Seattle University's Central America Initiative

Written by Karen L. Bystrom
July 13, 2018

Central America Initiative

As an expression of its commitment to global engagement in the Jesuit educational tradition, Seattle University formed a successful partnership with the Universidad Centroamericana (UCA) in Managua, Nicaragua. This developed into Seattle University's Nicaragua Initiative, the first building block that would become the greater Central America Initiative.

Seattle U alums Anna Pickett and Andy GorvetzianTwo Seattle U alums, Andy Gorvetzian and Anna Pickett, have worked extensively in Nicaragua. The recent political crisis in the country has prohibited their return, so they brought their passion for humanitarianism and activism back to Seattle University.

In a series of articles in The Spectator, Andy and Anna provided compelling first-person accounts of the effects of violent government repression on the Nicaraguan people.

Solidarity: Seattle U Holds Space for UCA And Nicaragua

It Was a Long Time Coming Out of Nowhere: How Nicaragua Has Harnessed Resistance and Resilience

From Sandinista to Orteguista: How a Revolutionary Became a Dictator

Andy described his experiences and how Seattle University has supported efforts in a recent blog post for Campus Compact, reprinted here with permission.

This is Not a Moment to Retreat: We Must Strengthen Our Commitment to Nicaragua

I have been working at the Central American University (UCA) as Assistant to the President Father José (Chepe) Idiáquez, SJ, since November 2016. In this capacity, I have helped coordinate exchange and research projects between my alma mater Seattle University and the UCA as part of Seattle University’s Central America Initiative while also conducting research on the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua. The situation in Nicaragua feels like an attack on a second home. These months have been challenging since my body is here in the USA, but my heart is in Nicaragua.

I left Nicaragua on April 13th for what was a 3-week work trip with Father Chepe. When we arrived in Seattle, it was clear that things were not looking good in Nicaragua. After a tense weekend hearing news of more protests, Father Chepe decided to return to Nicaragua just days before the government repression of those protests began on the night of April 18th outside the gates of the UCA. The UCA had irregular hours from that point until the Mother’s Day Massacre on May 30th, when snipers opened fire on thousands of peaceful marchers. Father Chepe opened the gates of the UCA to offer refuge to thousands of terrified people – turning the UCA into a field hospital. The UCA has been closed since then, and it is unclear when it will reopen. When Father Chepe’s life was threatened after the events on Mother’s Day, our work took on even more urgency, as the conflict impacted not just a partner, but also a friend.

I have not been back to Nicaragua since April 13th and I’ve had to experience all this from afar through social media, phone calls, and messages from friends on the ground. During this time, a group of us who work with the Seattle University Central America Initiative have been coordinating an advocacy and awareness campaign for the Seattle University community and within the Association of Jesuit Colleges & Universities.

Group of students, alumni and faculty supporting the people of Nicaragua

When moments of crisis emerge, it is our responsibility as universities who have committed to working with partners in other countries to ensure that we leverage our resources to create awareness of the situation. This advocacy can take on many forms for many institutions; I offer a few here.

Holding open civil space: At Seattle University, we have sought to raise awareness through various means that are replicable at other universities. We call this work the act of “holding open civil space” in order to keep the conversation going about the crisis as it unfolds. By holding this space open, it allows for collaboration, conversation, and solidarity to continue even as major media coverage ebbs and flows.

Statements of solidarity: We have worked primarily within the Jesuit network of universities in the US to produce statements of solidarity with the UCA and the people of Nicaragua to reinforce our commitment to accompany them in this tense time. In addition, Seattle U, Boston College, and others have written statements expressing concern for the situation and solidarity with the UCA and created online webforms for the community to sign. Boston College used this letter to send to government representatives to urge them to pay attention to the situation.

Teach-ins: On May 21, we organized an event at Seattle U in which we invited a Spanish professor from Nicaragua, a student who is from Nicaragua, an SU alumna and Fulbright scholar who was evacuated from Nicaragua, a law professor who has done work with the Inter-American Human Rights system, and me. These events allow for the community to learn more about the situation, show solidarity, and learn about how to advocate in their own networks. Afterwards, we held a vigil on campus to honor the victims, and created a small altar so that the wider community could see our messages. These types of events allow universities to do what we do best: educate about an issue with a critical lens using our diverse resources and highlight how global events have an impact here at home.

Write articles to share in the campus community and beyond: Finally, we wrote a series of articles for our school paper (here, here, and here) and recorded a radio show, which we hope to turn into a podcast. Using these types of resources on campus can be a good way of reinforcing why it’s important for our campuses to pay attention to these events and disseminate resources throughout the community.

This conflict could end tomorrow, but the damage—economically, emotionally, psychologically, physically—will remain for years to come. As such, it becomes part of our role to think long term about how we can contribute to the rebuilding and reconciliation process once peace comes in responsible and ethical ways. This moment is not one of retreat; rather, as responsible partners, it is a moment to strengthen our commitment to the people of Nicaragua.

This article was originally posted by Globalsl.org as part of a series exploring the question: What is our responsibility as partners even if our students can't travel to Nicaragua? Globalsl.org is a multi-institutional hub supporting ethical global learning and community-campus partnerships hosted in the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship at Haverford College. 

Learn more about Seattle University’s Central America Initiative.