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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

Proudly, the children led him to organizations at which inspired educators were showing them how to capitalize on these strengths so they might find their place in mainstream society. They led him to Melel Xojobal, in the heart of Mexico’s Zapatista country, a program that invites young Mayan handicraft vendors to teach their indigenous languages to staff, a power reversal that creates trust to begin moving the kids from the street to the schools. They led him to Ruas e Praas, in northeastern Brazil, where former street kids—now university graduates—daily transform Recife’s park benches and sidewalks into a “school” of didactic board games, giving homeless children the opportunity to show off their intelligence while developing discipline, reasoning and trust. And, in one of the poorest barrios of Guayaquil, Ecuador: Mi Cometa (My Kite), a group that had taken off when a kite-flying contest for neighborhood kids evolved into youth-run political campaigns, volunteer drives, rock and roll bands, and more. 

Shaw found innovative programs such as these everywhere he stopped during his four-year tour—some 300 in all. He returned to Santa Fe and reported to his Harvard friends that, despite poor resources and minimal government support, Latin America already had its own, homegrown arsenal of effective, often brilliant, programs serving its marginalized children. These groups did not need some gringo superhero to show them what to do. 

What they could use, Shaw said, was connection. 

“Some organizations in particular were really good at solving problems other groups were having,” he says. “Melel Xojobal in Mexico, for instance, was the only group that had figured out how to reach the loads of indigenous kids pouring into the cities across Latin America.”

But for a street educator in Sao Paulo to fly up to Melel Xojobal for a visit, or even take a few precious hours to chat by phone, was unrealistic. The organizations needed an easy way to get in touch and share the work they were doing.

And so Shine a Light was born. With a few modest donations and the help of his wife, Rita de Cácia Oenning da Silva, and an occasional intern, Shaw set about creating a trilingual canon of videos, essays, books and CD-ROM curricula through which street educators, university professors, social workers and government officials could learn how to best meet the physical and psychological needs of kids on the edge. Over a few frenetic years, they documented the work of nearly all of the 300 organizations Shaw had visited, forming what he believes is the world’s largest collaborative network of programs serving children on the margins. 

As all of the resources are designed to be easily accessed through Shine a Light’s trilingual website, it’s impossible to accurately measure the network’s impact. Still, Shaw has firsthand reports from dozens of nongovernmental organizations that have used Shine a Light’s CD-ROM curricula—called “digital workshops”—to the benefit of some 15,000 children. More recently, government agencies—including the city of Mendoza, Argentina, and the National Children’s Ministry in Paraguay—have turned to Shine a Light to help them develop programs and policies that may transform the lives of millions. 

“What distinguishes Shine a Light,” Michael Fiegelson, a Shine a Light board member and program director for the Bernard van Leer Foundation in The Hague, Netherlands, says, “is the way it engages small, local organizations that most northern NGOs are just not set up to fund or work with directly—if they can even find them in the first place. Kurt Shaw works with community leaders who’ve stayed very close to the people they represent.”

Rita de Cácia Oenning da Silva and Kurt Shaw teach camera work on the San Juan Sáliva Indian Reservation.
Credits: Consuelo Joropa Humeje

Shine a Light’s popularity grew rapidly, and Shaw and da Silva found themselves scrambling to keep up. The programs were inspiring and valuable, but also difficult to document. How does one portray the subtle transformation of a child’s self-image as she learns to hold a guitar? What’s the best way to capture the story of a street kid who, playing park bench chess, begins to understand that life also holds innumerable options? Shaw and da Silva found themselves racking their brains for innovative ways to describe these stories of change—until it dawned on Shaw that the most powerful storytellers were standing right in front of him, and had been the whole time.

“There are occasions,” Shaw says, “when you walk in the door of an NGO, meet the people and just say, ‘wow.’”

So it was on a chilly, socked-in April morning in 2002, when Shaw walked into Taller de Vida (the Workshop of Life), the Bogotá organization that today is helping Daniel and the other ex-child soldiers recapture what’s left of their adolescence. Shaw was struck by what he saw: 25 refugee children working on a rap song, incorporating rhythms from the coastal region they’d been recently forced to abandon.

“You could just see the energy of the kids,” he recalls. “They were so excited to be showing that they had something to offer, something they were good at.”

Upstairs, he met with Stella and Haidy Duque Cuesta, the directors of Taller de Vida, and began to understand why the kids were so excited. The Duque sisters described to Shaw how their own father, a prominent politician, was killed when they were teenagers. Their family fled to Bogotá, where the sisters finished university degrees in psychology and, in 1993, founded Taller de Vida, dedicated to helping people who had been similarly uprooted by Colombia’s roaming violence.

As dezplazadas, or “displaced persons” themselves, the Duques explained to Shaw that they refused to view the people they worked with as helpless victims. Instead, they focused on the resources and knowledge base that these children and their families did have. The programs they offered—from children theater groups to a handmade greeting card company—drew on the refugees’ strengths, enabling them to get situated in their new urban world.

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