Luis moves quickly, weaving his way through narrow, winding streets lined with dusty cinder block buildings. It’s midday but the neighborhood is hushed, save for skinny dogs pawing at roadside scraps and the occasional dark truck, driven by men with grim faces and the solitary mission of making their presence known.
Past desolate alleyways and barred storefronts, Luis slips between a set of tall gates, the portal to a small concrete courtyard where faded hopscotch grids keep company with a lone and netless basketball hoop.
The doors click locked behind him. He’s arrived early enough to get a seat—there aren’t enough desks for everyone in his class—but that’s not the day’s success. The real victory, today, is that he made it to school.
At 16, Luis’s life growing up in Guatemala City is a series of cautious, calculated movements. Don’t stray past safe zones: home, school, church. Don’t cross to the “wrong” side of the street. Trust no one. Don’t get noticed.
His is a city fractured by violence: the 23rd highest homicide rate in the world, an alarming degree of rape, murder and abuse of females, and pervasive gang activity with recruitment that starts as young as age 8—plus extreme poverty, high school dropout rates, rampant drug use, a deep sense of lawlessness and countless other indicators that breed the belief that life has nothing else to offer.
Students watch a presentation in the courtyard of their school in Guatemala City. School dropout rates are so high, 60 percent of students never make it past primary school.
“Every neighborhood has some presence of organized crime and international drug trafficking,” says Peter Loach, who led the implementation of Mercy Corps’ violence prevention program in the city.
“There's really no sense of community. [If you’re young] you’re [often] growing up in a single-parent household where you're sharing a room with other families. You might have a school that you can go to. Maybe it's safe to walk to the school, maybe it isn't and you don't get to go every day because of that. As you get beyond elementary school, the quality of education is not very high. You're probably working already at the age of 7, or 8, or 9.
“You add to that [the presence of] guns everywhere, a culture of violence, one of the highest rates of domestic violence in the world—it's just a tinderbox. It's a perfect storm for creating a generation of kids who really don't have too many prospects.”
For millions of the city’s young people, to succumb is the norm. To thrive is the exception.
Student governments give youth choice
Mercy Corps empowers students to participate in their communities with student governments. Press the play button above to see students at a school in the outskirts of Guatemala City participate in their very first election.
Across town, in a concrete school at the end of a lonely alleyway, Cristal, 15, shifts quietly in her seat. In the center courtyard, younger students shriek and laugh, racing to beat one another to the line for a snack. It’s the first time many of them will have eaten all day, and Cristal raises her soft voice to be heard against the commotion.
“You have to be careful here in the community,” she says, casually detailing the risks youth throughout the city will tell you they’re up against every day: gangs, drugs, violence, a lack of opportunity. “There is danger.”
The pivotal difference for Cristal is that there is another side to her perspective. “But if you study to be better I know that you can change the community,” she adds.
Her confidence that a person can deviate from their predetermined path is significant—and it’s new. In just one year since being elected student government president, Cristal has learned she holds within her something that once felt elusive: choice.
“First I did not think I was going to win,” she says, recalling the election last year. “I said, ‘Maybe I’m not smart enough.’ But they told me, ‘Cristal, you can.’ I was excited.”
“It makes me feel good,” Cristal says, “because I can help my classmates, listen to their opinions, and show others that we … can do something different in school. We can make our voice heard as students.”
Establishing student governments like this one is part of Mercy Corps’ five-year violence prevention program in Guatemala City. It focuses especially on youth growing up in the most volatile neighborhoods, helping them take ownership of their lives and communities in a way that many felt to be impossible before.
“People [here] feel that they don't have a voice,” Loach says. “And maybe no one’s ever asked them. Sometimes you just have to ask people what they think. We’re trying to ask people, ‘What do you want? What do you want to do?’ No one’s ever asked them before.”
Cristal wants to use her new influence as student body president to better her school. Her voice is steadier now, and her thoughts tumble out. She eagerly recounts plans to improve the lighting system and install a water filter. When she’s older, she says, she might run a company, or help her father fulfill his dream of owning a shoe store. She might run for mayor of Guatemala City one day.
“[Before] if anyone had an idea there was no one who listened, who organized it,” Cristal says. “Now it’s different because, if I want to talk, I’ll tell you. It’s as if I had opened a door that was closed for a long time.”
On election day, students line up for their voter registration cards. The student government elections follow the democratic election process.
Students learn how to register, the concept of campaigning and standing for office, how to choose a political party and how to vote.
They have total ownership of the process, managing everything from electing their nominees to meticulously tallying the final votes. Learning to work together and respect each other’s opinions is critical for healing the mistrust that affects the wider community.
Cristofer, 15, is running for president. To be involved “feels good, because it helps us to get to know ourselves better, and what we need,” he says. “I have learned about responsibility and well-being not only for myself but also for my colleagues.”
Sofia, 14, is on the ticket for vice president. “If someone comes and wants to deprive us of our opinion, we know that we have the right to voice it.”
“[We need] to be the example of of tomorrow in our Guatemala,” says Cristofer, 16, “to be someone in life and to get ahead.” He is running for president opposite the other Cristofer.
With the freedom to dream, a different future
"Now I have more control," Luis says. "I will continue studying in order to have a bright future.”
Back at Luis's school, the student government has changed the narrative, too.
"We are all capable,” he says, “but when others are not given the opportunity [to express their opinion] it seems as if we do not value them. We are giving value to everyone to express what they feel and what they want to do."
As president of his classroom, Luis has a rolling list of improvements he wants to make: paint the walls, supply clean water, get three more desks, repair the electricity, ensure every classroom has working light bulbs.
“Sometimes people refer to this community as bad,” he says, sincerely, “but it is not that. It is [up to] each young person if they want to change for good or want to change for bad.”
As much as he has been thinking about his classmates lately, Luis has also been thinking about his future.
He heard on the news about a way he could serve his community, a path he can take to help make it the safe, secure place he knows it can be.
“I want to be a criminology student,” he says, “and be an investigator. They say their job is to help so that there is no more violence.
“I want to do that.”
And perhaps now he will, if only because he believes he can.
How you can help
Election ink is used to prevent double voting, but also serves as a symbol of pride and democratic privilege.
Informed, empowered youth have the ability to profoundly change their lives and families for the better—and with the right support, they can change the world, too. You can encourage even more young people to transform their communities.
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