Argentina has struggled with an uneven recovery since its economic collapse in 2001. Near the edges of Buenos Aires, gated communities and golf courses abut “villas miserias” (“misery villages”)—shanty towns similar to Brazil’s favelas. In Boulogne and San Fernando, where Enseñá por Argentina alumna Agustina Faustin teaches high school business, many women travel to nearby towns to clean elegant homes; many men compete for low-paid security or construction work. This inequality, Faustin says, has disillusioned many young Argentines; her schools have dropout rates upward of 50 percent. To combat their resignation, Faustin cofounded LIDER.AR (“to lead”) in 2013, teaching students to develop and take on school- and community-improvement projects. Today, 150 students in eight schools participate in the program, guided by about 20 instructors (mostly from Enseñá por Argentina). “I saw my students being passive, waiting for the government or rich people—someone from outside—to solve their problems,” Faustin says. “But when youth are part of the solution, they feel that they are part of society. That’s what Argentina needs.”
Q: What are some of the greatest challenges you see in the schools where you teach?
A: Teachers in Argentina work per hour. It’s not “one teacher, one classroom”; most teachers work in two or three schools. It’s very difficult because you can’t build relationships or trust when you’re at a school only four hours per week. Another problem is that secondary education has only been obligatory for the past three years. We have generations who never finished secondary school because you don’t need that to work in a shop or to work construction. On the first day of school, I always ask my students, “Who has passed their father’s academic level?” And almost all of them raise their hands.
Q: College tuition has been free in Argentina for almost a century. What’s kept your students and their parents from attending?
A: First of all, when I talk about university with my students, it’s new for them—it’s not culturally expected to go to college. But even if they show interest in going to university, they might not have the resources to commute every day or move away for school. And many students just aren’t prepared to go to university—not because they can’t afford it, but because their academic level is too low to keep up. Many schools aren’t preparing students for university-level work.
Q: How have these challenges affected your students?
A: I’ll tell you a story I always tell: When I was finishing my second year of teaching, I had one student come up to me after a failed exam and tell me, “Teacher, you have to pass me because I’m poor.” I suddenly felt that I had done everything wrong during those two years—I hadn’t taught my students responsibility. They were passive and felt like solutions were in other people’s hands.
Q: What do you think is causing this detachment in your students?
A: I think that we don’t teach students to be active because it’s easier for us to have control of the class and the system if the mind-set is, “Do what I tell you.” When Argentina was ruled by dictators, it was common to shut out the young voices. We learn from parents and grandparents that you don’t have to say what you think; it’s better to say what the other person is expecting. Taking action requires you to assume responsibility. Now, we are two or three generations removed from the time of dictators, so it’s time to listen to the youth again and make them part of society.
Q: In LIDER.AR, students participate in leadership workshops and then develop their own social-impact projects. How do they decide what kinds of projects to lead?
A: We connect students from different schools in our workshops, so they get to know other young people who have dealt with the same problems and want to change them. Some projects are personal. For example, some LIDER.AR students organized a festival for kids from the neighborhood, some of whom live on the street or come from houses that don’t have a lot of money. The kids found such joy to be able to play and be a child and not have to live in the adult world for a day. That was so powerful because some of our students had the same childhood that these kids have, but they were able to do something different for them.
Q: What makes LIDER.AR’s approach special compared to other youth empowerment programs?
A: I believe in LIDER.AR because it makes young people feel like they’re part of a group where you are helping others and feel good while doing it. I work with some very good, very responsible students, but I also have students who are not good in many subjects, or at least feel they’re not good. But in LIDER.AR, even if they’re not first in their class, they feel like an important part of a group. I have students tell me, “Teacher, I feel useful here.” And that’s a very strong thing to say: “I’m useful.”
Watch Agustina and the students of LIDER.AR at work in this video.
Learn more about Enseñá por Argentina.
This interview was originally published in Teach For America’s One Day Magazine, Fall 2014 issue. Story by Tim Kennedy (Delta ’11) with photographs by Patricio Murphy.