Thursday, June 24, 2010

Youth Leaders and Scholarship Students in San Vicente Circle up to Share Progress in Their Communities

On a cool damp day in June, thirty youth from communities in the CRIPDES San Vicente region arrived at the CRIPDES/CORDES offices for the mid-year assembly, to check in, to provide feedback on the scholarship program, and share about their work in their communities, organizing youth and working with community councils. Amilcar, a scholarship recipient himself, energetically ran the meeting and encouraged the youth to voice their opinions as they took turns sharing their impressions.

Before the assembly began, Amilcar asked the group to put their chairs in a circle to be able to see one another and participate collectively—the chairs were set up in rows, facing forward, with chairs formally placed behind the “mesa de honor.” It was a great way to start the meeting, with an emphasis on shared, horizontal leadership, with no one above anyone else in a hierarchical vertical structure. The meeting started with introductions and greetings as we went around the circle and took turns announcing who we were, which community or organization we represented, and why we were there. Soon after the introductions, the young adults took turns explaining what the scholarship meant to them.

“I have nothing negative to say, only positive words. I recognize the value in this program. It covers not only transportation, food, and the cost of education, but $5 can go to something else for the family. Helping our youth to study is so important. If we didn’t have this, the kids would not go to school. We appreciate it so much. Thank you,” expressed a very emotional mother in the group. Many other students and parents expressed very similar sentiments, recognizing that it not only helps the student attending school, but the whole family.

A focus of the assembly was also on the community organizing work youth participate in. Work ranged from the organization of cleaning campaigns and education about river pollution to plans to celebrate a community's anniversary, to an update about a mother’s day event that youth were central in planning in one of the communities. It took a while to warm the room up, but after some encouragement, youth shared more and more about their community organizing work, and about the achievements and struggles they have faced.

One of the greatest difficulties faced by these young leaders was the division of youth in their communities. As they took turns sharing their different experiences, a common thread was felt, and together they started to brainstorm suggestions of what they could do to build solutions. Through their formation and active participation of sharing their experiences, together they were able to begin the process for working through the problems.

Overall the young men and women wanted to make positive remarks and shared criticism to improve the program. The group was very positive and grateful to the scholarships and excited about their participation in their communities.

Amilcar, the visitors from SHARE, and the students all ended the afternoon with a fun, interactive “dynamica.”

In four small groups, youth chose an action, based on a household chore, and a song. Amilcar, standing in the middle of the room, would indicate to each group by raising his left, right or both arms when they should sing, act out their chore, do both, or stop. To the right, students act out the preparation of land before planting season begins with the first rains. The room was soon erupting in giggles as the students had some fun and got to know each other a little better through their actions and songs.

This dinamica also emphasized the importance of organization—if the group didn't have good communication and organization before Amilcar pointed to them, their actions wouldn't be coordinated and their song would be incomprehensible. From this silly activity, we drew an important lesson: only organized can people achieve their goals and salir adelante, move forward.

With a new generation doing things in a different way than in the past, the youth are working to create an atmosphere where it is comfortable to collectively participate and together create sustainable, alternative, democratic development in their communities. They enjoy the work they are doing and recognize its value for their communities. As they grow and develop as leaders, their communities, their region, and their country will benefit from the amazing work they are doing.

Friday, June 11, 2010

CCR High School Scholarship Assembly: The Literacy Circle Challenge

As a part of their commitment to community organizing, every two months recipients of a CCR-SHARE high school scholarship attend a youth scholarship meeting. This assembly overlaps with the CCR sistering meeting, allowing students to participate in and benefit from the space of analysis and, when possible, represent their communities in the discussion. When the sistering meeting is adjourned, the students and youth leaders stay to check in.

At first, it's like pulling teeth. In this group, like many groups of high-school aged youth throughout El Salvador, most of the teenagers are too penoso to participate in the beginning. The topic we began with was, in essence, how are we doing? What is working in our community work, and what isn't working? What do we like, and what don't we? When this didn't get any volunteers, Lucio, a young man himself, coordinator of the youth programs at the CCR, started calling on people and asking them to more specific questions, eventually leading to fruitful reflection.

The first young man to share, Luis from La Reina, the youngest in the room who we later gave a ride home through the pouring rain of the beginnings of Tropical Storm Agatha, shared that his professors give way too many exams and tests, sometimes up to three in one day, which is stressful and makes it impossible to study. They are too demanding. It was clear that this wasn't just a complaint about too much work, but a concern from a student who wants to do well but feels little support. Heads nodded around the room in agreement and understanding. With others experiencing the same thing, Lucio suggested that these students assume their role as youth leaders and rally fellow students to talk with the professor, present their difficulties and ask for support.

One by one, Lucio called on youth and they shared about their work in their communities. Beatriz from Ramirez shared that the youth committee is organizing fundraising events to buy sound equipment for the community—any time there is a community event, including patron saint festivals, marches, intermural activities, the all-important soccer tournament, they have to rent or borrow microphones and speakers, which is tedious and expensive. Pedro Antonio from Concepción talked about the cleaning campaigns that the youth committe carries out, while María Catalina from Teosinte shared her work with the local health clinic, supporting the children's nutrition program in the community.

The second half of the meeting was dedicated to a proposal from the CCR. The Education Ministry, under the new government, is beginning a community literacy program for adults and youth. In El Salvador, the illteracy rate for those over the age of 15 is 16%, a total of 1,354,057 people throughout the country that cannot read the news, write a letter, or often times sign their name. Chalatenango is among the departments with the highest illiteracy rates. While a literacy program has existed under previous administrations, according to FUSADES, the Salvadoran Foundation for Economic and Social Development, as reported in 2009, programs have lacked in funds and in clear focus and attention towards the most affected population ( Vice President and Education Minister Sanchez Ceren has set the goal of reducing illiteracy to 3.2% by 2014, the end of his term.

This is no small challenge. The government has hired local promoters to organize literacy circles in communities throughout the country, recognizing that time and transportation are huge barriers to even informal education, but they have asked for support from communities in leading these circles. This is where the CCR and youth leaders come in.

Lucio began by sharing a very personal story. Now a professional and university graduate, Lucio grw up in a very poor rural family. He talked about his family, about the sacrifices his own father made so that he and his siblings could continue their education. Three graduated from university, a gigantuan feat for a campesina family from Chalatenango. Despite this, Lucio shared that his father cannot read or write. When asked who had a mother, father or other relative who did not know how to read and write, almost all the hands in the room went up.

In the majority of the scholarship student's communities, where need is palpable, literacy circles are being established. The CCR's proposal is for these youth leaders to seek out the promoter in their zone and volunteer to facilitate a circle in their communities. The promoter will organize and monitor the groups, while the youth would work with them on a weekly basis to learn basic and necessary skills that have remained out of reach. “This is an important way for us to give back to our communities, offer something in return for the work our families have done to make our education possible, and a way for us to feel useful and helpful. Our families work the land, milk cows, do everything possible to make enough to complement the scholarship so we can study. This is a way to give something back and to thank them for their sacrifice,” Lucio said.

Most of the students were immediately on board with the proposal, although there were lingering doubts about how to facilitate this kind of process and the support they would need. We reminded students that this space enables them to come together every two months to share struggles and acheivements and create solutions to the challenges they face, providing support that they would not otherwise have. They can learn from each other's experiences, mistakes and successes, and look to the CCR for support and guidance.

In closing, reference was made to the morning's discussion about the change El Salvador so desperately needs. “Here is our opportunity to participate in these changes, to convert theoretical conversations into concrete actions.” From this group of students, who will learn and grow as they facilitate their own literacy circles, more Salvadorans will have the basic skills necessary to participate in a more complete way in the development and organization of their communities, region and country.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Roots of Justice: Delegate Reflection on El Salvador

The following reflection was written by Suzanne Bottelli, who accompanied her students from The Northwest School in Seattle, WA, on a delegation to El Salvador in March 2010. Northwest students actively support their sister region, UCRES, in youth and women's organizing projects and are equally active in advocacy and political action in their home city.

In March of this year I was fortunate to accompany a group of students and faculty from The Northwest School to join a SHARE delegation in El Salvador. We traveled for two weeks in order to have a week to learn about and experience the country and a week to participate in the events surrounding the 30-year anniversary of Archbishop Oscar Romero’s martyrdom on March 24, 1980. There are so many highlights that I could share, but I will tell you about visiting our sister school (in the community of Huisisilapa) and about our visit with Danny Burridge, who is a friend to the St. Pat’s community.

Our first stop on the way out to Huisisilapa was actually in the town of Aguilares, where we visited the offices of UCRES, a regional alliance of communities in the northern part of the country [Union de Communidades Rurales del Norte de San Salvador y Libertad]. Here we had an amazing talk with the current director of UCRES, Alex Torres, and with a few of the program directors as well. The director of Youth Programs, Denis, told us about his own experiences as part of the generation of young people who were kids during the war and yet were often recruited (or kidnapped) by both the army and the rebels and forced to fight as child soldiers during this brutal 12-year conflict. During the war, Denis escaped this fate but his father was assassinated and other members of his family were also killed. Now, these same young people, having had their families devastated and their educations interrupted, are being recruited by gangs and narco-traffickers for a life of even more violence. A striking thing about leaders like Alex and Denis is that they have come up through the youth councils that local communities such as Huisisilapa foster, and many have had access to high school and university training and to leadership opportunities through assistance from organizations such as SHARE.

We made our way to our much loved partner community of Huisisilapa, which was built by a community of families from various parts of El Salvador who were living as refugees in Honduras after the war and who returned to build a new community, literally from bare, burned ground, eighteen years ago this April. We were greeted by Wilfredo Mendoza, the director of the school and a respected and beloved member of the community. Throughout our visit, the students would call him by names such as “Wilf” or “Prof,” and always with affection and a certain amount of delight. He was an exceptional host and tour guide, showing us many parts of this well run community and yet also highlighting the significant challenges faced by the families there, including the contaminated river that runs through it. In stark contrast to our earlier visit to the marginalized community of “Las Nubes,” an informal settlement on the shoulder of San Salvador’s volcano, Huisisilapa boasts electricity, running water, a school, a community meeting center, a church and a clinic building. In addition, the families privately own their homes and the tracts of land on which they sit, while the farmland is collectively owned. Most homes have their own mini silos of milled corn that comes from the fields worked by the residents during the growing and harvest seasons. Unfortunately, November 2009’s Hurricane Ida wiped out the beans that had been planted, so beans that are usually home grown must be purchased this year. This alone has been a challenge in a year when remittances from the US have been drastically reduced by the financial and housing crises. Yet the spirit of determination and solidarity that comes through each time we visit speaks to the difference that such intentional communities as this one can make in the lives of everyone, young and old. In fact, while we were meeting with our young hosts, the pre-school was being cooperatively staffed by the mothers in the community, classes were in session through 10th grade, and a support group was meeting for people with injuries from the war. I am thankful to have had the opportunity once again to visit with our loving and courageous friends in Huisisilapa,

During one of our days in San Salvador we joined our friend Danny Burridge over at the inner city parish Maria Madre de los Pobres. They have celebrated their 25th anniversary recently, and the history of the parish was briefly described as one man’s mission to “live out Romero’s message.” Padre Daniel, as he is known, is a priest who came from Spain to this community in 1984 and slowly built a number of much needed programs during his 21 years of service to the parish. There is a pre-school and day care center, a school, a health clinic (with dental and vision care), a small pharmacy, a library, a sport court, and of course a simple but beautiful church, all carved out of the hillside there in one of the poorest and most underserved neighborhoods in San Salvador. Also, there is an after school program called “Open School,” created and still served by Danny, who is in his final year with the Voluntary Missionary Movement. We had a terrific visit with the kids there. After some sweet and funny greetings and sharing of interests, we did some calisthenics en Espanol and went out to play some basketball. It was a hot day, but it seemed good for some of our students to sweat and play and run around. It was also awe inspiring to visit this peaceful and loving place and to see such beautiful kids getting a chance to be happy and healthy.

To have participated in the 30-year commemoration of Archbishop Oscar Romero’s life this year was a real blessing for me, but to have witnessed the strength, joy and solidarity of these young Salvadorans, and of the many who walk with them, was truly profound.