UBELONG just completed it’s first ever Expedition to Cuba and Voices of Hope Productions was there every step of the way to document the experience. It was an emotional journey I am still processing and re-living through the photography and videos as I create several pieces about Cuba. Cedric Hodgeman Co-founder of UBELONG explains their philosophy, “One of the things that’s really at the core of UBELONG is the notion that we aren’t a charity. We are way beyond the top-down model of International development where you come in and handout a lot of money and hope it solves problems. We don’t do that. When we go into a country we don’t come in as superior, we come in as equals. We are there to share and want to empower people to help them—help themselves.”
The 9-day Expedition, which took place March 12 to March 20, 2016, was led by UBELONG Co-Founder Cedric Hodgeman and Rice University Professor Luis Duno Gottberg. 29 participants came from the Prouty Project, a leading consulting firm in Minneapolis that every other year does a “Stretch”, or service trip abroad with its employees, clients and friends.
The expedition journeyed into the heart of Cuban society. It was designed to promote cultural exchange between the team and local Cubans, and provide participants with an authentic, ground-up perspective of life in Cuba. We started in Havana and lived with host families in the traditional Vedado neighborhood. According to expedition participant, “UBELONGer”, Steve said, “This was not a pre-packaged Havana. We got to see the real Havana—nitty-gritty-old-new-emerging-broken. I loved that. We have such a sense of experiencing the reality of Cuba, at a time when very much is changing and will change in the time ahead.”
There were discussions and workshops with Cubans of all backgrounds. Team members volunteered with local artists on a community beautification project and taught English to local Cuban entrepreneurs. Luis Gottberg, who has been to Cuba many times over the last 20 years said, “The group was delightful to work with because on top of their enthusiasm for learning, they had a tremendous passion for contributing to society. I don’t think I’ve been with a group more ready to establish a respectful conversation and make an impact in a community…The Cuban families, artists, and people who were receiving the classes were constantly telling me about the quality of the people—that they were kind and how authentic they were.”
Numerous distinguished guests provided insight through group discussion, including filmmaker Miguel Coyula and the head of the World Food Program, Laura Melo. Cultural outings included visits to Old Havana, the Malecón, and a cigar factory. UBELONGer, Tanya, a PhD candidate remarked, “There is a strong feminist power in Cuba that is remarkable and inspiring to see. The women in the cigar factory illustrate roots from the US labor force. It was a way the women were able to come into the labor force by working in the factories and doing fine-skilled labor, which allowed them to gain a wage and to contribute to their families. The same is happening in the cigar factories. No matter what you think about smoking or cigars, or factory work, it’s truly a way for women to gain some power through a monetary system. It was clear from our tour guide—the men look up to the women—they are skilled and they run that factory.”
The Cuban people are very warm. My roommate, Melanie (top right) and I were walking back from a bazaar one early afternoon and I stopped to talk with Edward, who told me he worked at the church in our host neighborhood. He asked if I was American and with just enough English he invited us into his home. His wife Sared (top left, and bottom right) was sweet and they were proud to show us family photos. I found this to be an intimate experience, that also showed us how people live in Cuba—they feel safe in their community. I can't imagine an American family allowing a stranger into their home. In fact, we had a delicious glass of fresh mango juice and after about 15 minutes said goodbye to new friends.
The final weekend, the team headed to Varadero, a more rural part of Cuba to take part in two days of team building activities and reflection. In line with UBELONG’s mission of promoting people-to-people dialogue, the team also put in place a plan to publicly broadcast the team’s findings over the next months. Another UBELONGer, Janis, explains, “There’s always a bridging of cultural understanding, but the bigger impact is what you share when you go home. You are going to have more conversations with a variety of people and if you can express it in a way that people can access the information your impact spreads further. Yes, there is impact while you are there, but I’m really glad to travel in a way that shares and doesn’t just take from the culture, but gives a little bit.”
The group collectively took hundreds of photographs and have numerous stories and information to share. Recently Facebook page was created to further discussion between Americans and Cubans. If you have been to Havana Cuba, or are interested in going sometime in the future, please JOIN THE FACEBOOK PAGE and contact me to connect you to UBELONG. Look for posts and video upcoming in several weeks. Until then take a look at some PHOTOS here and on Facebook.