Two experiences with Human Connections
The first time I visited Mexico with Human Connections, I participated in a Global Engagement Trip with other students from Ohio Wesleyan University. The second, I was one of the 2018-2019 winter interns through their student internship program. Both experiences were very different for me, both shaped me as a person, and both gave me a better insight into the day-to-day operations of a tourism organization that respects the agency of both its partners and the travelers that visit the area. Of course, I enjoyed the excursions to other towns in the Riviera Nayarit, the beaches and hiking trips, and the time my groups got to spend exploring Bucerias. The greatest things I learned and accomplished, however, were directly related to Human Connections’ tour model.
When I experienced the GET, my first journey, I was introduced to the concept of responsible tourism. Responsible tourism, above all else, respects the community, environment, and the people in a tourist destination. For Human Connections, that means centering the voices and businesses of members of the Bucerias community. We visited the homes of artists, artisans, and community members who shared their stories with us in a way that made them feel comfortable and confident. Human Connections pays them fairly for their time spent with us. Most of my experiences on the GET were visits with Human Connections’ partners and their businesses.
On the GET, we also participated in a weeklong volunteer project with Entreamigos, one of Human Connections’ partners in San Pancho. Entreamigos is a community center that provides resources for the San Pancho community, including English-Spanish literature and lessons, free computer use, student scholarships, after-school activities, recycling, art studios, and a thrift shop. We worked on a painting project - whitewashing a wall for a mural and painting a fence a bright, happy green. Chatting with one of the Entreamigos employees, I found that their greatest volunteer need was for tasks like these - time-consuming and unglamorous - rather than the type of flashy volunteer projects we often see on social media. I also learned that, as an organization, they worked very hard to make sure they had meaning fun help where it was needed rather than where it looked good. (We still had plenty of fun and photo opportunities along the way!) Many organizations struggle with the type of volunteerism that looks good in pictures and on paper but ultimately does more harm than good. At Entreamigos, the needs of the community are put first. Visiting Entreamigos was one of the largest parts of my trip that fueled my desire to return to Mexico.
When I came for the internship almost a year later, I was of course excited to see my favorite places and spend more time learning about Mexican culture. It was difficult for me to imagine a better environment to take on a full-scale project. Unlike the GET, my internship project was driven and organized almost entirely by my team. While there were eight interns overall, we were split into groups of two for our projects. The other team worked with Nallely, a local businesswoman who is successfully opening up her own fully accredited massage business, to create a social media presence, branding materials, and professional communication tools. My team worked with Elly in the office, creating and writing a grant proposal to purchase and install solar panels on the roof, dramatically reducing Human Connections’ dependence on electricity. We also created graphics and designs to communicate this to visitors. Our project was critical because it increased Human Connections’ environmental sustainability. A few weeks after the internship, I found out that our proposal was approved and that Human Connections received the grant. In late March of 2019, the solar panels began being installed.
This internship prepared me for meaningful work in my professional life by helping me improve my teamwork, communication, and professional writing skills. Later, reflecting on my experiences, I realized that both the GET and the internship I participated in had community-centric similarities. In fact, the reason I enjoyed both so much was largely because of the way Human Connections is structured to treat partners and travelers equally. On the GET, I heard partners tell their own stories about their experiences, businesses, and lives. They were fairly compensated and were able to sell their goods for fair prices. Human Connections centered partners’ equality, agency, and community, while other tourist organizations often prioritized travelers’ experiences and their own profit.
On the internship, I got to be a part of the behind-the-scenes work that Human Connections does with its partners. My team’s project directly benefited the office and followed a very specific course. First, we sat down with Elly like we would with any partner and consulted with her about her vision for this project. We touched base multiple times over the course of the project and made sure that the work we were doing was in line with her vision and the office’s needs. It was equally important to finish the project as to make sure that our partner’s needs, wants, and wishes were met. In a way, our project was a smaller-scale example of the way that Human Connections treats its own partners in order to run a responsible tourism agency.
As a traveler, it’s often difficult to find tour agencies that do more good than harm. Human Connections, I’ve found, works hard to make sure that partners have input about and control over the impact of tourism on their community. Pleasing both travelers and partners can be a difficult balancing act, but Human Connections does it beautifully and provides meaningful experiences for student visitors and interns like me. In the future, I intend to return again - this time, as a traveler myself.