Twenty-six Cornell students visited Panama over spring break as a part of a global student-led “brigade” to provide basic legal education to underprivileged communities. They focused on Panama’s Darien region, which has high poverty rates and limited access to running water, electricity and government services.
The students educated residents about their basic legal rights, the legal instruments available to them and the procedures guaranteed by the Panamanian constitution in times of dispute or rights violations, said Simon Boehme ’14, co-founder and co-president of Cornell's Global Law Brigade, which organized the service-learning trip in partnership with the international development organization Global Brigades.
Students used counseling workshops, school debates and human rights games to educate children and adults on fundamental rights, divorce, alimony, custody and land disputes. “We also actively coordinated with local lawyers and judges to understand and relay information on local laws and regulations,” said brigade member Winnie Tong ’14. “As Americans, what we see as our natural rights such as freedom of speech and liberty, [Panamanians] barely recognize as their own rights.”
Boehme said that the group’s experience in Panama was a crucial life lesson for the Cornell students, who came to better appreciate the value and importance of natural resources, community life and sustainability.
Due to lack of information and a sense of powerlessness, Panamanians were disenfranchised from such state services as a water supply. They suffered losses in land disputes they could not satisfactorily resolve. Boehme and Tong hope that their legal education program empowered the people and gave them the confidence to seek legal recourse.
The students also delved into Panamanian culture and observed their lifestyle. “Here, we’re always trying to maximize efficiency and use of time. There, they do what they can do in a day, and truly enjoy whatever they do,” said Haejin Hwang ’15. She said fast-paced, work-efficiency-oriented American culture could learn a few things from the relaxed pace of life in Panama.
Thaddeus Talbot ’15, who hails from Panama, was “interested in seeing family members and friends in Panama, but also to see the economic, agricultural and social progress of Panama since I last saw it at age 7.” He said he also wanted to apply “my knowledge of human and labor rights to help bring redevelopment” from his ILR School training.
Talbot, for whom the trip was personally and academically gratifying, said his time in Panama “invigorated my passion for civic engagement. It humbled me in a unique and personal way. I share this experience with Cornellians on campus and encourage them to get involved overseas, to be frugal with resources, and to cherish every opportunity presented.”
Tong concurred: “It was a great learning and deeply humbling experience,” she said.
Umang Prabhakar ’13 is a student writer intern at the Chronicle.