Fabián Ferraro facilitates youth leadership through a strategy that partners human and financial resources from different local sectors around Argentina to address social problems in poor communities.
The New Idea
A former street child and professional soccer player, Fabián is tackling the pervasive and growing problem of Argentine adolescents who neither work nor attend school. Fabián's own experience has taught him that before reinserting at-risk youths into the formal education system or training them to enter the labor market, as is the common practice, they must first build self-esteem and social capacity for mainstream participation. By creating spaces inside the community in which underprivileged young people can develop an interest in relevant issues, Fabian helps children and teens improve their leadership skills and respond to some of the social problems that led to their clandestine lifestyles. He facilitates roles for youths within a solidarity network of businesses, civil society organizations, schools, and community groups to reinforce the notion that, just as in their own lives, positive change must originate from within a system. Through a unique vision that links young people's self-worth with a higher quality of life in their communities, Fabián helps youths create change for themselves, creatively, sustainably, and with pride.
Traditionally, actions to address Argentina's social problems, particularly in very poor communities, have been vertically implemented by the government, without regard for the beneficiaries' real needs. In addition to a record of failures, these practices discourage citizens from taking a role in their own development. Despite more active participation from the business and nonprofit sectors in recent years, efforts lack coordination and have achieved little community investment or measured impact.Within this context, young people encounter barriers to involvement in development programs and continue to suffer from the country's rapid social decline. Roughly one-fifth of Argentina's population under the age of twenty years old neither works nor attends school. They are viewed with suspicion and distrust by the adult members of their communities and turn to dangerous behaviors like alcohol and drug abuse, prostitution, and vagrancy. Thus far, few efforts have been made to re-engage youths in the improvement of their own neighborhoods or the betterment of their own lives.
Through his organization, Defensores del Chaco, Fabián creates opportunities for at-risk youths to become community leaders and address the problems affecting their lives in the process. The first element of his unique method is the engagement of young people in healthy activities, diverting their attention from the streets with sports or art. Such activities contribute to team orientation and introduce positive values of creativity, self-respect, and achievement that alter adult's former perceptions of them. After bringing street kids together as soccer teams, musical groups, and theater troupes, Fabián helps them mobilize the energy of other troubled youths, working with schools and community groups to improve outreach and train participants as service volunteers. Thirdly, Fabián forms alliances with foundations, companies, and governmental agencies to finance the construction of new facilities and to train these new corps of eager and engaged young people. Such learning-by-doing initiatives are considered a good investment because of their pervasive, yet relatively inexpensive, social impact. Governments derive value from the outcomes achieved where their programs fell short–at considerably greater expense–in the past. Civil society organizations appreciate the decline in crime rates and the insurgence of new energy and human resources in local development and cultural activities. Socially responsible businesses and foundations invest in the potential of new, more profitable markets and alignment with a well-regarded and marketable organization. From these initial funding relationships, Fabián develops strategic partnerships with high-profile nonprofit organizations and companies by which young people receive supplementary training in professional skills and potential engagements and through which his organization increases capacity and access to resources.
Today, Defensores del Chaco includes some five hundred regular participants and is incorporated in Argentina as a nonprofit organization with a board of directors comprised of twelve past program participants. Beyond promoting athletic and arts activities as a means to keep youth off the streets and build community bonds, Defensores has become a major vehicle for new leadership in Argentina and abroad. Fabián's mentorship, in conjunction with opportunities presented through the organization's network of strategic partners, allows teens to develop important and practical leadership skills, which they not only use in their daily lives as newly engaged students or workers, but also in the diagnosis of their communities' most pressing challenges and in the development of new initiatives in response. Having systematized Defensores del Chaco's methods for recruiting young people from the street and training them to be confident, contributing members of society, Fabián is working with organizations around the world to adapt his programs for new environments in other countries.
Fabián was born in a poor Buenos Aires neighborhood, where he lived until at age seven, after which family conditions forced him and his brother onto the streets. After several years spending days wandering around the city and nights sleeping in a large train station, Fabián met Quique, a railroad employee who adopted him as his son. Quique took him into his home, encouraged him to finish primary school, and introduced him to organized soccer. As a teenager, Fabián realized two dreams he never imagined possible without the help and support of his new mentor: he enrolled in high school and became a professional soccer player. While he enjoyed soccer's physical rigors and team camaraderie, Fabián soon decided that the life of a professional athlete did not achieve his broader goals. Using his natural athletic and leadership skills, he spent four years during his twenties as a soccer trainer and coordinator of recreational workshops in several children's homes and at community clubs in the Moreno neighborhood of Buenos Aires. Based on this experience, he says that "being a trainer means to unleash someone's capacities, in order to make him aware of his own means. The challenge is to support him physically and psychologically, leading him to accomplish simple goals_" This concept summarizes the underlying philosophy that guides every step of Fabián's way of working with youth today.A witness to tremendous violence and an absence of civil values in Moreno, Fabián decided to create a new space in which to address the problems of disadvantaged and at-risk youth. In 1994, Fabián invited twelve young men he often observed drinking beer on a nearby street corner to form a soccer team. Through commitment and hard work, Fabián would eventually transform these street youths into the Defensores del Chaco championship soccer team, which would eventually become the pilot for one of Argentina's most successful youth leadership and civic engagement programs. By his thirtieth birthday, Fabián had completed a successful career as a professional soccer player, earned his high school diploma, begun a career as a social entrepreneur, launched major social change partnerships with large businesses and the government, and received coverage as a leading social innovator in a number of local and national publications.