Raquel Robles is providing hope to children in juvenile detention for a different and better future by helping them to rethink their identity and build their self-esteem. Raquel then generates opportunities for societal reintegration, and by working with state authorities and ordinary citizens, she changes the negative perspective of these children to admiration.
La nuova idea
Raquel’s work with at-risk youth allowed her to see that Argentina had no comprehensive program for juvenile delinquents to help them develop and move beyond their detention in institutions. Raquel created a model which reverses negative self-images and creates a belief in each young person’s potential, and then boosts their chance of success after they leave the institutions. Raquel developed a unique methodology in the Power of the Imagination, based on her experience as an orphaned child who benefited from literature to foster self-expression and imagination. Raquel’s workshops use stories as a tool to encourage youth to be reflective and imagine better futures for themselves. On the Way Out gives youth leaving institutions opportunities for education, job training, and support through a network of peers and professionals. This program offers avenues for young people to realize their newfound goals and prevents them from falling back into a cycle of criminal activity.
The second part of Raquel’s idea is to identify and target societal notions that contribute to the negative images of young people. Through high-quality publications and public events featuring the work of youth from institutions, Raquel works to change societal perceptions, highlighting the youth’s potential as citizens. Finally, Raquel works with authorities and personnel within juvenile delinquent institutions to eliminate negative stereotypes that affect how youth are viewed and treated, promoting an inclusive approach that values each individual.
In Argentina, many children suffer from social exclusion and with a negative self-perception due to poverty, lack of opportunity, school desertion, or a parent’s unemployment. These situations cause many children to be marginalized from the education system, fall into drugs, theft, and eventually detainment in juvenile institutions. As a result, there are currently 19,579 institutionalized minors in the country.
With difficult lives and a sequence of negative messages from society and the institutions, these youth do not identify themselves as individuals with much to contribute as citizens. Perceived largely by society as dangerous and not to be rehabilitated or integrated into society. The children, in turn, are incapable of seeing themselves as good people. They are “lost”. This furthers a societal notion that only by confining them permanently will citizens be free of their imposed danger.
Confirming this idea, everyone involved in their confinement works to enhance devaluing practices—“They have only been born to steal, and are unable to do anything else.” Existing citizen sector programs reinforce this bias, admitting only youth with smaller sentences or those with greater capacities or abilities—because they will be able to take advantage of offered opportunities. Furthermore, many of the organizations working with juvenile detainees focus on the children in a charitable manner—reinforcing children’s negative perception of themselves.
As a result, 80 percent of the adults confined to prisons in the province of Buenos Aires were confined at some time during childhood. The nature and dynamic of these institutions has contributed to the formation of a vicious circle of exclusion, delinquency, judicialization, and deprivation of freedom. Raquel’s program works in a comprehensive manner to include all the actors—institutional authorities, policy-makers, society, and the children—to rehabilitate former juvenile detainees into productive members of society.
Raquel created her model in 2002 under the auspices of the municipal government of the City of Buenos Aires. She began her work within the government because in Argentina, external organizations are largely prohibited from accessing institutionalized youth; considered wards of the state. After increasing recognition, Raquel created a citizen organization to continue her work outside of the municipal government to increase the impact of her model and decrease dependency on changing political times without compromising her solid acceptance by government agencies.
Raquel’s primary program is Power of Imagination, which teaches self-knowledge through literature and writing workshops. Currently, Power of the Imagination is based in Buenos Aires and involves 400 teenagers confined to juvenile institutions—either committed by the judicial system or orphaned wards of the state. In the framework of these weekly workshops, Raquel and her team read or tell historical, cultural, or popular stories. Raquel uses these appealing stories both to teach Argentine history, or an important scientific discovery, and to encourage participants to imagine the history or the context of the story. After the workshop, participants write pieces based on what they’ve heard. Raquel’s team guides the youth in a critical reflection on their written pieces and how they relate to their lives. In this way, young people learn an essential message: They have ownership of their own stories. With a newfound ability to imagine, participants are able to shape their futures around a life away from crime. Raquel believes it essential for these youth to be able to have the opportunity to re-imagine different lives for themselves—the past does not determine the future. When she starts Power of the Imagination with a group, Raquel always asks, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” They answer “taxi drivers” or “supermarket clerks.” But when Raquel asks this same question at the end, participants invariably respond with higher aspirations: Writers, therapists, and math teachers.
Raquel and her team compile workshop stories in published books, and present at various public events to demonstrate the creative, intellectual, and leadership potential of juvenile delinquents. This also instills a sense of pride and self-worth in youth as published authors. An article in Pagina 12, a daily Buenos Aires newspaper, quotes a young man at one such event saying proudly, “People will say this: That kid, that thief who hung out on the corner, he wrote a book!” Power of the Imagination has published four books. Raquel’s public events are attended by the children’s parents, institution authorities, and public officials. These events are part the theme that runs throughout her work—to change the societal prejudice against troubled children and adolescents detained in institutions. Power of Imagination events are of a high-quality and beautiful, and are among the first doors opened between institutions and communities.
Raquel’s second program, On the Way Out, helps youth transition out of institutions and reintegrate into society and the workforce. On the Way Out builds on and reinforces the positive changes in self-esteem and self-identity begun with the Power of the Imagination. In On the Way Out, Raquel gives youth access to scholarships, enabling them to finish elementary and high school. She provides them with internships at organizations dealing with sports, music, literature, and journalism to train them for the vocation of their choice. On the Way Out also joins participants in peer support groups to assist individuals in taking their first steps outside the institution. These weekly meetings serve to build group solidarity, keep in touch, and offer support, information, and feedback to prevent them from falling back into a cycle of criminal activity. Raquel and her team also provide advice to parents in the first months of freedom. One year into the program, On the Way Out is working with fifty children, the majority of whom have stuck with the program, despite the temptations of crime. An example of how the program’s success has affected the lives of its participants is a young man from a very poor neighborhood with a high crime rate: Since leaving his institution, he has become one of the sports leaders that volunteers with Raquel in her programs within the institutions. Raquel changes societal perceptions by engaging On the Way Out participants as leaders and trainers in her workshops, proving their capabilities to the outside world.
Throughout her approach, Raquel targets authorities and policy-makers by challenging the prevailing model of juvenile detention in Argentina—which selects children for rehabilitation and educational activities based on their perceived potential for change. Raquel is transforming the institutions into places that promote the development of children, instead of promoting exclusion and marginalization by selecting only a chosen few. Raquel works with every youth in the institutions, helping them to seek a better life away from crime. To prove this essential point to relevant decision-makers, Raquel consistently turns pre-existing policies upside down: If the institution assumes that these young individuals are “dangerous,” and mandate no more than five children per class, Raquel will summon 15; if certain children are thought only to have physical abilities, Raquel presents them with intellectual books; if current education programs are not fully developed on the basis that the children are not capable of paying attention for more than ten minutes, Raquel and her team will lead workshops that require listening attentively and silently for at least 40 minutes, followed by another time-intensive creative writing assignment. These methods have resounding success in drawing out the potential of children. In all the institutions where she works, Raquel has achieved 100 percent participation by institutionalized juveniles in education programs. This is an important achievement in a system where widespread apathy and neglect meant children could refuse to attend school even if it was mandatory.
Raquel incorporates institutional personnel and authorities in all her daily activities. By changing their attitudes, Raquel sets the wheels rolling in creating beneficial changes in the structure of the institutions. These internal changes have brought increasingly positive recognition. Today, Raquel’s program operates in all five institutions in Buenos Aires with the support of the Argentine Secretary of Culture and the National Secretary for Childhood, Adolescence and Family.
Raquel is beginning to spread her approach to institutions for juvenile delinquents throughout the country. She is compiling a manual to facilitate the model’s spread. At the same time, she is organizing a national convention with all the stakeholders involved in the treatment of juvenile delinquents. Authorities from the Ministry of Education, the Secretary of Culture, and the National Secretary for Childhood, Adolescence and Family, will exchange experiences, knowledge, and make a statement on the situation, something that has not been done in Argentina. A second step will be to share the necessary working tools to develop this approach, while simultaneously training teams throughout the country.
Raquel has collaborated with other Ashoka Fellows to spread and improve her idea. The young people in Ashoka Fellow Fabián Ferraro’s program train Raquel’s youth as sports promoters. Raquel is also talking with Ashoka Fellow Pablo Ordónez to replicate The Power of Imagination and On the Way Out in the province of Mendoza. Internationally, Raquel took her first steps towards expansion by presenting the experiences of The Power of Imagination and On the Way Out to the Encounter for Peace in Asis, Italy, as well as in Colombia.
Raquel was born in Santa Fe and lived in City Bell (La Plata-Province of Buenos Aires) until she was four-years-old (1976), when her parents were kidnapped by the military dictatorship, becoming desaparecidos (missing). Raquel and her brother went to live with their uncle and grandmother. This event was life-changing, and established her attitude towards the state, justice, impunity, and the problems of children in extreme situations.
Since those early years, she found shelter in literature, which became one of the seeds for her model. She developed social assignments during her adolescence with her aunts and uncles who were social militants.
In 1995, the homage to the victims of State Terrorism started in Argentina. Raquel, together with a group of seven sons and daughters of disappeared people decided to create the organization Sons for Identity and Silence, Against Forgetting and Silence. After several months of work they carried out their first national meeting which was attended by 350 members. Today it is a national group and Raquel is one of the undisputed referents.
She began work at the National Center for Social Rehabilitation (Ce.Na.Re.So) the same year. As a socio-therapeutic operator, she started to imagine the development of a literature workshop and production for children in extreme situations. As a result of her own experience, Raquel realized the importance of reading and writing for a child’s development, understanding the world they live in, and the need to express themselves.
After a few years she started working at the National Council for Childhood, Adolescence and Family. She transformed the Reading and Literature Workshop into The Power of Imagination and dedicated it to children deprived of their freedom. She first worked as a volunteer and then attained official support from the National Secretary of Culture.
Her perseverance and autonomy has enabled her to understand the reality of the institutions in the City of Buenos Aires and develop her model—refusing to accept “no” for an answer.