SOU students visit Nicaragua

Jim Phillips and Lucy Edwards have a lot of old friends in Nicaragua. In August, they introduced their old friends to some new ones.

Phillips works as an adjunct professor of anthropology at SOU. Edwards works as a program coordinator for Ashland Fire & Rescue. From Aug. 14 to Aug. 29, the husband and wife team led five students on a two-week field school program to teach them firsthand about social and economic issues in Nicaragua.

"It's the second-poorest country in the hemisphere," Phillips said.

Phillips said that when he first announced the field school trip, he received eight responses right away, partly due to referrals from the other faculty. Some students later dropped out of the course.

The field school group consisted of anthropology student Karen Hopkins, psychology student Leah Staller, teacher Julie Hill, Ashland High School graduate Sarah Gottlieb and Phillips' and Edwards' 17-year-old son, Noah Phillips-Edwards.

"These guys were such great sports," Edwards said.

During the trip, the students visited a small, worker-owned maquiladora (free trade zone factory) in Managua that makes cotton products. The women who own and run the maquiladora sell their goods directly to buyers outside of Nicaragua.

According to Edwards, average pay in Nicaragua is $2 a day. She and Phillips said the workers in the employee-owned maquiladora do not make a higher wage, but they do have greater job security.

The field school also visited a ceramics cooperative in Ducuale Grande, a vocational school for women in Condega, a cigar factory in Esteli, a youth collective in Managua and a clinic in Acahualinca. Acahualinca is a community inside Managua's garbage dump.

Phillips and Edwards first met in Nicaragua in 1984 when they worked for Witness for Peace, a grassroots social activism organization. During their time in the country, they documented the effects of the civil war on the civilian population and accompanied journalists to war zones. Phillips and Edwards married in August of 1985 and continued working in Nicaragua afterward.

"[It was] like a big extended honeymoon in the middle of a war," Phillips said.

Phillips and Edwards first came to the community of El Lagartillo in 1985. The village, which has a population of around 120, had been attacked by contras the previous year. The connections Phillips and Edwards made in the village more than 20 years ago remain intact to this day.

A photograph from December of 1985 shows Phillips smiling broadly at an infant cradled in his arms. When Phillips returned to El Lagartillo, Emir Ochoa Casco recognized him immediately — from his own baby picture.

The Phillips-Edwards family now has a new photograph, this time of two grown men. After more than 20 years, Phillips wears the same smile.

Staller, a 22-year-old senior at Southern Oregon University, heard about the field school while taking one of Phillips' anthropology classes. She had not taken a Spanish class since high school.

"It was my first time going out of the country," she said.

According to Phillips and Edwards, many of the children they knew in El Lagartillo in the 1980s have grown up to become teachers at the local language school. The field school students studied Spanish for four hours a day during their week in El Lagartillo.

"My teacher was 2 when the contras attacked that village," Staller said.

The field school students received 4 social science credits and 2 Spanish language credits through SOU. Phillips and Edwards said they hope to lead more field schools to Nicaragua in the future.

Hill, who teaches at Griffin Creek Elementary School in Medford, plans to present her experiences to her students and co-workers. She also intends to set up a scholarship fund for students in Nicaragua.

Hill said she met a man in Nicaragua named Don Alberto, who carved sculptures into a mountainside as his life's work. According to Hill, Don Alberto repeatedly asked his visitors to sit down and rest because "we have more time than we have life."

After her experiences in Nicaragua, Hill said she can no longer buy coffee without first considering the growers who produced it.

"I've been clueless," she said. "I'm not any more."

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