Gerardo Pacheco Gutierrez
La Paz, Bolivia
Fellow Since 1999
This profile was prepared when Gerardo Pacheco Gutierrez was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1999.
Based on his belief that young people, especially those living on the streets, should have a say in programs created to help them, Gerardo Pacheco promotes his new principle of youth self-management. He helps young people run a home, assist other children living on the streets, and cultivate good relations with previously unsympathetic neighbors.
The New Idea
Gerardo contends that the key to engaging at-risk youth is to give them the opportunity to take initiative and assume responsibility for their own lives and futures. According to his philosophy, young people have the capacity to make the important decisions needed to improve their lives and should play a greater role in determining the course of their social development. In his "Group A," Gerardo is consolidating initiatives for orphan child laborers, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, and street youth in which young people themselves manage funds, make decisions, build relationships with the community, and find ways to confront their addictions, as well as other personal, family, and community issues. He also works with public and citizen sector institutions to incorporate youth self-management projects into their community development programs, including significant input from youth on project design and budgeting. By creating a corps of youth leaders, Gerardo is not only helping clandestine youth overcome their own issues, but also making them a valuable commodity in the advancement of sustainable civil society organizations in Bolivia and beyond.
Youth in precarious situationsstreet orphans, underage workers, and gang membersgrow up in unhealthy environments that cause and continually reinforce antisocial behavior, from prostitution to violent crime. Surveys by citizen organizations suggest that some forty-five thousand such Bolivian youngsters are addicted to drugs. This number represents a 75 percent increase over the previous six years, and researchers believe this number will continue to grow. Living or working on the street without proper care and attention apparently leads young people to feel worthless and, consequently, resort to drugs and other dangerous activities. The end result is a cycle of delinquency and addiction that affects not only the children on the street, but those who live and work around them. Existing efforts to work with street kids rely on professional psychologists and social workers who do not have the experience necessary to understand what drives young people into street life. These programs use language and methods incomprehensible to street children and impose strict rules with few outlets for creativity and self-direction. As a result, children break rules, are rejected, and turn back to the streets. Neighborhood committees rarely talk about helping solve the problems that cause children to live on the street, instead discussing how to eliminate these annoyances. Furthermore, few organizations believe that these young people are capable of contributing to their own betterment or improving the situation for those who follow them.
The key to Gerardo's strategy is involving the young people in the solutions to their own problems, thereby building their self-esteem while creating effective programs to improve their living conditions. To understand the patterns and pitfalls of street children's lives, Gerardo spent years walking the streets of La Paz, talking to children and learning first-hand about their lives. From his time assessing the real needs of troubled youth, Gerardo developed a philosophy to encourage children and youth to show initiative and assume responsibility for their situation. Gerardo is now consolidating three models of action to demonstrate how youth self-management can benefit the lives of young people in various at-risk categories and the community at-large.Gerardo first established a residential home where orphaned children and teenagers learn to design projects, manage money, and launch small revenue generating ventures in La Paz city. Although convincing young people to leave the street life and abandon the fast money they earned selling candy, shining shoes, and hustling would otherwise be a difficult task, Gerardo draws on his street credibility to earn the young people's trust and investment. He works to instill values of self-worth and teach the former street kids marketable skills like construction, along with leadership and entrepreneurship, as they build and upkeep their home. The community and participatory nature of the residential home helps the youngsters kick their self-destructive habits and develop a sense of worthiness and esteem. Based on the immediate successes of the residential home and Gerardo's acknowledgement of troubled young people's diverse needs, he and his teams of former street kids developed a second program, focused completely on drug and alcohol rehabilitation. The format differs only slightly from conventional methods in that all therapy groups are led by former addictsresidents of the homewho draw from their own experiences with family, abuse, personal values, money problems, and crime to help those facing similar situations. The third component of Gerardo's initiative requires changing the public perception and self-perception of young people trapped in gang, drug, and criminal lifestyles. Rehabilitated street kids participate in community activities, such as cultural and sporting events, and initiative meetings with teachers, police, local politicians, and community representatives to begin to understand each other and develop solutions to the problems pervading street culture. Through this process, participating children and teenagers not only respond to their own needs, but assume leadership in the development of long-term responses for their peers still on the streets.
Gerardo grew up in a poor section of La Paz and shared a small house with his five brothers, his mother, and his grandmother. At a very early age, he began to sense the discrimination against the poor people of his neighborhood, especially based on their indigenous roots, but felt his own self-esteem reinforced by a caring family that encouraged him to go to college, become a professional, and find ways to help the people around him. He also sensed that people from his area were not only suffering from economic poverty, but from the hopelessness that derives from lack of opportunity. Gerardo became very interested in understanding the feelings behind the suffering of his neighbors and, at the age of twelve years old, began to study psychology on his own, reading Freud in his free time. Simultaneously, he became involved in various social activities, forming groups of students to tutor and provide assistance for those students in need and putting on theatrical productions in the native Aymara language. Gerardo went on to study psychology at Bolivia's private Catholic University on a full scholarship. He was the first student from his high school to achieve a professional degree. After graduation, he moved back to a poor neighborhood to organize and train migrant families to manage their own resources. He worked with several social organizations as a psychologist, trying to implement his theory of self-management. As director of psychology and education at the Qharuru project for child laborers, he became dismayed with the ineffectiveness of its programs, after witnessing young children taking drugs on the premises. Because many could not abide by the rules and strict curfews, they ended up leaving the program. Gerardo felt that the regulations were overly rigid and showed little understanding for the children's needs. He decided to see what was really happening in their world and started to sleep under bridges and spend his days in the streets. Through this close, personal contact he gained the disenfranchised youths' trust and began his initiative to organize them into corps of community leaders, able to respond to their own needs and manage projects to assist their peers in similar situations.