Creating Community in Violent Times

On Saturday evening, February 27, I jumped on a plane from El Paso, Texas to Los Angeles. I got home safely and in good spirits. Earlier I had crossed one of three international bridges from Ciudad Juarez to El Paso with my bags, accompanied by my new friend and organizer, Juan Pablo, of the US Consulate. On Thursday of last week, I held three separate discussions at the consulate’s community room—the first with Fundacion Comunitaria de la Frontera Norte, including donors and community leaders with a talk on “A Pathway to Authentic Community.” The second with community organizers and youth leaders called “Conflict Management Training: Breaking the Cycle with Dignity.” And the third with youth leaders and activists on “Creating Community in Violent Times.” I can’t begin to tell you how engaging these talks and dialogues turned out. The people in Ciudad Juarez have been withstanding an extraordinary amount of violence for decades, but more so in the past three years. Last year around 4,000 were killed in a city of 1.2 million. This alone was greater than El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras respectively (with 6 million, 15 million, and 7 million people in each country—I’ve been to those countries where violence is extreme and painful). Like somebody wrote on my Facebook page, this was like crawling out of a weeklong sweat lodge, in deep desperation and darkness, yet emerging renewed and hopeful. There is much hardness, fear, and even helplessness to get through in order to bring out the great capacities for change that is intrinsic in the poorest and most devastated communities. Through these dialogues we found the energy needed to begin on a new path, with new imaginations and new ideas. I shared a number of my books, in particular my memoir “La Vida Loca” and the nonfiction summary of forty years I’ve had working with violent and broken communities, “Hearts & Hands: Creating Community in Violent Times.” I also shared the “Community-Based Gang Intervention Guidebook,” which was created with forty other gang intervention experts, peace advocates, and researchers (approved by the LA City Council in 2008 and available for free from Councilman Tony Cardenas’s office). In fact the US Consulate and community-based groups now plan to order hundreds of these guidebooks, which we also hope to be translated for use in Mexico. Already I’ve taken this invaluable resource to cities throughout the US, a few of which have also decided to adopt its principle strategies. Perhaps the most significant talk I gave occurred the next day, Friday, at the Juarez Correctional/Juvenile Detention Center. The writers group, Palabras de Arena (hola to Ivonne and Laura and the others) has been working with these youth for some time. It’s the only juvenile facility that provides arts training and expression. I met with poets and artists. A rich and intimate discussion was held with spiritually hungry and intelligent young people—although many have committed serious crimes, including murder. The facility’s director, a young woman with a big heart, even allowed five of the youth to leave the detention center and show me several murals they painted with members of the community along the high concrete walls. They plan to cover even more walls once they obtain more resources. I could tell the administration was helping move the minds and hearts of youth offenders to become whole and healthy—and creative—when they leave this facility. Sadly, very few juvenile lockups in Mexico—or the US for that matter—have such programs in place. I also did a number of TV and print interviews that were good at presenting properly the substance and goals of my presence in Ciudad Juarez—not to be “anti-gang” or “anti-drugs,” but to be pro-youth, pro-community, and pro-arts. In the afternoon, I did a presentation to NGO (nongovernmental organization) leaders, sponsored by Centro Para el Fortalacimiento Social. Other talks included with the state-sponsored Department of Human Rights, who asked for a special audience with me. They hope to try and bring me back with other university and community-based groups. A reception—called un hamburguesada—was held that evening at the home of Consul General Raymond McGrath, a wonderful man and friend. That evening I got to read poetry with a number of local poets, including the amazing “Poeta Enmascarado” (the Masked Poet, in the style of Lucha Libre wrestlers). The next morning, we went to some of the poorest colonias in the city (including Colonias Morelos, Libertad and Mineros) to meet with poor barrio youth, some of whom worked with Philadelphia muralists to paint murals on a new canal created after a massive flood in 2006 that killed a number of residents. We did writing exercises, including one in which the youth—about twenty-five—articulated the values they wanted expressed on the walls (such as Liberty, Equality, Peace, Justice). Still, all good things must end. The week was quite an initiation for me, but I also hope inspiring for the diverse audiences I addressed… like planting seeds in fertile soil for truly deep personal, social, economic, and cultural transformation. I have to thank the US Consulate in Ciudad Juarez for the amazing work they did in organizing the presentations in conjunction with various organization (libraries, schools, cultural centers, universities, churches, jails, juvenile lockups, and others too many to name here). In particular much thanks to Juan Pablo, but also Neal, Pati, and the program director, Silvio Gonzalez. It makes me proud to know that the US consulate is working to bring positive influence and connections to places like Ciudad Juarez.  That’s what I’m about—and when this happens, I’ll work with anyone who has the same goals and methods. Para todos mis nuevos amistades en Juaritos y Chihuahua—que viva la paz, tolerancia, y un gran justicia para todos. c/s

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