy down south as I’ve expected,” but the thing is that they’re not, and the cultural problem is so much deeper and more historical than that. I might get into it in another post, but it goes back to goddamned colonization.
When they’re given one of the official outlets I’ve been describing, people here are just as eager to put in their time and just as energetic in doing so. It’s only that they don’t have the kind of cultural institutional memory to follow it up. And my point is that the way we’re running Ecochavos isn’t doing anything to change the situation.
I said I was going to get into politics (and I didn’t say but I was going to get into the party structure and the civil service, too), but I’m running long here, so I’ll leave it for later and tell you what I’m thinking of doing here with my Ecochavos instead.
I haven’t talked to my kids’ parents yet. At first, I didn’t call them up because I was scared and felt incapable. I’m still scared, but I could hack it now. And then I didn’t do it because all my anecdotal experience of these youth groups came from the far campo, where the kids have the run of the woods and rivers anyway, and whose parents will let them do pretty much anything with a volunteer (a male volunteer; women, especially young ones, have a harder time with this).
Now, though, it’s becoming clear to me that I don’t have the trust of the parents. Really don’t have it. I can’t get my chavos out in the day (it’s too hot, and implicitly I can’t be trusted to keep them safe from the sun) or much into the evening (who knows what I could be doing with them that late), and forget about taking them out of town without my boss (what am I, 17 years old?). Step one is to convene the Padres de las Familias. I’m going to level with them, tell them everything we’ve done and failed to do, everything like we’d like to make the group (a lot more like Scouts), and ask them what they need from me to gain that kind of trust. And I’m going to try to get them to do it with us.
Then, after we do our next big assembly, after we present the abortion of a project that our overambitious planning led us to, after I’m free from the framework we set up in June, I’m going to make some unilateral changes.
The objective of the Ecochavos movement is two-fold. They’re a support for Chava as the coordinator of Environmental Education in the Reserve, little educators who can bring the message of the office to their communities and who can help us run small projects on the side. Second, they’re supposed to be developing leadership skills and conciencia, a consciousness of the natural world, their responsibility for it and appreciation of what it does and how they relate to it. Ecochavos is successful on the first count, which is why the Germans have gotten involved—it’s tangible, it’s presentable, and the return on their investment is quantifiable. On the second count, the program’s a total failure.
Making these kids work (and I mean work—the things we do are not fun) on often trivial, often tedious projects that for the most part have no direct positive effect on the environment does nothing to endear nature to them or instill initiative in them. The reward for leadership is pure work and it barely puts them into contact with the natural world they’re ostensibly defending.
So I say fuck the projects. I’ll generate a couple of murals and puppet shows if I have to, but I want to take my kids out in it. I want them to camp in the woods, I want them to catch frogs and nurse birds, I want them to swim under waterfalls and jump off of rocks and muddy their jeans and tell stories around real, unregulated campfires. We live in one of the best-preserved parts of Mexico, and most of my charges have never gone anywhere near anything that would pass for wilderness, never seen the stars away from light, never tracked the moon across the sky or had one of those haunting midnight encounters with deer or fox.
Fuck all the rest of this, that’s what I want to give them.