September 18, 2015 by Debra Gittler


Can I write a cohesive blog entry that links two announcements, gratitude and respect for an organization and idea, and timely link to the holidays?

18 sept 2015

Shana Tova. This week, as El Salvador and Central America celebrated independence, we also celebrated the Jewish New Year of Rosh Hashanah. I joined my extended family at Lake Michigan as we practiced Tashlich, which translates as “to cast” and consists of throwing pieces of bread into water as we cast our sins and set the stage for a sweet new year.

And for ConTextos, and me, it is, in fact, a new beginning.

Because this week, we welcome to our staff our new—and very first—Country Director, Gerardo Calderon.

It’s easy to riddle of Calde’s resume to highlight his accomplishments and leadership (it’s an awesome CV!). But mostly, it’s the sense of calm that he inspires, his poignant questions, his fervent commitment to always ask about what the team might think and feel, and his deep belief that ConTextos is changing how kids are learning. Calde is already soaking up our work in the field, our vision and our team’s amazing leadership; he is charged with elevating the profile of ConTextos, our team and our beneficiaries. And I’m just so freaking excited to welcome him! I absolutely can’t wait to see the amazing things we will do together.


Calde’s arrival is perfect timing as we rev up for the end of the year. Most excitingly, our annual Teacher Conference, this year themed “Literacy in a time of Violence: Why should we care about reading and writing in a time of such trauma?” It’s still a working title …

Three hundred teachers will join us at Cinemark for a day of panels and conversation, key-noted by the brilliant and inspiring Jose Luis Sanz, Executive Director of El Faro newspaper. (This is announcement number two.) Jose Luis generously receives me, my calls, emails and texts whenever I have a moment of doubt. When I am unsure about what’s really going on in El Salvador, what’s really safe, what’s really possible, I trust his insight and experience. Some weeks ago, overwhelmed at how to keep ConTextos’ staff safe, I emailed him for guidance. He wrote me this:

“A veces, por temporadas, 
no se trabaja desde la esperanza sino desde los principios.”

At times, for stretches, we don’t work from a place of hope, but a place of principles. I think about this often—whenever I question “Why” about our work in El Salvador, about a place so overwhelmed by suffering, I remember that in the hopeless moments, we must hold even more tightly to our principles.

I can’t wait for Jose Luis to talk with our teachers about how much hope and resilience he sees and feels even when deep into investigating and reporting about the darkest parts of Salvadoran society. For everything he has seen and learned, he knows the potential and power of schools and learning for transformational change.

I shared this news earlier today when I briefly presented at the Chicago Literacenter, the USA’s first shared nonprofit workspace focused exclusively on literacy organizations. Launched in May, the Literacenter’s membership has been growing quickly; ConTextos is one of 56 member organizations.

The audience was filled with literacy nerds like myself, all working from different angles to address literacy and education in Chicago’s populations. When I posed the question: “Why should folks in Chicago care about kids in El Salvador when we have problems right here at home?” No one batted an eye. They understood immediately, and I felt overwhelmingly at home. Overwhelmingly assured that much collaboration and learning is to come; that we have as much to give as to receive.

And I couldn’t help but think back to just a year ago at a meeting in El Salvador when I was told that ConTextos was invading the territory of other NGOs that are already working in schools, training teachers, providing resources. It was suggested to me that perhaps there wasn’t enough room in El Salvador for more support to schools.

The Literacenter counts 56 literacy organizations targeting Chicago—and that’s only a tiny fraction of the educational orgs that focus on other areas, in formal and informal settings.

The Literacenter reminds me how complex this work is. How many partners it takes to enact change. How many methods and ideas and people and attempts it takes to reach every person. There are 5,200 public schools in El Salvador and frankly, every single one of them needs help. The Literacenter reminds me that we shouldn’t fight over territory in schools and with teachers; we should collaborate to improve our interventions and increase our outcomes.

So I enter the Jewish year of 5776 feeling renewed, inspired, supported, guided and eager. We are officially in the last quarter of the financial year, but just beginning so many next steps.

L’shana Tova. Happy Independence. Welcome Calde. Thank you Jose Luis. Gracias Literacenter.

(Did I do it….? Was I able to write a cohesive blog linking seemingly disparate items?)

Debra Gittler
Founder and Executive Director

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