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International Year of Youth: Somos Diferentes

October 23, 2010
August 12, 2010 marked the beginning of the International Year of Youth (IYY). IYY is sponsored by the UN, particularly as a way to put more focus toward youth development and the Millenium Development Goals having to do with youth. UN bodies whose work is relevant to youth have a representative on the UN Inter-Agency Network on Youth Development in order to support each other and better coordinate their work to reach top outcomes for youth.

The theme for this year is “Dialogue and Mutual Understanding.” This has manifested in Guatemala as “Somos Diferentes” or “We Are Different.” This year is about exploring the things that we have in common, but also the things that make us unique. Everyone has individual strengths and skills to share, and our individual differences, if embraced and capitalized on, make the collective stronger. This is especially important for youth to learn, not only as they navigate the ups and downs of adolescence and trying to find their place, but also as they grow up to contribute to a world that has become much more globalized. In order to help instill this message, Camino Seguro has held a number of events to commemorate International Year of Youth.

The Health Program has also taken advantage of the opportunity to have classes on the topic of diversity. The program has a book, Niños Como Yo (Kids Like Me), which profiles families around the world from the child’s perspective. The book is a journey through the world country by country. Niños Como Yo was used as a key tool in the introductory lesson on diversity. I had the pleasure of sitting in on one of the diversity-themed classes..

The health educator, Liz, assisted by a Guatemalan volunteer, Evelin, started by asking the students what diversity means to them. The first shouted response was, “Chinese!” She prodded for a few more responses, then gave the simple definition (because it was a younger class, made of 4th graders) that diversity means that there are people who are very different in how they look, how they dress, what they eat, their language and the types of things they like to do.

Next, Liz introduced a few selected countries to the class: Poland, Tanzania and Korea. Evelin flipped to the Poland page and held it up for the students while reading the information aloud. The page described the family and the father’s job at a health center.

Then, Liz asked the class, “Where is Tanzania?” “Europe!” was the cry heard from a couple of students. After guiding them to the correct response, she flipped the page and read to the students about a pastoral Maasai family. It was striking to me, and I noticed the student’s similar reaction, that this story talked about the family’s need to walk six kilometers to access water, and that when the rains don’t come, their crops don’t survive. I have spent time volunteering in southern Kenya, with Maasai and Kikuyu people, during a major drought in 2006 (we almost didn’t go because the water problems had been so severe), so this was not new to me. However, it is such a stark contrast from Guatemala, where crops are often damaged due to mold and other problems from too much rainfall. I witnessed this during the rainy season of 2010 in Guatemala, when a number of cash and subsistence crops were decimated across the country and produce prices skyrocketed (not to mention the loss of roads and bridges made transporting surviving crops impossible in some cases).

Finally, Evelin turned to a Korean family. “¡Chino!” was the immediate collective reaction. I saw her point in choosing this particular country, as she used this example as a way to break the common idea here that all Asian people are Chinese. She read the family’s profile. Liz asked, “are these kids equal?” One of the students responded, “They’re not equal because they’re from different countries.” Liz responded that it doesn’t matter if someone looks or acts differently. We’re all equal because we’re all humans, so, you should treat people as if they were your brother or sister. The instructors continued on to pose the question why it is important to accept people the way they are. The students came up with some pretty impressive answers: to understand what people do in their countries, to help other people learn and to learn another language and culture.

Finally, Evelin and Liz passed out an outline of a person to each student. Each outline was the same. The teachers instructed the students to color their people, with the special instructions that they should each color their person differently because somos diferentes. When the people were done, they were pasted around a picture of the globe. It was fascinating to see that the two blonde American classroom volunteers colored people with dark skin and dark hair, while a lot of little dark-haired kids made a lot of little light-haired people. In a land where Americans have been so dominant in the national history, it is understandable, then, why an American-centric view is so pervasive. However, it pains me to see that it is so ingrained that the children had a hard time representing anything other than what they consider to be American.

Although there is tremendous diversity in Guatemala, many Guatemalans have a very narrow definition of diversity. The Guatemalan national identity does not differentiate between the very diverse cultural backgrounds of its citizens. Recognition of differences often doesn’t go much past the surface level, which greatly puzzles me. There are indigenous who speak more than 20 different languages, Ladinos of mixed indigenous and Spanish ancestry and Garífuna on the east coast who are descended from African slave populations. Beyond these populations, there are ever-growing numbers of Chinese, Koreans, Americans and Dutch.

As a partial aside, I grew up in Minnesota, the land of 10,000 Swedes. There are a lot of blonde-haired, blue-eyed people where I come from (and I mean a LOT). We had a few students of color in my high school, but they were mostly adopted. I didn’t think much about diversity until I went to college, where I became very involved in diversity work. Although, of course, it had been instilled in me that the ideal of beauty was someone with very light features, I didn’t think about how far that ideal carried. It never dawned on me to think about what another paragon might be. I didn’t think about Europeans and American imperialism going so far as to implant that ideal of beauty around the world. However, the more I travel, the more I see how pervasive Western cultural ideals are. From billboards depicting almost solely white models in Bangkok, to skin-lightening creams in Nairobi to drawings of blonde people in Guatemala City, I have seen first hand that this ideal has taken root on a global scale.

Safe Passage youth are at an advantage because they have access to volunteers from all over the world so they are able to connect with people very different from them. This forces them to challenge their ideals in a way that I was never forced to. Guatemala is a country of very little racial diversity, although there is a high degree of cultural and linguistic diversity. With the way Guatemala is joining the global market so rapidly, it will be integral to our students’ future success to know how to function in a multi-cultural setting. Most Guatemalan school children don’t have that, putting our students at a competitive advantage.

Even deeper and more important than simply getting along with people from a myriad of backgrounds, I hope that our students are learning to truly value diversity. I don’t want our kids to just tolerate “otherness,” I want them to understand and know how to capitalize on the many advantages that a range of backgrounds, world views and ideas can bring to bear on moving work forward. I want them to embrace heterogeneity and draw out varying ideas and opinions because they make the collective stronger.

My whole career has been devoted to not just education, but youth development. I believe that youth should have a well-rounded education that not only prepares them academically, but also prepares them socially. Civic engagement should be a top priority. Youth who learn from a young age to accept others, to work well alongside people who are different from them and to contribute to the common good are better prepared to take part in their communities and be leaders. Somos Diferentes is just one part of a myriad of ways that youth can and should be learning this indispensable lesson.

However, I am worried about the ability of children to learn this lesson in a meaningful way without constant reinforcement. Safe Passage students have that; others are not so lucky. With what is commonly a very strong binary between “native” and “white,” I fear that for many people in developing countries, the association with the self is as poor, uneducated and lacking. On the other hand, white people are associated with money, power, prestige and opportunity. I think many individuals in developing countries, and even people of color in developed countries, try to look whiter and act whiter as a way of getting themselves closer to getting the money, power and prestige that is associated with it. If money = the West and the West = white then money = white. This is why in a rapidly globalizing world I firmly believe that diversity education and the preservation of indigenous cultures are paramount. If not, we stand at grave danger of losing them entirely.

This week, I saw peace that, indeed, somos diferentes.