Voices in Education

The Risks We Are Willing to Take: Youth Civic Development in “Postwar” Guatemala
Many societies transitioning from periods of authoritarianism and mass conflict opt to silence the past in classrooms, avoiding the political and pedagogical challenges entailed in discussing injustice. Among other concerns, policy makers, educators, and communities worry that stories of suffering and struggle compose sources of disillusionment for young people, perpetuating societal division and exclusion. But what if these stories of suffering and struggle are core to one’s identity as a member of a historically oppressed group (Bashir, 2008)? What if schools could shape educational encounters with historical injustice that facilitate more active, empowered, and resilient civic stances among young learners? I examine these tensions in a comparative study of two rural schools in “postwar” Guatemala, a fragile democracy still marked by legacies of violence nearly twenty years after civil war and genocide.

In the province of Izabal, Guatemala, nineteen-year-old Gregorio walked me along the river bordering his village and talked longingly about wanting to be the first in his family to finish high school.* Aware that the state had systematically denied indigenous populations access to education, and later utilized education as a mechanism of assimilation and exclusion, Gregorio saw a chance in school to reposition himself as an educated Maya youth in a highly unequal society. There were many things he wanted for himself, most importantly employment and an escape from rural poverty. Beyond financial independence, Gregorio wanted for the Maya to access better educational and work opportunities, legitimate spaces for political participation, and a guarantee of their cultural rights, which are routinely undermined. However, dismantling the structures and attitudes that constrain these openings for indigenous peoples would require a sustained, collective commitment among the country’s most marginalized, with no guarantee of success.

Trying to put in perspective the constraints on his civic participation, Gregorio explained, “[People in my village] don’t believe in anything. I told my friend I want to plant some peppers. He said, what for? The dogs will ruin them, the pigs will eat them, your neighbors will complain that you are attracting weeds and animals. They won’t grow. You will waste your money, you will waste your time. They won’t even support me growing peppers, they think everything will fail.” What Gregorio did not say in this moment, what he had already said many times in school and on our walks in the village, was that pressing for change meant risking everything: one’s body, family, social status. This was a place where people killed over cell phones and pocket change, Gregorio and his friends were quick to remind me. “Just think what they do to people who speak out.”

At Sun and Moon School, Gregorio’s classmates contemplated the value of civil society movements spreading across the country, organizing against the corporations and mega-development projects infringing on indigenous land, challenging the state’s invocation of martial law in efforts to squelch community protests, and a growing resistance against national educational reforms. These twelfth-grade students appraised justice movements in complex ways, often weighing the inherent risks of “involvement” against the safety of withdrawal. Over time I came to see that students’ resolve that good citizens “not become involved” in public issues was functioning both as a legacy of authoritarianism and as a response to the risks they confronted in their everyday lives. The dangers and futility of civic participation shaped students’ calculations of how and where to invest effort, while reflecting on the frequent failure of collective action reinforced a conviction that neutrality was linked to the common good. Adapting to injustice through nonparticipation was collectively construed as a lesser risk than the certain dangers of taking action for social transformation. Even with Gregorio’s peppers, so much could go wrong and so little seemed to go right.

These attitudes toward civic obligation and agency stood in contrast to those among young people at a nearby school, also serving a predominantly indigenous student body and staffed by indigenous teachers and leaders. At Tzolok Ochoch, students regarded their education as an opportunity to become community leaders so that they could advocate for Guatemala’s rural poor and indigenous peoples. An eleventh grader, Elvin, explained the urgency of indigenous youth taking action: “If we wait for the state to . . . change society, to establish social justice, we will be waiting and waiting . . . . It is a risk to struggle, to organize, yes, but it is a risk we have to take.”

The risks these students worried most about were physical repression, as well as the criminalization of popular movements, which discredited individuals and the social messages they carried. However, students at Tzolok Ochoch spoke often about the risks of “doing nothing” and the harms of pursuing individual aspirations that did not take into account the needs of the collective. At times teachers themselves were explicit about these risks, cautioning that if students did not commit to their communities, the Maya people, their cultural practices, and ancestral land would be dominated by the powerful elite. Doing nothing could not be construed as a neutral choice, and the risks of inaction gave urgency to the school’s calls for engaged youth participation.

What struck me in comparing these two schools, located in the same Q’eqchi’ Maya province, was that the young people drew, in many cases, on similar experiences of injustice, rural marginalization, ethnic discrimination, and legacies of war in shaping their civic attitudes. Young people in both school communities lamented that “people like us” have “no voice” in Guatemala’s democracy. They identified themselves as members of a historically oppressed group, recognizing that indigenous marginalization was rooted in structural racism, including periods of violent repression and ethnic genocide. However, at Tzolok Ochoch, the history of war and the legacies manifesting in contemporary struggle served as a call to action. At Sun and Moon, the same history served as a warning of the suffering that happens when citizens speak out and demand change.

Beyond these shared experiences, teachers and administrators in both school communities did not shy away from discussing the realities of injustice in postwar Guatemala, encouraging indigenous youth to consider their civic obligation to redress the cumulative effects of historical injustice. Yet again, these goals and similar pedagogical moves to address rather than ignore everyday experiences with injustice, were interpreted differently: at Sun and Moon, students were encouraged to carve individual escapes through employment and modernity, while at Tzolok Ochoch, students were reminded of the collective goals for social transformation. Although we cannot disentangle the effect of schools from the broader social and political contexts in which they are embedded, this study demonstrates that how schools address injustice matters, both the treatment of histories of conflict and struggle, and the historical dimension of contemporary justice issues facing society. Despite their shared identity as members of historically oppressed groups, young people in these communities resolve the risks of civic participation differently, in part because of what they are learning in schools about the unjust reality they inherited and about their individual and collective capacity to upend that system.

This work makes evident that those who stand to gain the most from taking public and collective action are inevitably the ones who have the most to lose. Accordingly, educators with social justice aims should be mindful that students’ social location might dictate a less secure and predictable sense of civic agency than those conveying messages of empowerment. For historically oppressed groups coming-of-age in high-risk settings, empowerment and endangerment are inevitably entwined. And yet risk need not be existential, as in Guatemala’s high-risk society. Risk also takes the form of fatalism, worries that one will invest effort only to end up proving that change is out of the hands of ordinary citizens. Gregorio never planted the peppers in his yard, but I often wonder what might have happened if he had. Is it possible that a different kind of education, one that did not shield him from the risks of participation but that made more visible what he stood to gain through concerted action, could have conveyed that the past was not inevitable and that the future, too, can be shaped by individual and collective action?


*All individual and school names are pseudonyms.


Bashir, B. (2008). Accommodating historically oppressed social groups: Deliberative democracy and the politics of reconciliation. In W. Kymlicka & B. Bashir (Eds.), The politics of reconciliation in multicultural societies, (pp. 48-69). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

About the Author: Michelle J. Bellino is an assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Education, where she researches youth civic development and engagement with historical injustice.