We caught up with VISTA alumna Nelda Reyes, about two of her recent projects. Nelda is an evaluator, researcher, artist, actress, and—now—consultant and author!
Nelda is the primary consultant at AB Cultural Drivers, a business she started which works “in collaboration with researchers, evaluators, program developers, foundations and organizations to assess, investigate and develop culturally specific projects…specializ[ing] in cultural and educational projects involving Latino communities in the United States and Latin America.” Nelda’s local clients include the Library Foundation, Oregon Community Foundation, OMSI, Portland Art Museum, and more. Check out their services here!
Nelda is also the author (alongside collaborator Gerardo Calderon) of Huehuetlatolli: The Wise Tales of My People, published in 2018. The book is a duo-lingual adaptation of legends from some of the most influential indigenous cultures of the Americas which are still a vital part of contemporary Mexican culture: the Aztec, the Huichol, and the Maya. Each section features a legend, a traditional song, and an art-based activity. The book includes an audio CD with songs performed in the original indigenous languages and also has spoken directions to facilitate the art-based activities. Learn more and get the book here!
How did your year as a VISTA contribute to where you are now?
When I was a VISTA I was doing work in evaluation with Latino Network. It was that year that I said, I’m going to go from being a full-time employee doing research and evaluation to actually try to see what it would be to have my own business and start as an independent consultant.
That year helped solidify so much for me. To be alongside a whole group of people doing all different kinds of work with a similar goal of equity, to learn from one another… that was powerful for me. It was like all these things I knew already and felt inside were confirmed because I could share a vision with the whole group.
Tell us about your consulting business.
Research and evaluation is very technical, but it’s still about people. I realized that as I consultant, I would be able to do work for nonprofits, foundations, eventually government and academic institutions where I would be able to influence the way things are done, because through evaluation you can show impact. I could also influence the work of practitioners. If I am evaluating an educational program, I could support educators to have deeper insight on what they are doing and how to improve their practice.
Always I have been drawn to working with communities who have not been listened to before. I don’t want to be an external evaluator who comes and gives you a report. I want to partner with other professionals doing this work, to embed the practices and the values that I believe into their work. And because of the nature of equity work, and you guys at Campus Compact know this well because I’ve learned from you – once you start and you take off the blinders, there’s no going back. You start transforming yourself and you cannot see the world in the same way. So in my evaluation work I embed my values of lifting this veil, to have more influence to change the whole research and evaluation field. So my business is that I am a partner – I will partner with a principal investigator and say okay you want to listen to this community? This is how we can do that, and we’ll do it together. And that’s how I’ve been doing my work, which has been great! It’s very involved. I spend a lot of time talking, I put a lot of love in each of my clients and my projects but it’s happening, which is super exciting.
Tell us about your book!
Different things intersected to inspire me to make this book. I had a great great grandmother, she is indigenous from the east coast of Mexico who lived to be like 109 years old. So when I was little she would tell stories and by being around her and her influence, I developed a love for stories and I appreciated her perspective and it felt so different but I didn’t know why. Then later I learned that she had grown up so differently – from indigenous roots. I have an aunt who used to work with indigenous communities in the western side of Mexico, in Chiapas, from the Mayan and other cultures. She would bring me whenever she could. I would be with them and learn from them in this very remote place and do social service projects, like vaccinations and things. Those trips really opened my mind to different ways of living, I would go to festivities and ceremonies, I saw things that you don’t get to see unless you are there. You could only go in on airplanes to some of these communities as there’s no roads!
When I came here to the U.S I met Gerardo, who did the sound and music for the book, who has been studying all the pre-Columbian instruments, the rhythms, particularly from the central valley of Mexico. I loved this, and had this idea and suggested we do this together. So I started researching stories, went into archives of historical books from monks and things about the first time they came to the Americas. Eventually we selected 3 cultures from Mesoamerica, and song and stories from each to go into the book. I had the opportunity to go visit. The 3 languages are completely different; the way they live is completely different.
This took me about 6 years to put together. Funding came from RACC for the illustrations and book design. We did a digital version of it, but my dream was always to have a physical book because I know how important that is for children, for families, especially for our communities to promote literacy. And we finally did it! My goal is to have it in every library in this country and if I can in Mexico too. This is about access to stories. I want kids to feel proud, feel excited about learning about this. Just so people know, a little bit, these cultures are alive, they are so beautiful and the languages too.
What’s next for you?
At some point, one of the things that I’m dreaming about is to create a learning community for the field of research and evaluation in the region. A while ago the Oregon Program Evaluation Association they hosted me and some peers to present a session to people in the field to talk about what is the role of a researcher/evaluator in equity – at the personal, institutional, community levels. We realized that our field is in the early stages in terms of understanding our role as professionals in equity. So one of my big dreams is to put together a model of community learning for researchers and evaluators, so we can all learn what our role in equity means. This is another way that I think I could influence the field, so that we become more aware. So I’ve had some initial conversations and people are really excited! People from higher education could get involved with this, could be a good opportunity! I am an instigator here I feel… but in the best way!