For the past five months, the 27 students involved in Voces y Manos have been participating in an empowerment project aimed at getting youth voices heard by local politicians. 2015 is an election year in Guatemala, and 8 local candidates are vying to become the next mayor of Rabinal. The candidates’ presence around town is ubiquitous—their photos adorn posters and their theme songs form a virtual soundtrack to daily life—but their plans for improving the quality of life for young people are largely a mystery.
Meanwhile, as Rabinal heads into election season (elections are September 7th), many of the necessary building blocks for young people to live healthy lives are crumbling. Funding for public education is going dry, shifting ever-increasing costs onto children and their families. For example, because schools do not provide students with textbooks, teachers often require students to print out readings from the internet. Another particularly egregious form of cost-shifting is requiring students to carry out “community-service projects” to repair dilapidated school infrastructure. Initially such projects were reasonable– painting murals and the like–but as funding dissipated, these “service projects” spiraled out of control. One student reported being required to dig a well to provide her school with water. At a cost of several hundred dollars, this was, needless to say, an enormous financial hardship for her entire family.
In the realm of healthcare, youth in Rabinal do not enjoy access to youth-friendly services of any kind. Despite an alarming number of youth suicides in recent years, psychological services are nonexistent. While teenage pregnancy is common, access to contraception is extremely limited. Making matters worse, a local religious organization has waged a propaganda campaign attempting to convince youth that condoms are ineffective, and that birth control pills and injections cause cancer. Despite these significant affronts to vital services, the wellbeing of young people does not appear to be a high priority for most political candidates.
Because of this, VyM staff and students decided it was time to get youth issues onto the political agenda. Students in Voces y Manos have been using the tools of action-research to amplify youth voices, and to develop meaningful solutions to the issues they face. In the investigation stage of the project, students designed and administered a survey to 140 youth at local high schools. The survey asked students to report on the quality of their relationships with teachers and peers, the amount of money they spend each month on school-related costs, and their overall satisfaction with the their education.
The action stage of the project involved students presenting research findings and policy recommendations to mayoral candidates. Working with an extraordinary coalition of local organizations and youth organizers, the VyM students drafted a policy proposal and invited local mayoral candidates to a public forum to discuss relevant issues.
The achievements of this project exceeded everyone’s highest expectations. These are a few highlights:
- All seven mayoral candidates attended the youth-led forum.
- Over 250 members of the general public attended the forum, and another 600 tuned-in online.
- The forum was broadcast on local television and radio.
- All seven local candidates signed an agreement to provide funding to strengthen Rabinal’s Office of Childhood and Adolescence (described below).
During the weeks leading up to the forum, I had the sense that something powerful was taking place, so I began keeping a journal and taking photos at all our planning meetings. Now that the forum is over (it took place Thursday August 13th), I’ve finally had a chance to get these thoughts and photos organized and onto this blog. Read on to learn about the exciting process, or jump to the end to see photos from forum!
July 19: Meeting with Comité Civico “Chilate”
The movers and shakers on this project were Nery, Griselda and Selvin, all first-year college students who assumed a leadership role in preparing for the forum. Griselda and Selvin are graduates of Voces y Manos, and Nery is a friend that Griselda and Selvin recruited to work with them on the project. They were truly a power trio.
On July 19th, thanks to outstanding networking by Selvin, Voces y Manos’ biweekly association meeting had a special guest: Octaviano Alvarado Garcia, one of the local mayoral candidates. He and several members of his Chilate party (named after a traditional, corn-based drink in Rabinal), attended our meeting to learn about Voces y Manos, to hear preliminary findings from students’ surveys, and to discuss how he formed the Chilate political party. Because students had only begun tabulating their data the previous week, they worked hard that morning to prepare their data before Octaviano’s arrival. In the picture below, Nery, one of the leaders on the project, works with Lidia and Belqui to generate graphs from their data.
Here, Lidia, Ingry, Hamilton and Hortencia work on their own data analysis
At 11:00 AM, Octaviano and the other members of the Chilate Party showed up at the Fundación Nueva Esperanza office. We sat in a circle, and, after brief introductions, Octaviano shared his own life story. A child of corn farmers with no stable source of income, Octaviano described the many sacrifices he underwent in order to graduate from college, become a lawyer, and finally a political candidate. He described stories of hardship that many of the Voces y Manos students could relate to, such as traveling over his summer breaks to Guatemala’s sweltering southern coast to cut sugar cane and cotton to finance his studies. He finally described how he and a group of neighbors and friends had formed the Chilate party—which they described as a civic committee rather than a political party in the traditional sense—as a local alternative to the major national parties that dominate the Guatemalan political system.
Following the discussion, youth shared with Octaviano and his co-workers the preliminary results of their investigation. Students complemented the presentation of their data with passionate testimonies about the challenges they face as students.
Students shared stories about outright disrespect from teachers and principals, as well as stories about the serious economic hardships their families must endure to allow them to stay in school. Octaviano related students’ struggles to his own life experience. He also talked about how he would work to reduce barriers to education if he were elected mayor. In all, the meeting was an excellent opportunity for students to practice their public speaking skills, and a low-stakes preview of their final presentation in front of other mayoral candidates.
Aug. 6: Planning Meeting with the Ministry of Culture and Sports
One of the keys to the success of the forum was partnering with outstanding partner organizations, such as the Ministry of Sports and Culture and a group of youth called “Jóvenes por el Desarrollo del Pueblo” (Youth for Community Development). The week prior to the forum, we met at the beautiful offices of the Ministry of Sports and Culture, where we were joined by Don Celestino, a leader at the ministry and strong proponent of bilingual education, and Mauricio, a second-year college student and youth organizer with Jovenes por el Desarrollo del Pueblo. Mauricio is an old friend of Voces y Manos. He had participated as a volunteer in our first health fair in 2007, and, although he never received a scholarship from Voces y Manos (we didn’t have a scholarship program at the time) he’s always stayed connected to the program. Meanwhile, while pursuing his teaching degree, he co-founded Jovenes por el Desarrollo to hold local politicians accountable to the needs of youth in Rabinal.
Independently, it turned out, Jovenes por el Desarrollo had also been working toward the goal of holding a forum for mayoral candidates. For the past several weeks, the group had been meeting nightly to coordinate their forum, and already had achieved impressive results, including securing agreements from local media outlets to cover the forum on local TV and radio stations. Within a few minutes of discussion, the groups came to the decision to pool resources and work together to put on a single, mega-forum.
For the next several hours, we turned our attention to developing an agenda for the event, and drafting preliminary text for a proposal to be presented to mayoral candidates. The students’ survey had clearly pointed out several key issues faced by youth: lack of trust, economic difficulties, and inadequate sanitary facilities in schools, but these issues were disparate and did not point to a clear, over-arching solution. Our central question was: How could we develop a proposal that would reflect all (or the most important) of these issues?
After extensive brainstorming, we came to this idea: rather than selecting a specific issue (e.g. lack of soap in the bathrooms), we should focus on creating institutional change that would allow these issues to be addressed in a long-term manner. It had come to our attention that although there is an “office of childhood and adolescents ” in Rabinal, this office is habitually under-funded. (The lone staff member who works at this office recently provided us with several documents she had apologetically printed on the back of previously used paper; the office was entirely out of funds). So we figured that getting the future mayor to commit to providing adequate funding and support for this office would be a big step in the right direction. But the question remained as to what specific areas this office should prioritize.
We decided three components would be critical:
- First, we felt that the office must have strong youth leadership. Under our proposal, the office would include a youth board of directors that would guide all decision-making processes. This board would prioritize issues, be involved in hiring staff, and have control over the office’s budget.
- Second, the office would need to fill a key gap in health services for young adults. Although Guatemala recently approved a law guaranteeing access to reproductive health services (including for adolescents), access to contraception is severely limited, and rarely confidential. Our proposal thus included a line item for the office to have a physician or professional nurse on staff to provide sexual and reproductive health services in a youth-friendly environment.
- Third, the office would need to have a psychologist on staff. Mental health among adolescents is an issue that is widely and grossly overlooked, and, as mentioned above, Rabinal has seen an alarming spike in youth suicide rates. These tragic events are likely only the tip of the mental health iceberg, as young people live with enormous stresses and strains in their lives, and the vast majority with mental health issues are simply left to cope as best as they can.
We were aware that providing direct services would only treats symptoms, not the root of the problems facing adolescents. But we figured that with a strong youth board focused on community-level intervention and a professional staff able to provide clinical services, the office would be well-positioned to address immediate needs while also pursuing the goals of prevention at the community level.
Having developed preliminary text for the proposal, we left the meeting all the more motivated to hold a successful forum in which candidates would sign on to the proposal.
August 9th: Final Meeting with the Association
The proposal we developed in the previous meeting still had two missing pieces. Most importantly, we needed the approval of the other youth in Voces y Manos’ Leadership Association before moving forward with the proposal. We realized our preliminary proposal had drifted considerably from the three needs identified in students’ surveys, so we wanted to make sure students in the association were on board with the new proposal. Selvin and Griselda led the August 9th Association meeting by distributing copies of the proposal for students to review in small groups. Selvin explained the rationale for focusing on the youth and adolescent office:
“Currently, the office of childhood and adolescence is very under-funded,” he explained. “There are many different needs you identified through your survey. But if we don’t have an office, or an organization that is dedicated to addressing these issues, they will be much more difficult to solve.”
After discussing the proposal, students were quick to provide their approval.
The remaining issue was a technicality, but an important one: In order for our proposal to have “teeth” we needed to make sure it was backed by a strong legal framework. Selvin, Griselda and Nery came to the meeting prepared with copies of the Guatemalan Constitution, the International Convention on the Rights of the Child, and several other international and national conventions. Students then were split into small groups, and each of these groups was given one of the legal documents to review and identity relevant sections that provided support for our proposal.
By the end of the day, students had identified over a dozen laws that affirmed the rights of adolescents to live healthy lives, to attend school, and to participate in the civil life of their communities. Below, Voces y Manos students, holding the constitution of Guatemala, and the international conventions on the rights of the child.
The day before the forum, the students who had been selected to present their research met to rehearse. We wrapped up the rehearsal shortly after sunset, and hailed mini-taxis to give the students rides homes so they could get some rest. Although the students were extremely well-prepared, for many it would be a restless night.
Thursday August 13: Day of the Forum
The day of the forum itself was a reflection of the preparation that went into it.
By the time I arrived at 7:45 A.M. some 300 chairs had been set up in the church auditorium where the forum was to take place. The stage had been beautifully set up with a white table cloth, and name tags indicated where each candidate was to sit. A special “filter” table was set up to review questions that came in from the public. And, a large media center was established in the center of the auditorium that would broadcast the event on two local television channels, livestream the event online, and broadcast on the radio.
Two of the young adults from “Jóvenes por el Desarrollo took their places at the “filter table”. They would have responsibility for filtering and prioritizing questions from the public.
After a brief but avuncular welcome from the moderator, we launched into the first agenda item: the presentation by Voces y Manos students on their survey results. Griselda, the first to speak, looked out into the audience of 250-plus people, video cameras, and bright lights, and spoke with enormous confidence, apparently impervious to the fanfare that surrounded her (I remembering feeling relieved that my job was simply to operate the powerpoint projector).
Griselda introduced the objective of their investigation, and went on to elaborate on the high proportion of students (roughly 25%) who have considered dropping out due to family problems, or problems with classmates.
Selvin spoke immediately after Griselda. His part of the presentation addressed the importance of trust and effective communication among teachers, principals, and students. He noted that only 50% of students reported feeling comfortable speaking to their school principal. Selvin explained that students see their school principals primarily as authority figures, concerned above all with disciplining students rather that working to improve the quality of their education.
The final topic of the presentation was economic barriers to schooling, delivered brilliantly by Lidia Morente. Lidia explained that the high costs of schooling are simply forcing many students at the high school level to consider dropping out. She emphasized that nearly 40% of students at the post-secondary level considered dropping out of school for lack of funds. Most of these costs, such as printing and internet costs, could easily be avoidable with concerted policies to reduce the economic strain on students.
Leaving little pause, Lilian segued right into the reading of the proposal that she and other students in Voces y Manos had developed. She read in a loud, clear voice as the proposal was projected to the audience.
In a veteran maneuver, as soon as they finished reading through the proposal, the youth delivered copies to each candidate, and politely requested that the candidates sign the proposal if they would like to indicate their support for strengthening the office of childhood and adolescence.
Whether it was due to persuasiveness of the presentation or the large, public nature of the gathering, no candidate hesitated to sign the document. Promptly, youth collected the signed proposals, exited the stage as the moderator transitioned into the next item on the agenda: presentations by each political candidate.
The event began with each candidate having 10 minutes to explain their “plan de trabajo” for their time in office. Candidates spoke about the usual issues list of issues in Guatemala: roads, water, and electricity. But, perhaps because of the youth-focus of the event, the panelists took pains to mention their investment in improving education as well.
Lidia, Griselda, Nery, and Selvin, by this point, were now sitting back, enjoying watching the presentations and drinking atole from the first row of the auditorium.
Following initial presentations, an hour-long question and answer session took place, in which the candidates responded to questions that came in from the public.
I was impressed by the tech squad at the event. Broadcasting on 2 TV channels and the radio!
The event truly ended on a positive note, as all candidates congratulated students on their initiative, and thanked the moderator for his professionalism. Even the incumbent candidate, who we worried might not take well to the students’ proposal, took the time to publicly congratulate students on their initiative, and encouraged more youth to get involved in making their municipality a better place.
The forum was a major achievement for the students in Voces y Manos, and evidence of the power of working in coalitions. Yet the students know that their proposal still exists only on paper, and much work lies ahead to encourage the candidate who wins the election to make good on their promise and provide the funding necessary to ensure the office of childhood and adolescence provides its vital services to Rabinal’s youth.