José Luis Nuñez
La Paz, Bolivia
Fellow Since 1997
This profile was prepared when José Luis Nuñez was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1997.
José Luis Núñez, a Bolivian sociologist, has created a program that enables young people to understand their rights as citizens and to assume responsibilities in decision-making positions. They are converted into defenders of their rights and become equipped to train others to replicate their initiatives of action and youth mobilization.
The New Idea
José Luis Núñez, often known by the nickname Coco, has developed an alternative educational scheme for the formation of young community leaders. This scheme puts into practice new Bolivian laws that have created important opportunities for the participation of youth in civil society. Together with a team of professionals, all volunteers, he provides activities of leadership training and community organization. Young people develop their own systems for running organizations, define projects that appeal to their peers, organize events and participate in community meetings, and operate their own small businesses to support their ideas. They are creating a different definition of the role of young people in Bolivian society. Though many programs exist to address special needs, such as those related to micro-enterprise projects and street children, José Luis's work is unique. He strive to fill a void for the majority of ordinary young people, mostly poor and living in urban neighborhoods, who do not know their legal rights and have not had the opportunities or the resources to think in positive, productive ways about solutions to their problems.
As in many Latin American countries, the population of Bolivia becomes younger and more urban every year. The 1992 census recorded a population of 1,517,948 people, of which 51 percent is 21 years old or younger; one-fourth is between the ages of 13 and 24. This important sector of citizens is seldom taken into consideration by local governments, community leaders, or businesses, and there are very few real opportunities for them to participate in civil society or use its channels to meet their needs.Meanwhile, poor urban areas have become especially problematic for children. There are few safe, interesting places where they can go in their free time. In 1994-95 José Luis conducted a study about life conditions of youth in north central La Paz. He found in a five square block area, with the highest density of schools in the city, 120 liquor stores and at least three public areas where drugs were openly sold. Forty youth gangs populate the area, and ten video parlors have become unsupervised, unofficial youth centers. The Center on Educational Multiservices recently completed a ten-year study of primary school children in the same area (José Luis was part of their research team); it found only eight percent of the children clinically healthy, 40 percent in a state of chronic malnutrition, and 90 percent with dental problems. Extreme poverty, unhealthy living conditions, and the lure and dangers of drugs have prevented many Bolivian children from concentrating on their education.The state has initiated some reforms, including the acts for Education Reform, Popular Participation, and Capitalization, among others. However, they do not address most of the root causes of the problems young people suffer, and the government has not consulted the young people who are designated to benefit from these laws - most of them know nothing about their new franchises. Though they affect youth, most of the reforms have concentrated on young people electing new candidates rather than becoming candidates themselves. In the educational reforms, students are not considered to be the principal interested party, but passive recipients.
Weaving together ten years of experience as a youth leader in Boy Scouts, university and community activities, and another ten years of professional experience organizing youth groups, José Luis has developed a system for youth leadership training based on the formation of groups of young leaders who have already been elected to positions in public schools and community youth groups. José Luis has developed detailed step-by-step courses to educate and prepare these natural leaders to take positions of responsibility in their communities. They participate in regular, week-long courses on self-esteem, environmental protection, games and educational techniques, social skills, sex education, vocational training, or other themes decided by the group itself. Every year they plan an event where they participate actively in their own communities. These youth mobilization events consist of public activities such as fairs, musical concerts, the planting of trees, the restoration of an elderly person's house, field trips to local schools, and open classroom events in target neighborhoods. These activities allow them to put their training into practice, establish connections with other groups, spot new youth leaders to recruit, and make the entire community aware of their work: in short, to emerge as a broad youth movement. The young people who have been members for the longest time form a nucleus for the continuous functioning of the movement and help train new members. The young leaders self-finance their work. For example, one group has included parents, and together they have developed a cooperative of weavers which is financing some of their activities.The program operates through the organization José Luis founded, Program To Train Youth Advocates, which consists of the director and five volunteer professionals, experts in psychology, pedagogy, education, social work and music, who train and advise the youth participants. Additionally, many local leaders and institutions support the program as consultants. José Luis has formed alliances all over La Paz, including a partnership with the Hotel School, which provides scholarships to some youth advocates.The Program has formed a base in five different communities. Representatives from all the groups are developing their mission statement, which will form the basis for replicating the idea, though each group has its own way of organizing and functioning. José Luis has recently begun to experiment with how best to adapt his approach to rural areas. The early results are encouraging-including his discovery that rural agricultural cooperatives are willing to pay for his work because it provides useful training and skills that will keep some young people from fleeing to the cities. José Luis's youth leaders have shown they are responsible community members. One local group noticed an elderly neighbor's house needed maintenance. They went in, rebuilt the porch, and put on a new roof. The neighbor was so grateful that she donated part of her house to the group for their youth center. The young people participate in public meetings of the city, committee meetings, and neighborhood groups and are able to put their ideas on the table to initiate creative programs to improve the community. Later, José Luis plans that they will offer themselves for public office and public service.
José Luis came from a middle-class family and lived in a working-class neighborhood where many of his friends were very poor. The only place they had to play was in the streets and on a hill next to a factory. In this group of friends with few resources, he learned about solidarity, friendship, and creativity because the children had to make their own toys and games. He also learned to be sensitive to the fact that he had a little more than the others around him. His family taught him solid values, including a strong work ethic. His father was a humble man born in a mining town where his own father had built a significant rural holding and was a powerful community leader. The grandfather, however, not believing in inheritance, gave almost all his property to his workers. José Luis's father worked his way up from the bottom, but, when confronted with corruption, he "blew the whistle" and promptly lost his position. José Luis's expressive, educated mother rode the family's swings of fortune with grace. José Luis has his family's energy, sense of right and wrong, and backbone. He suffered for his community work during the dictatorships. He spent his college days working against the country's military dictators and the forced exile of his friends in the youth movement.José Luis is very shy, and he has had to stretch his limits to overcome this shyness. He joined the Boy Scouts and became a troop leader when he was only fourteen years old. In the university, José Luis began a program to provide volunteer opportunities for 200 students. This student movement was interrupted by the overthrow of the government by military dictators in 1979 and 1980. During the dictatorships, together with other students in Catholic and public universities, he began an educational, cultural, and social movement of university students who worked with groups of children, youth, and communities. He and his young colleagues were major decision makers in these groups.