Sunday, February 15, 2015

Why care about El Salvador when we have problems at home?


Debra Gittler, in El Salvador
Altruism is something of a mystery to me. Here I am, hunched over, puffing frantically into the sails of my little bark of a career as it slowly settles into the water, while there are certain rare individuals who devote their lives to helping the downtrodden. I don't get it. Thus when I encounter one, I try to get at the mystery of why they are doing what they do. Plus, I don't have many readers in Central America, at least not who write in. So after I received a friendly note from Debra Gittler in El Salvador, and since I'm out of town, I asked her for a brief report about what Central America is like and why she's down there. This is what she wrote:


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!




23 comments:

  1. I was in El Salvador in the late seventties when they were trying to develop a tourist industry. It was a beautiful country. I was extremely sad when everything fell apart not long after I was there. There was great poverty but they were trying very hard to make it in another vacation destination in Central America.
    I am glad to know that some have not given up on this country. It would be a great investment.
    Barbara M. P.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Barbara. Hope you'll see more about our work at contextos.org and follow our blog!

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  2. It seems that Debra addressed the reasons why her altruism is important but not why she unlike you and me is actually trying to do something about it. I guess I have to say, "There, if I had the grace of God, go I."

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    1. Hi Tate--
      My dad is always asking, too, why I'm doing this. It's not for altruism-- I'd work in educational development as my career wherever. But when the opportunity to do this work in a place where no one else is doing it--versus Chicago which, though in much need, has lots of effort-- well... it seemed a worthy challenge. I struggle with it, too, though-- the decision to be away from home... Hope you'll follow my blog at contextos.org. I talk a lot about this issue.

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  3. Not many saints are also fine, vivid writers. Why should she labor there instead of her homeland? "No man (or country) is an island."

    Tom Evans

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    1. Hi Tom-- hope you'll see my note to Tate (above). And please, read my blog contextos.org-- I talk a lot about this issue-- better said: I struggle with this issue.

      And thanks for the compliments on the writing!

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  4. I urge readers to go to ConTextos.org and give whatever financial assistance you can offer. They make it very easy to give whatever you can. This kind of grassroots work is what helps keep the world from spinning totally into despair!

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  5. Thanks a lot Debra for the hard work in my country!!!
    I hope some day all the politicians from my country El Salvador will invest in education public health security and so many things that we need instead of using our taxes to do proselytism
    But anyways what we have to do is learn from people like Debra Gittler and start to help ourselves if we want to make a difference to our youngest generations

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    1. Hi Tony! Hope you'll send me an email debra@contextos.org

      I love to meet Salvadorans in Chicago!

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  6. I think El Salvador doesn't have a remedy. To me El Salvador is one of the worst countries in the planet. I grew up here and hate everything about it. I feel bad each and every day when I see the kids on the street begging and each and every politician driving a brand new car. Who wouldn't want to be a gang member in a place like this? Making 300 per month, working 50 hours per week. The program sounds good and all, but is just a waist of time. Education ain't going to fix this country. I wish I was able to afford a house were I could leave my doors open, be 30 minutes from the ocean and have a view. I'll just continue planning on a way to leave this shit hole people in the U. S. Are so proud of. I mean every Salvadorian living in another country is so prideful and in love with this place. But yet none would return to live here. They would only come to visit and showoff what we here will never ever get close to have. Just my point of view.

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    1. Ouch. Thanks for sharing. I maybe understand a little better now why all those parents sent their kids North.

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    2. Anonymous--
      I hope you'll read my blog contextos.org-- recently, I've been criticized for being too hard on El Salvador, for being so vocal about my doubts (and fears) that our work can really make a difference. What I can say for sure, in total agreement with your post, is that my experience in the country is totally different than the norm. The exact reason so many people want to leave has become my opportunity. It's not something I'm always comfortable with. But at the same time, I've accepted (am accepting) that this was my choice.

      Believe me-- not being able to walk anywhere, dealing with local bureaucracies, seeing how little opportunity is available, how poor people are treated...

      I'm lucky. I can come and go as I please. And I definitely understand why so many choose to leave. But I also think that things can get better.

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    3. I will read your blog. It sounds like you know what each day here feels like. It is your life and I do think that what you're doing takes courage. Maybe it is the right thing to do. I wish you the best and hope doing this work makes you happy.

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  7. We need to fix the problems in the U.S. There's plenty of poor right here. When nations are messed up, government wise, somehow, with time, the people must revolt. Not easy but we can't be the world policeman and Santa Claus. We often get a kick in the pants for it anyway and no appreciation. And those who come here illegally need to want to learn English. Illegal immigration is wrong, no excuses.

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    1. Illegals are so Smart that can learn Japanese and other harder languages, Someday the U.S. will be a latino Nation.

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    2. You guys can't be the world's police that is for sure but take your noses off from Middle east and all of the oil fields

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  8. Ms. Gittler, You last name doesn't sound Hispanic-how about helping poor kids in the U.S.? some can use free tutoring too

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  9. Thank you Debra! I do believe it can all get better, with people like you we can still hope for such things. I love my country, and I feel terrible everyday to know of my people's suffering, we are at war here. I think that one of the key things in education that could make a difference is to teach the kids to analyze, challenge what the media teaches them and seek for justice in a team work manner. I think one day people here will come together and turn things around. As long as I live here, I will also work through the means that I have to help others around me. God will bless you and we all in El Salvador have a lesson to learn from people like you. I send you a hug and please stay and work as long as your heart desires without hesitation, you and only you know what your life's mision is, and being here will impact thousands of others...

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  10. This is truly inspirational, thanks a lot for giving us a hand in this beautiful country Debra.

    BTW, you have ppl reading your blog down here in El Salvador Neil :)

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  11. No one can be a prophet from home debra, now you have seen with your heart that the world its bigger than a country and humanity its every single person alive, we are one, and issues in el salvador affects the entire universe, you are healing par of the universe debra in the place where we need you the most, God is on your side and you see him everyday. Blessings

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  12. Debra, It is truly wonderful to read of your great works. I am impressed by your understanding for "Anonymous'" point of view. I wrote in my book that one of the greatest things we can do for world poverty is to open our doors to immigration. I will try to follow your blog.

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  13. Daniel Robin is wrong on so many levels.

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