Empowering the Young: Inspiring Noble Purpose through Entrepreneurship and Character

First Published: 2006-07-21

Presentation to the Nassau Institute/Atlas Economic Research Foundation conference, Taking Small Nations to Greatness, Friday, June 9, 2006.

1. How do we empower youth? …the young people in this audience who are representatives of the Junior Achievement program are obviously empowered but how do we empower the vast majority of kids out there who live in extreme poverty, crime ridden cities, and who have little option but to join violent gangs for want of a family, or merely have access to limited or bad education? And what about those that have so many comforts that they take life for granted and as a result lack purpose and under serve society. How can we inspire "noble purpose", how can we take adverse situations and transform them into inspiring opportunities and models for the millions of kids who don't have the families, teachers or surroundings that can help empower them?

2. I think we can agree – or at least assume – that there is a universal desire to be a great friend, mother, wife or husband, but how do we make it possible for young people to achieve this? How do we make the connection between the now and the future? I have 5 kids and I always point out to them that you don't all of a sudden become a responsible, honest, self-disciplined and respectful, fun person at a certain magical age such as 18 or 21or 29….So what makes you think that you can become that ideal person? Is it because of your family or teachers? What makes you think you can be better or more successful than they are? What if you don't have that role model? What about the millions of kids who don't have stable families, or don't have access to good schools? Another question: are some kids beyond "repair"? How can we inspire kids who become antisocials or who have lost all hope at a young age? What happens to the young people that are stuck on the margins of society with no access to schools, jobs or justice? Here is another complex issue: how can young people resist the lure of anti-values, and the temptations of peers? How can young people be cool, yet virtuous?….It is a tough balancing act!

3. Example Proyecto Alcatraz: I would like to show you an example of a small project founded by my brother, Alberto Vollmer, in Venezuela that reinserts violent youth gangs into the community. What constantly strikes me about Proyecto Alcatraz is the fact that the gang members, many of whom have committed several murders at a very young age as well as other terrible crimes, have a tremendous desire to embrace values, to be loved and as they say "to come out of darkness and be able to walk the streets during daylight"…this clip which I'm going to show will illustrate how a program that teaches values, not only inspires but completely transforms negative leadership into positive leadership….clip of Proyecto Alcatraz (2.13 – 2.57, 4.30 – 5.35)…..The Interamerican Development Bank has conducted studies exploring the differentiating features that set Proyecto Alcatraz apart from many other reinsertion programs. Interestingly one of the characteristics that stands out is the fact that Proyecto Alcatraz puts particular stress on the fact that the key to success is in teaching values. WE have found that the once violent gang leaders are quick to realize that they can exchange their old value system for a new one comprised of positive values such as honesty, compassion, self-discipline, respect….and still keep the old misused ones of camaraderie and fraternity. In fact the most violent gang members – who tend to be the leaders of the gangs – seem to "get this" quicker and become positive leaders and models for their peers! Surprisingly, ex-gang members are very appreciative of the opportunity, and value what others take for granted. Another interesting facet of these young men when they first enter Proyecto Alcatraz, is their innate fear and sense of weakness despite the fact that they are regarded by the community as tough, rough and highly dangerous individuals. Once they enter the program and have to give up their weapons, these once feared guys are reduced to being weak and fearful adolescents. This has come to light when the new members of Alcatraz are introduced to the game of rugby, a key – and unique – component of the program. These guys tend to be afraid of playing against each other, particularly if there are players on the team that used to belong to rival gangs, because they feel that they are completely vulnerable. And it is this vulnerability that might explain their original desire to belong to a gang. Learning the rules of fair play, honor, humility on the rugby pitch is a lesson in life and shows these young men that strength and valor comes from within and not from intimidating others with tough and violent behavior. Now, back to the subject of being cool but virtuous: one of the amazing effects that Proyecto Alcatraz has had in the community and in Venezuela is that young people think that the transformation of the ex-gang members into virtuous young men is very appealing, so in this case being virtuous is perceived to be very cool! I was struck by this in my own family, when I realized that my teenage daughters and nieces were captivated and spellbound by the personal stories of the Alcatraz boys' transformation. Despite the small scale of this project, this example proves that everyone deserves a second chance…and in particular if it is all too obvious they never really had a decent first choice.

4. So what can we do to inspire youth in Latin America and the Caribbean? While character education is always and everywhere desirable, there seems to be an acute need for it now in our region. More and more experts in national development and character education such as Tom Lickona, Lawrence Harrison, Bernardo Kliksberg, and others, have come to realize that the region's deep economic and social problems are to a great extent a question of values and virtues. As an example we just have to witness the alarming decline in the public's faith in democracy which has resulted from attempts to alleviate symptoms rather than attack the causes of ineffective governance, corruption and poverty. The development of a country depends not so much on economic interventions as on the formation of what social scientists have come to call "human capital" and "social capital". There is no magical solution, no silver bullet, but at Alliance for the Family we believe that the family and the educational system are two smart places to start. Our curriculum, Learning to Cherish, brings the latest theories of development to life, showing how human capital -knowledge, creativity, confidence and virtue- and social capital -which boils down to cheerful and constructive interdependencies- come from investments of oneself in family, then in friends and then in an ever widening circle of connections. Learning to Cherish is an intensive values education program for grades 1-12, that sets out to teach the basic skills, based on universal virtues and values, that individuals need in order to function as responsible, self-supporting, law abiding and self-determining citizens. It is important for a critical mass of children and young people to learn how to work with one another and to respect and enjoy one another inside and outside their families. This is the corner stone of democracy. Our character education program gives kids and adolescents a variety of tools and life skills for responsible decision-taking in responding to common, day to day situations. We hate to preach and as a parent I know that this is counter-productive….besides, young people usually instinctively reject boring or unpleasant information that has no depth or which is hard to connect with! Many character education courses tend to be brief and limited to facts and processes that lack a coherent intellectual context. In Learning to Cherish, the coherence of an absolute standard although not explicitly stated, binds the pages and the volumes together. Everything is connected: family is respect is democracy is not forcing yourself on your girlfriend and so on! The point is that the program paints a big picture which makes sense and we achieve this by presenting a continuous story about a group of kids who confront a series of situations of universal application as they grow up. At age appropriate levels starting with the 6 year old, the series of books takes the student from basic concepts of the human person inserted in the family, through the basics of friendship, which include loyalty, inter-dependability, and respect for property, through the period of peer pressure and adolescence to the later high-school years when romance, love and sex can be confusing and fraught with conflicts and prone to big mistakes. According to our latest evaluations conducted in Peru and Mexico in 2005, adolescents overwhelmingly find this program helpful and attractive, and young people are of the opinion that it has started them thinking about the decisive questions of existence. We have also found a ripple effect in the community because as kids learn to communicate and talk about difficult subjects, they are actually including their parents into the equation by discussing topics that were previously too complicated or "taboo" particularly for parents.

5. Conclusion: At Alliance for the Family we hope to increase the quantity and quality of character education not only in Latin America and the Caribbean but all over the world. We are working in about 10 countries in Latin America and in the last 5 years we have reached approximately 40,000 students and teachers; a proposal to teach democratic values to 13,000 kids and 390 teachers in Venezuela, Peru and Mexico was just recently approved by USAID and we're partnering with the African Federation of Family Life in order to introduce the Learning to Cherish program, teacher training and methodology to 8 African countries as an integral part of an HIV-AIDS prevention curriculum. I would like to end on this note: as a teenager I was always asked by my parents how I was going to change the world? I certainly didn't have an answer, but the fact that they planted this in my mind meant that I was never intimidated by the thought…so in the back of my mind as I grew up, studied, worked, married and had kids, I have kept asking myself if in fact I'm at least trying to change the world in my own way and in my sphere of influence. What I would like to propose to the young people in the audience is that empowerment may seem to be a vague and unachievable word to you, but inspiration and leadership are not, and I hope that as young people of character you will be inspired to change the world and be leaders in your own unique way, and in your sphere. You will always be surprised by the ripple effects of virtue and the staying power of good example, and little by little you will understand that this indeed is the meaning of empowerment.

Cristina Vollmer de Burelli Executive Director of Alliance for the Family

The views expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of the Nassau Institute (which has no corporate view), or its Advisers or Directors.

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