Understanding street kid services in Latin America
Anyone who has worked in an American soup kitchen or homeless shelter might find it difficult to recognize a program for street kids in Latin America. A program in Mexico insists, we never give out food. Several in Brazil have rejected the concept of shelters, working instead with families. In a small city in Argentina, work with street kids never even goes on the street. Perhaps most significantly, youll never hear words like charity or social services. The words you hear are protagonismo, sujeto social, and anti-asistencialista.
So what could protagonism, the social subject, and anti-help-ism possibly have to do with social work?
Well, not much... at least not as Americans and Europeans understand social work.
Perhaps the best place to start is with the concept of asistencialismo, a word that, lamentably, has no equivalent in English. Asistencia is help, or aid. A social worker is an asistente social. So asistencialismo is, literally, help-ism. And, in the rhetoric of the programs that work with street kids, asistencialismo is the institutional sin par excelence. According to most program directors and line staff, direct help only builds dependence and allows kids to stay on the street.
American and European social service agencies emerged from the welfare state, or perhaps from the church, but in Latin America, these programs grew in the soil of revolution. Though few workers have actually been revolutionaries, they are inspired by Che Guevara, by the Sandinistas and the FMLN, by the Tupumarus and Salvador Allende. Where Americans tell a story of the governments responsibility to help poor people, Latin Americans insist on the peoples responsibility to seize justice for themselves.
Often, the visionaries behind programs for street kids in Latin America have been steeped in philosophy and sociology, and the relationship between subject and object centers their view of the world. A carpenter is the subject, a chair his object. A writer is the subject, a book her object. And, according to the critique that Latin Americans make of US-style social work, the social worker becomes the subject and the poor person the object. The social worker does all the work, leaving the street kid with dinner, but without power, dignity, or the pride of a job well done.
These programs dont want kids to be objects of charity or pity. They want them to be subjects. In some cases, like Guatemalas ADEJUC, São Paulos Projeto São Bernardo, or Bogotá's Taller de Vida, to be political subjects, protesting for human rights or even running for local office. In other cases, the kids become subjects of desire, learning how to want new pleasures: the pleasure of music instead of the pleasure of drugs. The freedom of dance instead of the freedom of the streets. Projeto Axés efforts to teach desire have had an amazing impact. Sometimes, street kids become teachers, like at the FOC in Buenos Aires, or learn to health educators, as at Acción Educativa. Some of the best programs train girls to be sex educators for their peers, as at Transas do Corpo or De Joven a Joven, or to counsel their peers who have been raped and abused, as at Cecria. Others become economic subjects, running a magazine at La Luciérnaga in Argentina or a managing a catering company at El Caracol in Mexico. In the case of Benposta, in Bogotá, a place that seems like a shelter is actually a democratic children's republic, dedicated to training community leaders.
In English, this vocabulary sounds stilted; subject and object, like existence and essence, are concepts we should have forgotten after that Sophomore year philosophy class. But in Spanish, this is the bread and butter of work with street kids: giving them the tools to become the protagonists of their own lives.
To learn more about the experiences of street kids in the United States and Latin America, click here to read Shine a light director Kurt Shaw's collection of radio commentaries on youth homelessness.