Last week I traveled to Medellin, Colombia to attend the Echoing Green All Fellows Conference. I visited and learned about Comuna 13, which has a history of being plagued with conflict and violence. In the 90's, this community was the murder capital of the world. The violence stemmed from different groups wanting control of the territory because of it’s location and accessibility to easily import and export weapons and cocaine.
Echoing Green staff, fellows, and alumni went on a guided tour of this community. Our tour guide was a 22 year old named Stiven. He grew up and still lives in Comuna 13. The community is in the hills and lined with thousands of brick and cement homes with metal roofs overlooking the city skyline.
On our tour, he shared personal stories of his upbringing. He talked about how his family rarely left the house because they feared for their lives. He also recounted how he would see dead bodies in the streets on his way to school. He told us about how his community has invisible borders which prevent people from going from neighborhood to neighborhood within Comuna 13. When caught crossing these borders, gang members intimidate and murder people to protect their territory. They interpret these actions as disrespect, or the people crossing these invisible borders are thought to be spies or scheming to encroach on another gangs' territory.
Stiven told us personal stories of challenge and conflict. He also talked about how the community rallied together to reclaim their neighborhood from the local gangs. In 2002, police and military personnel came to bring order. Over a four day period, thousands of people died including gang members, police, and innocent bystanders, including children.
While these acts hurt the community, it was also a rallying cry that brought them together. Comuna 13 started working with the local government to revitalize. They used graffiti art as a way of creating hope and inspiration. Families received assistance to build new homes and roofs. Comuna 13 also installed a series of 384 M orange roofed outdoor escalators. By doing this, the local police and the government could better patrol the area. It also improved the quality of life for locals by turning a 45-minute uphill walk into ascending 10-minute ride. It has also attracted tourist to the community which also builds the local economy.
Although the community was rebuilding, crime and violence still existed. People could not get jobs, and food was not getting put on the table. Kids were not going to school. At the age of 14, Stevin was approached by local gang members on a weekly basis to sell drugs for $200 a week or murder rival gang members for $1,000 a week. As Stiven said, it was not about right or wrong, it was about survival and helping his family. Even though he never took the offers, he often seriously considered them as a possibility (many of his friends did become gang members).
The government went on to build a community center which started teaching hundreds of kids English by helping them tell their stories. Once they become comfortable, they would lead tours, which would pay them.
Kids need opportunities to thrive. Stiven took advantage of a chance to transform his life and support his family by being a positive role model for kids in the community. He serves as an inspiration and provides hope in a place where many people lack education, skills, and opportunity.
Like Stiven and so many kids in Medellin, kids here in the US are not being inspired and motivated to take their education seriously. My goal is to provide local opportunities for kids to be changemakers in their community. Coaching4Change trains high school students to lead classrooms so they can inspire change!
If you are interested in learning more about our work, check us out at www.c4cinc.org.