Building Faith in Democracy

When Bryan Dwyer (GSESP99) and his wife, Marla, worked in administrative positions at Northwestern in the 1990s, they felt somewhat disconnected from the world around them. “We would read the day’s news, but we felt too isolated from working on core, grass-roots social justice issues,” he says.

He had learned about the Peace Corps in his job in University Career Services and says he “valued the emphasis Peace Corps places on cultural exchange and basic human development.” The couple joined the Peace Corps in 2000 and headed for El Salvador for two years. After a stint in the States, where Bryan worked as a civilian with the U.S. Air Force, they returned to El Salvador with the Peace Corps, and he became municipal development program manager in the capital of San Salvador.

Dwyer and the 30 Peace Corps volunteers he supervises assist local mayors in small to midsize towns throughout the country in providing better municipal services. His group also works to encourage women and young people to get involved with community issues. It’s a struggle, he says, to get people to believe that they can have an active voice in government because the concept of democracy is still new and often little understood.

“We are one actor in a larger process that seeks to avert a loss of faith in democracy that could occasion a turn to violence to achieve political ends,” he says. “The program is designed to strengthen local governments and increase citizen participation in the hopes of building faith in democracy and democratic institutions. There is a relationship between how the government, local and national, performs and how people view their own circumstances, lives and futures.”

The needs are profound. Dwyer says that in most towns where the volunteers work there is a school but a lack of resources to really provide an adequate education. Infrastructure needs are enormous. Roads are bad, phone and electrical coverage are spotty, and the water and sewer systems are in dismal condition.

“Although we are, in a sense, fighting a raging fire with a squirt gun, this messy work is born of the idea that it is unacceptable that so many go without proper food, shelter, clothing, education and health services,” Dwyer says.

The Dwyers have traveled throughout the country, experienced two hurricanes and a major earthquake, adopted their daughter, Nataly, from a local orphanage and watched in January as El Salvador celebrated the 15th anniversary of the signing of the United Nations–brokered peace accords.

The Dwyers started a women’s soccer team and used it as a way to teach leadership lessons and life skills. “We talked about things like the value of education, the importance of teamwork, punctuality, maintaining the equipment and not letting your team down,” Dwyer says.

The Dwyers also set up a foundation that pays full tuition for young Salvadoran women who qualify for one of the universities in the country.

“I believe that our biggest accomplishments take place in the realm of human development,” Dwyer says. “Peace Corps volunteers help people think critically about their own problems, believe in solutions, try new approaches, better understand their own rights and abilities, ask more from life and consider personal development options to which they had previously never been exposed. In certain lives, this makes all of the difference.” — T.S.