Julio Vacaflor is using the power and reach of a national flag-building project in Argentina to create the drive and necessary citizen connections for a broad-based upsurge of community-based social initiative.
La idea nueva
Julio has recognized that the depth of Argentina's social crisis demands a rebuilding of the social fabric and widespread stimulation of civil society from the community level up. For a project of this scope and breadth, Julio realized that powerful, relevant motivational forces are needed. Julio is using the symbolic power of the Argentine flag and the communitarian power of a national-scale project to stimulate civil society involvement in a country desperately in need of identity, unity, and progress.
The national-level project–Alta en el Cielo ("High in the Sky")–is Argentina's version of the Pledge of Allegiance, and it provides a platform from which to invigorate civil society broadly through forging connections and facilitating ongoing collaborations. In a 10-year span, the flag project will both literally and metaphorically sew a new social fabric for Argentina out of small, dispersed pieces of cloth. High in the Sky will then live on past the completion of the flag project, sparking future change in communities across Argentina.
In Argentina, a lack of national identity and the profound feelings of uncertainty and despair have provoked depression among Argentines. The diminished self-esteem of a society that feels betrayed by its leaders contributes to isolation, lack of respect, and selfishness among citizens. Weapons possession rates are up; so, too, are private neighborhood and household security systems. The democratic system is in crisis, and citizens feel it. Eighty-two percent of Argentines say they do not trust others. Eighty-seven percent say they are unhappy with the functioning of the country's democracy, and 40 percent think that an authoritarian regime may return.
The 2001 financial crisis awakened Argentines from apathy. During the crisis there was a wide range of citizen reactions, from cacerolazos (masses of people gathering in the streets and percussively beating kitchen utensils), to piquetes (sit-ins in streets, impeding traffic flow), to escraches (public humiliation of politicians), to neighborhood assemblies. However, these reactions were generally spontaneous, often partisan, and usually negative. Now that the worst of the crisis is over, Argentina is in a rebuilding mode. However, even before the crisis Argentina's civil society was already weak– the victim of a patronage state that maintained control by strategically dispensing social goods to a complacent populace. The country still lacks a critical mass of constructive citizen initiatives to address the challenges of rebuilding and sustaining the society; there are no longer enough state resources to deliver necessary social services. Tied into all these challenges, Argentina also lacks the necessary symbols to inspire recovery and sustenance.
Citizens and citizen organizations come together in Julio's national-level flag project, High in the Sky. Rallying Argentines around a common goal, Julio is fostering greater cooperation and social initiative to rebuild the country's morale, networking, and collaborations.
Julio connects with the communities all over Argentina and the diaspora communities abroad, inviting citizens and community institutions (schools, clubs, elder groups, neighborhood assemblies, hospitals, libraries) to contribute pieces of cloth to the High in the Sky flag. Community members and groups garnering pieces of white and blue cloth sew their individual pieces of cloth into whole flags 15 feet in height, creating a community version of the Argentine flag. For each Flag Day celebration (June 20), communities transport their flags in person to the city of Rosario for the annual parade. In Rosario, the community representatives attach their flags to those of other communities–one after the other for miles. The long flag is carried by all citizens, mothers with babies in arms, elderly people, children, the poor, the rich, the unemployed, policemen, and soldiers–in a sign of collaboration and solidarity. For poor, remote communities with no ongoing citizen sector activity, this project can be a major challenge in terms of resources and organization, making it that much more of a unique platform to harness community drive. Even for more developed communities, participation in the flag project provides a significant opportunity to direct social impulses toward the many challenges Argentine civil society must address. As community members and groups collaborate around their contribution to the flag project, they learn of each other's talents, establish common goals, and begin to devise solutions to shared problems. They may start recycling programs, open community libraries, or distribute food, clothes, and medicine to neighbors in need.
High in the Sky has been effective at stimulating these spin-off initiatives, with Julio and a working team actively involved. For the most part, however, the community-based initiatives develop organically. There are hundreds of examples: a school in Santa Fé started to make baby clothes for the neighborhood hospital; a youth group in Luján combined its community flag and the city's famous basilica to promote an antihunger campaign and can-collection drive that linked local institutions with the church; a special-needs school in La Matanza linked its mentally impaired students in leadership roles to students in other schools throughout the region; neighbors in the town of Pérez launched a garbage recycling campaign; a neighborhood committee in Rosario started folklore festivals to collect nonperishable foodstuffs; and a diverse group of individuals in rural Las Flores started a solidarity campaign to collect clothes for the poorest among them.
Julio supports the institutionalization of these spin-offs through a variety of programming. "La Mamadera" ("The Baby Bottle"), a weekly educational television show he started in Rosario in 1988, is designed to bridge generational gaps and has now reached national scale. Through the programs, Julio provides coaching on how to maintain social momentum between flag days and how to increase social impact in communities. Additionally, Julio has launched a High in the Sky magazine, which also serves to support budding community leaders and entrepreneurs. Julio also visits communities and engages directly with them, providing workshops and coaching sessions. Most promising among the tools is a Web-based collaboration platform. The Web-based network will allow community leaders stimulated by High in the Sky to connect with Julio, collaborate with each other, and leverage collective impact.
To date, Julio has involved more than 1,000 public, private, and special-needs schools, 37 universities, hundreds of local institutions, and many tens of thousands of people. Participants represent all 25 provinces of Argentina and cut across all socioeconomic, professional, gender, and age lines. Increases in the length of the flag correlate with growing participation in High in the Sky. In 1999, the flag pieced together in Rosario was only 130 meters long. It has grown exponentially over the past four years, reaching 8,000 meters in 2003. The number of people attending the annual parade has also increased. In 1999, there were 3,000 marchers; in 2000, 6,000. In 2003, 70,000 individuals joined the march. Ultimately, Julio's success will be defined by the number, quality, and traction of social initiatives originating with High in the Sky. So far, he has lacked the resources or tools to track comprehensively and precisely his exact impact, but the Web tool will facilitate this effort. Additionally, professionalization of his operation will give Julio greater capacity to measure the impact he is having at various levels.
High in the Sky is easily promoted. At the annual Flag Day parade, the work-in-progress flag is paraded through the streets of Rosario, accompanied by the legions of community-based contributors who are able to travel to Rosario. Rosario is Argentina's third city, and the place where the Argentine flag was born. Its Flag Monument is the most important in Argentina, and the celebration of Flag Day in Rosario is larger than anywhere else in Argentina. In 2002, for the first time in Argentina's history, the military units based in Rosario eschewed their own parade in favor of joining the High in the Sky parade. This in itself is strong testament to the broad and profound effect that High in the Sky has had on Argentine culture. In 2003, High in the Sky demonstrated its influence when several other cities around the country held their own High in the Sky events on Flag Day. These local efforts will continue annually before uniting in Rosario in 2012.
Besides the Flag Day festivities, which garner significant media coverage, Julio sustains public education efforts throughout the year with his magazine, programming, and community visits. Julio is designing an interactive, educational CD-ROM, which he will distribute to schools throughout the country. He works actively with teachers, encouraging them to incorporate High in the Sky as a teaching tool for subjects including history, civics, literature, and art. In addition, Julio is planning the design of a High in the Sky audio-visual interactive museum.
Another reason High in the Sky is so effective is because it is low-cost. Julio leverages volunteer human resources and in-kind donations, including sewing machines, storage grounds for the huge High in the Sky flag, and advertising (co-branded with Unilever). Support from a publisher has defrayed the cost of putting out the High in the Sky magazine, which Julio has been able to sell to generate revenue, and private sectors and foundations have provided the funds for operational costs.
In June 1999, moved by the deep identity crisis that Argentina was suffering, Julio envisioned High in the Sky. That winter of 1999 was a rather hopeless one for Argentines. Carlos Menem's 10-year reign in Argentina was coming to an end, but the population was still downbeat about the country's future and the real potential for change. Julio thought about all the millions of good people living in his country, and wondered why there was still so much hurt. He imagined many sewing machines joining hundreds of cloth flags arriving from different parts of the country, creating the world's biggest Argentine flag, one created by the entire nation. That was June 3. Flag Day was only two weeks later, but Julio quickly made his vision a reality. Three thousand people participated in the 1999 High in the Sky parade, carrying an Argentine flag 130 meters long. Over the course of the coming years, Julio has been able to amplify the reach of High in the Sky and build the capacity to harness the impact of the many community-based initiatives the flag project spawns.
Julio was born in a poor settlement on the outskirts of Rosario. Though he finished secondary school in his 30s, he was a self-taught man and loved to read everything that fell into his hands. In order to support his family, he held various jobs, as an ironworker, cobbler, painter, and cadet. As Argentina turned into a military dictatorship, Julio discovered a passion for writing and began to work for magazines and radio programs in Rosario. In 1980, a dream turned into reality when he became part of the writing teams of Humor and Risario, two leading publications that challenged the military regime through satire.
In 1984, he created an innovative radio program that invited listeners to donate didactic materials to underprivileged schools. The program stimulated parent-child interactions and was so successful that soon the audience included television viewers as well. This was the seed of "The Baby Bottle," the TV program born in 1988 that aimed to unite generations. From this program, Julio promoted several initiatives that stimulated integration–between parents and kids, between kids from special-needs schools and mainstream schools, among community organizations–and generated civic values in children. The initiatives celebrated education and democracy, and encouraged problem-solving and individual involvement in area neighborhoods.
Julio is a natural and charismatic leader, with extraordinary grace and an uncanny ability to connect with people. His affinity for the media is an outgrowth of his proclivity for connecting, educating, and collaborating. Julio is also a skilled teacher and communicator who has conducted many workshops in expression, journalism, and creativity for school teachers. His innovative work in the communications field has been widely recognized by many organizations, and he has been invited to participate in various international festivals. Julio also cofounded Asociación Chicos, an organization that works with homeless children, and the Network for the Defense of Child and Adolescent Rights.