This description of Nelsa Curbelo's work was prepared when Nelsa Curbelo was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1999.
Nelsa Curbelo, recognizing the importance of young people in creating a culture of peace in Ecuador, launched a program to help youngsters develop a "stop and think" attitude that makes them question and move away from violent means to solving problems.
The New Idea
Nelsa sees young people with their talent for critiquing, creating, and dreaming as a great resource in Ecuador's battle to end its pervasive violence. Working in neighborhood schools, she is training young people to turn their neighborhoods into "Barrios de Paz," or communities of peace. She has developed an eighty-hour program of structured, interactive mediation and conflict resolution exercises that help youngsters explore alternatives to violence.
It is often said that young people are the future, but many societies keep them at the margins. Ecuador is no exception. One of the paradoxes in emerging economies such as Ecuador's is that young people do much of the work, yet their voices are missing in national forums. Similarly, politicians seek the youth vote but fail to consult young people when making decisions. To make matters worse, many of the existing national student groups have been co-opted by political parties, creating a vacuum of independent leadership.Demographics show clearly that Ecuador's youth are in dire need of options. Out of the nation's tweleve million inhabitants, 45 percent are under twenty-one, and 70 percent live in poverty. For many of them, violence is a part of everyday life. More than fifteen hundred gangs operate in Guayaquil alone, the city with the highest rate of violence. According to Defensa de los Ninos Internacional (DNI), 800,000 Ecuadorian children work in the streets. Twenty-seven percent of them are beaten by their parents, and one in three has suffered some type of sexual abuse.
Nelsa first started working in her own neighborhood in Guayaquil, where she established Ser Paz, an organization that offers mediation workshops and community development training for young people. She makes every effort to ensure that youngsters from different backgrounds meet each other, including local gang members, wealthy private school kids, and those from poor neighborhoods. Together, they decide on action plans to bring peace to their respective communities. Nelsa's methods combine the latest thinking in alternative dispute resolution with basic project planning skills. Many of the techniques have a game-like quality. In one exercise, participants present their different points of view with their faces covered so that listeners must focus solely on the words. Though the workshops are for young people and are held during school hours, Nelsa also gives weekend sessions for parents, informal educators, and youngsters who are no longer attending school. Thus far, she has initiated a pilot project in seventeen Guayaquil schools, where she and her team teach two to three hours per week. Nelsa believes young people must also gain access to the national forum. To this end, she is planning a national Youth Congress to propose peace policies to the Ecuadorian government. Two exemplary trainees - a girl and a boy - will be elected to represent each province. Ultimately, Nelsa plans to merge the Ecuadorian Youth Congress with other national efforts to form an international body dedicated to world peace.Nelsa has developed a series of partnerships with the media to promote her programs. She created the first Red de Buenas Noticias, or Good News Network, which brings university journalism students together with young reporters from the neighborhoods to produce stories about the Barrio de Paz projects. She has convinced one of Ecuador's major dailies, Diario el Universo, to publish the stories in a weekly column, and a community radio station in Guayaquil has also agreed to run the stories.As word gets out about Ser Paz, many groups are requesting the program for their own members. In order to respond to this demand, Nelsa is working through the Teachers College to train new teachers. Since the beginning of 1999, she has trained eighteen teachers and has identified forty more. The teachers will establish other Barrios de Paz in their assigned schools. Nelsa also offers training to community workers who can achieve certification when they have replicated the training in their own communities.In another sphere, Nelsa is working with Ecuador's military conscription department to have the Ser Paz program offered as an alternative to the traditional military service required of young men. This partnership would have the double effect of recruiting many more volunteers to spread her work nationally while working directly with the military, a sector that would benefit from alternative forms of conflict resolution.
Born in Uruguay, Nelsa lived for many years in France and Chile before settling in Ecuador. Formerly a nun and a school teacher, Nelsa has worked with indigenous groups, community associations, and young people throughout her life. Before founding Ser Paz she was the founder and coordinator of SERPAJ, a well-known human rights organization in Ecuador. After that, she became the General Coordinator of SERPAL, a Latin American human rights organization covering eleven countries. Nelsa's efforts to uncover military and police abuses put her in constant danger. One experience in particular changed her life. She participated in the Truth and Life Commission that was set up to investigate the "disappeared" of Ecuador. Her work entailed hearing first-hand accounts from policemen about their roles in the torture and killing of hundreds of people. In the process of hearings and interviews a cemetery was discovered with more than two hundred bodies. This experience, more than any other, moved Nelsa to redirect the focus of her human rights work away from trials and denunciations of past abuses and toward a more life-fulfilling positive vision for the future. Ser Paz is a reflection of her newfound focus on preventing violence and instilling community values in Ecuador's next generation.