“I believe, I can”

Changing the way ethnic minorities perceive and understand their local customs and traditions by giving them the appropriate know-how and methods, many projects have helped minority groups to value and protect their cultures so that they can be passed on to future generations.

Cán bộ iSEE tập huấn về đa dạng văn hóa cho bà con tham gia đồng nghiên cứu tại Đác Lắc.

Different Approaches

They are young intellectuals from the Institute for Studies of Society, Economics and Environment (iSEE), the OXFAM organization in Vietnam, the Centre for Community Empowerment (CECEM), the Independent Platform for Art Education (CUCA), and many other development projects.

After a long time studying the cultural life of different ethnic minorities, the development officials have come to realize that for these minorities to develop sustainably, simply building new houses, paving news roads and providing financial aids are not enough. They need to participate in social management, figure out the issues, come up with solutions and execute them collectively. With that in mind, the young officials of ISEE have spearheaded the photovoice/videovoice method to encourage them to participate more actively.

This method helps narrate the stories by capturing them in photos. Officials from iSEE provided people with instructions and guidance, then giving them the cameras so that they can capture and introduce their cultural beauty themselves. To ensure the efficiency of this method, iSEE has also worked with other anthropologists and cultural researchers, as well as organizing scientific conferences to discuss about it.Unsurprisingly, most researchers highly valued the method, particularly the emphasized central role of the local communities. When people depict their own culture, the subsequent depiction would be more accurate and realistic than thatof an outsider’s perspective.

Like the projects of iSEE, officials from CECEM have worked with hundreds of people from different ethnicities in ĐácGlong district of ĐácNông province, and others remote regions. CECEM’s method is to organize companion groups, teach people how to overcome hardships, and stand with them in their quest for economic development and cultural pride.

After three years working in the Central Highlands, Ms. NguyễnThịBíchTâm (M.A), trainer of CECEM, drew the lessons that “We outsiders shouldn’t impose our will on the people. We have to consider them as our companions, listen to and respect their opinions. If we hold our head too high and make them feel inferior, we have failed. What we need to do is research and offer instructions and solutions, then leave the local people to make their own decision. Sustainable development can only be achieved when we give them the confidence in themselves.”

Ms. Bich Tam also shared the lessons she has learnt from the people: “We shouldn’t consider people from a remote region backward. They understand their situations more than anyone. Everyone leaving his familiar environment would encounter similar problems.”

The Practical Effectiveness

“There is no practice or extra instrument needed, since we simply show what we got. It’s our culture, so we should be confident to protect it, right?” – Mr. Kray Sức from AVương village, TàRụt commune (ĐácKroong, QuảngTrị) has said that to his people while volunteering with ISEE to promote Pa-cô culture. Everyone was enthusiastic and full of suggestions, from “You should ask Mr. Pha to bring the gong” to “ask Ms. Thoi to go, she’s a fantastic Tu-lâng dancer.” Gone in their eyes was their hesitation, came the sparkling eagerness to participate and contribute.

After three years, among 200 members of 11 groups accompanied by CECEM, many individuals and families have made remarkable improvements, especially in their economic life. These members, in turn, will accompany and become the inspiration for other members.
Overcoming language barriers and initial difficulties, officials of iSEE and CECEM have gradually understood the cultures of the minorities, patiently instructing them how to use a camera. Many people who are used to working on the paddy field have now been capable of capturing beautiful images and tell the stories behind them with confidence.

Most people, particularly women, didn’t believe at first that they could take a picture, let alone a beautiful one. There are also many young people who didn’t use to care about their culture and customs, yet now eagerly seeking their elders with camera in hand. LýThịLíu, an 18-year-old Dao girl from YênBái, is the youngest member of the group. Initially, she was very shy and hesitate to speak out. However, she changed after each training session, volunteering to take pictures in remote places, helping others with technical difficulties and actively reaching out to those with great knowledge about her ethnicity’s culture. Many people have shared their joy to do what they couldn’t do before, such as “take pictures, do interviews, open exhibitions, and meet people of other ethnicities.”

Notably, this co-research approach not only raises people’s awareness, but also developsin them the incentives to actively solve their own problems. According to one official of iSEE, during one project in Sa Pa (LàoCai) the Mông people realized that their culture was being diminished, due to a lack of people fluent in Mônglanguage. Once they found out there is a substantial demand to learn the language, they quickly proposed with the local government to open language classes. Once the project to examine Mông language finishes, the people will continue to research about the cross-boundary women and children trafficking.

Without a doubt, when the local people were included in the projects, they became much more actively involved since they knew that they shouldn’t depend on outsiders to solve their issues. More importantly, this can-do mentality will stay them long after the projects, so that they can better explore, analyze and solve different issues in the community.

 Doctor Tạ Bích Loan: The project to “Enhance the position and influence of ethnic minorities in ĐácGlong district, ĐácNông province” of CECEM has shown success after pursued for a long time. So what are the keys to the big shift in people’s perspective? I believe that CECEM has applied 5 principles: volunteering, respecting differences, constantly learning, developing self-respect and promoting a take-charge mentality. Behind these principals is a philosophy that fosters changes: The profound belief that humans can choose and create their own destiny as long as they believe in themselves.