My Latin American Journey to Self Discovery

(This post was contributed by Guest Blogger, Organizational Development Consultant and member of our Community of Effort Donna Alonso) My “Latin American Journey to Self-Discovery” was born from a spiritual awakening I experienced during the summer of 2003, shortly after I completed my advanced degree in organization development. This incredible idea came to me as I was feeling full of gratitude for life and filled with genuine excitement about life’s possibilities. It was a simple, yet, profound moment when the intense thought became an idea that became a dream that became a calling that became my inner voice and self saying, “GO to Latin America, live, learn and be with others!”

In 2005 and 2006, I launched my self-directed immersion program to explore three distinctively different Latin American countries: Puerto Rico, Panama, and Ecuador. This was not a vacation; it was a journey – one nurtured with incredible learning experiences that evoked everlasting change within my whole being.

Prior to leaving the United States, I researched and reached out to various organizations and made arrangements to volunteer with an American non-government, non-religious organization called “Global Citizens Network” (GCN) who partners with grassroots organizations around the world. I volunteered to work in two different communities in Ecuador right outside the city’s capital of Quito. I partnered with GCN because their mission speaks to my shared values of promoting peace, justice, cross-cultural understanding and global cooperation through the sharing of resources that will enhance the quality of life around the world.

During my travels, I lived with local families and used local hostels as needed to help me make the transition between families, communities, and countries. I frequented an established travel club and briefly attended language school - both provided great local contacts. I kept a journal the entire time I traveled to help me capture a real, pure essence of what I experienced. There are so many experiences in fact that it would take pages and pages to even begin to describe what was so generously given to me from the hearts and souls of the people I lived with and grew to know as family as well as others whom I met throughout my travels.

One of my most cherished experiences was the time I spent in the dry, mountainous, desert-like, Afro-Ecuadorian community called Tumbatu. I lived with an exceptionally wise and hard working couple, Marisol and Fabian, and their two, young children. Marisol is a vibrant, resourceful and dedicated mother and wife and a strong leader in her community. Fabian is a patient, reflective and supportive father and husband and a primary worker in the community’s local farm. They are very proud homeowners especially because they actually built their home themselves. They expressed their excitement and hopes for their home improvement plans and assured me that when I returned some day, they’d have indoor plumbing and running water. Fabian worked daily on the community farm to cultivate the land that produced beans and other crops. Marisol worked three days a week as a domestic worker for another family in a larger town on the other side of the river. She showed me how to wash my clothes in the village’s natural water system and make the best three bean salad and natural papaya shake! They welcomed me into their home and treated me like family. They shared their food, their home and their stories. Stories? Ahaaa, so many!

However, with all of this, my favorite times were the evenings I spent sitting outside with Marisol and Fabian and sometimes the children after a long day simply talking and sipping warm tea and passionately discussing a variety of subjects such as, politics, history, education, culture, economics, Spanish and English vocabulary and just every day matters. They helped me better understand the complexities of Ecuadorian history and culture and gave me an awareness and perspective I could only know from actually living and experiencing their world. They told stories about their families and how they met, and they shared their hopes and dreams. We laughed, I cried, we exchanged pictures and we vowed to somehow stay in touch.

You may have questions, like, “How are you different now as a result of this journey?” Or, perhaps, “What would you recommend to people who may want to do something like this?” How am I different: I returned to the United States one year ago and since then, I’ve heard family, colleagues and friends say, “You seem different” and, when I ask for more clarity, I typically hear “You seem calm,” or “You seem at peace.” Their observations are accurate. I feel changed at the core of who I am, and, I believe this change within me is still happening! This difference is most prevalent during times of uncertainty and resistance. Who I am today feels one with what I believe and what I do.

When I was in grad school, I learned about “the gift of presence” and how you can only acquire it when you “become whole and in access to and the courage to become more and more of who you are as a unique person – to change and grow from within.” It was then when I also heard for the first time the term “use of self” and the notion of “use of self as an instrument.” I believe the long term impact to what I experienced during my Latin American Journey is in how I embrace myself, and how I use myself to impact others. And, yet, I wonder, “How do I continue to use what I’ve learned and experienced to further my own development and how do I share what I’ve learned to enhance the development of others?” As practitioners who facilitate change, we have to be willing to continuously explore and challenge our own boundaries. My intent to immerse myself in this journey to self discovery was to stretch myself in a way I’ve never experienced before. The outcome taught me to pay close attention to the emotional reactions, biases and perceptions for myself and of others.

I enjoy doing organization development work because I get satisfaction from helping organizations learn how to change their environments in a way that sustains improved impact. If as the consultant practitioner, I am the primary instrument of the OD work, then my self-directed cultural immersion project was a great success. I came away with a deeper understanding of my emotional, perceptual, and cognitive processes. My journey to self discovery was a very special gift and, yes, I’d do it again when the time is right. So, stay tuned because my journey continues as I further embrace self and willingly explore my Spanish European ancestry during my next trip – Spain, 2009.

(Donna Alonso is an independent organization development consultant working with not for profit and for profit organizations. She facilitates small and large group sessions in a way that supports inclusion, identifies emergent themes and allows respectful and appropriate space for difference. Clients appreciate Donna’s ability to connect strategic goals to performance, champion diversity initiatives, and build authentic relationships. Donna received her advanced degree in Organization Development from The American University in Washington, DC. and National Training Laboratories (NTL) Institute, Alexandria, Virginia. She’s lived and worked in Latin America and volunteered for projects designed to promote social justice and preserve the culture of indigenous communities. Donna can be reached at donnaalonso at hotmail dot com )