Poverty as a cultural identity

Developing an educational program within an area scarred by poverty can get complicated. As experience builds, the vision that education can actually cause an improvement in local socioeconomic conditions has evolved, from being a given and straightforward process into the quagmire of understanding conditions that create, and even more importantly, reproduce poverty.

When starting Amún Shéa school in Morazán, in northeast El Salvador, eight years ago, I held the notion that the chronically low socioeconomic conditions were of a technical nature, which could be improved through the formation of individuals to take on the task of development. I still hold that the solution lies in education and formation of the individual. What has greatly changed in my understanding is the nature of poverty.

The verb “to be” in Spanish has two conditions: one of a temporary nature (I am hungry) and another of a permanent nature (I am from Delaware). When the phrase “we are poor” is stated in the permanent condition, as often heard here, it is clear that poverty has become part of the cultural identity. As such, society actually takes measures to protect and replicate that heritage. Fear of change is the norm and demonization of those who break with status quo is the means by which this is reinforced.

It is notable the extent to which poverty is rewarded and progress punished on many levels and in many settings. What I have observed in education is that once students reach a certain level, they are no longer encouraged to seek personal development. This typically happens in the seventh and eighth grades as students reach and begin to surpass the emotional maturity and academic capacity of local society in general, including in many cases that of their parents and teachers. Clearly these young people are perceived as a threat as they develop critical thinking, emotional maturity and technical capacity above and beyond the established norm.

This phenomenon is part of what I see as an inherent fear of losing control, fostered by feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem. It leads me to the conclusion that in order to expedite positive socioeconomic change and for the needed improvement in technical and academic skills in our students, we must deal simultaneously with the emotional needs of adults, at least those involved in the educational community.

Thankfully, there are exceptions within the local communities. It is this group with which we as Perkin Educational Opportunities Foundation(PEOF) are building a solid innovative educational program with the vision of providing the tools for learning directly to the students. At the same time we are working towards incorporating a focused attention directed towards teachers and parents, into the educational program.

We are not alone with this issue. It was a pleasant surprise to find shared concerns and vision within an important segment in the Salvadoran Ministry of Education (MINED). This led to  is establishing a program for parents and teachers as a prime directive in the technical agreement “Pilot for Relevant Rural Education” PEOF signed recently with MINED.

When education takes on the task of socioeconomic change, the focus broadens from the student body to the entire community and from the technical angle to include those social and emotional issues which have embedded themselves into the very fabric of the culture. Much more than I planned on dealing with eight years ago, but then even more crucial to follow through.


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