Héctor Jorquera Escares
Fellow Since 2000
Fundación Gente Expresa
This profile was prepared when Héctor Jorquera Escares was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2000.
A passionate advocate for citizen participation at the local level, Héctor Jorquera has developed a new method to engage everyday citizens, community-based organizations, and municipal authorities in the construction of public participation agendas to address and act on issues of local concern.
The New Idea
In Chile, as elsewhere in Latin America, it is a rare feat to bring together everyday citizens, community-based organizations, and government institutions, and even rarer that they will agree upon and implement lines of action. Héctor helps citizens become more involved in responses to the problems facing their communities. He facilitates interaction with state governments and civil society organizations to improve the quality of services and create new ones. At the center of his efforts are public participation agendas that spawn initiatives in response to the community's concerns through consensus-building among different community entities. Héctor's model has succeeded because of the direct citizen participation it promotes and its flexibility to address a wide range of issues in different communities with diverse needs. It is an approach that opens up the channels of communication and allows all actors to see the benefits of citizen participation.
Though democracy brings with it the right to voice concerns and opinions and take part in the allocation of community resources through the democratic process, citizen participation is actually on the decline. There is a growing gap between private, everyday lives and questions of public interest, such as education, health, and the environment. While some inappropriately assume that the government acts in their best interest, others are simply uninformed about the different opportunities to have their voices heard. Many citizens harbor doubts about whether or not their opinions would even be taken into account by public authorities. The government, particularly at the municipal level, tends to not seek out active citizen participation in public decision making. However, despite this decline in mainstream awareness, the Chilean citizen sector remains strong with over eighty thousand active civil society organizations. Many organizations express a growing distrust for the powers-that-be and a sense of alienation in the policy-making process. Although there are few spaces in which public and civic actors can collaborate. In the face of their declining legitimacy, though, many government agencies are searching for ways to incorporate citizen sector representatives into their programs.
Héctor began working to increase public participation in Chile by mobilizing citizens around the issue of the environment. In 1991, he founded the Eco-90 Network, a civil society organization that trained people in how to identify local environmental problems, mobilize a team, develop response strategies, and implement projects in small- and medium-sized communities around the country's southern region. Under Héctor's leadership, these efforts spawned fourteen local environmental councils that work in close collaboration with municipal authorities and public service providers to design awareness and protection plans. Among their most recognized successes is a network of citizen environmental monitors trained to measure noise levels, pollution, and wildlife conditions. In coordination with the law school at the Catholic University of Temuco, the citizen monitors will soon begin promoting legal action in environmental neglect or abuse cases. Eager to expand this model of informed participants to other areas of community interest, Héctor created Gente Expresa, or The People Express Themselves, in 1996. Building on the experiences of Eco-90, Gente Expresa engages different citizen actors in evaluation and prioritization of communities' needs to build consensus about future actions. In several communities, for example, this process of debate and discussion unveiled a common concern about the quality of life among children and youth. With support from UNICEF and the Chilean government, Gente Expresa has promoted the formation of local councils centered on the issue of children. It developed an initiative whereby children in over three hundred schools vote on their most important rights, according to the international Convention on the Rights of Children, the results of which facilitate discussion of education, health, and security between organizations devoted to children's issues and municipal policy makers. A similar project has been launched around the rights and needs of senior citizens. The reach of Héctor's citizen participation model has already expanded well beyond its starting point in Temuco. Eco-90 currently works with municipalities nationwide, involving thousands of youngsters and hundreds of environmental organizations and was recognized by the National Foundation to Overcome Poverty and the University of Chile's Public Policy Analysis Center as an innovator in citizen participation. Gente Expresa, while still focused on southern Chile, works directly with more than one thousand people in twenty municipalities. Héctor is identifying organizations that can serve as Gente Expresa franchises in other countries, starting first with contacts already established in Perú, Spain, Colombia, France, and Argentina. To help spread his methods and raise money for his projects, Héctor is also developing an initiative whereby university students and young professionals from other countries visit Chile to work on the project as part of an experiential learning program.
Héctor was raised by his working class grandparents in the small city of Talca in southern Chile. All of his relatives were heavily involved in community activities, ranging from the church to politics to youth movements. Although his mother abandoned the family when Héctor was very young, his father, a recovering alcoholic who organized various community sports clubs, was an important influence in his life and instilled in him the value of community leadership. Héctor quickly established himself as a top student and leader among his peers. He received a scholarship to attend a parochial school, where he was Class President for two years, led the student center's cultural activities board, and served as a representative of the Young Christian Democrats. In 1985, he received scholarships to study social work at the Universidad de la Frontera in Temuco, where he participated in a national association of social work students and volunteered with different community service organizations. Following his graduation in 1990, Héctor worked in the public sector with the National Service for Minors in Temuco, where he developed projects related to youth and family service. In 1992, following the city's first municipal elections since the return to democracy, Héctor was hired by the municipality to design the area's first youth-focused social programs. In 1994, Héctor turned his attention and skills to the environment and was hired as Regional Sub-Director of the recently-formed National Environmental Commission. He led Chile's first Municipal Environmental Management program, reaching into policy making, legislation, education, research, and urban planning. Among its many positive results, the program created a postgraduate degree in environmental management for public officials.While working with the government, Héctor expanded his background and expertise in youth development and environmental preservation to the citizen sector, founding Eco-90 and Gente Expresa, to which he is currently committed full-time. He has also been a professor of social work at several universities, a job which allowed him to educate young people about the importance of citizen participation in community development.