Roberto Domínguez Luna / Priscila Melo / Antonio Salgado

Convicts are a special group among marginalized people. Frequently poverty and social alienation are the root causes that brought them into conflict with the law. Social exclusion hits them all the harder. Jarhuajperakua – a P’urépecha word that can roughly be translated to mean “mutual aid” – is the name of a local NGO which works in Morelia in the Mexican State of Michoacán. They have transfered their experience in literacy work to work with detainees in a youth prison. In a programme called “Literacy and the development of life skills” they focus on the development of personal skills and social values, thus rebuilding the self-esteem of the young culprits and preparing them to re-integrate themselves with confidence in their environment and overcome their social exclusion.

Literacy and Development of Life Skills

Care program for young offenders

The experience we describe was realised in the Integration Centre for Adolescent Offenders (ICA) in the city of Morelia, Michoacán, Mexico. Since 2006, work has been done in this centre with the population of young inmates in support of work on literacy and the development of life skills. This is where literacy becomes meaningful to the extent that it strengthens skills and abilities which serve and confront basic needs and the context in which the individuals participating in the program are developing. We would like to note, from the beginning, that the literacy processes were oriented on the methodological principles of Paulo Freire and Frank C. Laubach.

To understand the time which has been put into this work, in this document we would like to share with you the work of the Jarhuajperakua Civil Association.1

It was legally established in 1987 from the will of a diverse group of community outreach workers, professionals, researchers, technicians, housewives and students who established the commitment to work with the poorest and most excluded sectors of the state of Michoacán de Ocampo, Mexico. Since its formation, the association has been established as an educational non-profit organisation. In almost 25 years of educational work the association has sought to carry it out in a comprehensive manner, so that it has accompanied the process of literacy with activities of economic solidarity, health, recreation, culture, development of life skills, environmental education and, in the same direction, has worked against all forms of violence and in defence of human rights.

Origin of the Learning Activity

The literacy program began operating in 1990 in the community of Santa Ana Chapitiro and in 1993 was extended to the communities of Ajuno, Charahuen, San Francisco Uricho and Santa Fe de la Laguna de la Ribera de Pátzcuaro and to two marginal urban settlements in the city of Morelia.2 In 1994, two groups were formed in the Municipality of Alvaro Obregon and in 1995 the project expanded to other urban neighbourhoods; and in the coastal town of Santa Fé de la Laguna, a literacy program was conducted for over 5 years in P’urépecha.

Literacy is an action that permeates our work, incorporating it into other more inclusive activities; for example, after the land struggle of the people in the community of Charahuen, a process of legal support began which led to the literacy of most of the adults participating in the movement, taking this situation as an educational reference. In San Fancisco Uricho, however, the literacy started through learning basic accounting, because a group of women started a project for marketing chickens for domestic consumption, and this ended with the learning of reading and writing.

In 1998, an agreement was made with the Trade Union of Employees of the Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolas de Hidalgo with a group of university employees for literacy help and help in finishing primary and secondary education.

In mid 2002 the association began a literacy program called Literacy and infant care centres for the promotion of quality of life for women in poor urban settlements of Morelia, with the support of the Laubach Literacy Foundation for Latin America and the Caribbean (FAL), among others. In this program, in addition to the literacy content, the participant group reinforced their learning about human rights, self-perception and self esteem. Parallel to these activities, several adolescents were trained in methodological aspects, environment, human rights, recreational activities, puppet theatre and sports activities, so that attention was given to the infant care centres in each locality to ensure tranquility for the mothers who attended the workshops accompanied by their sons and daughters.

As a result of this experience the primer ¡Aprendamos, aprendamos! (Santamaría and Salgado, 2003) was developed. Since then, numerous literacy groups have started and are using it as a working basis, since it is considered a guide that fits the context, needs and interests of groups that are working. Similarly, this document was used as the basis for the activities in the experience to which we refer in this article.

The first encounter with the youth of the ICA came in late 2006 in the framework of the prevention of addiction program among people from different educational centres in Morelia. At that time, our main objective was to recover the stories and experiences of those young people admitted to the ICA with some kind of addiction, which would allow other adolescents to reflect on the causes and consequences of drug use. From the beginning of this work we realised that there was a need felt among young people, not always clearly expressed, to be heard in an atmosphere of dialogue and respect. At the same time we discovered that many of them had dropped out of primary or secondary education and in some cases young people were reading and writing with difficulty. It is in this context that in 2010 the implementation of the Literacy and development of life skills program was proposed to the ICA authorities for young people who receive care at any of the facilities.

Characteristics of the Environment

As noted already, our activities were conducted in various communities throughout the state of Michoacán de Ocampo, each group had specific characteristics, needs and concerns that require a different approach, particularly if we are to understand them. However, it is inevitable to refer to the general situation that exists in our country, because this affects, directly or indirectly, our work spaces.

The country’s situation is in itself complex, because of its geographic, environmental and cultural heterogeneity. Basically, one must take into account the fact that the people feel politics is disassociated from their needs and the freedoms they seek; the unjust, illogical and contradictory distribution and management of public funds (read: bureaucratic salaries and budgets of political parties in contrast to the social budget) resulting in serious deficiencies in particular in education and health. The lack of legitimacy of those who occupy elected office is largely the fault of a political system that favours media presence, posing and the spotlight on an individual, the candidate, over a project to articulate thoughts, voices and collective actions, has prevented the implementation of consistent and effective social policies and has allowed a reversion to a situation of poverty and marginalization that affects a large portion of the population. This feeds a vicious circle of corruption, unemployment, insecurity, illicit activities, migration, repeatedly affecting the social fabric at its most basic level, the households and communities.

In our area, Michoacán, we have identified at least six regions with profound differences and contradictions. Since 2002, there has been a shift in political power structures; this presupposes a shift in public policy, however the changes have been primarily in appearance in the upper echelons of government, but they have failed to permeate the mid-level and those acting in the localities or with focus groups, much less to be articulated with social demands.

In this context, the prospects of young people in the state are reduced in terms of educational and employment opportunities, promoting the vicious circle of school dropout, migration or insertion into informal trade, or into a situation that has escalated exponentially in recent years: being co-opted by criminal groups.

These multiple realities give an overview of the environment, but particularly of the vulnerable situation in which many young people are and where the implementation of a program of educational support and development of life skills becomes more important.

Pedagogical Concepts

In an environment like the one described, it is necessary to recognise that education cannot be limited to the transmission of basic skills such as reading, writing, development of logical-mathematical skills, verbal reasoning, etc., obviating the everyday environment in which young people live and relate. Now more than ever it is urgently necessary to incorporate activities that develop skills that enable people to analyse and critically confront their reality, to facilitate decision-making, problem solving and responsible behaviour. Therefore, we cannot start from traditional models of education, because with them the role of the learner is limited to a mere receiver of information that is provided by the teacher, without an analysis of the information the learner is receiving and, accordingly, without the learner being able to internalise it.

Therefore, our educational work is dedicated to supporting the transformation and strengthening of the learners. That is why our work aims to create the spirit of mutual-help and participation. We seek to contribute to what is fundamental to the interests and needs of the participants in the educational activities, which constitute the basis for the appropriation of knowledge to meet the needs identified as priorities by the community.

Consistent with this, Basic Needs is a concept that is considered relevant and is understood as aspects that determine fundamental human rights: the right to life, land, housing, health, education for life, a healthy environment, recreation, culture, work, respect for personal integrity and family; hence the diversity of our programs because they commence from these basic needs. Therefore we aim to contribute to the generation of an education with content arising from the interests and needs of the communities and neighbourhoods where we work, with educational materials developed by indigenous educators committed to their continuity, with methods and strategies for action – reflection – action, and with the dynamic solidarity of all potential resources.

We recognise that in every human action there are subjective elements that permeate it. Depending on the extent to which these assumptions are made explicit

– viewpoints, beliefs, value judgments, approaches (product of the experiences, studies and knowledge, etc.) – one can achieve greater objectivity and honesty in dialogue with other educators. It is legitimate to have this subjectivity guide the work practiced. Neutrality does not exist; making our ideology explicit can explain the why of the actions and allows the commitment of those involved in it.

From this perspective it offers some guiding principles of the educational project in which:

     

  1. Education is a holistic process, generated in popular projects like an element that permeates all community activity;
  2. The educational process seeks to strengthen the subject of the education;
  3. It is a field work model that seeks to recover human potential;
  4. It uses the productive areas and projects to develop educational ways of doing things;
  5. The self-management forms are the heritage of education;
  6. The support of communities exercising their role as protagonist is the basis for the practice of our work; and
  7. Organisation is the basis of all learning.
  8.  

This foundation and our work is linked with the methodological proposal designed by Julio Salgado and Anna Santamaría Galván, starting with the realms of reflection and study among the public sectors and the training of community leaders. This proposal contains three elements present in the work of popular educators: participatory techniques, the rationale for participatory methodology and learning units (Salgado, 2007).

Community or Group Selection

The Literacy and development of life skills program was held within the Integration Centre for Adolescents (ICA) in the city of Morelia in Michoacán. The centre belongs to the Ministry of Public Security of the State under the Directorate of Integration for Adolescents, and is responsible for attending to the admission, monitoring, integration and training of young offenders to comply with the measures imposed by a judge, through specialised programs that allow their effective reintegration to the family and society. The young people receiving care are distinguished by the type of regime (closed, semi-open or therapeutic) under which they comply with the provisions of the judge and which is defined by the type and severity of the offence committed.

In July 2010 the program started with a group of 16 adolescents in the closed and semi-open regimes administered by the ICA of Morelia, and whose crimes were considered more aggravated. During the first approach of the promoters with the group, they discovered that most of them had left school early, some of them read and wrote with great difficulty, while others definitely could not do so. However, it is significant that from the first session participants recognised the importance of their returning to learning, not only as a way to increase their options for getting a better job, but also as a way to learn to express their ideas, feelings and have other elements to defend themselves during their lives.

In parallel, from the first work session, was the revelation of the complex mix of risk factors to which these young people had been exposed throughout life, like violent family dynamics, the availability and abuse of substances in and out of the home, depression, stress, poor or conflictive personal relationships, etc. Without doubt these background factors permeated the initial environment of their activities, as one of the promoters said, “I immediately felt a heavy, dark atmosphere in the air, in which one could almost breathe the sadness and anger of the adolescents who found themselves interned in that place.”

Learning Content

As mentioned, the literacy activities are accompanied by issues of interest to the participants. On a par with the contents of acquiring literacy skills and mathematical reasoning, the following topics were covered:

     

  • The rights of people
  • Values
  • Self-esteem and empowerment
  • Assertive communication
  • Problem-solving and decision-making
  • Managing emotions
  • Personal environment
  • Health, nutrition and environment
  • Job training
  • Life history
  •  

Method Used

In general we note that the proposal is based on the application of learning units (Salgado, 2007) that seek to address a central goal of a topic. Each unit is designed to achieve specific objectives which are consistent with the overall objective, through the implementation of appropriate participatory techniques. The purpose is to create horizontal learning spaces that encourage participation, creativity, implementation of learning and, therefore, a change in attitudes and values which start from a concrete reality. In accordance with this, we propose the following learning units:

     

  1. First unit: Acclimatisation. The aim of this unit is to foster the integration of the group and create a suitable communication environment that allows dialogue between the participants in the activity.
  2. Second unit: Sharing. With this unit the intention is that each of the participants share their knowledge, experiences, points of view, questions, etc., establishing a dialogue that encourages self-esteem, the reconsideration of values and of respect for different points of view.
  3. Third unit: Provision. In this unit the technical, scientific, philosophical, etc., elements on the subject they are working on are proposed. This implies a reduction to the minimum of “lectures” and instead the focus is on reflection and analysis by the participants on the issues proposed for consideration.
  4. Fourth unit: Application. The goal is for participants to put into practice what they learned in the previous unit, to check the validity or relevance of the contributions of the activities developed so that they can pose creative responses to specific situations.
  5. Fifth unit: Systemising and evaluating. In this unit the aim is to highlight the main ideas of the subject matter in question and that the participants verify what each of them think about the topic. The evaluation proposed is for the participants to show the level of assimilation of the subject through the exchange of points of view, experiences, values, etc.
  6.  

Each unit is carried out with participatory techniques appropriate to the topic and the group that is working on it and this is an absolute requirement of this methodology.

Particularly in the area of literacy, each of the 20 lessons began with an image upon which reflection can be touched off by a variety of questions that appear below the image: “What do you see?” “What is the meaning of the action in the image?” “What emotions can be observed?” – and others. Once the reflection is out in the open, syllabic decomposition follows, and then the formation of words and phrases associated with the topic and image. At the end a brief text is presented, also linked to reflection.

A second point consisted of the creation of a series of simple exercises with problems for learning basic accounts: addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. This point started from the method of solving problems by considering the life experience of participants.

Technical, Social and Personal Skills Acquired

We believe that the positive reinforcement of skills and abilities in the participants is a factor for change which will enable them to effectively resist the pressures associated with crime; in the same way, starting with their critical judgment, they will be able to recognise risky situations and thus may protect themselves from being manipulated by outside influences, seeking adequate support to solve their problems in a favourable way.

At all times, the work developed around the recognition and management of their emotions and behaviour, in the making of decisions with information about the cause in order to recognise and assume patterns of behaviour, habits and values. Today, participants in the ICA program have the tools to make decisions, solve problems, think creatively and critically, communicate clearly, establish and maintain good interpersonal relationships, identify and control emotions, manage tension and stress, while at the same time universal values that build a positive personality and life projects are reinforced.

The need to develop these skills was justified by the interaction between emotions, thinking, self-esteem, decision-making, human behaviour and values such as respect, honesty and responsibility. Emotions are parallel to actions; that is to say there is a process in which the emotion has a direct effect on critical thinking prior to behaviour. Given this, when an action is positive, the result is preceded by a thought with the same emotion. At the moment the participants recognise the emotion, a step is taken towards the development of managing their emotions, having the ability to apply critical thinking to strengthen their self-esteem, something that will be useful for making assertive decisions, like how to avoid crime, violence and drug use.

Promoting the recognition and management of emotions is designed to make them aware of their importance by its direct impact on the acquisition of values; the sensitivity to identify, recognise and implement them depends on the personal meaning attributed to them; in this way it is formed like conscience itself.

Learned values were reaffirmed through considering them, internalising them and giving them the importance they actually have in different contexts of personal life; this was achieved once the participants came to know themselves, identifying and regulating their emotions, which in turn allowed them to form empathic relationships in which they could recognise and understand the peculiarities of the other.

Self-esteem is another value that is promoted in the activities, since its adequate reinforcement allows for confidence in personal skills and provides the necessary tools for decision-making. Self-esteem also promotes the development of critical thinking in difficult moments in any stage of life, and thereby prevents possible recidivism.

The development of social skills for life, commencing with values, is essential at this stage of adolescence, because they must make decisions, establish relations of friendship and dating, choose a job or career and, also at this stage, young people prepare themselves to set up their life plan. Education in values means finding opportunities for reflection both individually and collectively so that the participants are able to rationally and autonomously develop principles that enable them to confront reality critically and develop all human potential, that is, not just logicalmathematical knowledge but also skills, abilities, feelings and values.

In order to talk about values, it is useful to know that a value refers to a balance. The practice of values develops the best of the human essence in the person, while an anti-value strips it of those qualities. From a socio-educational point of view, values are considered as referential, patterns that guide human behaviour towards social transformation and personal fulfilment.

Another aspect that was developed was that of promoting the development of social skills, seeking to foster values of coexistence, with the aim of participating in a genuine process of development and personal construction. Encouraging education in skills and values is to train people who can make decisions and take responsibility to encourage their overall development and that in turn are inserted in the process of building a society where respect and solidarity guide human relations.

The promotion of values offers the possibility of constructing subjects with a greater social conscience, which will provide them with skills to cope with problems which are both individual and social. Values facilitate learning which is useful for participation in society and the development of personal autonomy.

In the activities developed, education in values is about learning to be and learning to live together, not as an independent discipline of content or skills, but as an integral part of each person. The activities provided the tools for participants to develop the universal structures of judgment and reasoning guided by the ideas of justice and responsibility in order to learn to communicate effectively, encouraging their participation in the realm of learning, the family and society, with the aim of being able to respect the opinion and point of view of others and able to achieve fair agreements in the face of different situations or problems that arise in adolescence and throughout life.

Likewise it was sought to count on elements of building a positive self-image, promoting skills, to acquire the skills needed for critical and creative dialogue based on reality, recognising, assimilating and respecting the different positions and rights of others.

In life skills there was encouragement to consider values as standards of conduct under which members of a society behave, consistent with what is seen as correct and that guide being and feeling.

In the last session there was much emotion. Participants were asked to write things about themselves which they wanted to throw away and these were placed in a casket to be buried later. They were also asked to write the new things they learned and the positive aspects that would be useful to have on their new journey and that they would always carry with them. In reviewing what they left in the casket, we were able to reaffirm that they knew what they do not want for themselves: situations and memories that are too heavy to carry with them. During the farewell it was surprising to observe the transformation of the participants; now everyone spoke and participated; it was the opposite of the picture that was seen in the first session; there were smiles and a good mood during all the activities. Everything flowed very well, our expectations were exceeded; we saw a united group, confident and hopeful in the future away from violence. A group of people who started and ended up being friends; and so came the time for closure, for parting, where words were exchanged with good wishes, tears and hugs; we were convinced by the sense that the participants had strengthened themselves to work and conclude their literacy activities and their development of skills for life.

The results depend on the humility, willingness, honesty and integrity that the participants demonstrated in their daily lives. Our work showed the adolescents the necessary tools and the path they could take in order to successfully reform themselves.

Results

At the end of the program the participants felt that they had the tools to think creatively and critically, with more and better elements for decision-making, problemsolving, for the establishment of healthy relationships, the identification and control of emotions, and the management of tension and stress.

We believe that the program Literacy and development of life skills has given these adolescents elements for building a positive image of themselves and the kind of life they want to live in accord with their personal values; they reflected on the responsibility each one of them has for their life project and are more aware that this depends greatly on making a reality out of their dreams and their projects to live a full and satisfying life.

After the final evaluation of the participants, we believe that the first results were visible through the provision of an environment of greater confidence among the young participants, where it was possible to observe values such as respect and mutual aid in the work that each performs in their daily lives within the ICA. In the long run, the stake is greater because the best results one can expect is that the educational practice – beyond the learning of literacy and mathematical reasoning skills – will strengthen young people to recognise themselves as transformational subjects of their own lives and their immediate environment.

Reflect circle

Reflect circle, Source: S M Zakir Hossain

References

Moya Salgado, Julio (2007), A participatory approach to educational work, Morelia, Jarhuajperakua (Mutual Aid) AC/Laubach Literacy Foundation for Latin America and the Carib bean/World Wilde ProLiteracy/Department of Teaching, Faculty of Biology -UMSNH.

Salgado Moya, Julio and Ana Santamaría Galván (2003), ¡Aprendamos, aprendamos! Literacy primer, Morelia, SEDESO/IMSS /Laubach Literacy Foundation for Latin America and theCaribbean/Jarhuajperakua (Mutual Aid) AC/Academic Education Network at the UMSNH.

Notes

1 Jarhuajperakua is a word in P’urépecha, a language native to the central state of Michoacan. There is no literal translation of it, since it means a cultural practice related to collective action and fraternal activities of a community where each member’s work is imbued with a sense of Mutual Aid.
2 The capital city of the state of Michoacán, Mexico

For participation in this experience we thank the volunteers that we list below: Vanessa Messeger for operational coordination; Claudia Albor, Mónica Juárez and Vianey González Duran and Roberto Domínguez Luna and Adolfo Montañez as promoters. We also thank Federico Hernandez Valencia and Pedro Guevara Fefer for their comments.

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