Doxa creates opportunities for people to serve Tijuana through
house building, education, and long-term community.
Last year, Doxa’s board underwent several months of working on a strategic plan. A comprehensive process that included assessing the vision, mission, strengths, weaknesses, and operational goals of the organization. Looking back at 30 years of history and commitment to Tijuana, it was so insightful to take some intentional time to reflect and prayerfully consider all these aspects of Doxa. Truly more than just groups building wood houses on spring break.
Going through this reflective process highlighted the areas where we could’ve done better and where things were clicking on all cylinders. One of the takeaways was that we didn’t have any stated organizational values (even though we had been living out many of the same values for years). The board decided to intentionally state Doxa’s values and incorporate them into our organizational language.
Values are incredibly important as they shape how we carry out Doxa’s operations. In missions, and just about all other work, the “how” actually matters more than that we simply do something. Anything worth doing is worth doing well, and nailing the execution is what ultimately results in greater impact. It’s not that Doxa facilitates house building that makes it great, it is the process that has been developed over 30 years that sets it apart and results in consistent life-changing impact. The same goes for Doxa’s education and community programs.
Sometimes arriving at the correct “how” is a process of trial and error, but it is worth it. It’s not always clean and orderly. As we like to say, missions is messy. Doxa hasn’t always gotten it right and continues to have areas of improvement, but the dedication is there to journey along together and actively listen to the Holy Spirit for guidance.
Doxa has five values, which are core to everything we do. We believe in:
Being an organization that exists at the intersection of different cultures, it is important that we can apply these values to every stakeholder that comes into contact with Doxa. Whether it’s a house building volunteer from Illinois, a middle school girl from Tijuana, or a youth pastor in Washington. These values are weaved into everything we do.
Over the next five issues of the Doxa Download, we’ll unpack these values and see how they apply to Doxa’s daily operations and partnerships.
As Doxa’s education program has grown so has its staff. Meet Maria de los Angeles Dominguez Perez… or Angeles for short. In addition to just graduating college (!!!), she is the education administrator and tutor for all the East TJ kids. She is based out of Unidos por Siempre orphanage, where a school classroom was built a few years ago. Her words and interview below have been translated from Spanish to English.
My name is Angeles and a large portion of my life has been spent at Unidos por Siempre. Since I was little, my family was in a lower economic class and we came searching for some help. Unidos por Siempre took us in and we quickly became part of the family. During this time we underwent some large changes. It brings great satisfaction to see Unidos por Siempre grow from its humble beginnings as a soup kitchen. In the moment I started working with Doxa, things got better at Unidos por Siempre. Most notably, the organization of family and student information has improved. In addition, the education of the boys and girls is better now that they have more resources and tools to succeed in school. I am delighted to help with these projects.
What has been your experience with Unidos por Siempre?
It has been very good, from the moment I got to Unidos por Siempre I have received a lot of love and unconditional support, and it is easy to call everyone family. It is nice to meet people and especially children who come here with serious problems and see their emotional and academic progression. Without a doubt, it is a wonderful place that regardless of any situation of condition, one can receive it all.
What do you like about your job?
I like being able to contribute something and see the progress of the orphanage as well as its children. To be useful and fill this niche at this time.
Why do you think school is important for these children?
I consider education to be the best benefit that can be given to someone. It is one of the many tools that in the future of any child’s life can tangibly make him or her successful. Learning interesting and important things is also crucial for their development and creating future opportunities.
In what ways are you leading by example?
I consider myself a creative, responsible, and hard-working person. The fact that they see me work, supporting them, and knowing things that they do not know because of their age makes me a good example. I can help illuminate a part of what their future may look like.
What are your strengths?
Creativity, communication, empathy, and organization.
What are you currently working on to improve?
The way I express myself, the way I relate to people, and patience.
How has Doxa helped you?
I am so grateful because not everyone has the opportunities that Doxa has offered me, to be more responsible through growth and be able to love what I do.
What did you study in school? Why did you finish college instead of just middle or high school?
I studied a degree in business administration. Continuing to study beyond a basic level, I consider necessary for a better future and better opportunities in terms of work. To be able to feel proud of myself and what I do. I don’t consider myself a conformist and now that I’ve finished college there are even more things that I would like to do and learn.
What do you like to do in your free time?
In my free time I like to read, cook, and also paint.
This article is geared towards all the self-declared “mission nerds,” non-profit professionals, and everyone who tells stories. We tell stories all the time, whether to show the impact of mission work, raise donations, or communicate an example of how something works. However, we must be mindful of exactly how we portray someone’s story. It’s so easy for us (in the missions and non-profit space) to fall into the trap of exploitive storytelling. That is, using the stories of families and those we serve in a way that only focuses on their short-comings and serves our end-goal.
Exploitive storytelling often happens without the writer’s knowledge. An unconscious bias that slips its way into the finished work. It’s a byproduct of the writer taking in someone’s story and then using it to fit their narrative or their end-goal. For example, if our goal is to raise donations then we might be tempted to cherry-pick only the worst parts of someone’s story to evoke pity, guilt, and sorrow onto potential donors. Not only does this create a toxic donor relationship, but also a distorted view of the people that are getting help. Overtime, exploitive storytelling creates an unconscious structure of haves and have-nots. The donors have what the families lack and the non-profit staff are the answer. Such a culture isn’t healthy or sustainable for anyone!
Some telltale signs of exploitive storytelling are that it invokes pity, but not empathy from the reader. That the story being told results in the provision of help or services, but not respect or dignity. Exploitive storytelling only focuses on a family’s short-comings, differences, and problems just to invoke a reaction from the reader. That reaction could be donating, volunteering, or something else. The reader may come away with a sense of absolute superiority, which just feeds into the unconscious structure of haves and have-nots. Exploitive storytelling results when we tell someone’s story incorrectly, incompletely, and through our own lens.
Unfortunately, Doxa has been guilty of exploitive storytelling. Something we continue to work on to this day, in communicating our work honestly, transparently, and completely. Many other non-profits struggle with this, too. One advantage that Doxa has, though, is that thousands of people have been down to Tijuana to see the impact first-hand. A picture is worth a thousand words and evokes something more than just reading a story.
So how can we move away from exploitive storytelling? And towards stories that are not just honest, but complete and honoring.
The very first step is a recognition that we are just as broken as the people we serve. Our brokenness may look different, but to think that we aren’t broken or are better is an inaccurate understanding. As a side note, this recognition will also help to avoid white-savior complex. Which is so easy for us to fall into, especially when we’re engaged with projects that have large generational impacts such as house building or education scholarships. (by the way, if you haven’t heard of white-savior complex before, feel free to Google away and maybe we’ll dedicate a future article about how Doxa actively discourages it)
A second safeguard against exploitive storytelling is maintaining a close connection with the people we serve. As an organization, Doxa puts volunteers on the front lines thereby letting each person’s eyes, ears, nose, and touch do the storytelling. This is also why all of Doxa’s programs are led by Mexican nationals. All Doxa staff, except one, are Mexican and live in the same neighborhoods where we conduct house building, education, and community programs. Every recipient of a house or scholarship is qualified and stewarded along by a Doxa staff member. That relationship is maintained long after the house gets built and throughout their involvement as a scholarship recipient.
Finally, there is an even simpler way to avoid exploitive storytelling. That is if we’re not comfortable with the families reading their own story as we would publish it, then don’t do it. Running the finished stories through this lens is a simple check and balance against exploitation.
So how can we achieve telling stories with dignity? The answer doesn’t mean just avoiding hard or sad stories altogether. Pain, sorrow, and brokenness are part of our world and have a place in stories. I would venture a guess that these things are also part of our own stories, in at least one way or another.
Keeping the people we serve at the center of the story is a great way to build in dignity. This means just being a conduit for their own words and voice. To the maximum extent possible, just translate their words and let their own voice shine through. This preserves the authenticity of voice and guards against the storyteller being the author of their story. Additionally, we need to fight to urge to interpret their story; and thereby, subtly changing the meaning. As the writer for stories, we need to develop the mantra of less is more.
Another important characteristic of storytelling is balance. Telling stories with dignity means telling the entire story, not just the parts that you want the reader to react to. This means showcasing the strengths along with the weaknesses. It is far too easy to see the people we serve as just a bunch of weaknesses, short-comings, and problems that need solving. This mentality is toxic and isn’t putting anyone in right relationship.
Instead, we should focus our stories on how the help or service will enhance the strengths already present in the community or family we serve. This means that our help is not the main show, but an added benefit that has ripple effects and builds upon local strengths and capacities already present. That our programs complement what is already going on in the local community. This type of approach is also related to the Asset-Based Community Development model, which looks at communities through the lens of what they already have rather than defining them based on what they lack.
The art of good storytelling is rare. When a story is told with dignity and respect, it not only honors the family but also engages the reader. It doesn’t have to be one or the other.
For further reading on exploitive storytelling, check out the following two articles.
Are Your Nonprofit Organization’s Stories Dishonoring the Families You Serve? by Dani Robbins
How Can Nonprofits Move from Exploitative Storytelling to Justice-Oriented Storytelling? by Debi Jenkins
Join The Doxa Download! A concise collection of stories that are curated about Doxa and Tijuana,
delivered to your inbox every other month. We'd love to have you join us!
Doxa respects your right to privacy, treats all your information confidentially, and never shares information with any 3rd parties.