Communities Leading the Way

By Jordan Venton-Ruble

Women and children in remote communities of Rwanda, Cambodia, Myanmar, and the Philippines are at risk of dying in childbirth. For children, the risks continue until their fifth birthday.

To address this issue, project EMBRACE was launched in 2016.

In the Philippines, there are geographical barriers to accessing proper health care.  Many of the communities involved in the project are in remote areas.  Some communities can only be reached by rugged vehicles weaving in and out of scenic, craggy mountain passes that plunge downwards to the Philippine Sea below.  Other communities are even more isolated, nestled on little islands or coastal communities with impassable roads necessitating a journey of several hours across oft-stormy seas.

Many communities also face the social barrier of being in areas where the New People’s Army, a Communist anti-government group, has a strong presence.

Within the communities – or barangays as they are called locally – most people make what little money they can through farming or fishing. Sometimes they are also able to rely on odd jobs – such as running little sidewalk shops selling candies and calling cards or cooked foods from their front windows. Many rely on remittances from family members, children, spouses, aunts and uncles who have gone abroad or undertaken the thirteen or fourteen-hour journey to Manila to work as domestic labour.

I arrived in October as an outsider; since then, I have been trying my best to orient myself within the unique culture here. The experience so far has been incredibly interesting, not just in the sense that I am coming from Canada having spent no previous time in the Philippines, but also as someone without prior experience working in international development.

I was hesitant coming into a development project as to what would be happening on the ground. I was worried that the conversations would be dominated by project staff, and that the voices of project participants, their lived experiences as folks in a remote community would be overlooked or spoken over. And if this was the case, that there would be little room for those who are participants in the project to have a full role in the project being carried out. As someone coming from the outside I was worried that I would arrive in the field and see an unequal power balance between project staff and the project participants.

Coming in as the project was halfway through its first year, I quickly realized how strong the role of community leadership, and community driven education was within this project. Project staff, project participants and volunteers are working in partnership to facilitate lessons and trainings on topics such as family planning and newborn health, safe motherhood and early childhood development.

Community development needs to be community led for it to be holistic and sustainable. It can’t just be a top down arrangement, with staff handing out orders and expecting changes.   Local groups and participants need to be consulted on their needs.  Their guidance is needed to ensure that their community members learn in the best way possible.

Here on the ground in project EMBRACE, volunteers and project participants are taking hold of their roles as leaders. In doing this, the project is seeking to make something more holistic and sustainable occur in Camarines Sur.

Learning through Play (LTP), and Reflect Learning Units (RLU), both build on something known as Frierian politics, which encourage people to take development and change into their own hands. Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator and activist, believed that education was a political act, and was instrumental in fighting oppression at the community level. “Regenerated Freirian Literacy through Empowering Community Techniques” – which is what the RELFECT in our Reflect Learning Units stands for – is a method of non-formal education that gives power back to the students and allows them to centre themselves in the learning units.

Friere’s approach, which has been used before in community organizing here in the Philippines, also recognizes the duality of being both a student and a teacher – which is not only true of the project participants, but also of our volunteers and even staff.

Both the LTP and RLU sessions allow participants to learn the materials – which are presented through lectures, group work, interactive role play and song – first through the EMBRACE Field Assistants and later by going out into their communities and teaching other project participants. Participants have the floor during the training to share lived experiences, and their questions and concerns about the topics being discussed.

Many of our participants are driven to create change within their homes and communities through participation in the project. By giving them first leadership skills, through trainings such as our ‘gender sensitive training’ which teaches leadership and active listening skills, as well as the ways to balance voices in group discussions.

Without profound consideration for the ways in which we teach others, and the way education is disseminated, we cannot be successful in development work. When we want to change lives for the better, concerted efforts should be made to ensure that the change is led by community members. It cannot be top down.

I am extremely interested in seeing how this approach to non-formal education will continue during EMBRACE, and the skills and tools that project participants will develop over the next three years of the project. It will also be important to check back on these communities after the project concludes in 2020 to see the changes that have occurred –in maternal healthcare, and in the ways that community members continue to teach each other and develop their own learning and leadership styles after EMBRACE ends.


Jordan Venton-Rublee is currently the Technical Communications Coordinator on behalf of Youth Challenge International (YCI) and ADRA Canada, and is based in the field in Camarines Sur, Philippines. Hailing from Toronto, Jordan is a graduate of McGill University, where she majored in political science and history. Coming from a background in journalism with a focus on social justice, Jordan is passionate about the power of journalism and communications for creating equitable social change.