November 12, 2016 by Debra Gittler


Ezzie and I left the States for El Salvador Wednesday afternoon. I had joked that «if things didn’t work out on Nov 8, this would be a one-way ticket…» But being away doesn’t feel good at all.

I cried in the airport, questioning what I was doing leaving the United States to work in another country, when my home country was so hurting and needed so much help?

I cried on the flight, overwhelmed by the lack of justice. There is so much broken in the world, so many people and causes and rights that need defending.

I cried when my baby woke up in the middle of that first night in El Salvador. Because of the world she is coming in to.

ConTextos is an apolitical organization. But I can’t help but share these opinions… We have supporters and donors and board members and recipients of our services who voted for both parties. And I’m proud of our indifference to politics.

But I’m heartbroken at the rhetoric of hatred and division. In September, my father died. And one thing I learned from his legacy as a labor lawyer was how greatly he was respected by management. He was able to fiercely defend the cause of unions and working people, but also work amicably and even become dear friends with “the bad guys” representing mangament. I vowed to continue my father’s fierce commitment to integrity. I promised to continue to live by an ethical code that prioritized Doing Right over Being Right.

That someone can become president having said and done things that he has said and done… Not pay employees. Not pay debts. Threaten walls and human registries and stripping of rights… A leader who boasts that integrity is for suckers, that it’s all about winning… and then win.

I’m having a really hard time with it.
I’ve been writing for four days. Writing and writing and writing my frustrations and fears. I keep circling this conflict of why work internationally when so much is going on at home? This year, we are just starting to bring our work from El Salvador and Central America into Chicago… but is that enough?

Yesterday, we went to visit a school in Distrito Italia outside of San Salvador. To arrive, we needed permission and escort from the gangs. We wound through the mostly abandoned streets, handfuls of young men watching us we drove by, sending texts and calls to report our wherabouts.

I was heartbroken. Heartbroken at the injustice of it all. At the complexities.

And also inspired by the void.

“A threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

The talk—and support—of “The Wall” came from a deep-rooted fear in the violence in this part of the world. And frankly, that fear is valid. Here in El Salvador, violence, gang-activity, poverty and need are rampant. A wall won’t stop that. Most likely, these already transnational criminal organizations will adapt and continue to grow, and drive this small nation (and others) into an even worse situation. We can’t let any election or policy or politics stop us from remembering how connected we are all.

People here, too, are scared. They are scared of the violence and uncertainty that already existed. And now afraid for their families in the States.

Throughout the world, we see a genuine fear of change, migration, “the other.” But we can’t stop the inevitable demographic shifts that are happening across the globe. We might build walls, but we can’t stop people from being connected. We might need to focus on healing at home, but we must do so concurrently as we emphasize our leadership around the globe. Not because we can build walls, but because we can build bridges. We must build bridges.

Over these past few days, as I’ve been writing, I’ve been reading the writings of others, too. This only emphasizes how vital literacy is during times of change and uncertainty. And I don’t just mean the ability to read and write, but the culture of using written expression as a means for respite and dialogue.

There are a million shout-outs floating around encouraging people to support local human-rights organizations in the States. Meanwhile, here in El Salvador and throughout the international development community, there’s a murmur of fear that USAID will be defunded, that international work will be abandoned, that the US will no longer be a world leader for human rights.

(And lets be clear… if the USA abandons this niche, someone else will fill it. And even though our country might have some serious soul-searching to do, there’s not a question in my mind that we are still the best poised to leader the world in this regard…)

I’ve stopped crying. My eyes still sting. My gut is still heavy with sadness. But my sense of conviction and commitment are renewed. ConTextos’ work spans the Americas. We are helping the most vulnerable youth in the world—here in El Salvador, at home in Chicago—to develop the skills that will help them prevent or rehabilitate from trauma and violence.

In the USA, just as we renew our commitment to local healing, we must continue to stay committed to international leadership. The only way to fight a wall is with words. We’ve got to stay committed to lifting the voices of everyone. At home. And abroad. ConTextos is doing this work. I hope others stay inspired to help us…

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