Seeking Fulfillment and Being Useful to the World
As field director for the Norwalk-Nagarote Sister City Project, Sarah Proescher ’01 (social thought & political economy [STPEC] and Spanish) is part of a partnership for sustainable community development between the people of Nagarote, Nicaragua, and the Greater Norwalk Area of Connecticut. Sister City Projects are part of a diverse and broad ranging movement, and vary greatly in both methodology and practice. After arriving in Nicaragua in November 2007, Proescher set out to build bridges between these two communities. “I’m based here full-time,” she says, “but I make an annual trip to Norwalk to do outreach and offer community presentations about our work.”
The bulk of Proescher’s work, with her staff of about 20 part-time teachers, an office manager, accountant, program coordinators, and a deputy director, involves developing and implementing various program areas. Currently, they include a youth development program; a leadership development, community education and service program; a scholarship and community preschool program; and an environmental education and reforestation program. The community education and service program alone offers more than 100 local young people skills training, enrichment classes, leadership training, and life skills workshops.
At UMass Amherst, Proescher says, “I was involved in just about every cause on campus, especially stopping violence against women, the Free Trade Area of the Americas, and Plan Colombia. Still, I was overwhelmed by the academic options and had a hard time pinning myself down to any one course of study,” she recalls. “STPEC was the perfect solution, as it honored my individuality and intellectual curiosity and provided the necessary structure, combining theory with practice, to investigate the most pressing academic and personal questions: the roots of socio-economic inequality and how to develop tools to remedy and transform it.”
STPEC’s interdisciplinary curriculum, which is unique to UMass Amherst, allowed Proescher to “grow into the responsibility of taking ownership over my education and put me in the right position to make decisions based on my own personal ‘truth’ as opposed to conventional understandings of success. Engaged practitioners surrounded me. They were passionate not only about academics but also with providing the tools needed to engage in the world. Truly, UMass Amherst prepared me for the real world.”
After graduation, Proescher moved to Mexico for a year of teaching and volunteering in a variety of human rights NGOs and community-based organizations, mostly in the southern state of Chiapas. “I continued to be in touch with Professor David Mednicoff, whose course in Human Rights Law was key in helping me make sense of my observations. His guidance and encouragement made all the difference as I aligned myself with social movements and political causes,” Proescher notes.
Enrolling in the New School’s MA program in New York City, Proescher got a job as a community organizer and quickly became involved in the immigrant rights movement. “I worked on labor and education rights and health access for the city’s undocumented Latino population. I did program coordination for Asociacion Tepeyac, the Latin American integration center, and later, at Make the Road New York I formed a women’s health promotion group that offered support and orientation to pregnant immigrant women.”
Proescher loved her work in New York, but still was drawn to the challenge of addressing the root causes of international migration, displacement and socio-economic inequality. “During my last year there, I got training from Al Gore’s Climate Project and began offering the slide presentation throughout my community,” she says. “I applied to my current position largely because of our successful ‘youth environmental promoter’ model and our work in reforestation. Here in Nicaragua, decades of pesticide use and commercial agriculture has not only poisoned the land and its people, it also is the main factor in both national and international migration.”
This year Proescher’s environmental education and reforestation program has expanded. “We are now growing more than 20,000 hardwood and fruit trees, raised from seed, in our organic nursery,” Proescher explains. “Once the trees are ready to move, our kids, who are trained as environmental promoters, distribute the trees throughout Nagarote and teach community members how to care for them, the benefits of reforestation, and about climate change.” This is particularly important because Nicaragua has one of the most diverse and extensive native rain forests in the region, but it is also the most at-risk for losing them. “Poor people, undoubtedly, are the most vulnerable to this type of threat,” Proescher says. “This project engages them in the process of change that is necessary for envisioning an alternative direction and helps put them in a position to determine their own future.”
“We all learn by example,” Proescher notes, “and UMass Amherst offers exemplar models of how to engage with the world. I urge students to find challenging internships. It’s not enough to intern at a recognized NGO, for instance, if all you end up doing is filing paperwork. My heart is with the grassroots level because that’s where you get the most out of your time and experience—so don’t shut the door on the small, unknown community-based organizations which is where some of the most valuable teachings present themselves.”
Proescher is quick to note that her work is highly stressful and challenging, but deeply rewarding. “Striking a personal balance is a necessary component for performing well. With little financial reward, long hours, and personal commitments that transcend the typical 9-to-5 position, this work isn’t for everyone. It works for me though. This is where I feel myself…fulfilled and useful to the world.”
March 9, 2009