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Into the Light

Santa Fean Kurt Shaw helps Latin America’s most overlooked children step out of the shadows

September 29, 2010, 1:00 am

Shaw’s not the first gringo you’d expect to find chatting with homeless kids in the slums of Latin America: His sandy blond hair and square jaw land him somewhere in the Robert Redford neighborhood of the human genome map. He fell in love with philosophy at little Williams College in Massachusetts, won a Fulbright scholarship to Latin America to study liberation theology and, in 1996, seemed on track to a comfortable professorship when he got accepted to the prestigious master’s program in classical languages at Harvard University—until he dropped out.

“Hated it,” he says. “I found Harvard to be the most anti-intellectual, most uncurious place I’d ever been.”

He caught wind of an innovative, philosophy-based Child and Youth Development Program for homeless kids here in Santa Fe, and lit out for the West. Crouched on Allsup’s parking blocks with high school drop-outs, Shaw found what had been missing in Cambridge: people who actually needed philosophy.

“When you’re 16 and you’re living on the street,” he says, “you want to know why you should live—why you shouldn’t kill yourself that night.”

Around that time, UNICEF was reporting that there were 40 million street kids in Latin America, news that shocked much of the First World, including some of Shaw’s friends from back East. They decided they wanted to do something—anything—to help out, and figured they’d found their man. Fluent in Portuguese and Spanish, seasoned from his Fulbright travels and experienced working with homeless youth, if anyone could save Latin America’s children, it was Kurt Shaw.

Not quite. In some cases, Shaw told them, good old American know-how, well, might not.

“I figured that the people who really know what’s going on with marginalized children in Latin America were not people at Harvard or UNICEF’s main office,” he says. “It’s the people who were working on the ground. The street educators—even the street kids themselves.”

So Shaw strapped on a backpack and spent the next four years hopping hostels through 49 cities in virtually every nation south of Las Cruces. Sitting on street corners and wandering through markets, he sought out the children most tourists try to avoid, and asked them to share their stories. Quickly, he realized that child poverty in Latin America was not quite what the statistics had made it out to be.

“The UNICEF estimate about 40 million street kids was a complete lie,” he explains. “There were loads of kids working the streets, yes, but the vast majority had a place to go home.”

Equally misleading were UNICEF reports that 17 million Latin American children were being exploited as laborers. Children were working, and too often in dangerous and exploitative conditions, “but a lot of that work,” Shaw points out, “like a rural child helping out with crops, was not only safe, but culturally appropriate.”

Here, students film Alto do Céu in Recife, Brazil.
Credits: Rita de Cácia Oenning da Silva

It’s not that Shaw was trying to put a rosy face on what he was seeing. Miserable, stomach-gnawing poverty was certainly a truth in Latin America—it just wasn’t the whole truth. Country after country, Shaw discovered tightly-knit families, powerful cultural traditions, startling artistry and civic innovations that ranged from Athens-style democracy in Medellin, Colombia, to avant-garde urban eco-planning in Curitiba, Brazil. Latin America was not simply the bled-out victim of yanqui imperialism; it was also a region whose vibrancy and imagination rivaled, and often surpassed, that of its well-paved neighbors to the north.

And when he listened closely to the street kids, he realized they were living a similar paradox: intellectual wealth in the midst of economic poverty. 

“When the kids wanted money or sympathy, they would portray themselves as helpless victims,” Shaw says. “They’d describe how they had to run away from abusive families, or homes where there were too many mouths to feed. But when I made it clear I wanted to learn from them, all of the sudden it wasn’t ‘I ran away from home,’ but ‘I ran toward the street.’”

These “poor” street kids, Shaw realized, were problem-solvers; resourceful, analytic young men and women who had recognized the hopelessness of their home lives, and had the initiative to strike out on their own, in search of solutions.

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