José Shabot Cherem

This description of José Shabot Cherem's work was prepared when José Shabot Cherem was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2017 .

Introduction

José is empowering Mexico’s construction workers to achieve higher levels of education and certification through highly accessible programs that strengthens them as learners, professionals, and people so that they can take control of their lives and break the cycle of illiteracy within their families.

The New Idea

Jose is bringing education into the workplace of construction workers, an extremely mobile population that has had few opportunities to become educated. By partnering with construction companies, Construyendo Creciendo is able to tailor programs and classrooms to fit site-specific needs and negotiate on behalf of the workers. The organization facilitates academic learning, vocational training, and personal development. Construyendo offers programming that coincides with their working location and hours, so that construction workers are afforded unprecedented access to educational, professional, and personal development services at very little cost to themselves in terms of either time or money. 30% of participants are women and Construyendo makes a particular effort to provide women-centric programming. However, because they recognize that expanding their services to account for construction workers not currently on a job can significantly increase their impact, Construyendo has replicated their model in mobile classrooms placed in public plazas that are open to the general public.

Along with education, Jose works to connect workers to a wide spectrum of essential services. Through Construyendo, people previously unable to navigate or afford medical care can obtain eyeglasses, vaccinations, safer working conditions and improved personal hygiene. They also provide legal services to those who require it. Construyendo uses education as a point of entry and means of building trust, so that they are able to improve the quality of life for those who are underserved by society’s institutions.

Construyendo’s approach elevates social consciousness and sets a new paradigm in the construction industry. They work to integrate three separate networks - construction companies, teachers, and workers - to create a symbiotic relationship between all three groups. They set in place a new system for all construction companies using the same template. And, by changing the level of education for many parents, Construyendo is able to bring an end to a vicious cycle of illiteracy as the construction workers pass on both their thirst for knowledge and their education. Teachers are integrated into the system and provided employment opportunities; their teaching abilities combined with the relationships they build with the workers add the foundational value of Construyendo’s services.

As Construyendo’s three-pronged network grows, the mobility of its education and training services increases to match the mobility of their primary beneficiaries - the construction workers. The success of individual classrooms leads to the growth of the program; as more companies join based on the results of increased productivity and as more workers join based on the elevated quality of life demonstrated by their peers who have participated, the growth will invariably lead to further success. Another way Construyendo is initiating expansion is through impacting public policy to the point that bids for government contracts will have to include plans for onsite classrooms. The result will be exponential growth across Mexico, and later, the rest of Latin America. Workers will be able to seamlessly continue their education across different worksites and companies.

The Problem

The vast majority of construction workers in Mexico have not completed primary school; more than 20% of them are unable to read or write, and some cannot even speak Spanish. By the nature of their occupation, construction workers exist as a floating population; this lack of permanence has led to institutional disregard for their sector, and those who are illiterate are less capable of advocating for themselves and seeking protection from exploitation.

In order to support their families, many of the workers terminate education early. Once they start to work, it is impossible to finish school or improve their level of education, because they are working full time, and often living on the construction sites. This lack of education and literacy often results in the members of this community living on the outskirts of society and always moving from one job to the next. This inhibits them from having knowledge considering their basic human rights and also from gaining access to basic services. Not only does illiteracy affect the construction workers, but also their families. Illiteracy often has generationally cyclical repercussions because children are far more likely to learn how to read and write if their parents are literate and proponents of education.

As the world becomes increasingly globalized, it becomes less and less feasible for people to advocate for themselves without basic education. If construction workers in Mexico - and on an international scale - are to navigate both the opportunity and adversity they face within the construction industry in order to provide a better future for themselves and their families, education is a crucial component in that future reality.

The Strategy

To begin the process, Construyendo reaches out to real estate companies to negotiate the establishment of classrooms on active construction sites and the possibility of inviting the construction workers to come learn. Once all parties have signed the agreement, the company provides the space for the classroom, as well as the teachers’ salaries through direct donations to Construyendo. Local schools, universities, and businesses donate the materials, such as desks and computers, for Construyendo to set-up a fully functional classroom, specialized programming, and trained teachers. The key is to have a motivating professor because these students do not just need educational attention, they need human attention; a teacher who can comprehend their daily situation, but also keep them looking toward the future. The construction workers are then invited by the teacher, as well as promotional posters displayed throughout the worksite, to take part in an educational experience designed specifically for them at no charge. Workers are encouraged to visit the classrooms daily for two hours each - one hour to be completed during the workday and comped by their employer, and the other optional hour to be completed at the end of the workday.

Construyendo employs similar methods to open their mobile classrooms in public plazas which are available to the general public. By working alongside local government and private sponsors, Construyendo has been able to establish four mobile classrooms, has a fifth currently in the transition process, and is adding two more in rural communities through a partnership with AT&T.

In conjunction with the Secretariat of Public Education (SEP) and National Institute for Adult Education (INEA), Construyendo offers free literacy, primary and secondary programs with certificates. In addition, they offer open secondary education. The classrooms also offer the courses of the Virtual Learning Center (CVA) of Tecnológico de Monterrey so that students can pursue a technological education - topics include computers, work safety, design, and web programming. However, Construyendo wants to afford their students a holistic education, so the foundation of the Universidad Iberoamericana, Desarrollo del Comunidad A.C., provides programs focused on improving the personal growth, such as communication, self-esteem, and prevention of domestic violence. The teachers who run the classrooms are an integral part of recruitment and student retention; they act as the direct change agents and the personal bonds they form with the workers are what spark enthusiasm for learning.

The conjunction of the three individual networks of companies, teachers, and workers is the key to Construyendo’s success. Although the construction workers are considered the primary beneficiaries, all parties benefit. The companies are able to employ more productive workers with a lower turnover rate and the teachers are able to find steady, rewarding employment. Jose’s primary role is building and empowering the network of companies, teachers, and students. He already has credibility within the industry that gives him power to set the new standard because of a deep family history in construction and his position as a major player in the affordable housing market. Jose’s position allows him to identify strategic partners within the industry so that Construyendo’s process is as smooth as possible.

Construyendo can also go beyond improving workers’ levels of education because the partner with organization that provide a variety of health services to the construction workers. With the foundation Ver Bien para Aprender Mejor, they are able to run an ongoing campaign that evaluates participants’ eyesight and help them attain glasses with the proper corresponding prescription according to their exam results. Construyendo also partners with local clinics to help workers receive vaccinations and improve their personal hygiene. Another part of looking after the workers’ health is ensuring that the worksites themselves do not put the workers at risk.

Construyendo is a hybrid social enterprise - registered as a private assistance institution (IAP) and civil association (AC) - and has a staff of 36 people and an operating budget of $3,828,652 in 2015. Construyendo facilitates the learning of between 600 and 1000 students annually, and their growth rate between 2015 and 2016 was 67.1%. Since 2004, over 11,000 people have graduated from the program receiving a high school diploma or other certificate. In their additional programs, Construyendo has provided 500 medical exams and 389 pairs of work boots to students. They have accomplished this because of their partnerships with 40 different construction companies in Mexico City and Monterrey.

Construyendo’s methodology is on track to become the new standard for construction companies in Mexico - it’s possible for every single worksite to host a classroom. These companies have come to see this as something that’s in their own best interest; educated workers are significantly more productive and there is less of a need for rotation. As more government agencies have to integrate Construyendo into the contract bidding process, Construyendo will strengthen their presence throughout Mexico. Because of this, an increasing number of construction workers will be aware of how Construyendo’s services have helped elevate their peers. This will generate greater interest and a large pool of participants. As the workers become invested in the program, they can grow to be the co-creators and participants of the program, not just the beneficiaries.

The Person

When Jose was studying civil engineering, he noticed that some of the construction workers on the site he worked on were not receiving their full paychecks. His response was to hang a poster next to the worksite office detailing exactly how much compensation was allocated to each job on the project. It would have been a simple, effective solution, except there was much greater, overarching problem - many of the workers were unable read. It was then that he decided to be the agent of change to bring about systemic change within the construction industry. He began literacy programs on construction sites so that the workers would have a better future and fair treatment.

Since earning his undergraduate degree in civil engineering, Jose has worked in the industry in places like the United States, Brazil, and India, as well as Mexico. His history is a reflection of the values and interest in social corporate responsibility his mother instilled in him from an early age by exposing him to business professionals with focus, such as the founder of Bimbo. He has founded three successful social businesses in addition to Construyendo - Inmobiliaria Quiero Casa, an affordable housing construction company, ION, the financing firm created in response to the needs of those using Quiero Casa’s services, and Abitat Constructora, a socially and environmentally responsible construction consulting firm. While starting the process to bring Construyendo to life, he was also busy working on his master’s degree in business administration from Stanford University. According to many people, Jose always has to be doing something, and working as an entrepreneur for the good of others is what comes naturally to him. Thanks to Jose’s passion, systems within the construction industry that have historically been used to exploit construction workers are now being co-opted to dramatically increase their levels of productivity and quality of life.