Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett leaves for El Salvador on Saturday, leading a group of more than 60 volunteers, business leaders and county officials on an eight-day excursion meant to forge relationships that will last for years to come.
Montgomery County has had relationships with communities overseas, but never an official Sister City. Leggett started a search for candidates two years ago, and with one of the largest shares of the county’s foreign-born, El Salvador emerged as the first candidate. Leggett settled on Morazan, a department (the equivalent of a state) in eastern El Salvador.
The Sister City agreement will be inked on Tuesday in the main plaza of San Francisco Gotera, Morazan's capital. But the trip's broader goal is to identify ways for Montgomery County to help Morazan address its struggles with education, housing, economic development, community building and the like.
The group—all of whom are paying their own way—will also include:
- Councilman George Leventhal
- Maryland Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez, a Salvadoran native
- Former Congresswoman Connie Morella
- Fourteen members of the Montgomery County branch of Habitat for Humanity, who will be launching a project to build 38 homes
- MoverMoms, a group of mothers and their children who will do community service at a school and at a maternity center
- The Association for Educational Development in El Salvador, which has been working with the San Jose School in Morazan for several years
- Several county officials and business leaders, some of whom have roots in El Salvador
Leggett sat down with Patch to discuss his priorities for the trip, his hope that Montgomery County and Morazan are embarking on a long and fruitful partnership, and what both communities stand to gain from it. Here are excerpts:
One of the things we’ve tried to do is to make it more than just cultural exchange. How can we help the community? What is it that they want and what is it that they need and how can Montgomery County help? Whether it’s housing, education, helping them build a community, leadership training—How do you engage in a civic community? How do you engage resources? There are some basic needs, everything from typewriters to computers to sports equipment for kids, to playgrounds and community centers. … It’s something that we can do without a great deal of cost. It’s something that they obviously need, and it’s something I think our community can build on. This is a county that has a great deal of talent and support that we can provide for others. Let’s find a way to build on that.
The group has plotted an itinerary that will take them to schools, historic sites and government offices, a mix of political meets and grass-roots exploration:
This is not an R-and-R kind of trip, sitting around drinking margaritas in some hotel or the beach or something. No, this is meeting with individual community leaders and looking at some of the things they’re doing, discussing ways in which we can be helpful, meeting with certain politicians and community leaders there, going to the sites of some of the things they are engaged in. This is not just a signing ceremony. We are truly interested in their country, their wellbeing, we have large numbers of citizens in Montgomery County from El Salvador and we truly care about them. That’s the first thing we have to establish; that this is not some PR stunt. This is something that is legitimate, that has potential.
Morazan was a rebel stronghold during El Salvador’s brutal civil war that fomented in 1979 and dragged on for nearly 15 years. Amid the bloodshed, many who fled Morazan ended up in Montgomery County:
The selection of Morazan is not what you’ve seen in the past—a more cultural selection, the PR selection—but more, ‘How can we really be helpful?’ There are probably places in the country that are better off than this community. We went the other way. It’s not a question of trying to find similarities. Let’s try to find somewhere we can make a difference. So we’ve taken one of the more challenging areas.
If all goes as planned, the efforts of county government will be only the first step:
All the things that need to be done, there’s no way that Montgomery County can do it. We can be a leader and a spark to encourage others, a role model. We’ve identified a country we think you should help support. What we hope to do is to build on this so we have private sector, the nonprofit sector, the governmental sector, all making some effort to be supportive. And by Montgomery County doing it, I think that we establish a foundation that others in leadership may want to follow. It’s not about how we benefit. If we wanted to do this in terms of how we benefit, this would not be the place we would go; it would be the more affluent places in the country. It is about how we can make a difference. Now, I think we do benefit: it reduces the need for people to go on these long, difficult, costly treks that remove them from their communities. If we find that people are more readily able to stay there—that they may not decide that they need to come to Montgomery County—I think that benefits everyone.
Those benefits may not be quantifiable right away:
If you’re looking at this in terms of quick fixes, that’s not realistic. You’re establishing a relationship, communication, contact with people, that you build so that not just Ike Leggett but the private sector, the nonprofit sector and future County Executives can continue to build on it. Then after a period of time you look back.