Thursday, December 1, 2016

Educating the Whole Child (Nenrry - Education Grad)

It was in elementary school that Nenrry decided she would become an educator. The eldest of five children, Nenrry Vasquez Rey was born to a coca-farming family in the Afro-Bolivian community of Tocaña.

“You can see in your own educational journey the needs that exist,” Nenrry says. And, in her first experiences with education in Tocaña, a culturally unresponsive classroom left her feeling failed by the system that was meant to support her.

“As a young child, I was very aware of the fact that we in Tocaña lacked an education that encouraged us to stay and grow in our unique community.” The faces of her teachers were foreign: not a single Afro-Bolivian stood at the front of the classroom. Instead, teachers were brought in on short-term contracts from ethnically Aymara communities, located hundreds of miles away in the Bolivian highlands.  

“When your teachers, your role models, don’t know your culture, you begin to think that what you have and where you live isn’t good, that it's somehow less.”

Nenrry smiling in a La Paz café

With the goal of “filling the educational gaps” in her home community, Nenrry entered the UAC-CP in the second cohort of Primary Education majors. While at the College, she was sent to a conference on indigenous leadership in Cochabamba, Bolivia, and another on indigenous language education in Argentina. She noticed at these meetings that Afro-Latino communities were not represented, and so, together with a UAC-CP agronomy graduate, she founded CONAFRO – a national organization that supports and unites Afro-Bolivians across the nation through labor, education and human rights advocacy.

Nenrry’s work mobilizing the Afro-Bolivian community soon garnered international attention; upon graduating from the UAC-CP, she was offered a consultancy with UNICEF to conduct an educational needs analysis in Afro-Bolivian towns. This opportunity segued into a position at the Bolivian Ministry of Education, where she led the development of an Afro-Bolivian educational support plan under the Gender, Race, and Social Justice Division.

Today, Nenrry travels throughout the country, monitoring and supporting the construction of regional indigenous curricula for the Ministry of Education. She works as part of a team that monitors the implementation of a novel piece of Bolivian education legislation, which mandates that two types of curricula be used in each school: a common national curriculum, and a regional curriculum drafted by each of Bolivia’s 36 recognized indigenous groups. This model has teachers integrate an indigenous group’s cultural knowledge and history into the classroom, even if only one student is affiliated with that ethnicity. So, if an ethnically Aymaran student is in the classroom, his or her teacher would be responsible for incorporating lessons on Aymaran livelihoods, production, customs, and language into regular lessons – this would mean, for example, teaching Aymaran units of measurement in math class, and exploring Aymaran history before moving on to Bolivian history.

According to Nenrry, this law stems from the idea that all students have “distinct social needs” in the classroom. “In heavily indigenous communities, we see very high rates of desertion beginning in elementary school. A major factor contributing to this epidemic is that the education system does not respond to children as unique individuals.”

The most meaningful part of this work for Nenrry is that it enables her to support Afro-Bolivians all across the nation. Through CONAFRO, she was able to lead the development of the Afro-Bolivian regional curriculum, highlighting the knowledge that she wished she had learned as a child. “Our work allows those children studying in towns far from large Afro-Bolivian communities to know and remember their homeland.”

Nenrry dreams of taking the best practices she has learned while traveling and opening up a model school in her home community. Schools, she believes, need to provide more than a basic education. Her education center would be “a space for integral learning,” valuing music, sports, and languages together with traditional academic subjects. And it is inspired by the “whole person formation” she experienced at the UAC-CP.

“The children of Bolivia deserve a complete education that recognizes their individuality. Because the UAC-CP educated me as a whole person – as a person as well as a professional - I dare to dream this education for Bolivia's children.”

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