SAN DIEGO — As a kid at St. Columba Parish, Paul Hicks had the opportunity to take part in a service trip to Tijuana.
He helped distribute food, visited a home for young girls who had been rescued from the streets, and assisted in a house-building project.
“That day was just transformational for me, to see the poverty and then to get a glimpse of how I could be contributing to [alleviating] this,” recalled Hicks, 48.
Years later, as a junior in college, he attended a presentation by a priest affiliated with Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the official international humanitarian agency of the U.S. Catholic community, and he knew from that moment what he wanted to do for a living.
He soon reached out to CRS, but was told that overseas development experience and a graduate-level education were requirements to join the organization. So, he spent two years in Honduras with the Peace Corps and then earned his master’s at the University of California, Davis. He was so determined to work for CRS that he even sought out the agency’s advice when choosing a graduate school.
Hicks has been a CRS staffer for 18 years now.
Based in El Salvador, he currently serves in the Latin American and Caribbean region as senior technical advisor for water. He previously worked on water-related projects in Albania, the Philippines and Afghanistan.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, he said, CRS works with communities, nongovernmental organizations, government agencies and other key players to ensure that everyone — including those living in extreme poverty — has access to potable water. The agency also works to protect the drinking water supply from pollution and other threats.
Current initiatives include programs that extend credit to communities to fund the improvement and expansion of their water systems, and that work with farmers to promote sustainable agriculture in those watersheds.
Because water is essential for life, it is frequently a source of conflict.
“Oftentimes, 80 percent of what we’re doing … is conflict management or peacebuilding,” Hicks said of his work with CRS. “In almost any case when you’re working with water, you are facing some sort of conflict.”
As an example, he recounted an experience in Honduras, where CRS was working with a group of five communities that had banded together to construct a water system that drew water from the local stream, through a series of pipes, into reservoirs.
“We were working with all of these local actors to protect that water source, to ensure that it would be safeguarded from contamination or any kind of degradation of the watershed,” Hicks said. “But we didn’t recognize that there were other stakeholders that were being impacted.”
These farmers from other local communities had been left out of the project and responded by vandalizing the site, ultimately causing about $3,000 worth of damage.
Hicks said CRS’ response was to open a dialogue with them, treating them not as a “threat,” but rather as “legitimate stakeholders” who needed to be involved in the process.
For Hicks, this experience illustrates what he finds most rewarding about his work.
“Water is a shared resource — many different people, many different communities relying on the same water resources,” he said, explaining that the actions of one group have an impact on those downstream. “So water is always social and, therefore, it’s always political.”
But amid the conflict are opportunities to bring people together, build relationships and make mutually beneficial arrangements.
In effect, he said, “Water becomes a great avenue for peacebuilding.”
Hicks said that Catholics have received a renewed “challenge and call” to protect the environment and alleviate poverty, courtesy of Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si,’” published in May 2015.
He said these global issues “invite us and require us to think and act in solidarity with people, both within our own country and people in developing countries.”
For residents of his hometown of San Diego, Hicks said, the proximity to the U.S.-Mexican border provides “a tremendous opportunity,” similar to the one that changed his life and set him on his path all those years ago.
Through such opportunities, he said, people “can see how they can become part of acts of solidarity … and how they themselves, through their careers and whatever they’re doing, can be part of efforts to relieve suffering and contribute to human development.”