Quaker Education in Bolivia

The special October 2010 issue of FRIENDS JOURNAL on Friends and Education focuses usefully on Quaker schools in the United States. Friends in the United States, however, are also deeply involved with Friends education in Africa and Latin America, as well as in education outside of schools. Just within New York Yearly Meeting there are a few examples: Bolivian Quaker Education Fund (BQEF) was originally a project of Buffalo Meeting; Orchard Park Meeting sponsors the construction of a school at Crossroads Springs in Kenya; and Manhattan Meeting does the same in Dawanga, Kenya. More broadly, Friends Peace Teams engages in quite another form of education in its initiatives in Africa, Indonesia, and Latin America. Undoubtedly there is much to learn from these experiences, but I can speak with authority only about Quaker education in Bolivia. After reviewing the origins of BQEF, I will comment in more detail about the special role played by scholarships, by the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP), and by Bolivian interns in the United States.

BQEF would never have begun without the vision and insight of Bernabé Yujra.

When I first met Bernabé in 2000 and 2001, he told me that the most piercing anguish among Bolivian Quakers was that felt by young Friends in their 20s who had completed all the secondary requirements and enrolled in a university or a technical institute, but could not make ends meet and were forced to drop out with their hopes and aspirations dashed. Therefore, the first priority for any program would have to be establishing scholarships for higher education within Bolivia and liberating young people from the chains of poverty and oppression. As a result, when the BQEF office in La Paz opened in 2003, 15 young Bolivian Friends were awarded higher education scholarships—both men and women, including young Friends from the three largest yearly meetings.

A committee of Friends in Bolivia selects the recipients, with the stipulation that they be Quakers, that there be both men and women (to date there have been a few more women than men), and that some be selected from each of the three yearly meetings. The committee has used other criteria of its own: that there be genuine need, that the applicants be involved in their churches, that they demonstrate a commitment to service when they complete their professional training, and that they already be enrolled in a post-secondary program. This year BQEF is funding 40 scholarships, many with the help of sponsors in the United States and the UK, bringing the total number of recipients to about 185.

Grants to individuals can be divisive, disturbing rapport within the groups to which the individuals belong. At first, some officers of the yearly meetings complained that their members were being chosen without consultation with the yearly meeting. Then Bernabé and his scholarship committee used service to local churches as one criterion for selection of the scholars, and the method of dispensing the stipends has led to new fraternal bonds that cross the boundaries between yearly meetings. One of the cultural differences between the United States and Bolivia is that none of the scholarship recipients in Bolivia has a bank account, a credit card, or a mailing address, all of which are prohibitively expensive in Bolivia; the only practical way to distribute the awards is in cash. Once a month the recipients come together, usually over a potluck lunch, to receive their stipend. This occasion gives them a chance to renew acquaintances and share experiences, and also gives the scholarship committee a chance to monitor progress and catch problems before they become obstacles.

One of the unforeseen blessings of the scholarship program is that there is a new cluster of young Friends who are the first in their families and their meetings to become professionals. This new bonding holds great promise for future leadership in Bolivia, for the country as well as for Quakers.

In 2002, the plan for BQEF did not include AVP workshops, but AVP is now one of the strongest and fastest growing programs of BQEF. Jens Braun, a native of Ecuador and now a member of Old Chatham (N.Y.) Meeting, and I gave an AVP minisession in late November 2005, at the end of which Jens explained that it would be up to the Bolivians to form a committee to make plans for full workshops. To my astonishment, I received a report ten days later from a committee that had set dates in January for two workshops, including a location, a budget, and a preliminary list of participants! Jens and Val Liveoak (coordinator of the Latin American initiative of Friends Peace Teams) were able to travel to lead those workshops. There have been dozens of workshops since, with groups of facilitators now established in Santa Cruz and Cochabamba as well as in La Paz. Jorge Arauz, originally from Ecuador and now a member of Chestnut Hill (Pa.) Meeting, has joined Jens and Val in helping AVP get established in Bolivia; AVP is now flourishing there with local leadership.

For the first four years, all the AVP workshops were in the community, mostly among Quakers. In the summer of 2010, the local facilitators in La Paz organized three workshops in San Pedro Prison, the largest prison in Bolivia, located in the center of La Paz. The inmates want more, and the prison officials are delighted. Bernabé Yujra now writes that the budget for 2011 will need to include funds for the prison workshops.

AVP is not a school program, and in Bolivia it does not operate as part of any established educational institutions, but we are finding that it is a quintessential form of Quaker education.

From the outset we thought of exchanges or intervisitation as part of the BQEF mandate, but the details were daunting. It was easy enough to find volunteers to visit Bolivia, and they have helped enormously over the years, but teacher exchanges or student exchanges cannot work because of the vast differences in living standards. The solution became to send Bolivian teaching interns to U.S. Quaker schools. During the 2008/09 school year, two young Bolivian teachers worked in the United States at Quakers schools—Rubén Hilari at Oakwood Friends in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and Alicia Lucasi at Carolina Friends School in Durham, N.C.

Bringing over the two young Bolivians was a brilliant decision. Not only did Rubén and Alicia enrich the offerings at Oakwood and Carolina Friends, but they also did so in presentations at various Friends gatherings including the Friends General Conference Gathering in Blacksburg, Virginia. There has been a two-year hiatus in this program due to onerous new Department of Homeland Security visa procedures, but BQEF plans on having two more Bolivian interns for the 2011/12 school year. Not only did Rubén and Alicia reach out effectively to U.S. Friends, they also learned a great deal through participation in a workshop of Friends Council on Education at Pendle Hill and—in the case of Rubén—at an AVP Training for Facilitators workshop at Auburn Prison. Now that they are back in Bolivia, their experience in the United States is making a big difference in the work of BQE-Bo, the organization parallel to BQEF that Bernabé Yujra has set up in Bolivia. For example, Alicia administers the Internado, a supervised residence for secondary students in Sorata, Ruben works with volunteers visiting Bolivia, and they also ran a workshop on Quaker education that was attended by 100 Bolivian Quaker pastors. For more information about these programs, visit the website http://www.bqef.org.

Scholarships, AVP workshops, and extended working visits were not included in the education issue, so I hope these brief remarks about the experience of Bolivian Quaker education help fill out the picture of Quakers and education.