Leadership Development: Escuelita de las Acequias

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By Quita Ortiz

The New Mexico Acequia Association has spent the past two decades working to strengthen acequia governance. We have worked with over 350 acequias in recent years on matters ranging from bylaws to infrastructure and in the process we have learned about the strengths in the broader acequia community as well as the challenges. In the course of working on bylaws, easement issues, infrastructure planning, and a variety of other acequia issues, we have gained an appreciation for the knowledge of local acequia leaders.

Assisting acequia commissions on governance issues will continue to be a major part of NMAA's work. More recently, however, the NMAA has been reflecting on its roots of community-based learning. At the 2010 Congreso de las Acequias, a resolution was passed expressing the core values shared among NMAA's leadership. These values are rooted in principles that encompass respect, love, family, and querencia; all with the intention of affirming traditional knowledge and resisting the forces that pull our land-based people away from their homeland. A vital part of affirming traditional knowledge is the development and expansion of community leaders who can be engaged in passing on acequia traditions, as well as be informed of issues relating to land and water management and policy in order to form critical analyses.

In reflecting on lessons learned, NMAA is working to foster a community-based learning process through the Escuelita de las Acequias, that affirms traditional acequia knowledge while also cultivating leadership for the future. Using popular education* as the method of engagement, the NMAA is building upon the footprints laid out by La Academia de la Nueva Raza, a group founded in the late 1960's to explore our rich, local knowledge through non-conventional means. They used the Resolana** concept as an approach to their philosophy, using dialogue and reflection as the tools to both teach and learn.

Following the resolana approach, the NMAA has convened acequia leaders throughout the state to engage in a 3-part leadership encuentro series, which are meant to provide a space for dialogue, skill-building and planning, and reflection. The inclusion of our acequia youth is key in this process, so we've included a youth component in the encuentros, encouraging our youth to actively engage in community projects.

In February, we held our first Escuelita de las Acequias encuentro, a gathering of about twenty acequia leaders in which dialogue among the participants generated ideas about their tarea (community project) that will be carried out in their communities. Ideas for these community projects range in topics, but all are closely grounded in acequia culture. For instance, some participants want to focus their tarea on strengthening acequia governance, so they could work toward updating their bylaws or other governance issues. Others have decided to focus their efforts on the spiritual realm of acequias so they might organize a San Isidro blessing in their community. Furthermore, some participants are centering their efforts around food and seed traditions by way of creating community gardens and organizing food processing workshops or similar community events. With so much potential in our communities, the possibilities are endless.

The second Escuelita de las Acequias encuentro took place in July. Participants updated each other on the community projects they've acted on since the first encuentro, and the group was able to review some of the projects in-depth. The next encuentro will take place in the coming months and will serve to provide a space for reflection on these tareas. In keeping with the resolana approach for this endeavor, everyone is simultaneously the teacher and the student.

This process is intended to expand and support acequia leaders throughout the state, with a broader goal of building an inter-generational movement of acequia leaders to ensure the perpetuation of our local knowledge surrounding the many facets of acequia culture. This mode of community engagement signifies a renewed sense of pride, hope, and optimism for the future of our acequias. As we persist in affirming our cultural traditions and build a strong base of leaders, we not only ensure a bright future for the coming generations; we leave them with a legacy of our core values that surround the acequia livelihood.

*Popular Education is education for social change and aims to alter the relations of power. It's based on learning through dialogue that takes place through a process of thought and action.

**Resolana is traditionally a gathering place near an adobe wall that was warmed by sunlight. In the 1960's, La Academia de la Nueva Raza employed it as a metaphor for a place of dialogue and critical reflection. It's a traditional space for learning from shared work and practice.