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Students put classroom learning to work for Honduran legislators

From the May 21, 2007, Princeton Weekly Bulletin

A series of meetings between a Princeton graduate student and a world-renowned musician has resulted in a training program that provided a group of Honduran legislators with a new set of tools for governing.

Last fall, John Thomas III, a graduate student in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, met Honduran Congressman Aurelio Martínez — also an accomplished singer, composer and guitarist — following his performance on Princeton's campus. Thomas mentioned that he would be in Honduras later in the semester for a policy workshop on enhancing aid effectiveness as part of his graduate program. Martínez invited Thomas to visit him in his office.

When Thomas and classmate Byron Washington reached the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, they looked up Martínez. Martínez is Garifuna, a member of a culturally distinct ethnic group descended from Africans and indigenous Caribbean people, and he was one of several Afro-Hondurans elected to Congress in 2005.

Thomas has been interested in black populations in Latin America since he was an undergraduate. He has done research on racial identity issues in the Dominican Republic and Peru.

As Martínez began discussing some of the political barriers Garifunas and other minorities face, Thomas offered up the services of his classmates. Seeing a resource, Martínez and Thomas agreed to bring the students and legislators together.

In March, Thomas and five classmates, all second-year, master in public affairs candidates in the Woodrow Wilson School, led a workshop to equip minority Honduran legislators with methods for achieving their legislative goals.

"The students undertook the workshop because of a love of the issue and a desire to know more," Thomas said. "The Woodrow Wilson School is a great environment, but you want to practice what you're learning."

Thomas, who will pursue a doctorate in race and politics in Latin America at the University of Chicago after graduating in June, organized the trip and brought together the students for their complementary talents. Some were recruited for their language skills, others had worked on democracy-building initiatives and all were interested in the political barriers the Afro-Honduran and indigenous officials in Honduras face. The team consisted of Thomas, Washington, Starynee Adams, Marcos Marrero Rivera, Suman Sureshbabu and Erin Epstein.

John Gershman, a visiting lecturer in international affairs and a clinical assistant professor at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Affairs at New York University, served as the students' adviser.

"I worked with them to help think through the agenda for the workshop, but the students really led this effort," Gershman said. "I played a supporting role."

The students conducted a brainstorming session with Gershman — who had three of them in his policy workshop — to establish a framework for the Honduras workshop. They also divided up the tasks and read up on the country for social, cultural and political context.

In March, the students traveled to coastal La Ceiba, capital of Martínez's district, Atlantida. They conducted a daylong workshop for about 20 participants, including the minister of culture, legislators and their staffs, local officials, political hopefuls and activists.

Using presentations, dialogue and group exercises, the students and officials discussed barriers to participation, constituent relations and legislative techniques. They did not attempt to provide immediate solutions to the problems; rather, they introduced tools to address broad issues. For example, the students led an exercise in which the officials planned how to enact a civil rights law and how to implement programs within the law.

"We were able to provide systematic frameworks for analyzing problems that are specific to their respective communities, which is key to them being able to become more effective legislators and community representatives," Washington said.

Adams, who went on the trip and was also in the policy class last fall, enumerated the problems the minority legislators had to overcome: little legislative experience, few qualified staff members and lack of legal training.

"Most importantly, they face a serious challenge of building alliances and garnering support for bills that will benefit their communities — communities that are among the most marginalized in Honduran society," she said.

The group included some people who were not indigenous or of African descent, and the discussions were lively and productive, Thomas said.

"You could tell dialogue was important. For the first time, people were meeting in a structured environment," he said.

The officials were pleased with the results, Thomas said. Their only grievance was that they wished they had more time.

As a gesture of gratitude, Martínez and his band performed traditional Garifuna music at a private evening concert for the students and some community leaders.

"It was a really heartfelt thing," Thomas said.

While Thomas and his classmates did not receive any academic credit for the workshop, they received funding for travel from the Program in Latin American Studies, which had organized Martínez's concert in the fall; the Woodrow Wilson School; and the Center for African American Studies. The Honduran government paid for the students' accommodations.

Several students said they expect to work with Martínez and other Honduran officials in the future. Marrero Rivera, a former Puerto Rican policy analyst who will be an assistant adviser to the governor of Puerto Rico after graduating, hopes that the trip will help him create stronger ties between Puerto Rico and Honduras.

Thomas said the trip to Honduras was another step in his academic journey.

"It helped me get a deeper understanding of the issues I'll be studying for the next five years," he said. "It had the effect of deepening the commitment I have to this process." 

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