Responsible aid work: Staying in tune to Feedback as a Lombard Fellow in Bogotá, Colombia
On Saturday, we asked landmine victims in a creative workshop to tell us how they felt that morning. One woman paused and stated ‘I don’t feel good… I feel real-real-good.’ We also heard “grateful,” “excited” and “joyful.”
This workshop took place in Vista Hermosa, a town in the Meta region among the most affected by landmines in Colombia. Although politicians are talking about peace, Colombia remains the second country with the most landmines after Afghanistan.
Since August, I have been on a Lombard Fellowship focused on creative peace building in Colombia. I split my time between a mural-painting project called Color Alegría in a neighborhood heavily affected by paramilitary violence, and supporting these memory reconstruction workshops as an intern with Fundación PROLONGAR.
After completing the warm-up activity, the Vista Hermosa participants perfectly articulated the symbolism of the ceramic repairing work they had done. “The glue represents a force that brings us all together. And you can see that each piece has scars, but they don’t define it. It is still beautiful.” The quick grasp of these ideas and symbols are elemental in demonstrating that creative recovery work is effective.
Receiving positive feedback is not just viscerally satisfying. It is crucial in order to ensure humanitarian work is worthwhile, cost effective, and meeting local needs. In seeking effectiveness, I always pose the question: Would the participants be better off keeping the grant money with no workshop?
In the mural-painting project I have been leading, I am thrilled to see the participants taking leadership of the process. When I first got involved with these artists in 2014, there was a simple boss-employee dynamic in place. A local Arts Foundation paid us for our hours worked on local murals. This year and last summer, we gradually gave the local artists control over the funding and operations: directing the hiring process for new artists, keeping timesheets, and running the selection of homes to paint along with the community.
Today, we hold meetings every Tuesday to work on grants and future funding. This is huge. Not only are our leading artists learning to navigate the international donor networks, they now have agency over their own life transformations. While I have helped with translation and redaction, and obtained the Dartmouth funding that got Color Alegría started, I have no doubt that this project will continue to thrive when I leave.
If we measure effectiveness by sustainability, Color Alegría is on the right path. Yesterday, while sketching a mural design, I mentioned to Jeison that I would be sad when this fellowship ends. He replied, laughing, “What are you talking about, this isn’t going to end! We have 3 grant proposals pending and Lions Club just agreed to help with more houses!” His firm assurance that this will go on is a project founder’s dream.
Since I arrived in August and we formally launched Color Alegría round two, we have furthered the scope of the project to reach larger walls and achieve more visibility. Each day there is a bigger wow factor when you reach the neighborhood, most recently with a whale painting three stories tall. We use informal methods to gauge the community’s reception – overhearing kids giggle as they guess what the next mural will be, people approaching me with ideas (Eg. “Can you paint my house like a castle? With an orchid garden?”), and hearing an old couple remark on how the whole neighborhood looks brighter with these kids’ paintings are positive indicators.
A few months back, a homeowner expressed disillusion with an abstract green and blue mural on the side of her home. While we had ensured her permission to paint, she was upset she had no say in the colors or design, which we had experimented with on the spot. From then on, we set a strict rule that no mural would be planned without input from owners, and that homeowners’ approval was crucial before painting the first stroke. These changes revived homeowners’ ownership on their murals, and had a tangible effect on community participation and satisfaction.
Working for an established NGO like Prolongar, and remaking Color Alegría each day has been an immense learning experience. As I put my Dartmouth Anthropology thesis into practice, which argued that art is crucial for creating peace in Colombia, I am also understanding responsible aid practice.
What has stood out is the need to keep a keen eye on participant feedback and tangible long-term results, particularly as an ivy-league graduate working in the heart of the Colombian conflict. It is too easy to rely on institutional praise from abroad, and I urge all future Dickey and Tucker fellows working abroad to stay in tune to local responses. No one (not my wonderful thesis advisor, Facebook commenters or future donors) is as in tune with a project’s results as the locals. So listen up and seek local criticism! Embrace change, empower participants to sustain future projects, and get stoked at all that Dartmouth funding can achieve abroad.
Watch a short video on ColorAlegría here.