Peace Corps: 820 Days of Community Collaboration

How might we re-activate a 150-year-old train station as a community space?

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Project In a Nutshell
Mobilized youth and community members to revitalize a decaying community space.

Summary
Through collaboration with a local neighborhood association in Paraguarí, Paraguay, a Peace Corps Partnership Grant, and youth in the community, we worked to transform the community’s inactive train station into a community and cultural center.

*I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Latin American country of Paraguay from 2011-2013. The number of things I learned and the number of projects I completed during my service would be too great to fully detail here, so I will instead highlight one project that was a long-term community collaboration and representative of my work there.

Challenge
Paraguayan youth lack training and job opportunities. With a public education system that consistently rates as one of the worst globally and the majority of jobs in the capital (Asunción), young people from the interior of the country face significant challenges to success. Additionally, Paraguay continues to experience the effects of one of the longest running dictatorships in the Americas, that only ended in 1989.

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Project Team
Molly Reddy, Nestor Robelli, Perla Arce, Joaquín Aguayo, Ives Fretes, Viviana Gonzalez, Rosi Pesoa, Liz Bernal, Jazmín Franco; with project support from Vicky Foster, Amy Henschen, Stephanie Lenz, Elisa Echague, and Giancarlo Camperi, and many other Peace Corps volunteers.

The Experiment
Develop and implement a workforce training program that empowered young residents as guides of the train station and co-leaders of the community design process.

Train station

Process
Pursuing an initial interest manifested by the train station’s neighborhood commission, whom I had worked with before, I suddenly ran into major roadblocks to make the project happen. In Paraguay they say, “We have to see it to believe it.” I soon realized that youth in the community had the greatest potential as collaborators, as they were open to the ambiguity of a human-centered design process.

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With many collaborators, I trained youth to be cultural facilitators and tour guides at the train station, in exchange for a modest stipend. During our training retreat, I listened into the wee hours of the morning as the newly selected youth team discussed strategies to develop citizens into change agents of Paraguayan society, utilizing public space as the meeting ground.

IDDS15We connected with a Paraguayan organization that defended and promoted public spaces, who provided us with more training on best practices. The youth worked tirelessly to turn their vision into a reality–launching a theater group, a film class, a self-esteem focused club for young girls, collected donations to open a library, hosted monthly cultural festivals, and began to receive visitors from around Paraguay and neighboring countries.

Lessons Learned
It was difficult to plan for the bureaucracy and the commonplace small corruption that frequently occurs in collaborating with associations or government entities in Paraguay. 

trainstation 2

The Results
One member of the team (studying to be an architect in the capital, who came home every weekend to work at the train station) designed costumes and the board for the first live chess game in all of Paraguay. The project was covered in three national newspapers and the youth finally began to feel as supported by their own city as they did by the whole country. As hundreds of visitors came to our festivals and tours, community members and proud parents confessed they never doubted our train station, their choice of words proof that the community had reclaimed the space.

The youth that I trained have continued to train in new leaders and run community events.

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