Taking a peek into the demand of community development: what does it take?

By: Ashley Westgate, Master’s in Environmental Policy ’16

My most memorable success story…

We were together working at a two-week long workshop to learn how to write a project proposal. Ben, my Philippino counterpart, was not very engaged nor attentive during the initial few days. Sometimes, he would just leave. I was truly beside myself and frustrated.
I decided to come in the next day and try a little bit of a different approach: patient and perceptive.

That day we worked on designing a play money envelope together. Just a simple, blue envelope made out of construction paper. We were to decorate it and make it our own. Usually, Ben would just hand me the materials and say “ikaw lang, nami gid”, can you just do it because it will be better. This time, he would decorate it.

After the meeting we all really bonded - this was our celebration.

After the meeting we all really bonded – this was our celebration.

I will never forget the smile he had on his face when he liked what he created, and furthermore, liked that I approved. He was excited and felt accomplished.

After lunch we broke for a break to get water and upon return, Ben was not around. You can imagine my disappointment after I thought I had hit a small milestone, but I figured I would try something new. Be flexible. To my surprise he came back 45 minutes later with a completed chart on a giant piece of paper with the outline of key community stakeholders and the resources that we would need for our project.
It took, with no exaggeration, many months to gain Ben’s trust and this was the first time it shined. From that point on we worked well together.

A Refresher

Just some brief background: I was a Coastal Resource Management (CRM) Extensions Worker for Peace Corps in the Philippines. I typically spent my time working with Philippino communities and with the local government office. Together we did coral reef assessments, providing new fishing gear and improving SWM practices. Much of this work was done through hands-on projects and workshops with specifically the farmers and fisherfolks of my community. When it comes to community development work, it is hard to identify just ONE key lesson or ONE key skill. There are many because you will tap into almost anything in order to make progress with the community or with the project. Ben was my most valuable asset.

What did I learn?

That said, some of the most important skills (in no particular order) during my experience were:
Patience: Nothing like island time!
Adaptability: Both to a new working environment and a new culture.
Flexibility: There will be many product changes, time changes and unexpected circumstances. Go with the flow!
Communication: Cultural differences, non-verbal communication, and two new languages.
Persistence: Make sure you follow up on your projects, funding, and research. This ensures efficiency and progress.
Cultural Awareness: Be aware of your surroundings! Not only how you perceive others, but also how they perceive you.

Members of the first peoples organization Ben and I created. So many for one town!

Members of the first peoples organization Ben and I created. So many for one town!

Applicable skills from my first year at Bard:
Networking & Collaboration: allow the community to feel a sense of ownership.
Writing Skills: Improving on your own style particular to a document purpose and adapting that to the new diction in the new culture.
Data Analysis & Technical Skills: Learning how to think critically about the political & economic structure of my community and how this plays a role in environmental remediation
Technical and Computer Skills: Analyzing financial spreadsheets & budgeting, environmental surveys, community surveys, etc.
Resourcefulness: Learning how to problem solve independently without access to many resources, either hard copy or internet.

This was a community map we created to capture community resources.

This was a community map we created to capture community resources.


The final and most important lesson – The Philippines is a beautiful island nation with some of the most hospitable people in the world.  Although immediate action is required across the board, it is important to realize that environmental issues are not solved overnight. As long as you are taking the proper precautions and making progress with your goal to help the environment, enjoy the ride! The environment takes TIME.

This post reflects my personal opinions and not those of Peace Corps.

About Ashley Westgate

Ashley E. Westgate Master's International Student '16 Bard College Served in Peace Corps Philippines Batch 273 Coastal Resource Management Extension Worker