Annel Cabrera, International Field Program Argentina Student, Discusses Her Work with Government-Community Cooperatives that Expand Potable Water

Published on August 6, 2015

Annel Cabrera, New School student in the International Affairs program, has just wrapped up two months in Argentina on the IFP where she carried out program research with AySA, the government agency responsible for granting and improving Buenos Aires’ water and sewage services, which the IFP has worked with for multiple years. In this interview Cabrera discusses the Argentina IFP and her projects.

What attracted you to the Argentina IFP?

Another EPSM student told me about the IFP during summer school 2014. I jokingly said I am going to do it. Instead, I changed jobs and thought I should just focus on work and finishing school. I had looked at the different country descriptions briefly and thought Argentina was perfect given my background and interest. I let it go until it was too late… but then in the beginning of the year, it was like destiny brought us together. The deadline was extended and I remember going back and reading everything about the previous years. I had butterflies in my stomach and was excited; the program addressed the environment and sustainability, but also its complexities and links to community and economic development. I would say I felt like we were kindred spirits. I stayed home from work spent the day working on my application.

How did the first year in the international affairs program at New School help prepare you for the IFP work you are involved in?

Until right now, I was a part-time student. I had worked in government, nonprofit, and finally the private sector. I thought I had a good grasp on working with diverse people. At the New School though, I really learned that as a graduate student, you have to engage stakeholders differently. I took Sustainable Urban Communities, Management and Organizational Behavior, and Organizational Assessment and Diagnosis which helped me think critically of the organizations we are working with. I have been able to see how my management and environmental courses have helped me feel like I am an asset to the organizations we engage and to my peers. I have significant work experience, but my time at the New School and now in Argentina have made me feel like an expert. I think I wrote that that is what I wanted from this experience and I am very happy to see it happen.

Tour of the Camino de Sirga with ACUMAR (Autoridad de Cuenca Matanza-Riachuelo)

On the Argentina IFP students all work at the same organization but on separate projects. What advantages or disadvantages are there to this model?

I think that it speaks to the ambition of the students who select Argentina. While it is a short period of time, it is great to deeply immerse yourself in multiple areas with different team members. So for one, you are aware of your time and making the most of it. In my professional experience, large organizations tend to become siloed. They become so focused on the goals of their own department that they naturally lose sight of the bigger picture, common thread, or opportunities to be more effective and innovative. We have the opportunity to do that and thus make our work with them more effective. Both the advantages and disadvantages lie in the kind of experience you want and your personal preference. I like the short intense experiences because they keep my attention. You have to be okay with not getting every little thing you wanted, but to work with what you have.

What is a typical day in Argentina like for you?

A typical day would be to get up very early and meet with our AySA contacts at a central location and then hit the road. On our way, we’re brought up to speed on our activities and the background of who we’re meeting with… all the while experiencing Porteño driving and traffic. Porteños are what Argentines from Buenos Aires are called. We conduct our interview with either the cooperative or the local leader. We try to record our interviews, take pictures, and gather all information we can later use for either follow-up or our final product. We are usually done by 4pm.

Depending on the meeting place we either walk home or pack into the Subte (train) and head back home. After our day, we usually have to write field notes and upload our recordings and pictures to the share drive. The evenings are for exploring new dinner locations, ice cream, and maybe sneaking in a leisurely walk.  

What is your living situation like?

I share an apartment with two other New School students. While very basic in decor, we have an amazing balcony and live in a great neighborhood. We try to make meals together, but we’re always inclined to try a local spot and a new local delicacy.

Have you discovered a new food that you like?

Meat. Google Argentine delicacies and you should get an image of a huge steak. Google ain’t lying! We try to manage our beef intake… but Argentines love their meat and to have very late dinners. We have all promised to fill our suitcases with Dulce de Leche, its put on everything, but the steak. Its a sweet milk spread and can challenge Nutella any day.  There are so many! While we tried to maximize our bife de chorizo (it’s an NY Strip style steak) opportunity, my favorite food that I will be making at home is the pure mixto, it’s mixed mashed potatoes; they use potatoes and pumpkin mash. Good times!

I have to give honorable mentions to the following foods that have become staples and inside jokes within the group:

Churipan – Sausage street hotdog

Matahambre – Yet to really understand what it is

Milanesa – breaded meat (can be chicken, pork or even lamb), never get it plain b/c Argentine food is bland.

Morcilla – Blood sausage. I’m Dominican and we love our morcilla – at least my mom – and I was surprised that you can get it in the supermarket. Theirs is smoother than I am used to. It was okay, but there is a reason my mom has a special morcilla dealer when she travels to DR. You should be selective with your blood sausage.

Ice Cream — Argentina is the home ice cream delivery! Do it! Enjoy all their dulce de leche variations.

AySA group picture with cooperative San Pedro working on the school water installation in La Matanza. IFP members include Heartie Look-Dougherty and Phuong Nguyen.

What are AySA’s goals and objectives, the organization you have been working with?

AySA is the water and sewer company whose jurisdiction coincides, in large part, with the Matanza-Riachuelo basin. Re-nationalized in 2006, AySA is a government agency whose mission is to grant and improve the essential services of potable water and sewage in the City of Buenos Aires and 17 districts of the first ring of the Greater Buenos Aires, including the extension of those services to those who do not have them, thereby improving the quality of life of the population. Much of this work is being completed through the programs Water + Work and Sewers + Work, which organize unemployed or under-employed residents into cooperatives to construct the water and sewer networks. AySA is also responsible for constructing and operating large infrastructure improvements directed toward the environmental rehabilitation and sustainable development components of the PISA in the areas of water and sanitation. The PISA is Plan Integral de Saneamiento Ambiental and it was created following the Caso Mendoza, which was the lawsuit that led to the clean up of the Matanza (and the fundamental to the BA IFP).

What aspect of AySA’s ‘Water + Work’ and ‘Sewers + Work’ programs does your research look at?  

Earlier this year, AySA interacted with some schools in the neighborhoods where the systems were being installed and became aware of the schools’ lack of internal water connection. They decided to add special programs with the cooperatives where they would train them on internal installations and contract them for 300 schools with no access to the formal water system. My group is looking at the external impacts these cooperatives are making in the community through their work as “agents of change”. We are eager to see what are some sustainable next steps for these cooperative members in terms of employment but also the communities that they have improved.

What has your team’s research uncovered about the community impacts of the cooperatives’ work?

We’ve discovered that the cooperatives have greatly impacted the lives of the communities where they work, but more importantly that they as community members have been impacted greatly. My group is really looking at how the cooperative members are agents of change. Through their work and self-actualization, they can lead meaningful cultural shifts in vulnerable communities.  I’ve been wrapped up in Latin American imagery lately, but I do see that every sweat droplet is an opportunity to achieve social change. It’s not just about economic self-sufficiency, it’s about making sure you create a value system where you demand basic human rights and resources to live a decent life. It’s about also knowing the power of education as well and knowing its power in creating agency, whether it’s a fancy environment and sustainability program like Vida Liquida or the professional skills and competency trainings the cooperative members received from AySA.

What other projects have students been working on?

Our 2nd project is working with AySA’s educational program, Vida Líquida. As of now, we want to make the connection between programs. Possibly having AySA think strategically about training cooperative members using Vida Líquida and also strategically using the school installations to target vulnerable communities.

In addition to our work with AySA we are monitoring and evaluating the clean up/ progress of ACUMAR (main agency created for the clean up of the Matanza Riachuelo). Using the traditional M+E methodology, we are conducting data analysis and also surveying different neighborhoods (within the jurisdiction of the river) to see what progress is being made and also perceived.

Two other members of the IFP group have also connected to AySA’s environmental department and have taken an environmental evaluation lab class with the Universidad Nacional de Avellaneda: UNDAV. They are interested in getting some hard skills in environmental evaluation and testing. Aside from our work with AySA, we have one student that is based at the Universidad Nacional de Avellaneda: UNDAV. His research is focused on government education programs that target vulnerable communities and attempt to create links into the workforce. 

Group picture of AySA Vida Líquida staff during a regional science and technology fair in La Matanza. IFP members include Phuong Nguyen and me.

What progress has ACUMAR, the main agency created for the clean up of the Matanza Riachuelo, made?  

ACUMAR has their indicators published online, while they are updated at different times and at different frequencies, they are available to the public. Since we started the M+E work last year, and it was really led by one student, we don’t have any of our work available. This will change soon since we are revamping our online presence and actively sharing our experience through social media. I think we all recognize the importance of capturing the progress as researchers, students, and finally plain ole humans. I also see how we are different culturally.  Through my work and even at school, performance management, and evaluation is so common. Maybe it’s just NYC and the work that I have done, but we talked about milestones, outcomes, at different intervals… here, given the history, they tend to want to focus on bigger picture accomplishments over time and don’t really talk about performance milestones the way I am accustomed to… but I hope our work sparks that change too.

Are there any funny anecdotes from your time in Argentina you’d like to share?

I joke that there is a national conspiracy to provide American foods or delicacies and then butcher it to teach us a lesson.  Maybe it’s my Dominican roots or NYC elitism that’s the problem and really my palate needs adjustment… but never order cheesecake (or other pastry that isn’t smothered in dulce de leche) because you will be disappointed. Or Oreos! They are recognizable products from back home, but made here.  Our Assistant Coordinator had a huge box of Oreos sent to her from home… that was both hilarious and ridiculous. (She waited 5 hours at the post office and I believe she had to pay for the value of the Oreos through a forced tax on imports. Yeah.)

Also, ice cream delivery… Buenos Aires has some amazing ice cream shops and chains… We finally ordered from one of our corner shops and it took 2 hours… we could have walked over in that time, but we wanted to see if this phenomenon was real.

Do you have any plans to travel after the IFP?

YES! We all have plans to travel and my roommate and I will be heading to the northern part of Argentina.  In fact, I might extend my stay and continue to explore this massive country and some of its neighbors. We were very focused and given the size of Argentina didn’t really get to plan any big trips during the IFP.

What do you hope for your second and final year in at The New School? Will you be continuing any of your IFP work in the form of a thesis?

I have one more semester left to finish, but I know that I will remain connected to the program. In fact, I hope to maybe return next year and support next year’s project. I think we’ve established that tradition in the Buenos Aires IFP. I definitely want to see how I can continue with this topic into my final MS project, we shall see!

What advice do you have for students who are considering participating in the 2016 Argentina IFP?

My advice would be to take this opportunity by the horns. It is what you make of it. I would also tap into my inner planner and try to maximize the beginning of the program to organize my work and see if I can get some local travel in.  You have access to some pretty important people and it’s your opportunity to build connections and learn from them. You have a chance to be opportunistic and either build your professional experience or refine it, it depends on where you are. Also, be flexible! I mean it in the way that you have to be innovative with what you have, quickly adapt to changes. Definitely understand that you quickly become a diplomat, managing your expectations on what you want and when you want it in another country is a skill. I guess I mean remain patient while remaining assertive, driven, and respectful of everyone you are working with.

If you want to walk away confident in your skills and proud of your work and research, come to Argentina.  You will feel like you’re a part of something bigger.