About 3 of 5 Salvadoran youth plan to leave their homeland by 15 years of age.
And 1 in 10 are swept up into gang activity.
These were the statistics with which we were presented when asked if we could join Alight (formerly the American Refugee Committee) on a trip to El Salvador to help discover opportunities for giving youth a different option.
El Salvador was listed as the most dangerous country in the world by a 2018 World Economic Forum report. Salvadoran communities are growing increasingly isolated while the country around them becomes more and more dangerous as gangs gain ground. Amid all of this, a handful of Sisters run youth centers that provide safe places to simply be a kid. The Sisters’ work is respected by gang members because many of them actually grew up in the centers themselves. Alight, an international nonprofit that has provided humanitarian assistance and training to millions of beneficiaries over the last 40 years, wanted to study this influential Sister-led work in violence-wracked Salvadoran communities and find ways to amplify the Sisters’ work.
Cataloguing Joy in Appopo
Drawn joined Alight and their initiative, The Color Movement, on a trip to El Salvador to run design thinking workshops at two youth centers in the communities of Appopo and La Chacra. The first workshop included a breakdancing show by several young Salvadorans, as well as a presentation of polaroids that several of the young people had snapped the week before. We broke into small teams, listened to each young man and woman talk about their polaroids of what mattered most to them. These images offered a glimpse into their favorite moments: rapping with a friend by a secret tree, a single mother making her children dinner, a Japanese Anime drawing on the back of a paper bag.
Empathy as a Problem Solving Tool
At the front of any design thinking process is the need to establish empathy. We couldn’t very well ideate ways to help the Sisters amplify their work if we didn’t understand their world and the world of these young people. By providing them a Polaroid camera and asking to hear about these images of the things that mattered most to them, we were able to better understand their struggles, their dreams, their moments of freedom, the ways they were similar to our everyday, and the ways in which they have to fight different battles than we’ve ever encountered.
Charting Values in La Chacra
The second stop in La Chacra included spending time with youth, some of their parents, and local women who receive support at the center. We spent a few hours crafting images of their favorite parts about their communities using butcher paper, markers, old magazines, scissors, and glue. We talked with various groups to find out what they most valued about their neighborhoods, their families, their country. We saw — in full artistic display — images of supportive families, clean streets, and flowers growing in every spare patch of dirt.
What we found most surprising about these exercises was the openness with which these Salvadorans shared their dreams and wishes with us. We didn’t share many of the same challenges, and we didn’t even share a language, in most cases, but we all could draw (well or poorly), cut out photos, and weave together a visual narrative of what matters most. And that was incredibly informative when it came to understanding how we could help the Sisters.
176 Ways to Prevail Over Gang Violence
On the heels of these two engagements, we took these stories and conversations into the facilitation of a half-day, design thinking workshop with members of Alight, with Americans who had come with a sympathy for the plight of the people we had just met, the Sisters from both centers we visited, and a handful of other Salvadorans who were committed to helping us translate the language and the culture that we had spent such a limited time learning.
Drawn led this design thinking facilitation, breaking into tables with translators and Sisters to ideate ways to unleash abundance in El Salvador. No idea was too impossible, too undefined, too odd to be shared on a sticky note. We ended up generating 176 ideas in four hours together, including everything from organizing a simple reading group at these centers (to attract more youth) to acquiring computers for educational purposes, to teaching English, to sponsoring filmmaking at the centers and hosting a film festival, to orchestrating a network of mentorships and internships. We shared all 176 together and even voted on our favorite, all with a hope to demonstrate the possibilities that existed. To consider what could be implemented with little or no work, and then plan to ideate how to fund and support as many others as possible.
What we learned from this fast 48 hours included a) the confirmation that those with the smallest amount of resources often have the biggest hearts, b) that it doesn’t always require gobs of money to improve circumstances, c) that design thinking ideation is much harder with a translator, and d) that people who speak every language and live in every situation are full of creative ideas. We consider ourselves blessed to have been part of this effort and look forward to hearing about these ideas unleashing abundance in El Salvador in the days ahead.