In the US and other countries where our donors live, like the UK, France, Canada, Australia, we plan our lives and expect that our plans will come to fruition. And in a civil society where institutions and systems function well enough, we have reason to believe that our lives will go as planned. We drop off the dry cleaning and the proprietor tells us it will be ready on Wednesday, and it is ready for us on Wednesday. We make dinner plans with friends for Saturday, and sure enough, we have dinner on Saturday. We plan to get the family together for a holiday, and we do.
So when I first started working in Guatemala, I found myself annoyed by a phrase I often heard from locals. I would say, for example, “Hey! You’ll be graduating from high school this year,” and the youth would say, “God willing.” And I would think to myself, “No YOU willing. God’s not going to get you through your senior year, you are.” Or I’d say, “See you next Thursday,” and I’d get the same reply and think, “Oh, for Pete’s sake, of course I’ll see you Thursday.”
But as I became more deeply involved in the lives of Guatemalans, my annoyance turned to insight and compassion. In Guatemala, you can’t count on much going as you planned. Corruption and impunity run the country. The first day of school is supposed to be January 15, but the teachers’ union strikes for a whole week. Or the government-funded daycare center where your child attends Monday through Friday while you work in the fields suddenly goes broke because the First Lady has drained the account to fund her presidential election campaign. Or a teen’s mother dies from untreated pneumonia and then the family goes into debt from the funeral and they can’t afford tuition. Life is unpredictable in Guatemala, especially on the margins of society.
And then comes the ultimate insight — life is unpredictable everywhere. None of us can know what is going to happen next. So here at Reading Village we do make plans, yes, but we are aware that they are just plans and anything could happen. As a result we practice what we call The Four Questions. It is a practice that keeps us honest and connected to what’s actually happening on the ground. It allows our work to be organic and dynamic and not constrained by what we think should happen. It keeps us open to seeing changes that we hadn’t planned for.
The Four Questions are:
1. What has happened lately that surprised you, that you never saw before?
2. Why is it important?
3. Where did it come from?
4. How, if at all, does it impact how we go forward?
We have been pleased to see our youth leaders creating a love of reading in the children they read to. And we have known for some time now that the next step is for the children to practice, to get in the habit of reading every day. We piloted a project in a school, attempting to create a 15-minute free reading period every day. And for a variety of reasons, it failed. As we were wondering what to do next, one of our Community Facilitators during a Four Questions session mentioned he’d seen that our youth leaders were taking books home and loaning them out to neighboring children. Wow! We’d never seen that before. And it’s important because it is creating a way for children to practice reading every day. It came naturally from the love of reading the teens were developing in the children, the teens’ access to books and their own initiative. So this year we are gearing up for a program we never planned — plastic bins of books in every reading promoter’s home and a means for tracking loans, so we can see how many children are reading, how many books are checked out and how often.
Thanks to Lake Atitlan Libraries and MacEwan University for funding this program. It will not only promote the habit of reading, but it further solidifies the teens’ role as the actors of change in their own villages. It was their action and initiative that set it in motion — not ours.
– Linda Smith, Founder & Executive Director of Reading Village