July 30, 2015 by Debra Gittler


Mi querido equipo,

I write with a heavy heart. I returned to the States on Sunday evening, eager to be with my family, eager for the ease of summertime in the Midwest—long nights, seasonal produce, hot air. I got here just in time for the sunset over lake Michigan. And just in time for one of El Salvador’s worst days.

As much as I go back and forth, you’d think I’d be used to the transitions. But every time I leave El Salvador, I’m overwhelmed by sadness. Just as when I leave the States to return to El Salvador, I have a heavy heart.

The first shock is always the traffic. The craziness of El Salvador. The order of the USA. Honestly, both are unappealing—driving the speed limit in the USA is inhibiting, and the chaos of El Salvador is terrifying.

But most overwhelming is always the stark contrast of the news of El Salvador while I’m here in the USA. From our office in Santa Tecla, news of corruption, murder and gangs seems so far away. Even though swats of military soldiers and police in riot gear circle our block throughout the day, the dangers of the country seem at arms length. Even though we work directly with so many young people who have been deeply affected by violence and gangs, the problems seem surmountable.

And then, as soon as I’m here in the States, the problems in El Salvador seem overwhelming. Yesterday was a particularly bad day—a gang-order to stop public transportation, the systematic murder of bus drivers, innocent people seeking refuge from their homes, a government with no ability to provide comfort or leadership.

From there, it’s obvious we work with individuals. From here, we seem to be against something enormous…

I am scared. Not for myself, but for you. Not for your physical safety, but your emotional well-being. ConTextos’ work is based on the strong belief that we are helping make El Salvador better. We provide opportunities for young people. We transform teachers into leaders. We engage children to be thinkers. Those in our reach are inspired by big ideas.

It’s only natural to occasionally stop and ask ourselves: What are we doing? Does our work really matter? Are we really making a difference? Our work feels like a small drop in the vast ocean…

I had a moment of despair yesterday evening. A phone call from a friend in fear. I felt impotent to help. If our work isn’t helping the people we love, what are we doing?!?!

But this morning I have a different feeling. Our work may seem just a drop in the ocean, but even a single drop causes ripples. We serve over 25,000 kids—that’s 25,000 drops. And each one causes infinite ripples.

We need more drops. We must do more, reach more, reach deeper. We must collaborate better, honor our colleagues, celebrate our successes. We must remember that this problem has been generations in the making. It won’t go away quickly.

And we must respect that fear is real. We don’t have to solve the entire problem to be a part of the solution.

As our Board Chair Tony always says, ConTextos’ work isn’t transactional; it’s generational. We aren’t handing out resources, but building minds. How are we helping to solve the problem? Ask the kids and teachers who have been transformed. Come back in 10-years and look deeply—leadership can’t be built in a workshop or a year. It takes time. We won’t give up.

I swore last week that this week, I would write about schools. About our work in schools. I’ve focused too much on other issues in these blogs lately…

I speak only for myself when I express disappointment in the Ministry of Education. We cannot pretend that schools are mere venues for scripted academic content. Schools must be places where children learn to navigate the reality in the world and in their families. And in El Salvador, these are particularly weighty subjects. We cannot pretend that children walk into their schoolhouse and the burdens of real-life float away. Quite the opposite—the weight of real-life sits heavy, and schools must be safe-places to navigate those heavy ideas.

That doesn’t mean schools must be therapeutic centers, nor kumbaya clinics. They must be places where ideas are explored and dissected. They must be spaces where children and young people and teachers and families come together to build new knowledge. As educators, we know how learning happens:

Previous Knowledge + Knew Ideas = LEARNING.

For learning to be real and powerful, it must build off of what we already know. For learning to be transformational, it must layer on top of previous experience. For schooling in El Salvador to create powerful change, it must respond to what students know, live, think and see.

In an environment where the military police the streets as police help innocent people evacuate their homes, our students come to school with heavy previous knowledge, with weighty prior experiences. They must acquire the skills they need to be effective in the work place, but also, to be resilient in their communities.

So yes, I have a heavy heart for El Salvador. And there are moments that I question if what we do matters…

But right now isn’t one of those moments. Right now, I am sure that what we do matters a lot. And it’s not just about preparing young people for the work force; it’s about preparing them for life. It’s not just about building teacher leadership; it’s about transforming teachers into guides.

So let’s learn how to have a heavy heart, and still soar. Let’s not be weighted down by the impossibles, but inspired by the possibilities.

No matter what’s in the streets, kids must have the opportunity to smile and play and laugh. They must fall down and get up again. They must be asked big questions so they can offer big answers. They must be engaged as thinkers and doers. They must be prepared as a next generation of dreamers and optimists.

This work can’t happen in a bubble. But it can happen in a school.

In ConTextos, we believe that literacy is a key tool to develop critical-thinking, analysis and creativity. We believe schools should be places for deep-thinking and big ideas.

If we expect so much from our teachers and students, we can also expect more of ourselves. We can learn to balance a heavy-heart with buoyant optimism.

Next week is vacation in San Salvador. Much of the country will take the time to relax and reflect. It will be a time of fiesta, family and friends.

It’ll be a time to lie in a hammock and read a book. To sit under a tree and write in a journal. Our students, and our teachers, will do these things. While vacation should be a peaceful time, we know that holidays won’t be enough to bring peace to El Salvador.

But our work is bringing peace to those we serve.

To my querido equipo—Thank you! You are brave to believe so deeply. You are courageous to feel so acutely.

Our work matters. The lives of Salvadorans matter. The kids and young people and teachers and families we serve matter. They may be just drops in an ocean, but their ripples will cause waves.

Many, many abrazos from the USA. Work hard this week and play hard next week—you’ll come back to work with lots to do. I, the thousands we already work with and the thousands more we will work with, need you to come back piqued and inspired.


Debra Gittler
Founder and Executive Director

PS—I’m in a rush to get going. I have to drive back into the city and given the stringent laws here, that means strictly obeying the speed limit. Oh how I miss El Salvador!

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