Background: Since 2014, we have worked with the students at a night high school in Cochabamba, Bolivia to reinvent student government around practices such as random selection, rotation (after limited terms), and horizontal decision-making. Experimenting with these innovative democratic approaches has meant a complete break from the traditional student governance which is typically based around elections, full-year terms of office, and hierarchical positions (President, Vice President, Treasurer, etc.). This ongoing collaboration between the students, ourselves as advisors, and the school staff has resulted in tangible benefits for the school. It has also allowed more students – and a greater variety of students – to participate and develop teamwork and leadership skills, while at the same time it has allowed us to learn practical lessons through experimenting with these little-tested but promising alternative approaches. Visit our Our Work page to learn more about this and our other student government projects.
Last week, the student government in Quintanilla finished up it’s first term of 2015. This group of randomly selected student volunteers had to overcome some difficult challenges, but on the whole these past four months were a success for them as student leaders and for us as their advisors. The above video is an adapted and translated version of the video we gave each member on DVD in their last meeting. The DVD also contained video of them giving their final report as well as all of the pictures we took of them during their time in office. It was accompanied by printouts of the best photos of each member and personalized letters that shared the strengths and weaknesses we see in them as a team and as developing leaders. The students seemed to really appreciate these materials.
Members of the student government checking out letters, pictures, and DVDs we gave them that document their term in office
Eight members (four females and four males) were randomly selected in a student lottery at the start of the school year in February from a pool of volunteers. Of these, only three completed the four months and they were joined by one replacement (backups are always selected during the student lottery). This low completion rate speaks to one of the main challenges that we’ve experienced working with this night high school population: instability.
Most of the students’ lives are quite complicated – both at home and at work. One of the eight dropped out of school (and thus the student government) about a month after classes started because they could not find anyone to care for their baby Monday to Friday from 7-10PM. Another dropped out of school to replace their father driving buses because he was increasingly too drunk to work. Another stopped attending classes after sustaining a bad injury to their hand while working in carpentry. Yet another student was transferred to another school at their mother’s request for personal reasons. Several of the replacements that had been selected in the same lottery in February were no longer in the school when their peers sought them out. Others preferred to wait until the next lottery (seemingly sure that they were going to get randomly selected), rather than enter the government mid-term. Just one was able and willing to step up and he was a real welcome addition to the team.
Given these challenges, the students who finished their term are noticeably quite proud of their accomplishments, and we are proud of them too. As shown in the video, they addressed teacher mistreatment of students: a teacher was allegedly rejecting homework – and thus docking marks – of students who had photocopied the course textbook instead of buying it from the teacher. They also raised funds from the whole student body to formally recognize and thank the outgoing principal. Their most notable achievement was the issuing of student ID cards to their peers, a task that involved quite a bit of logistics, money management, and time. This was also the main achievement of the first randomly selected student government last year, and before that the students at this school never had ID cards and were rarely allowed to pay the student bus fare, as drivers would not believe them that they were in fact students (returning home at 10PM without a uniform, which the school does not have either). As well, they came in for five hours on a Sunday (the only day off of work for most) and cleaned and organized the abandoned classroom that they use as an office. They also drafted a letter to the Minister of Education requesting computers in hopes of using part of that space to open and run the school’s first computer lab (response from the Minister is still pending). Finally, they pooled their own money and invited their mothers or other caregivers for Mother’s Day. Their last responsibilities involved giving a full report to their entire school and administering the student lottery in which the students that will now replace them were randomly selected.
Over the four months we were able to watch them come together as a team. They created their own rules around things like cell phone use in meetings and attendance and punctuality, to compliment the meeting processes that we suggested. They facilitated their own meetings with us on hand as advisors and divided responsibilities and work among themselves. Two members, who during the first half of their term were constantly at odds with each other and open about their mutual dislike for one another, learned to work together, respect one another, and even (possibly) enjoy each others company! They also did a much better job of handling money in a responsible and transparent manner than the two groups last year (a sign that we are improving as advisors). Of the over 500 bolivianos (about $72) that they handled during their term, only 10 bolivianos ($1.44) was unaccounted for. The student who had volunteered and had been randomly selected to manage the finances put in 10 bolivianos out of her pocket to fix the error, and even still she announced in her report to the school that the error had occurred.
In future posts we’re going to share our reflections and details about the ways we supported them as advisors – meeting processes, group norms, visual tools, what worked and what didn’t, etc. We’ll also be sitting down to interview these students about their experience and provide updates on the new group of randomly selected student leaders. This video and post, however, is dedicated to the students finishing their term of office, their challenges, and their accomplishments. We congratulate them.
One final tidbit to leave off with: in our last meeting together we asked these four student leaders if they would have run for office as candidates had there been normal elections at the school instead of a voluntary lottery. Three out of the four immediately said “no”. What a shame that would have been for them as growing individuals and for the school community that they’ve served.