Javier Sanchez, a leader since he was a high school student in Puebla, has been developing a model approach to safeguarding poor slum children from becoming street children. He's now beginning to develop a complementary and also somewhat novel way of organizing efficient producer groups of area parents.
The New Idea
First, Javier seeks to prevent children at risk from falling into the street. Carefully targeting buildings and families with children at risk, he has created an apparently successful series of safety nets and other supports. He first builds up a core of volunteers in the building who then form an Assembly. They take charge of minor building issues and parties, and become a guardian to backstop families in supporting children. He's also developing a series of mechanisms to tie teachers, now outsiders who don't understand their students' context, more effectively to those they serve. He and his colleagues also work directly with the children and with their families.
As he has increasingly come to believe that a decent income is most families' first need, and as many of the other aspects of his program to safeguard vulnerable children from falling into the street have been demonstrated successfully, he has been rechannelling his creativity and time into an effort to launch a model modified cooperative women's garment production unit that will initially offer 30-40 jobs. He intends his model to be an alternative to both exploitative capitalism and the dead hand of bureaucracy. His vision is of a practical co-op drawing on Mexico's community traditions -- but also one with special incentives for skilled workers and managers, especially in the early years before the bulk of the workforce has been broadly cross-trained in marketing, maintenance, etc. and able to take up voting participation. In two years he expects it to absorb half his time. He hopes in the long term it and other similarly organized units will help fund his research and community work and that of others working with him.
No one knows how many street children Mexico has, but the number seems to be growing rapidly. There is little doubt that children who fall into the streets often face short, grim futures.
Economically marginal families often have to send their children to work in the streets. If the family is unable to care adequately for a child, few backup safety nets exist, especially in the urban barrios filled with recent rural immigrants. Nor is the child's teacher likely to be much help (even if the child is in school). Coming from a different part of the town and driven by low pay to rush from one job to the next, teachers commonly don't know their students well -- let alone the lives they live or their family and community contexts.
Javier begins by carefully identifying children at risk, commonly clustered in heavily populated old buildings. He then works with these children, their families, their neighbors, their teachers, and other institutions to (1) help the children develop and (2) help the adults build multiply safety nets for these children.
He has honed his approach. Thus, for example, he asks the parents to give him photos of their children when they register in the program, creating a buy-in bond. He and his organization work with the parents in many different ways, ranging from job training to experimental discussions where the children are encouraged to discuss, e.g., what sort of education they'd like and why.
His work in the buildings helping develop both leaders and community institutions is the key to his objective of getting adequate safety nets in place. His volunteer leaders mobilize support for such things as building maintenance and day care; they organize monthly meetings for the residents of these buildings at which residents vote on group activities and projects; and they help mediate disputes within and among families. They spot trouble quickly and engage Javier's team when needed.
Javier's team is very central to his strategy. He's attracted a diverse, committed group of colleagues and is building an egalitarian organization
Weaving through the several strands of his work is Javier's concern for communications, especially between people of widely differing background. How can he help a diverse team work well? How can he link outside teachers with their students' community and family roots? How can he build a model economic unit that both provides adequate incentives to attract top professional staff and yet evolves into a worker-controlled, egalitarian organization? How can someone of his privileged background serve effectively?
These are not casual questions for Javier. They are the focus of his university thesis; they are important personal questions; and they provide a framework and depth to his institutional design experiments.
The son of a highly successful industrialist and an independent-minded and socially aware mother, Javier has been a leader since his high school days in Puebla. Trained first at Mexico's leading technical university and then in philosophy, and long committed to public service, he began working intensely with the scavenger communities living at Mexico City's dump. That experience and his successful institution-building and program experiments of the last several years have given him the community-based experience he needed to complement his rich framework of questions.