Community leaders fighting for social change in Colombia’s poorest slums face a unique obstacle: their families. The long hours and high stress of community leadership can strain family relations to the point that many dynamic leaders are forced to give up activism to preserve their marriages and their families. Audes Estella Jiménez Gonzalez has found that the best way to give leaders more family time without them having to give up activism is to make activism a family affair.
The New Idea
In the past, citizen activists in Colombia strictly separated their professional work from their personal lives. Their families remained oblivious to and uninterested in the vitally important social work to which these activists dedicated their lives. Audes has introduced an approach to social change that completely inverts the old way of thinking, involving entire families in the process rather than just isolated individuals. Instead of keeping families out of activism, Audes encourages them to participate by connecting activism with fun and informative activities. She is creating different activist groups to appeal to different family members, such as a teen group that uses dance and theater to attract members and a “husband” group that offers business workshops to attract older men. This not only strengthens the bonds between the activist and her family, leading to a more harmonious home life, but it also benefits the social movement itself by bringing in additional members who would not normally have considered joining.
Community participation has always been low in Colombia, especially on the eastern coast where Audes’ base of Barranquilla is located. Previous efforts to encourage civic engagement have been largely unsuccessful and have never incorporated the whole family, instead relying on the dedication of scattered individuals. In Barranquilla, a coastal urban slum of 400,000 people, 1000 families and 60 trainer/organizers responsible for outreach have already joined Audes’ project. Beyond Barranquilla, the Association extends to five large and mid-sized cities. Audes’ plan takes advantage of pre-existing social connections within families, creating an activism that will naturally spread to extended families and distant relatives living in urban slums throughout the country.
By engaging family members through activities like dance performances and business workshops, Audes involves the whole family in the democratic participation process. Instead of being something that separates families, community activism brings them together. Parents and children discover that working together on community projects can be rewarding and enjoyable.
Community organizing is hard, demanding work, often incompatible with a healthy family life. An informal study revealed the toll that a leader’s dedication can have on her private life. Many of Colombia’s most prominent community leaders from the 1970s and 1980s are now divorced. Others, especially women, dropped out of community involvement to better attend to their families. Those that remained deeply involved in activism report that their dedication has caused deep rifts in their families.
Leaders promote peaceful conflict resolution in the community, but they often return home at night too exhausted to give their families the same attention. Spouses and children usually do not understand why the community leader fights with such dedication, sometimes at the expense of family time, and so come to resent her involvement in public life as it takes her away from the home. Colombia has lost many energetic community leaders when they had to choose between their families and their work. In addition, when families see community activism as a cause of discord, they refuse to become involved themselves and instead retreat away from the very programs and organizations that could change their lives for the better.
To motivate each member of the family to participate in community activities, Audes has created various networks that each cater to the interests of a particular demographic, such as women, teenagers, small businessmen, churchgoers, or students. A network targeting teens will work for goals that benefit teens, such as promoting better public services in the community, but will also attract members by appealing to their individual interests: The group might use dance and theater as ways of getting young people engaged, for example. In the same way, husbands, more interested in commerce than in dance, flock to Audes’ micro-enterprise network.
Each network includes a capacity-building program that teaches its members about civic participation, conflict resolution, development projects design, human rights, environmental protection, and other social issues. Although the subjects are the same, each network uses different methodologies and approaches geared to its own target demographic group. In this way, members of a family are engaged in projects that are interesting, relevant, and fun to them personally, but that have the same ultimate goals as other projects involving other family members. Previously, when only one family member was involved in activism, the rest of the family would feel abandoned. In Audes’ network, when families gather for dinner at the end of the day, they can all talk about the day’s activities, share opinions, and feel that they are all working toward the same goals.
Audes’ women’s network plays a critical role in keeping families involved. A family with strained or broken relations will generally refuse to participate in the networks when invited. If this happens in Audes’ program, a participating neighbor will gently encourage the resistant family’s mother to get her family involved. The women’s network then invites this mother to the next network meeting to share her experience and talk about her family’s reaction to the invitation. In this session, other women offer feedback, support and advice on how to get all family members involved. If her family is especially reluctant, “expert” or long-time participants may “adopt” the case and work closely with the woman to ensure success.
Audes’ work proves that by engaging family members in activism and linking activist groups into a network, advocates can generate far greater impact in their communities. On the local level, her family-based networks succeeded in convening a local assembly meeting with the Mayor present, in which the people demanded and eventually received a sewage and water treatment system. Audes’ networks are also affecting policy on the national level—the National Commission for Peace is currently reviewing the network’s project to reduce internal violence.
Unable to support their large family, Audes’ parents sent her to live with an aunt when she was only seven. However, her aunt’s family was not much better off, and Audes would often slip out to a neighbor’s house for her one meal a day.
In high school, a liberal neighborhood priest introduced Audes to the possibilities of civic activism. The priest encouraged her to work for the community, and, since Audes’ town had only a 40 percent literacy rate, she decided to start teaching literacy classes. She soon realized that some of her pupils had serious learning disabilities that prevented them from keeping up with the other children, so she formed a separate group specifically for these handicapped students. Things grew from there, and, when she was 15, Audes’ formed and headed an informal advocacy organization for the disabled. In the years since, this organization has become a formal citizen group, and Audes remains peripherally involved to this day.
Despite her poverty, Audes was able to study at university in Barrieca on a merit-based scholarship. She started studying biology, but also grew increasingly interested in citizen activism, particularly in the local slum’s fight to gain access to public utilities. At 24, she formed a student group to build a literacy center. Later, in 1992, she organized a community group that successfully lobbied for the creation of fully-staffed health centers. For years, Audes worked across issue areas but dealt primarily in one slum community. That changed in 2000, when she called for a meeting of the leaders of the broader slum neighborhood, encompassing 400,000 people. Audes organized the 320 attending community leaders into coordinated working teams, and after this experience, she shifted her focus to advocate for broad-scale national as well as local change.