Building a Ciudad Alternativa

IMG_20151030_084223021 I am writing from the inside of my office space at Ciudad Alternativa, where the air conditioning is always on too high. I work alongside three great fellas–Joselin, Isaac, and Lenin–and our fantastic boss Patricia inside of the Poder Social (Social Power!) office. On most days, my coworkers are running in and out of the office with a phone in hand, calling up community leaders and inviting them to workshops or meetings.

There is a constant soundtrack to the madness–from perico ripiao to Joselin’s meditation music– that is only interrupted when Lenin finds local news or funny dance videos on Facebook. There is always lots of hot coffee placed outside our door to keep everyone going (and keep me warm), and enough of Joselin’s incense burning to enhance our mental wellbeing–or at least let us have a laugh when we poke fun at him.

I still find it incredible that I ended up here. A trip to la Zona Colonial on a weeknight with my roommate led us to run into Rafael–who my roommate had met through her job that day–a researcher for Ciudad Alternativa. Although I’m not a very aggressive networker, my Watson project is like a mosquito bite I’m forced to keep scratching. I had spent a couple of weeks visiting mostly advocacy and educational organizations that either didn’t fully understand my project or didn’t directly know any women who were survivors of intimate partner violence. Either way, two weeks had gone by and all I had to show for them were too many pamphlets and unopened PDFs crowding my inbox. So, when Rafael told me he worked directly with communities, I made my pitch. I told him a little about my project and suggested finding a way to collaborate together.

At best, I thought he could informally introduce me to the women in the communities or help find me a few contacts to interview. A couple of days after meeting him, I wrote him a detailed email about my project at his request. One week later, I was asked to come into the office to discuss my project more in depth. Well, minutes after arriving outside the bright blue building of Ciudad Alternativa, I unknowingly walked into an interview with the executive and technical directors of the organization. Turns out Rafael submitted my email as a proposal at their weekly meeting! Luckily, I had perused the organization’s website and was able to identify how my project fit with their own values and mission statement.

My hour long Watson interview definitely prepped me for this sort of impromptu smooth talking because soon enough, with pen in hand, the directors were asking me “what do you need from us?” The meeting wrapped up with introductions around the office, where I was described as the new gender researcher. I have to say, I really enjoy having this title. I’ve had my doubts about graduate school but every time I’m called a “Sociologist” and a “gender expert” a huge smile overtakes my face.

Plus, the idea that research and activism cannot coexist under one job description is completely invalidated by Ciudad Alternativa. When the office work ends around 3pm, my team heads out to the communities.  I’ve attended gatherings and listened in on local meetings with neighborhood leaders and representatives; I’ve visited their community centers and walked around their neighborhoods, witnessing the injustices that afflict them and listening to the fight behind their organizing.

In two weeks, I’ve seen and learned more about Santo Domingo and its people than I ever would have hoped to do so, on my own, in two months.

I have only one month left in the DR but I know it’s going to fly by with all the exciting work that is to come. I already designed a set of ten workshops with and for female community leaders that will start next week and I’m hoping to arrange in-depth interviews with a couple of them throughout the week. So far, I have done three interviews with women from the community of Simon Bolivar, and gatherings with three focus groups in two different communities are currently in the works.

My days are long, ending on most days past 7pm. Although I wish I had more time to write posts, do grocery shopping, cook a proper dinner, or watch a Gilmore Girls episode, I am aware that the opportunities I have at the moment are beyond amazing. I am stretching myself each day, jumping into projects and experiences head on. It’s definitely not always easy; going out of my comfort zone reveals my weaknesses, which I’m forced to acknowledge without losing confidence in myself because a constant level of assertiveness–sometimes boldness– is needed to survive this Watson year.

But I’m extremely lucky to be doing this alongside Ciudad Alternativa. I’m surrounded by a supportive group of people who are opening up paths for me and affirming my project day after day.

It really is the dream.

 SAM_5298During my interview with Yaquelin, she gave me a ride on her yola (a small boat) across the Ozama river. We stopped at a small stretch of land, where she pointed out to me the different fruit trees she herself planted for her community.
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All of last week I accompanied my team to facilitate municipality meetings. Representatives from every neighborhood got together to allocate money for projects/reparations in their communities. This picture shows some of my time on the last day, which was held place in the area where I live, Gazcue.
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Ciudad Alternativa is promoting a campaign, Casa Ya!, which aims to introduce a bill that ensures  adequate housing for the poorest communities in Santo Domingo. Over the weekend we met with a community who is currently fighting eviction threats from the government, and asked them to join in on the campaign.
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We stopped by the beach after the workshop and enjoyed fresh fish with tostones and batata. In Mexico, we eat batata (camote) boiled and with milk and sugar, since the root vegetable is sweet. I was never a fan, but the deep-fried version I had that day was better than any other type of fries I’ve ever had.
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