Alumni Spotlight: Joanna Levitt

Joanna Levitt
Alternative Breaks, El Salvador, 2001
Joanna Levitt participated in AJWS Alternative Breaks in El Salvador in 2001. She is currently the Director of Programs at the International Accountability Project in San Francisco. Previously, Joanna was a Gardner Fellow at the Center for International Environmental Law in Washington, D.C. and spent two years in Ecuador through a Fulbright grant, working with the Center for Economic and Social Rights (Centro de Derechos Económicos y Sociales).

What motivated you to participate in AJWS Alternative Breaks?

There had been a recent earthquake and other natural disasters in El Salvador that had placed that country in the news a lot. One of my best friends at school had heard about the transformative experiences folks have on Alternative Breaks and it just seemed like an incredible opportunity. We spent one week in the community of Ciudad Romero in El Salvador. Before that trip I had met Chencho Alas [one of the NGO's founders and a priest who had been exiled during the country's civil war] and was inspired by his leadership style and his historical role – being able to spend time with him on the trip was definitely a highlight.

How did this particular trip influence you?

The kind of poverty and challenges that I saw in El Salvador were different from what I'd seen before. As a Central American country that had been ravaged by a series of natural disasters, plus a conflict exacerbated by U.S. intervention, there was a lack of infrastructure and a density of poor populations that was different from what I'd seen elsewhere at that point.

I was already set on working on international human rights and justice issues, but the trip strongly deepened my own spiritual commitment and involvement. In my work today, I try to bring mind, heart and spirit to what I'm doing. When we're up against such huge obstacles and injustices, you have to bring a lot of spirit.

What issues do you address in your work?

I work on development induced displacement, which is forced migration of communities to make way for mega-development projects like dams, oil, mining, infrastructure, and the whole host of human rights and justice issues that comes along with that. Fundamentally, it is about democratizing the development model - how do people in a region think development should be defined for them? Should it be imposed from distant capitals miles away or should it be a more locally focused, people-oriented plan?

Is it a challenge to sustain spirit in your current work?

It's not. I find it in the people I work with and meet in the Global South. They may not have the same level of economic resources of the people they're fighting against, so they need to have deep resources of spirit. Even though it's coming from different religious faiths and backgrounds, one thing I feel most grateful that I meet people who regularly give me a spiritual recharge.

It's an even more powerful version of what had started on my AJWS trip. I left with a commitment to live my life in a way that is whole and to take responsibility for not getting burned out in my work. I remain inspired and thankful to be alive.

How do you approach the complexities of development work?

One of the things that we talked about on my AJWS trip was the problematic dynamic between groups in the Global North who want to help groups in the South, and how you do that without taking away people's dignity. Something that I love about my work today is that it's not that usual dynamic; it's a coming together of brilliant activists from all over, whether from a community in India or an environmental justice organization in Indonesia or a women's rights group in Peru, to think about how we can each use our position in this world to collaboratively reform and change institutions and unjust policies.

I love the quote from our AJWS handbook: "If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together." I try to make my work embody that.