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Sharing Power

Sharing PowerCurrent and past Tufts students join forces to pass along the Tufts ideal of active citizenship to the youth of Central America.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [06.16.08] Unifying around the idea that people can learn from one another's experiences, current students and alumni recently joined forces for a meeting of the minds among youth from across Central America.

In late May, students in the Tufts branch of the Project on Justice in the Times of Transition (PJTT), housed within Tufts' Institute for Global Leadership (IGL), held a five-day conference in Antigua, Guatemala titled "Leaders of the Present." The conference focused on motivating youth from around Central America to become civically engaged in their individual countries.

According to PJTT Executive Director Ina Breuer, the idea for the conference was developed three years ago after a group Guatemalan political leaders who helped bring about the regional Esquipulas Peace Process in Central America in the early 1990s reconvened.

"Two things essentially came out of the conversations from this meeting," Breuer says. "One, it was determined that Central America has higher rates of violence now than some countries that are engaged in war, and two, even though young people are the majority of the population in some of these countries, they are not involved in the political process."

As a reaction to this discovery, PJTT sent students Diego Villalobos (A'09) and Hannah Flamm (A'09) to Central America in January 2007 to investigate, looking into youth violence and what was currently being done about it. In addition to this task, the two sought to identify those who could be involved in a possible forum to promote youth involvement.

"Our methodology was to bring youth leaders from outside, like Lebanon, Czechoslovakia and Serbia, who have been involved in and made differences in their own government," Breuer says. "We really want to get at the psychological dimension of why someone is willing to negotiate with the enemy or why is someone willing to give up their guns after watching their whole neighborhood be killed, and learning what fears are there."

A native of Costa Rica and an active member of the IGL, Villalobos says he felt "empowered" to join PJTT in this venture.

"There is an urgent need in the region to address this huge disenfranchisement that the youth faces," says Villalobos. "Being a Central American, it is very important to me to figure out how we can help and how we can use some of the tools and resources that Tufts provides us to help push area youth towards being active citizens."

Photos by Anna Schori

Arriving in Guatemala, Villalobos was joined by Flamm and other fellow Tufts students, as well as Tufts alumni Ariela Nathusius (A'06) and Mauricio Artinano (A'06). He says that the conference exceeded his expectations from the beginning, with a sense of camaraderie almost instantly filling the room.

"[The first] night was most powerful, with my colleague Mauricio starting an activity about sharing what our dreams were," Villalobos says. "We started sharing our dreams for what we wanted Central America to look like in the future, how to achieve what we want and the need to be committed."

Villalobos says that the concept of civic engagement was solidified in their second day, when 28 of the youth delegates along with Tufts participants joined together for a community service activity. Traveling to a poor region of Guatemala, the group installed 10 high efficiency wood burning stoves, designed to spare both the environment and the health of the women who spent most of their day cooking and breathing in the smoke.

"It really grounded us and put us in the same mindset of what it means to give to the community, which was what the conference was all about," Villalobos says. "It set the bar high."

As the week went on, the delegates met politicians, social workers and other mentors who described their experiences with civic engagement, including students involved in the overthrow of Communism in the Czech Republic and those involved in student rallies against former Serbian leader Slobodan Miloševi. These discussions put helped provide the participants with some perspective as they sought to formulate ideas of what needed to be done in their own countries.

"It was a lot of back and forth, and it was very frustrating, but as one of the mentors said, 'We are giving birth here and births are not painless.'We were trying to organically bring something to life."

By the end of the conference, youth delegates were given the opportunity to meet with Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom Caballeros, who showed immense support for their project, according to Villalobos, providing them with the opportunity to present their agenda at the next summit before the Ibero-American States, which includes all Spanish-speaking countries.

"It was amazing to get such a response from the government and we will definitely be seizing the opportunity to be heard," says Villalobos. "For now we will be planning for the summit and for our next conference."

Profile by Kaitlin Melanson, Web Communications

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