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.

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