Benposta Childrens Republic
Shine a light has visited dozens of residential programs, but we have seen nothing like Benposta. As one girl told me, Were not an institution. Were a community. And Benposta isnt just a community, it is a model democracy, an important player in local politics, and a reference point for any residential program. Benposta doesnt rescue street kids. It trains community leaders, and it does it magnificently.
Adults are part of the Benposta community, but they are almost invisible. It is a republic of children and adolescents, independent and democratic. Each year, the teenagers elect a mayor and a cabinet, while the younger kids (8-12) elect their own small mayor, who works with the mayor on issues important to younger children. The mayor is the executive and administrator of the republic, while all children form part of the a bicameral legislature, which meets twice a week to propose solutions to community problems. The week that I visited, the issue at hand was how to save water (for environmental and economic reasons), and the plenary session was to vote on one proposal by the younger children and another by the teenagers.
The citizens of Benposta are also in charge of socialization and community education for new members of the community. Though the ICBF (Youth Services Department) refers kids to Benposta, a committee interviews every candidate to assure themselves that s/he can become a good citizen -- in the majority of cases, the answer is yes, but there are a limited number of places each year. The new girl or boy then joins a district, where s/he will live, and which forms the basic unit of Benposta democracy. The district welcomes the new citizen, teaches h/er the laws of the republic (laws, not rules, because the citizens have voted for them), and makes sure that s/he is included in the community. Each district, like a town government, must solve its own problems.
Each district elects a representative for the mayors cabinet and a maintainer. This maintainer functions as a sort of older sibling, an example of good and democratic behavior. Maintainers are not professionals or adults, merely kids who have lived at Benposta for several years.
Benposta citizens dont only work democratically in their own community, but also in local neighborhoods. When I visited, a Peace Committee had just negotiated a cease fire between two warring gangs in the shantytown that abuts Benposta, ending the constant gun battles that had threatened everyone.
I asked many of the leaders of Benposta what advise they would give other children and adolescents who want to live democratically. The responded that tolerance is the most important thing, to accept oneself and others. Equality is also important -- while recognizing that were not all the same, we should try to have the same rights, responsibilities, and possessions -- if someone has more stuff, it breeds resentment and violence. Everyone must also learn to see the virtues, and not the faults, of their fellow citizens.
Benposta is not just about politics: there is also a great arts program, including dance and drumming, and a very good school on the grounds. Local kids can also attend the school.
What are the results of this seemingly utopian project? Personally, I have never seen children and teenagers as capable of leadership as those of Benposta. Their maturity and personal strength is unbelievable, their rhetoric is intelligent and astute, and their pride shines out.
Is there a role for adults in the Republic? They raise funds. They teach in the school. But it is, in the end, a childrens republic -- one I wish adult republics could imitate.
Benposta Nación de Muchach@s
José Luís, consejero adulto
Calle 9A 21-20 este
Aptdo. Aereo 26087
57 1 334 4827
fax 284 0711