Into the Light

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

In a sprawling neighborhood in the south of Bogotá, among the unfinished brick homes of tens of thousands of Colombia's poorest, 15 teenagers lounge on the floor of a brightly painted room. Electronic music chugs from a laptop in the corner while they work quietly, sketching flowers and trees on oversized paper.

After some time, a therapist asks them to share what they have drawn. There is the usual teenage delay, and then Daniel, oval face shadowed by a baseball cap, holds up his sketch.

"I drew a rose," he explains in rapid Spanish. "It's dry—you can see that. But even when roses are not flowering, even when they look dead, the plant is alive."

He pauses.

"That's what my fear is like," he says. "It's always there, even when I don't show it. It can return at any minute."

The others nod. For these kids, as for millions of teenagers in Latin America, the awkward wonder years of adolescence are not about first kisses and chemistry exams—they're about survival.

The young men and women in this room are extreme examples: As former child soldiers, they have already experienced types of violence that cripple the most callous of adults. But no less troublesome are the plights of the chicle-hawking street kids in Mexico City, the impoverished Aymara youth wandering down from the shantytowns of La Paz or any of Latin America's children in poverty, a population that UNICEF estimates is approximately 50 million—enough to out-populate the entire nation of Spain.

Noelia Benitez was one of the first students of the film school for street and indigenous kids that Shine a Light created in collaboration with the Paraguayan government.
Credits: Rita de Cácia Oenning da Silva

The importance of reaching out to these children is obvious, more so in countries where urban gangs and armed militias are actively recruiting. A child who turns to the street, or accepts a gun, enters a world at once miserable and enticing, a world of real abuse and illusory power, of fleeting access to drugs, sex and snatches of money. With each passing day, re-entering the "regular" world of school and family becomes less and less of an option. Government shelters feel too constraining; foster care too shameful. Taking the kid off the street is one thing, but taking the street—or the war—out of the kid is quite another.

Enter Kurt Shaw. His international nonprofit organization, Shine a Light, has worked to help millions of children make the psychological shift to get off the margin, step into the mainstream and stay. Borrowing ideas from the best programs in Latin America, he's developed a model so successful that dozens of organizations, not to mention the entire country of Paraguay, are using it to reach children from Argentina to Mexico, to right here in Santa Fe—where his groundbreaking work first began.

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.

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 Pra%uFFFDas, 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.

Shaw would find few organizations that embodied a strengths-based approach as well as Taller de Vida, so when the Duques invited him back in 2005 to create a documentary about the experiences of three displaced children, he jumped at the chance.

"I had no idea how to make movies, so I just set up the camera on the table and was letting it run while I interviewed one of the girls," he recalls. "Then this other kid, who was looking in, asks, 'Do you mind if I film?'"

Shaw said sure. The kid picked up the camera, filmed the entire interview and asked if he could do more. Following his instincts, Shaw stepped back, showed the kids a few tips on filming and editing, and let them finish the documentary on their own.

When the resulting film, School Out of Place, began to be distributed—including to every public school in Bogotá—Shaw noticed a significant shift in the teenagers who had made it. Not only did they express more confidence about who they were and where they came from, but they also took great pride that they had created a documentary that would be viewed by thousands and help urban teachers appreciate the talents and knowledge of the rural children streaming into their classrooms.

"From that point on," Shaw says, "it became clear that the point was not that Shine a Light or I would make movies, but we would teach kids how to make movies. We would help them present their perspective of what their experience was."

Shaw took his new approach to La Luciérnaga, a street newspaper NGO in Córdoba, Argentina, where three street-kids-turned-journalists transformed their success stories into documentaries, including Alejandro Ledezma's powerful 13 minute El Túnel, selected to close the 2006 Argentine National Film Festival.

He took it to the isolated plains of the Colombian-Brazilian border, where he and da Silva helped 45 indigenous Sáliva children create a series of films (now part of the high school curriculum) that captured the tribe's history and traditions, from interviews with elders to tutorials on manioc cultivation.

Rita de Cácia Oenning da Silva teaches kindergarten students how to use the camera in a favela of Rio de Janeiro.
Credits: Kurt Shaw

And they took their approach to Recife, Brazil, where children from a group called Pé no Chao (Feet on the Ground) documented local musical traditions on film. The project evolved and, soon, the kids had created their own hip-hop album, which won the prestigious Freedom to Create prize in 2008. The CD release party, held in front of 5,000 people on an open-air stage in the city center, was, for Shaw, "one of the proudest moments" of his life.

"You've got these kids who spent most of their time performing at stoplights," he explains, "trying to pick up some spare change for their families, and suddenly they're showing their stuff on one of the most prestigious stages in the city, surrounded by classical government buildings and historical churches. Astounding."

To date, Shaw and da Silva have helped youth create nearly a dozen "by kids" films, albums and comic books since the 2005 School Out of Place project. In every case, they've found the young people eager to take up the cameras and mics, and share their experiences with the world. After years of being snubbed at stoplights and shooed out of shops, the kids embrace the opportunity to tell their stories every time—that is, almost every time.

Some stories, as Shaw and da Silva discovered, are simply too painful to tell.

In September, 2007, as the Bogotá sun began to drop, Shaw and da Silva sat on pillows facing 15 of the most taciturn, shut-down teenagers they had ever met. They were back at Taller de Vida, invited by the Duques to make another film—this time, with a group of ex-child soldiers working through a multi-year reintegration process. Since morning, Shaw and da Silva had been trying to chat with the kids, asking them to share just a few of their experiences that they might like to film. The kids were having none of it.

"Finally," Shaw recalls, "at the end of that extremely frustrating day, a young man named Edwin says, 'Do you have any idea how hard I had to work to get out of the war? I had to walk two weeks, with no food, nothing on the feet, carrying my gun. I've worked that hard to get out of the war, and every person I've met since then has tried to drag me back in.'"

It was one of the most enlightening moments of Shaw's life. Stories, for him, had always been about liberation, but Edwin viewed his own story as a dead end, a foreclosure on his future. Since demobilizing, he'd been forced to produce his story for an endless array of army officials, judges, psychologists and social workers. He wasn't about to tell it again.

So Shaw and da Silva changed tactics. The next morning, they began with a game of soccer. Later they played Mad Libs, and then days of theater games, until the young men and women began to remember that storytelling can be about play, about opening the imagination. Soon, Shaw and da Silva had the kids "playing" with their own experiences, molding them into a 67-minute fictional film called Life's Roulette.

The film is chillingly realistic. It follows the lives of five teenagers who turn to the streets to escape poverty or abusive parents. Two of the characters—formerly best friends—get involved in a turf war and end up pulling guns on each other as the camera cuts away. But the other three fare better. They stumble across some Brazilian filmmakers (played convincingly by Shaw and da Silva) who lend the teens a camera and ask them to document their own neighborhood and return with the footage. The film ends with the three new filmmakers strolling around the neighborhood park, armed with a camera and a mission, and—it would seem—a promising future.

In Santa Fe, Oscar Pacheco Loya is filmed by Sheyenne Lovato for Entering Another World.
Credits: Rita de Cácia Oenning da Silva

Though the making of Life's Roulette was only a part of the teenagers' complex recovery, Shaw points out that, three years later, all 15 members of the crew are still close, a sign that they have overcome one of the key challenges for child soldiers and relearned how to build relationships. And, according to the kids themselves, creating the film helped them understand that if they played with their pasts, they could envision more hopeful futures.

As Edwin explained to a Bogotá audience in 2009, "We wanted to show that even if [the characters in the film] have done terrible things in their past, people can change…I think that's true of the film, and that's true of our lives."

Last year, Shaw and da Silva came back to Santa Fe, where they worked with a small group of Mexican immigrant children in the Hopewell area, in collaboration with the former Triangle District Resource Center. Together, they helped these newly arrived Santa Feans script and film Entering Another World, in which a boy slides down an Alice in Wonderland tunnel (a culvert, actually, in the arroyo just behind Second Street Brewery), and finds himself struggling to identify friend and foe in an unfamiliar—and often unfriendly—English-speaking fantasy world. Shaw hopes to have more Santa Fe projects in the future.

Meanwhile, at Taller de Vida, as at hundreds of organizations across Latin America, the work continues. Daniel and the other ex-child soldiers put away their sketches and, at the invitation of Stella Duque, who has joined this morning's session in progress, they move to a room downstairs. Here, professionally matted photographs have been hung carefully on the walls. The exhibit, recently returned from an international conference in New York, is the result of a two-month workshop with Bogotá artist Pedro Gacharná and four of the ex-child soldiers, including Daniel, who steps into the room and stands before one of the photos he made.

A pair of spindly flower stalks are portrayed in black and white, backed by a blurry mountain range. The image echoes his sketch from upstairs, as one of the stalks blooms with white flowers, while the other is dry.
A friend wanders over to take a look.

"It's like I was describing upstairs," Daniel tells him. "This is how I feel, how sometimes the fear is blooming, and then it's gone for a while."

He looks again at his photo. His eyes move from the dry stalk to the one blooming with fear, and then back to the dry stalk. And, for a long moment, that’s where they stay.  SFR

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