This article seeks to share resources and tools with those interested, from their respective roles and functions, in contributing to the improvement of vulnerable population living conditions.
It is based on two conceptual premises that guide the intervention: social leveling and the comprehensiveness of the actions to be taken.
When planning or implementing projects, comprehensive training, focused on social leveling, is oriented to break the repetitive circle of experiences that hinder the development of people’s potentialities.
The intervention strategies, resulting from the systematization of 23 projects implemented in a poor neighborhood in the south of the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires, include the following topics: work settings; selection of contents and definition of the project design process; group approach, including tools and resources; constitution, operation and training of technical teams; monitoring and evaluation as well as institutional arrangements, networking, and associated management mechanisms.
As a final conclusion, this article intends to synthesize the main issues addressed, emphasizing those situations that, while respecting the specificities of each context, may be common to other experiences aimed at populations of similar characteristics.
Within the framework of the theoretical and methodological perspective of systematization of experiences and practice conceptualization, this article is oriented to generate a thinking process based on:
- Organizing what is dispersed (practices, knowledge, ideas, data, perceptions, opinions, etc.);
- Description and understanding of experiences, focusing on how results were obtained with a view towards future improvement; and
- Generation of learning processes in those involved in the experiences.
This thinking process is the result of more than two decades of experience in community work performed by a civil society organization -- Crisol Social Projects -- and is particularly based on the systematization of 23 projects implemented in a poor neighborhood, in the south of the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires, between 2007 and 2015. These projects share the objective of contributing to the improvement of vulnerable population living conditions and to mitigate the effects of exclusion and social inequality.
This poor neighborhood is known as “Villa 15” or “Ciudad Oculta”. It is an informal urbanization with high population density. It has 15,568 inhabitants (7,770 men and 7,798 women), according to 2010 data from different areas of Argentina and bordering countries, mainly Bolivia and Paraguay. The socioeconomic and cultural context of the neighborhood's population is highly vulnerable.
A diagnosis made by Crisol, with the participation of residents and organizations working in the neighborhood, identified several issues such as: difficult access to health services, adolescent pregnancies, spread of drug use; problems of access to housing and education; increase in violence and crime; hygiene problems associated with the administration of garbage collection services; and deficiency in the provision of basic services such as sewage, among others.
The objective of this article is to share a series of innovative resources and tools that we have been using in order to contribute to the improvement of vulnerable population living conditions. It is also an invitation to think and question present practices as a way to overcome the stereotypes of community strategies and to make intervention methodologies more flexible, rethinking them according to the characteristics of each geographical, historical and social context.
a. Social Leveling
Social leveling is hereby understood as a series of actions that provide vulnerable people with the ability to access to incentives, tangible objects, and experiences -- in terms of learning, organization, and social interaction -- that are frequently available in everyday practices among other social sectors.
Learning in a broad sense refers to a way of understanding the world, incorporating this knowledge for it to be applied -- and further replicated -- in different situations. It refers to the concept developed by Pichon Riviere of learning as an active adaptation to reality to transform it and, in that process, being transformed.
In the case of vulnerable population, this transformation implies social inclusion, that is, the incorporation of social life into different activities and institutions by developing or expanding the capacity for participation and belonging. It includes the knowledge and / or claim for rights, gender equality and the exercise of full citizenship.
b. Comprehensive Actions
People are comprehensive individuals. In this sense, when seeking to influence some aspects of people’s life quality through any specific project focus area (health, education, training for work, creative activities, sports, etc.), all dimensions should be considered in relation to learning, values, emotional growth and self-esteem. It is important to recognize the departing points and to offer alternatives throughout this process.
The recognition of the departing points implies accepting and accompanying the process of evolution of the target population from the point where they start, valuing their culture and choices. This also means that knowledge horizons and possibilities of realizing dreams are usually linked to those to which people have had access and that often represent traditional models of labor, educational or recreational insertion and gender stereotypes.
Offering alternatives means providing them with other possibilities for dreaming about the future, in a way that is not conditioned by the socio-geographical and cultural experiences of their immediate environment. During the planning process of job training courses in a project for adolescents from poor areas, the demands that came forward were "hairdressing" for females and "construction assistant" for males. That is, those jobs that are known and associated with an expected gender role. At this point, the role of the facilitator/educator/trainer is fundamental for the identification and formulation of new alternatives and perspectives. This implies that, in each specific proposal, those who are to be involved in it (whether children, young people, women, community organizations) should be allowed to approach an unknown world of possibilities.
Our concept of comprehensive training focused on social leveling, is therefore proposed to break the repetitive vicious cycle of experiences that hinder the development of each person’s potential. It involves time, development of self-esteem, and the challenge of proposing permanent situations that allow the familiarization of project participants with different incentives that facilitate the appropriation of knowledge and that compensate the lack of social capital.
c. Project Components
Project components depend on their respective objectives and characteristics. As an example, the following two components were part of the projects that were systematized. Their justification as instruments of social inclusion is also included.
- The socio-educational component
The socio-educational component, no matter what the project focus area is (sexuality, child upbringing, job training, domestic violence, access to health, nutrition, theater, music, dance, among others) is oriented to contribute to social leveling and to allow knowledge strengthening and sharing, socialization and self-esteem.
The lack of familiarization with cultural and educational-related goods as well as exclusion, or precarious inclusion in the labor market, are the main indicators of vulnerability. Most of the people who are in a situation of vulnerability usually have suffered experiences of abuse, discrimination, and exclusion, with negative impacts on their self-perception as people. It is therefore necessary to start a process to recover confidence in their learning capacity.
What is learned is more easily apprehended if it is constructed collectively, if it responds to the awareness that it can be turned into practice. Knowledge is a tool that allows planning, organizing, conducting actions to achieve their own objectives. It is a deficit in poor households while it is usual in more affluent households. For this reason, education and the development of the creative process are the main instruments of social leveling and mental health.
Poor women, being a highly vulnerable population, find both in educational activities as well as in their own context an empowerment space that makes them more independent and capable of making decisions in their domestic environment in relation to their children’s upbringing. These activities have an impact on their learning, leadership, organization, and self-esteem abilities. In a project focused on women that was based in a community dining room, we began with activities to promote reading. They read and commented on stories that were used as triggers to discuss on topics that are usually silenced (experiences of loneliness, overload due to family responsibilities, gender violence, etc.). At a certain point, there was a demand to start learning informatics, as a way to communicate with their children and grandchildren.
However, the handling of a word processor required some basic knowledge (mainly spelling), which they did not have. Since this situation caused much embarrassment, learning was avoided. With the guide of the facilitator, they were able to move forward, first copying texts from the books and then writing their own thoughts. As a result, they could share these experiences of shame and lack of self-esteem and feel that, despite all the difficulties, they were capable of learning.
Gender Perspective, which we recommend always having present, involves reviewing gender stereotypes, the construction of identities, and the knowledge and responsible exercise of all rights, including sexual freedom, autonomy, sexual integrity and safety, emotional sexual expression, the right to make free and responsible reproductive decisions, as well as the right to comprehensive sexual education and information.
- The artistic-cultural component
Art is a means of communication and transformation. The artistic disciplines facilitate the active participation of individuals in the community. Culture is a dynamic concept that has evolved.
"From its initial meaning as a synonym of erudition and social distinction to its recognition as a condition for human dignity, culture turned to be also defined by the notions of otherness, cultural rights and diversity, thus expanding the traditional range of directly related concepts, such as the ideas of aesthetic expression and authorial rights." 3
If creativity and contact with cultural activities and expression alternatives are stimulated, personal development, interpersonal relationships, integration, and social inclusion are also encouraged.
Artistic and cultural practices, as means of expression, contribute to building social bonds. Through them, it is possible to create spaces for interaction that encourage the discussion among individuals, the development of thinking processes and the exchange of experiences and problems faced in their daily life.
A member who participated in one of the corporal expression projects, referring to a picnic, left the following testimony: "It is a moment, an hour, a moment of time for ourselves, leaving aside all that hits us, what is hard to overcome in our everyday life. Having that space for ourselves, laughing and sharing, which for me is a lot. They are small grains of sand that add up."
In short, it is important that projects provide the vulnerable populations the possibility of experiencing educational and cultural alternatives, expanding their reference models and facilitating the access to these options. It is the right and necessary way to increase the chances of personal development and relationship, and therefore, promote social inclusion.
Paraphrasing Paulo Freire, "Education is a work of art and the educator is also an artist: he/she reshapes the world, he/she re-draws the world, he/she re-paints the world, he/she re-sings the world, he/she re-dances the world.”
When the intervention modality is that of a community’s external agent, it is important that the project team stimulates participatory processes in each local space, taking into account the demands, knowledge, and experiences of each population group. It should be considered that, due to its external character, at some point project activities would finish. The project should therefore be oriented to put actions in motion, to articulate actors and institutions, and to leave an installed capacity within the same community, through its own leaders, that increases its organizational capacity and finds their own ways. To increase the impact of these actions, the development of strategic alliances between different social actors, civil society, private sector, government agencies, etc. is fundamental.
Framework in a community setting must be changing and flexible. For example, when a project begins, there is usually an agreement with a neighborhood organization that will host the proposed activities. A schedule, a location, and a target population group are agreed upon. But in practice, there are many factors that may affect these conditions, either because the organization needs to use the location for other activities, because bad weather or rain may prevent the participants from accessing or using the place, or because mothers may have no one to leave their children with.
For this reason, it is necessary that technical teams have the ability to redefine the frameworks any time as necessary. It is therefore fundamental to carry out periodic evaluations, coordinated, if possible, by an external party that is not directly involved in the project execution and that facilitates an in-depth critical reflection on the characteristics of the intervention process.
b. Themes selection and project design process
The selection of themes and the formulation of projects should be the result of a process of collective building with the individual participants and the institutions from the area of intervention. This process has several potentialities: it is the population that prioritizes the issues to be addressed, thus responding to their demands; people reach greater identification with project objectives and, consequently, better results are achieved.
During the project formulation process, a participatory diagnosis is a fundamental step to design strategies and work dynamics that are adequate to the population and the organizations to be involved.
As a first step, it is necessary to conduct a stakeholder mapping, identifying the leaders and institutions that may be part of a participatory diagnosis and invite them to attend a sequence of meetings.
A suggested methodology consists of five work meetings:
i) Exploratory meeting: Conversation about the target population’s main problems as a preliminary diagnostic survey. As a result of this meeting, a list should be created so that the participants help to determine which neighbors are involved in these problems.
ii) Prioritization of results: The results obtained from the above consultation should be prioritized according to order of importance and, those in the first and second places, should be further analyzed (characteristics, potentialities, weaknesses, etc.).
iii) Project idea: identification of the main emerging ideas, together with the possibilities and limitations that they may experience during project implementation.
iv) Initial project: Presentation, by the technical team, of a first project draft that may lead to a model of call for participation (if it is applicable). Reception of comments and suggestions.
v) Project validation: Presentation of the project final version before the participating group. It is usually prepared by the technical team (unless a community member is interested in participating in the whole process).
c. Group approach
Group environments, especially small groups, are appropriate spaces to establish suitable conditions for the acquisition of new knowledge or skills.
People with scarce or remote schooling experiences often face fears and obstacles in learning situations. In our work experience we have found the following types of limitations:
- Cognitive: lack of basic knowledge that interferes with learning of new competencies
- Emotional: lack of confidence in their own learning capacity. Low self-esteem requires additional work, to help them in the appropriation of knowledge and become active participants in the building of their own learning process;
- Relational: their own group dynamics are influenced by fears of repeating situations of domination, or painful experiences of exclusion that took place in previous moments of their social life.
Based on the in-depth work carried out by the workshop leader or facilitator, group environments, especially small groups, have great potential to create emotional and intellectual conditions that are appropriate for learning. Knowledge is shared, as beneficiaries are able to move forward; curiosity for learning is stimulated, while a support system, including the emotional one, is established in order to allow them to obtain or recover confidence in their own capacity.
d. Group tools and resources
i) Workshops: Group environments, with an agreed framework of guidance, participation and generally, products to obtain or produce, that often serve as motivation to sustain participation.
Different types of ludic-expressive techniques are applied. They include games, role - playing, dramatizations, body contact, gaze, laughter, "loosening" the intellectual demand usually associated with learning situations.
In a recreational framework, the ludic space legitimates trial and error, limits the appearance of value judgments and facilitates the search for innovative alternatives.
ii) Cultural outings: Visits to shows and diverse cultural places, according to each project’s focus (circus schools, plastic artists workshops, theater or dance rehearsals, choir, etc.). This experience has three moments:
- Thematic planning and introduction, carried out by the workshop leader together with the group, to inform about the relevance of the visit in the training context, as well as to read notes or press reviews -when appropriate- and to address possible doubts and concerns that may arise;
- Interaction with key people related to these shows (theater, film or video directors, actors, musicians, etc.) to dialogue with the participants and respond to their concerns at the end of the visit;
- Reflection with workshop leaders and other participants on, the cultural experiences as well as on personal affinities with respect to these creative proposals.
iii) Communication campaigns: Tools for disseminating a topic that is relevant to the community. It is shared and made public with neighbors through walks, brochure distribution, and text reading through megaphone to attract attention. It is accompanied with songs and music. These tools provoke a high level of empowerment since project participants are those who investigate, learn, propose and disseminate thus generating appropriation.
e. Constitution and operation of technical teams
It is recommended that technical teams be interdisciplinary, focusing on skills and behaviors., as well as on technical and human competencies, availability, commitment, and responsibility.
The emergence of professional groups, university students, political activists, etc. usually generates mistrust among the population, due to their sustained presence in the territory and to their "actual objectives”. Presence and continuity in the territory become fundamental aspects to build a mutual trust relationship and to demonstrate that technical teams’ presence and commitment go beyond a specific situation and problem.
The process of building trust should always be transparent in terms of the proposal’s feasibility, so as not to generate false expectations. Maintaining this balance is not easy because in the stages of participatory project design, where the needs are established and alternatives for resolution are collectively elaborated, there are expectations -- even shared by the technical teams -- that the project would be implemented.
In order to strengthen the impact on the community, teams’ internal training should go beyond the incorporation of concepts and specific themes, also involving a critical review of their own values, expectations and knowledge. It is a permanent task.
Team members should have some characteristics as follows:
- Openness to sociocultural diversity (which implies a long process of revision of prejudices);
- Flexibility, in terms of facility to accept situations of change and generate responses;
- Professional and personal commitment;
- Self-awareness and openness to feedback;
- Development of tolerance;
- Enhanced group focus;
- Flexible mentoring approach, allowing for group protagonism; and
- Tolerance to ambivalence, ambiguity, and confrontation.
f. Monitoring and evaluation
The teamwork approach should contemplate a supervisory instance oriented to the following objectives:
a. Review the project development and its deviations -- if applicable -- vis-à-vis its original plan
b. Analyze the reasons for deviations.
c. Share doubts, problems, difficulties, successes, and reflections on the experience
d. Plan the following steps.
To track project implementation, trainers and coordinators must keep a record, jointly elaborated, to reach consensus on the instruments to be used. It often happens that those who are working in the territory do not give enough importance to experience systematization but over time, it becomes difficult to remember and reflect on impact, opportunities for improvement, or alternative strategies that could have been applied.
Both at mid-term and at project completion, a joint evaluation -- with project participants -- should be carried out in order to share agreements and disagreements and to define the bases to adjust future actions.
g. Institutional arrangements, networking and associated management mechanisms
Joint work or networking with other institutions tends to increase the impact and scope of actions, especially if the intervention comes from a small civil society organization as Crisol. It has the advantage of testing methodologies and innovating procedures, but the disadvantage (with respect to government organizations, for example) of the number of people that can be reached.
We understand that the associated management mechanisms refer to a joint process where two or more organizations share responsibilities in project execution, in all stages or at some of them, which are usually complementary.
The forging of partnerships is a process that may experience difficulties. An institutional actor told us: "The strong individualistic relationships that exist within organizations at some point prevent activities or proposals’ sustainability over time if certain key people are not present. If they leave, "everything falls down.”
Partnership is often affected by sectorial interests, the fear of joint work, the potential competition to access resources, the mistrust vis-à-vis limited transparent practices, disagreements, tensions, historical conflicts, struggles for spaces of power or leadership, etc.
It is important to consider that neighborhood-based organizations do not usually have the adequate technical or professional resources. In general, most of the people that work in this context are volunteers and perform different tasks with scarce resources.
The degrees or levels of partnerships can be different according to the characteristics and availability of the organizations. It may contemplate the provision of facilities to carry out some activity and collaboration in the call for participation, the co-responsibility for the development of a specific activity as well as to share responsibilities in the full project.
- The territorial work is often carried out spontaneously as a response to demands, solving conflicts as they arise. However, there is a range of very useful resources and tools for community interventions. As a toolbox, it should be always used in accordance to the characteristics and particular situations that the communities go through.
- The frameworks and agreements that are being established with the different actors may change as project progresses. It is very important to have the flexibility to adjust the agreements and achieve consensus on the new way of operation whenever it is necessary to make changes towards the best achievement of project objectives.
- To achieve bonds of trust with the community, continuity and transparency in actions and promises are essential. Not to arise false expectations is crucial. It is a population that has experienced situations of frustration and disappointment; therefore, trust is based on concrete actions and statements that refer to those actions.
- The technical teams that have a high degree of identification with the objectives and with the methodology of the interventions establish stronger bonds with the community and, therefore, achieve results in accordance with the proposed objectives.
- The training of the technical teams should include technical and behavioral aspects, as well as the requirement of a permanent willingness to review practices and prejudices that may appear in concrete actions with vulnerable populations.
- The understanding of the community demands should be done at different stages of the project development, since they may be subject to change according to specific circumstances and evolving priorities.
- The monitoring and evaluation of the actions in the territory should also be carried out frequently through the instruments designed for that purpose. They should involve all actors; especially those who are the target population. The result of these evaluations is a fundamental input to guide adjustments and improvements in the strategies to be applied and in the development of the interventions.
- Institutional arrangements, networking and associated management mechanisms are high - impact strategies, always considering that they are difficult processes. Their design and action methodology should be reconsidered and evaluated in each case. In general, they are not definitive, and can be carried out for the execution of a particular project, or for any project action.
For more information read our multimedia document, “Crisol en Ciudad Oculta. Estrategias de inclusión social” at http://crisolps.org.ar/crisol/
Silvia Kremenchutzky is a sociologist and social psychologist. She has served as Executive Director of Crisol Proyectos Sociales since its foundation in 1994. Silvia is specialized in qualitative methodologies, social policy, and community interventions in vulnerable populations, evaluations and systematizations of projects and programs in the areas of youth, education, and work and rural development.
She has acted as a consultant to national institutions (Ministry of Education, Labor, Employment and Social Security, Social Development) and international organizations (IDB, FORMEZ, Kellogg Foundation, IFAD), as well as teaching as a professor at the National Universities of Buenos Aires (UBA), Patagonia, and General Sarmiento.