James Brenner

Learner, Go-Getter, Brother

Global Brigades Legal Empowerment Trip May 2018

“Do you care about human rights?”

“Yes, I do!” Answering the leading question rather rapidly.

Little did I know that night at the winter involvement fair how much time and effort I would commit to this club—even traveling over 1,000 miles to a foreign country. But after that first interaction with our president, I haven’t looked back.

When I first learned about venturing to Honduras to provide legal empowerment for poor, rural communities I was intrigued and jumped on the opportunity. A semester of meetings prepared us for the week-long service excursion. We spent hours learning more about Global Brigades, the national organization we were working through, and their holistic model of sustainability.

Throughout the next 10 or so weeks, the trip slid on my list of priorities due to the duress of incoming papers and exams. By the end of the school year—when pesky assignments were no more—it really hit me that I was about to leave my country, my comfort zone, and work with people enduring much more challenging situations than me.

Boarding the plane, my emotions were a mix of nerves and excitement. I honestly was bringing few expectations—doing my best to keep an open mind. This was probably because I hadn’t had the chance to engage in my bad habit of overthinking. Decisions and new situations often occupy my mind with the refusal to leave until every outcome has been carefully turned over. Employing hindsight bias and writing this post a couple of weeks after my trip, I believe it was very beneficial that I went into this life changing experience holding no preconceived notions—allowing me to remain as understanding as possible.

After being squeezed in the middle seat for seven hours, the airplane finally touched down. Thirteen of us piled out, confused, eager, and ready to lend a helping hand. We partnered with the University of Missouri. There were six Hoosiers and seven Mizzou Tigers. One could easily tell who attended what university because our groups split like oil in water that first day.

Honduran customs were a breeze. Global Brigades staff members awaited our arrival with a big sign and balloons. It’s weird looking back on it now; I clearly remember seeing the team and questioning how the week would go. We entertained some short, awkward introductions and loaded our luggage into the back of a pickup truck. Herding our group, David—the brigade leader—lead us on to the Global Brigades (GB for short) bus. There we met our translators Juan Carlos and Ylaska (they speak Spanish in Honduras). IU sat towards the front of the bus while Mizzou stayed toward the back. It was gonna be a long hour and a half bus ride to our compound if it was silent the whole way. About 20 minutes in, with Spanish music blaring in the background, I swallowed IU’s pride and turned around to ask the names of our fellow volunteers. This ignited more discussion and just like that we were already at Posada Azul—GB’s compound and our place of residence for the next week.

The compound consisted of four or five spread out buildings. Separated by tall trees and lots of stairs, the sleeping quarters were about 100 yards from the dining hall. I happened to luck out with my sleeping arrangements. Since I was the only guy in the group I had a small room of two bunk beds to myself. This granted me freedom from the early morning shower conflict and eased my fear of waking someone else up. At first, I was a little apprehensive about the lone room, wondering how it would be at night. However, I soon came to realize and appreciate the meditative value it offered. No phone. No distractions. No anxiety. Every night I went to bed in a warm state of contentment and awoke refreshed and ready to make an impact.

We arrived on a Sunday and would stay until the following Saturday. The first day we got acquainted to the compound and went over house rules. We walked to the little tienda (Spanish word for store) that they had on the premises. Hand carved knick-knacks, candy, and a mix of alcohol were the products available for consumption. My group enjoyed spending time by the tienda because outside its door stood a rock ledge that was cozy enough to sit and relax on (although the last night we saw a scorpion scurry across the ledge and I ran like a petrified puppy). Gazing out from the ledge, one is hit with both an indescribable and unpossessable view. Mountains in the distance, roaming fields, sweeping valleys, and tall verdant trees—language lacks the true capacity to capture awe.

Rain likes to follow a pattern in Honduras. It would be sunny and 75 (dry heat no mugginess like the Midwest) from dawn until dusk. Then, about 7 o’clock, it would pour until morning. It was quite peaceful laying down in the simple top bunk. The rain glazed the thin zinc roof above. A thousand thoughts began to swirl in my head that first night. Where am I? What am I going to be doing this week? A pinch of fear and loneliness crept in, but they were quickly drowned out by the soft pitter-patter of water and overwhelming amount of tiredness a full day of travel brings.

I woke up energized like never before. Sunshine seeped through the crack in the door, its light having a contagious effect on my mood and mindset. Eggs scrambled, corn tortillas, and frijoles (beans) complemented the sun rays to fill me with a sustained energy. It was time to begin helping our community.

La Concepcion—a rural, hardworking community of 160 houses—was excited to host us. Upon arrival at the simple, concrete school house, we observed children sweeping and clearing a path of entry for us. It was funny because the grounds consisted of dirt and rocks; we understood that their gesture was a sign of respect.

Everyone’s eyes latched onto us. Most community members have probably never seen so many gringos (a non-offensive term for Americans in Honduras, it can have a negative connotation in other Latin American countries) together at one time. But, smiles spread across the crowd and made our group feel welcomed. A group of about eight adults were the first to formally greet us. All were leaders of the Caja Rual—the name of their community bank. Introducing themselves and describing their responsibilities, the bank leaders put our translators fast to work.

It was then time to start our first legal clinic. Pairing with Honduran lawyers, our group split into two and began providing cost free legal advice. There’s a staggering difference between the U.S. and Latin American countries when it comes to legal accessibility. Hundreds of “call this number if *blank* happened” billboards don’t line the sides of roads. People aren’t familiar with the legal system. Many lawyers are corrupt and steal from needy people. So, the legal clinics we offered Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday morning were a huge hit. Some of the problems we heard included land registration (an overly complex process that hardly any of the generational farmers have done), name changes, divorces, and a tough case for the Caja Rual regarding a loan where a man disappeared with the money and his collateral he put down happened to be land that guess what…. wasn’t registered. My favorite intake though was a humble middle-aged man who came in wearing a Wrangler hat. He was the successful co-owner of a candy business. The company name was La Fraternidad and it had been in business for over 20 years. He was trying to get copyright of the longtime family significant name. After satisfaction with our help, he returned the next day bringing a large box stuffed to the brim with dulces (sweets). All ingredients were natural. 50 cents for one bag of candy—we bought the man out. He returned home with a wad of American dollars and our group with full bellies and unique goodies to bring back to our families.

After those morning legal clinics, we would eat lunch in an empty classroom. Food consisted of a mix between traditional Honduran dishes and American meals. The cooks at the compound, who made every meal and packed our lunches, were incredible. They were always happy to feed us and listen to our attempts at gratitude in broken Spanish.

In the afternoon of Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday we conducted our family cases. Before arriving, GB had selected three cases to work on till completion—more than just legal advice. My case involved a 25-year-old man named Sylvie. Sylvie was trying to obtain custody, or at least joint custody, of his 4-year-old son. He and the mother split up when the child was 2, but they had an agreement where the son got to spend time with both parents. One day—out of the blue—the mother stopped communicating with Sylvie and refused to let him see his son. Additionally, the last time Sylvie did see his son, the child was all scratched up. Sylvie was worried about him and wished for his son to live in a better home. The problem was that Sylvie had no proof he had been paying child support. Our lawyer suggested that he come forward to the court with a joint custody agreement; if the mother refuses to cooperate, then try for full custody. We felt confident with Sylvie’s chances and are still waiting on an update from GB.

Thursday was a bit different than our first three days in the community. Instead of doing single person legal advice, we gave a charla (chat) to the whole community. In the morning we talked to the kids about bullying. After lunch, we spoke to the adults about domestic violence. The children were sweet and wild. Hard to control, they played during most of the lesson. When it came time to talk with the adults, my group members were a little nervous about how things would go given the sensitive nature of the issue at hand. We decided it be best to split up the adults into a male and a female group. This would provide the women a safe, non-threatening environment and give them the chance to speak up about anything they felt comfortable enough to share. Since I was the only guy, my group thought it appropriate that I lead the Men’s charla. Fortunately, and to my surprise, the men were very educated and progressive in their understanding of domestic violence. They comprehend the depth of the issue, what to do if you observed it happening, and the fact that it can happen to a man as well. We then proceeded to talk about stereotypes. I asked them what it meant to be a man and what it meant to be a woman. They started out saying how a man is strong, tough, hardworking, and provides for his family. But, one guy in the front spoke up and said that women can be all of those things too. Happiness rushed over me. These men, many miles from the states, had a more open mind then a lot of stubborn Americans.

It was heartbreaking to say goodbye to our new friends. We thanked them for their generosity and welcoming attitudes. They were very appreciative of the work we did and pleaded with us to come back one day.

My buddies!!

Friday, our last full day, was spent in Tegucigalpa—the capital city of Honduras. Exploring various court rooms, a broader picture of the multifaceted legal system formed in our minds. We sat across from some of the brightest new abogados (lawyers), listening intently as their passion for law bled through case descriptions. Nesto, the head lawyer who had been traveling with us for the entirety of the week, leveraged his occupation and managed to get us a tour of the Honduran Supreme Court! Two grandiose rooms: one for work and one for notary examinations (a prestigious position in Honduras that only the most knowledgeable lawyers try to obtain). On the way out of the Supreme Court sector, we even caught a glimpse of the President’s office.

“Group 7 please board now”

The time to leave had already come. A week of joy, challenge, thought, and empathy passed quickly before me. No, that’s incorrect. It did not pass by me, like I was simply going through the motions. The week, every day, it was not dreariness. I was fully alive, deeply connected. My mind functioned on an intellectually high scale. Awareness—self and social—clarified my thoughts, helping me understand more of it, more of the Human story. How do I bring this back? I want to live like this forever, always being challenged, always serving, doing good for others by pushing my physical and intellectual limits. How do I bring this back?

Not an easy task. One I began contemplating on that melancholic plane ride; one I have been trying to wrap my head around for almost a month now. There seems to be a wide chasm between the experience and my life here—two separate people. It is hard to persevere when the overwhelming guilt of privilege and stagnation boggle me down. I know it’s a process; I also know that there are many ways to help in my local community, but the feeling that possessed me throughout the week in Honduras was powerful and unifying. Heck, it was more than a feeling! Mindset maybe? Whatever the word is, trips like this one guide me closer to the person I want to be. I hope to bring my experience with me always and let it shine through in every interaction—even if it’s just a friendly smile.

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1 Comment

  1. Nancy Keyser

    JP. Thanks for the email and the overview of your trip and work. This is amazing, but I expected nothing less from you – you are a great young man (with awesome parents too).
    Best wishes with your future pursuits, and let us know how we can support you.

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