Manuel Gonzalez is building a national umbrella organization of those working for children, especially street children and youngsters at risk. This organization champions the rights of children, helps develop a new type of grassroots children's worker free of disciplinary blinders, and encourages and spreads innovations in the field.
The New Idea
After working creatively with children in trouble through the 1980s, Manuel has increasingly turned to helping Mexico as a whole come to grips with the alarming growth in the number of children denied acceptable childhoods.He started several years ago among those working for children in Mexico City. His first solidarity meeting for children, at which 20 organizations came together, was held in 1987. In 1988, 38 groups signed up. He is now quickly moving to create a National Children's Movement. At its first national meeting in February 1989, 124 non-government groups from all over Mexico as well as from several of its Latin neighbors attended. As the head of the Movement's organizing commission, Manuel is now taking the lead in stimulating the development of children's organizations in the seven major regions outside Mexico City.Increasing the number of people working on the problem is important, but Manuel has a far more ambitious agenda. First, he's setting out to define, build support for, and ensure children a series of basic rights. This involves building consensus within the Movement, imaginative use of the press, suggesting legislation, and building the capacity of grassroots organizations to provide needed support. His concerns are very concrete. For example, since many children, especially street children, must work, he wants to enforce contracts and claim a number of other safeguards guaranteed old workers. (Earlier he had set up the prototype of an employment agency for children, and had attempted to protect them against unjust employers on a number of occasions.)Second, he wants to strengthen those working for children, both individuals and organizations. The Movement, designed as a flat mutual help network, will help by encouraging the participants to reflect, evaluate, and share. The Movement will try to help member groups learn both these reflective skills and how to train their own staffs.Even before devoting himself to building the Movement, Manuel had begun to create a new paraprofession for workers from grassroots organizations working with children, specifically including some of the street children themselves. He persuaded the Open University to allow him to build a certificate program for these "Promotores de Ninos Callejeros." He designed the curriculum both to mesh with their day-to-day work and to allow them to proceed at their own, differing paces. Through the program he has set out to create "geo-cultural" people not limited by the usual university and professional specialized parochialisms. He hopes to extend this opportunity to other parts of Mexico as he builds up the Movement there.Finally, he hopes that as the Children's Movement matures, and as its members experiment and reflect over the next five years, it will gradually develop an overall strategy for the country. If it also works skillfully at building public understanding over these five years, Mexico just might then get at the roots of this broad and deeply troubling failure.
Nobody knows how many street children there are in Mexico, let alone how many children are at risk. However, even using conservative estimates, the problem is huge. Moreover, as Manuel stresses, Mexico's extended debt and economic crisis, which has sharply cut the average citizen's real income, has increased the number of children falling into the streets -- and made their lives there harder. Few jobs are available. Those who might otherwise have helped are less able. "Children's rights have suffered especially."
Even before the economic crisis, the country did not have the capacity to deal with the suffering children. The institutions, such as they were, typically offered emergency beds and food. A small number of children could be accommodated in a few residential institutions. Little was being done in the streets and communities. The gap between need and both the quantity and pattern of response has since grown worse.
Manuel is operating at several levels at once. He continues to develop concrete micro projects in several Mexico City communities. They keep him in touch with the reality facing these youngsters; they allow him to experiment; and they give him credibility.
Second, he's making a major commitment to building up children's groups in seven key outlying regions: Aguascalientes, Guanajuato, Veracruz, Guerrero, Puebla, Michoacan, and Oaxaca. When he starts work in one of these areas, he not only draws together those already working with children, but he draws into the work other local individuals and social institutions who are especially respected and might be able to contribute. He and his colleagues on the Movement's organizing commission then begin the process of helping these new local co-workers and of linking them together and with others elsewhere.
Both these elements feed into his work to build the Movement nationally. Here his approach starts with an organizational design that is as unhierarchical (and unthreatening) as possible: the idea of bringing the field's very diverse groups together has long been bedeviled by competition and jealousy. In addition to diffusing leadership, he has also tried to help his coalitions achieve early impact, be it through articulating an important idea or through the press.
Manuel first came into contact with street children when he went through a rough three months after running away from home as a boy. He has a strong sense of empathy with both the joys and hardships of living on the street.
A psychologist by profession, he as also studied journalism, which helps explain his ability constantly to engage both the press and radio in broadcasting his work for children's rights. He has worked principally in Guadalajara and, since the earthquake, Mexico City. However, he comes originally from the north of Mexico.
UNICEF sent him to Brazil in 1983 to study street children's projects, and he came back a believer in encouraging street children to organize to manage their own affairs. Manuel's wife works closely with him on the children's movement.