Posts Tagged ‘at-risk youth’

In Bolivia: Try a Little Tenderness

March 7, 2012

published today in New Clear Vision

Imagine working in an office where as people enter they hug and kiss all their co-workers every morning. You start the day with about a dozen hugs and kisses and of course more each time you leave and return. Here we might call it sexual harassment. But I loved these gestures of affection and solidarity while I was collaborating with Educar es fiesta, a nonprofit organization in Cochabamba, Bolivia, serving young people living in difficult circumstances and families in crisis.

Edson Quezada, known to all as “Queso” — Cheese (from his last name, not because he’s the Big Cheese) founded the organization believing that training in the arts is also training for life, that children have an intrinsic natural right to joy, and learning must go hand-in-hand with happiness.

Educar es fiesta draws young people into the program by offering theatre and circus arts–trapeze, aerial dance, juggling, unicycle riding, gymnastics, even some tightrope-walking, to develop self-expression, self-confidence, and perseverance. The kids learn that to develop a new skill, they may fail many times till they achieve success. The traditional schoolroom is too often a site of frustration, failure, and disrespect for Quechua-speaking indigenous migrants from the rural zones and for the poor, so Educar es fiesta teaches in environments as different from the classroom as possible — for example, with kids sprawled out on the floor of the circus tent. The team also offers workshops on health, sexual health, nutrition, nonviolence, rights and responsibilities of citizenship, tutoring, and more. And as children arrive for their workshops, every child gets a hug and a kiss on the cheek.

By contrast, when I worked with kids in Los Angeles, I had to sign a document agreeing I wouldn’t allow any game — even tag, that required touch. If a child asked to be hugged, I was to acquiesce, squat down and allow the child to hold my side.

Of course I am cognizant of the realities of sexual abuse. In Bolivia, the children who are hugged also receive training in the campaign “My body is my territory: no one touches it without my permission.” But touch is primary to human beings. The baby knows touch before it can interpret visual signals or understand words. If children aren’t hugged and held in healthy ways by responsible adults, surely that makes them prime targets for predators who will exploit their need. For children who’ve been abused or abandoned, hugs can heal.

Back in Los Angeles, I watch the local news and see that a prohibition against touching would not have prevented the abuse that recently came to light of an elementary school teacher allegedly feeding his bodily fluids to children in his class.

In the Andean nations, educators like Queso now talk about what Peruvian Alejandro Cussiánovich has termed La pedagogía de la ternura – the Pedagogy of Tenderness. In Peru and Bolivia, with past histories of military dictatorship and violent repression, and Colombia with its elected civilian government and an ongoing armed conflict, the idea is that school needs to be a place of nurture, not discipline, for people who’ve been silenced, hardened and traumatized by years of violence. Tenderness does not mean sheltering kids or being overprotective: the point of this education is not to indoctrinate, but to nurture children so they can become the protagonists of their own lives.

Tenderness. It’s what I wish for American children who are growing up in some of our inner-city neighborhoods where due to crime and gang violence kids show a higher rate of PTSD than their counterparts in Baghdad during the worst days of war there.

The Educar es fiesta staff also offers workshops to public school teachers to share the techniques of “buen trato” — techniques of classroom management based on mutual respect rather than the more military model of discipline and punishment. This reminded me of a friend here in California who was so disgusted with her teaching job in an inner-city elementary school, she talked about quitting. But when I visited the school a couple of years ago, the children seemed happy, bright, and eager to learn.

“Oh yes,” said my friend. “We have a new principal and she’s turned everything around.” What did the miracle-worker do? “She called a meeting and told the teachers they could no longer yell at the children or insult them.” Buen trato, no?

The children of Educar es fiesta know what it is to be disrespected. In its first year, a little more than ten years ago, Queso reached out to the kids who waited at the cemetery for mourners who might give them a tip for cleaning windshields. The children were often abused by the cemetery guards. It was a great joke to take a little boy and throw him into a newly dug grave from which he would not be able to climb out. But when these same kids performed their plays in public, they were greeted with applause and cheers. Their status changed, not only in their own eyes, but in the eyes of the larger community.

But in many neighborhoods, community is broken by poverty. Families disintegrate as parents migrate in search of work to Argentina, Chile, Spain, and — most recently, Japan. The kids get left behind.

There’s Laura. She lives with her grandmother who can put a roof over the girl’s head but has little to offer in the way of food or affection.Laura goes to school in the morning. Then she goes to “work” — standing outside a modest restaurant where she’ll guard cars for people as they eat in exchange for tips. Few people arrive in cars. Without tips, she goes hungry. While we in the US worry about “boundaries,” in Cochabamba, if Jimena Ari, teacher and facilitator with Educar es fiesta, is going home for lunch, she takes Laura along for a meal with her family — and to take chess lessons from niece Ceci who’s already obsessed with the game.

In the afternoon, Laura’s at the circus tent, eager to learn.

When the other kids have left, Laura hangs around the office. Until it’s time to lock the doors, no one chases her away. If there’s a project that can use an extra pair of willing hands, she helps out. Otherwise, she experiments with the computer. Maybe she’ll get a glass of milk and some bread. She’ll definitely be hugged. And someone will tell her how intelligent she is, and how beautiful, and that she is loved.

Hello, Chicago! (and Stephanie Friedman, Carol Anshaw, Natalie Vesga)

January 23, 2012

So one of the joys of getting to Chicago was being reconnected with two friends, Carol Anshaw (author and painter) and Natalie Vesga (my roommate from my first trip to Colombia).

Met Carol for lunch and heard her good news, all the exciting pre-pub buzz for her new novel, Carry the One.  I mean, Carol’s earlier novels, three of them, got great reviews and enthusiastic readers, but without drawing real attention to her work or, how shall I say?, lifting her. This time around, her publisher has her traveling the country before the book comes out. Her book is the Indie Next List #1 pick for March, but this time around Simon & Schuster isn’t relying on bookstores alone. The publishing business model keeps changing. So besides the before-the-fact tour, they sent out hundreds of copies to bloggers and to people who post frequently on Goodreads and seem to have the right sensibility. It seems to be working and I am so happy for Carol!

(Carol, however, was somewhat disapproving of the fact I’d been invited to speak at Or Chadash, the LGBT synagogue. “Why did they invite a straight woman to speak? Couldn’t they find a lesbian?”  I was supposed to be there to read the section of The Blessing Next to the Wound about Hector Aristizábal’s youngest brother, who was gay, and to give an update on the status of gay rights in Latin America. But Carol had her way: the Friday snowstorm blocked the route and I never made it to the shul!)

Back to Stephanie Friedman’s office at the University of Chicago where I stashed my luggage and made a general nuisance of myself. Check out Steph’s blog, The Winding Stitch.  Writer, poet, teacher, wife, mother, associate director of the writers studio and summer session in continuing ed. She bakes pies and keeps kosher — the woman has enough to do without organizing several days’ worth of events for me and Hector , getting almost a dozen different organizations on the campus to cooperate when I suspect they usually don’t even recognize each other’s existence.

Naty Vesga in Bogota, Colombia

Naty and I finally reached each other by phone and she came to the office to pick me up and we were squealing in the street with excitement like the kind of teenage girl I never was.  We went back to her place where we talked nonstop for hours and I got to meet the “babies” – the dogs that figured in her Lariam-induced delirium in Bogotá when she awoke in terror (and woke me in a rage) believing we were on a bus being attacked by paramilitaries and, as if that weren’t bad enough, that I had called her dogs “hillbillies.” She gradually calmed down that night when I assured her that I knew her dogs were wonderful. I also got to meet her husband, Giano Cromley, who gave up a career in politics to do something honorable and meaningful. He got his MFA and writes fiction (Check out a sample story on-line here and teaches at King-Kennedy alongside poet Martha Vertreace— small world — who I know from Vermont College.

Naty is getting her Masters in Social Work and she told me about the project she’s getting off the ground. I will share it because if you like it and steal it and implement it elsewhere, she’ll be thrilled. So much the better! Programs already exist where troubled youth work with animals to learn responsibility and caring for others. She wants to connect at-risk and gang-involved youth with organizations that do pit bull rehabilitation. She thinks the dogs and young people have a lot in common, both groups have been stigmatized as dangerous and face banning, lock-up, extermination; they’ve been molded to be aggressive and violent (whether by humans or by their environment). The youth already know pit bulls and know them as marvelously dangerous. They can identify with them, and as they work to socialize them and teach them gentleness, Naty believes dogs will transform youth at the same time that youth transform dogs. More effectively than when kids who’ve been traumatized by violence work with, say, golden retrievers, or other dogs who are mellow to begin with. Great idea, no? I love it. I want to connect her to Micaela Myers at Stubby Dog  which works to improve the reputation and lives of pit bulls. Naty wants to meet Cesar Millan!