Making Cents Conference 2011: CRS shares from the "Changing Course" session

September 9, 2011

Brenda Schuster is a Technical Advisor for Catholic Relief Services. She has never been in a gang. (She doesn’t even have a street name.) She does think that murals are pretty cool, though, and she bets that you do too.

In this guest blog post, Schuster talks about a CRS Youth program presented during the Making Cents Global Youth Economic Opportunities Conference session "Changing Course: Transforming At-Risk and Gang-Involved Youth through Enterprise Development."

Four guys show up to a job interview. Between them they’ve got four collared shirts, four pairs of slacks and one pair of shoes. What happens next? They share, of course, each passing the shoes off after his interview is done. They may be competing for the same job, but they’re in this together.

A couple of years ago, these same guys were making money in…well…ways that didn’t require such nice shoes. And they didn’t have a lot of compassion either – neither for themselves nor for others. They had just a few years of schooling, no licit source of income, no stable community, a dysfunctional family, and a long, difficult history with gangs. Enter Jóvenes Constructores de Centroamérica (Young Builders of Central America), a partnership between Catholic Relief Services, YouthBuild International, and a host of local implementing partners. Since 2008, JCC has put several hundred at-risk and gang-involved youth through a rigorous six to nine month program that integrates life skills, vocational training, entrepreneurial development, school reintegration, community service and reconciliation, job readiness skills, mentorship, work experience, job placement, savings groups, accompaniment, and seed capital. Following the 2009-2011 phase, 58 percent of graduates had jobs or their own micro-enterprises and 35 percent had returned to school.

Those are pretty good statistics for any youth livelihoods program – but in this case, 42 percent of participants were formerly gang-involved. And that makes those statistics even more impressive.

What’s the difference between kids in gangs and kids who are just “at-risk?” A lot. JCC divides youth into “hot,” “warm,” and “cold” according to their involvement in violence and crime. Staff use peacebuilding tools to map communities, build trust, recruit a key informants, and reach out to troubled youth.

“The key to it all,” says Rick Jones of CRS, “is personal and relationship change. This is larger than getting a job; this is changing a life.”

A rigorous selection and induction process (including 40 hours confronting personal, family, community, work, and business challenges that range from applying for identity papers to cleaning up litter) makes sure that only the youth most likely to succeed – about half of applicants – get in.

Then comes the hard part. Before any livelihoods work can begin, gang-involved youth have to learn to feel, to forgive, to trust, to handle conflict positively, and to value themselves. JCC creates a safe space (by sensitizing project staff, negotiating safe passage from area gangs, and locating interventions in youths’ home neighborhood) and a nurturing community. In other words: it builds social capital to replace the sense of belonging and empowerment that youth got from gangs.

In a region with a homicide rate ten times the world average, individual change is bound up in community change. So JCC youth also get municipal approval to build tangible community assets – anything from basketball courts to brightly-colored murals – while staff bring in employers to meet youth and watch them transform across the life of the program.

Because, do you know what happened when the last guy went to put on that pair of shoes? The laces broke. And he couldn’t keep them on his feet. He stumbled, red-faced and flustered, into his interview. The employer looked at him and, instead of seeing a scarred and tattooed delinquent, saw the young man she had watched for one year overcome enormous hurt and stigma; she saw someone who desperately deserved a chance. “I don’t want to hire your shoes,” she said. “I want to hire you. Now tell me why you’re right for this job.”

Richard Jones, Ibania Rivas, and Timothy Cross present at the conference

Richard Jones, Deputy Regional Director, Catholic Relief Services (El Salvador), Ibania Rivas, Program Quality for Learning, Catholic Relief Services (El Salvador), and Timothy Cross, President, YouthBuild International (USA), present the "Changing Course" session at the conference.