April 15, 2015 by Debra Gittler

DEBBIE DOWNER…

I’m in planning mode. Thinking and thinking and thinking about the writing, speaking, pitching that is all to come. Every day, my calendar is filled with networking events. My inbox is filled with potential relationships—those that may start, expand, or end.

Honestly, I like this part of my job. In its best moments, I’m professionally social. In the worst moments, I’m a professional loser—grade school on-the-playground, all-alone-type, loser.

I’ve been doing this job—running a start-up NGO—long enough that I cry less. But it’s still so starkly personal. After all, it’s my face, my words, my pitch that gets a response. And I’m a mama bear with her cubs—I take whatever comes only to protect my charges—employees, volunteers, donors, beneficiaries.

So I’m sitting here drafting potential emails, potential articles. As I strategize pitches emphasizing the importance of ConTextos’ work I find myself constantly returning to the same ideas:

Violence. Despair. Urgency.

I look up some facts:

In El Salvador, 481 murders last month, March 2015.  That’s 16 per-day in a country of 6 million.

In New York City, 328 murders. During the entire year of 2014. In a city of 8 million.

I start searching and searching for information, links to get me something new. And this is what I find, posted less than a day ago:

El Salvador plans to counter violence:

“President Salvador Sanchez Ceren said Monday he plans to request greater funding to better arm police and deploy more officers in troubled areas.

Sanchez Ceren said he is considering the creation of a special anti-gang force, and putting more military personnel on law enforcement duty.”

Come on… seriously!?!?! I don’t deny the need for increased support for the justice system. But we already know this won’t work. The justice system doesn’t have the capacity to confront gangs. Sitting here in Chicago, where our justice system works (doesn’t mean it’s fair, but it works. Ish…) I’m shaking my head…

When will the solution change? We all know “you catch more flies with honey…” When will part of the solution be working with the community. Creating opportunity. Options other than victim or violator, prison or gang. I don’t mean working with the gangs or validating violence; but we already know that force doesn’t change anything. At least, it doesn’t change enough.

I talk to my friends, boyfriend, office in El Salvador and they all read the same news that I do. Perhaps they see even more. We haven’t talked much about how they are feeling. Or how I’m feeling. Maybe I’m avoiding them—is it guilt for being away? Fear? Shame? Frustration?

At last week’s seminar at the New York Public Library, I was overwhelmed to hear Carlos Dada explain the realities of El Salvador. Nothing was new for me, nothing was unknown; yet it was all riveting and added nuance to the framework I already understood. I listened to him with the ears of my fellow attendees. What is it like to hear these facts, numbers, stories, of a place so far away and unknown? It must be scary. It must sound terrifying. It must sound like a place to stay away from.

During the seminar, I argued that despite the tragic reality, there is hope. There are solutions worth trying: after school programs and community groups and support networks and community centers and sports and music and libraries and training teachers and training parents and training police and reaching out to gangs and acknowledging that recruitment starts as early as 8-years-old (or earlier) so stop pretending that targeting teenagers is prevention…

I’m not disheartened right now. I’m not frustrated. Just disappointed. I want to argue that the teachers and students we serve deserve our services because it’s a basic human right to learn to read, write and dialogue. Instead, I find it hard to avoid pitching literacy as a solution for violence. I find it hard not to define El Salvador—and the region—for the all-encompassing violence.

I’m sad. That’s all there is too it. I’m sad to read the headlines. Because of the violence being reported and the solutions being proposed.

I know that the pendulum will swing. Things will change. They have to. Because it simply can’t go on being this bad forever…

Can it?

Debra Gittler
Founder and Executive Director

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