GoAbroad Interview

Filiberto Penados - Engaged Scholarship & Service Learning Director

Filiberto Penados - Engaged Scholarship & Service Learning Director

Dr. Filiberto Penados, from the village of San Jose Succotz, Cayo, Belize, is an indigenous studies and education scholar and community activist. He completed a Postgraduate Diploma and a Ph.D. in education studies at the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand. Dr. Penados has held faculty positions at the University of Belize and Galen University, and has presented at several conferences and universities on indigenous studies and education.

Your philosophy at ISIS Belize focuses on “sustainable community well being.” What is an example of how this is brought to life in one of your international service learning programs?

Well, first of all it is important to note that there are some key underlying elements to our philosophy. The first is that local communities have a wealth of intellectual, material and cultural resources that are or can be mobilized to achieve sustainable well being, and that they know best what well being means to them and should be the ones defining both the pace and direction. Two, that they are engaged in actions that are already pursuing their well being.  That sustainability in addition to the conventional focus on environment needs to build on the assets and actions already in process and respond to the aspirations of values of the community. Three, that our engagement with communities needs to be sustained over time and not be a one-time action. It must be based on a long-term partnership. Otherwise, while the specific can be fun and produce the most amazing learning experience for our students it may contribute very little to local communities.









ISIS Belize participant making Mayan Pottery in Belize

Learning about Mayan pottery.

A project that best illustrates this is one we recently worked on which focused on Food Security, Food Sovereignty and Traditional Foods. Food security and sovereignty is central to well being and a major concern around the globe especially in the face of climate change. In one our partner communities there is a concern regarding the high incidence of diabetes and hypertension, as well as the erosion of the cultivation and consumption of traditional foods.  For four years ISIS Belize and its students have been carrying out an annual height and weight census, and health education campaign in two primary schools. This has been done in partnership with a local health center headed by an amazing health worker that has won the Belizean Unsung Hero Award. We have also been working with these two primary schools to develop their school-garden and organize community health fairs.

Last year our students worked with a group of students to increase awareness, knowledge, and capacities around food security and traditional foods with a group of children. Both groups kept a food journal and explored where this food comes from, why they are consumed and what are the implications for food security and sovereignty. Together they interviewed parents and grandparents about the food they ate, and drew comparisons with current realities. In addition the visited local farmers to learn about traditional food production collected seeds and established a traditional food gardens. The project culminated with learning how to prepare foods using traditional ingredients and preparing a meal wonderful meal to close the project.

The reason why I think this showcases the implementation of our philosophy is that it built on long term partnership, built on community assets and efforts and was a wonderful learning opportunity for both the children and the university students. The children were reconnected with local knowledge bearers, were able to see traditional knowledge and foods in a different light, and developed skills about planting and cooking. The university students were able to learn about food security and sovereignty, and share with the local community their own experiences, knowledge, and skills. The end product was a nice garden, and a renewed excitement about traditional foods among teachers, students, and knowledge bearers.

What is your favorite aspect of your job as Engaged Scholarship & Service Learning Director at ISIS Belize?

I would say not one, but two. The first being the ability to create learning opportunities for our visiting students that challenge them to think outside the box. Experiences that “stop the world” and help them to grow personally and professionally. Amazing learning occurs when you look at a tree and for a moment you focus on the light and shadows that are coming through the leaves, rather than the leaves and branches themselves. I am a firm believer that education should be as Paulo Freire says, not only about reading the word, but reading the world.









Qeqchi Spiritual Guides performing a Maya spiritual ceremony in Belize

Q’eqchi Spiritual Guides perform a Maya spiritual ceremony.

The second is using these opportunities to engage with local actors to build community and engage in thinking and actions that contribute to sustainable well being.

What makes Belize the perfect place to study abroad or do an international service learning project?

Belize is a small place with amazing biological and cultural diversity packed into such a small space. It is also a very young country, only independent in 1981, finding its way in a world where many old concepts are being called into question and new ones being invented. How do we care for our planet? How do we build more caring societies? How do we live together? What can we learn from indigenous peoples? What do we do about climate change? How do we reinvent our economies? These are big questions that can be asked and there is lot going on in Belize that allow one to think and learn about these.

Moreover, Belize is a very peaceful country with people who are eager to become friends.  And finally, it is an English speaking country, which makes it easy for students to engage.









Volunteers in Belize painting chairs for children

Working with local parents to create a children’s reading room.

What kind of research can students do while studying or interning in Belize?

The list is endless: biodiversity and its management, tourism, education, culture, community development you name it. To give you some examples, one of our students was doing research on agriculture education in Belize; another was looking at food security, youth and violence; and yet another looked at community tourism. One of our students worked with me two years ago on a research project on indigenous livelihoods. We worked in two indigenous communities conducting interviews and exploring the kind of strategies being adopted. We then examined these and the implications they had for indigenous development. He came back this year to present a short paper at the Belize Archeology and Anthropology conference.

You say your personal mission is to “reinvent education.” How do you incorporate that mission into your programs at ISIS Belize? What aspect of education do you hope to reinvent?

Education conventionally is limited to what happens within the four walls of the classroom. It tends to emphasize one way of knowing the world, fragments knowledge into disciplines, divides theory and practice, and is based on that idea that there is one knower teaching passive not-knowers. All of these come into play in the kind of programs we develop. I tell students two things: “Reality is more than we can say about it,” and “knowledge is always partial”. If we keep these in mind we open our minds to so much and to so many.

I want students to become excited about learning and to use their knowledge and skills to make the world a better place.









Holding a Snake in Belize

Making friends with Belizean residents.

You earned your first degree at the University of Belize in Belize City, then went on to earn a master’s and doctorate in New Zealand. What brought you back to working in Belize?

The idea of coming back to Belize was always there. Like many Belizeans, I always dreamt of making Belize a true jewel. In Maya culture, they say that one returns to where one’s navel is planted. Mine is planted in Belize. 

Your diverse educational background must be very useful in the faculty-led custom courses you help to develop at ISIS Belize. What is the most unique program you offer right now? 

Hmm… this is hard. I think it would be program we have been running with the University of Toronto for about four years. We have a group of students from multiple disciplines (Human Biology, Aboriginal Studies, Caribbean Studies and Equity Studies) that come for 10 days and explore a theme around indigenous issues. In this program, I often go to the University of Toronto where I do some lectures and help select students. They then spend 10 days with me, and through a combination of reading materials, site visits, and engagement with on the ground actors, explore complex issues such as sustainability, colonialism, sustainable development, and indigenous resurgence among others. During this time, students keep a reflective journal where they explore topics of their own interest. We then close the cycle when they go back and organize presentations and events on these same topics. This past year they organized a mini-conference on food and indigeneity. This program has lead to several students going on to graduate school and taking up some of these themes for their research project. 

Your Indigenous Resurgence and Sustainable Development Course offers students a very unique service learning project abroad. Students actually live in indigenous communities and take part in their daily life. What type of activities do students get to participate in, and what are the housing arrangements like?

With the Garifuna communities students participate in an innovative indigenous education program where Garifuna knowledge is integrated in the curriculum. The students participate in preparing traditional Garifuna foods, and interact with Garifuna spiritual guides and young people.

In The Maya communities, the students stay in community run guest houses and have meals with Maya families. They participate in the making of local crafts, in Maya farming activities,  Maya spiritual ceremonies, and interact closely with Maya scholars and activists engaged in the land rights movement.

You have an extensive background working with indigenous populations. How do the indigenous populations of Belize view the programs and students?

We have build a strong relationship with indigenous communities and the programs are seen as opportunities to share their beautiful culture, knowledge, and worldview, as well as educate visitors about their struggles and challenges. A key element of indigenous struggle is what the Zapatistas describe as “creating a world where many worlds can fit”.  These programs help to showcase how this might be possible. Additionally, our programs are valued because they contribute to the local economy. Communities are very welcoming of our students, they only ask for respectful engagement.

What are some of the challenges that the indigenous people of Belize face, and how are students able to help them?

One of the key challenges is to liberate a space for indigenous ways of knowing and being -   for cultural development. To begin with, by examining their own assumptions about indigenous peoples, avoid romanticizing them, viewing them as victims, or as a problem.  Secondly, students are able to help by developing respectful perspectives and relationships.  Thirdly, by recognizing the importance of cultural diversity and the need to create a world where many worlds can fit and in their own spaces thinking and working towards this. Finally, sharing these insights with others.









Volunteer building a school garden in Belize with local children

Building a school garden with local students.

ISIS Belize offers 15 different kinds of internships in Belize. If you were back in your undergraduate years, which area would you intern in?

I did my undergraduate work in mathematics and then education. After I completed my PhD and came back, I engaged with indigenous organizations. This opened my mind to other ways or thinking about the world. If my mind would have been open to this earlier my creativity would greatly benefitted. I certainly would intern with an indigenous organization.

Are there any new and interesting research projects coming up with ISIS Belize?  

There are three I am excited about. One is a tourism and indigeneity project in two indigenous communities. Another is one looks at the electoral system of Belize, and a third is one is an education research project.