|Debra Gittler, in El Salvador|
Hola from El Salvador!
My name is Debra Gittler. I’m the Founder and Executive Director of ConTextos, a literacy organization established in El Salvador, where I’m writing this letter, and also in Chicago, where I’m from and where I still call home.
I’m often asked, “Why should Chicagoans care about kids in Central America when we have the South and West sides to worry about?”
Ironically, my two homes—ConTextos’ two homes—Chicago and El Salvador have a lot in common. Both are plagued by gang violence. El Salvador is now one of the most violent countries in the world with rampant gang violence that plagues kids in school and out. Experts say that if you were to superimpose El Salvador’s homicide rate upon New York City, it would be like 6,000 homicides per year.
So why would I choose to live in such a terrible place?
This is a land of contradictions. The gentle tropical breeze mixes with the third-world roar of broken mufflers. The air is vibrant with the scent of bright flowers and unregulated car exhaust. Massive digital screens advertising high-end goods loom over squatter communities that cook over firewood and have no access to water. You can get four homemade pupusas and a cup of coffee for a dollar at a local spot, or a $4 coffee at Starbucks.
El Salvador is also a stunningly beautiful country. My home in the city is only 30 minutes from the beach and an hour from the mountains. My patio looks over a volcano—one of 19 in the country—and yes, I leave my doors open to the outside all day and night, every day and night. The temperature never strays far from 85 degrees.
Right now is sugar cane harvest, and part of the process is burning the cane fields. At night, you can see the mountainside on fire. Ash floats on the air and settles everywhere. I like to pretend the ash is from the volcanoes…
Last week, Central America popped up in the international news when Vice President Joe Biden announced: A Plan for Central America: "As we were reminded last summer when thousands of unaccompanied children showed up on our southwestern border, the security and prosperity of Central America are inextricably linked with our own."
How so? I first moved to Central America eight years ago. After three years as a teacher in the South Bronx, I came here to work in education reform. You’d think that “first-world” and “third world” poverty would be so different. But in fact, I could see the connections that Biden refers to—the kids in my classroom in the States were the same that I served in Central America, the educational culture that I fought was the same in both places. I also noticed that traditional bi-lateral efforts for development just weren’t enough to make sustainable change. So I founded ConTextos to fill an obvious gap: provide books and training to schools.
Here in Central America many adults never had the opportunity to read. In schools today, kids lack access to books and learn via rote memorization, copy and dictation. ConTextos changes this paradigm. We establish school libraries and train teachers so that kids develop authentic literacy skills such as deep-thinking, analysis, interpretation and creativity. These are the skills not just to be a better reader, they’re the skills necessary to be a more active member of an effective society.
Whatever happens in US immigration reform, part of the solution must involve investing in education and the social sector in the countries of origin. That’s why ConTextos’ is seeking support to expand into Guatemala and Honduras. This region, now the most violent in the region, needs help. And ConTextos is helping.
While there are hundreds of people with profiles like mine working in Chicago and throughout the States to improve education, Central America has a terrible dearth of educational NGOs. And the best part: our work is incredibly affordable to donors and foundations. It costs just $5,000/year per school for us to create a school library and provide a year’s worth of training.
Neil, I hope you’ll reach out to your readers to help us raise awareness (and money) in Chicago. Investing in education as a tool to combat violence and create opportunity isn’t a question of either the West side or international; it means investing in both. And what better way than through a Chicago-based organization.
You can learn more about ConTextos at contextos.org and vimeo.com/contextos. ConTextos is a Chicago business making huge strides in one of the most fragile, volatile regions of the world. I hope you’ll let your readers know about us!