Peacebuilding en Las Américas – August 10, 2016

Building community among school staff: Soyapango Friends School, El Salvador

At an Alternative to Violence Project (AVP) Basic workshop with teachers, staff, administrators, and one student at the Soyapango Friends School in El Salvador, facilitators saw a transformation in the way participants treated each other. The workshop was co-facilitated by Salomon Medina, Coordinator of AVP El Salvador, Doris Guardado, a teacher at the school, and two US-based Peacebuilding en Las Americás volunteers: Shirley Way and Fazilee Buechel.

“The first day, this group of ten was reserved and cautious, but by the third they were raucous. They had done the work of solidifying community, exploring the violence they carry and perpetuate and some were liberated to be fully themselves,” said Way.

At first, this group of ten, who took the workshop after completing their workday, was not connecting well with each other.

“When you are living in fear, there is potential for conflict all of the time. People are afraid to be themselves, which makes it harder to form relations,” said Way. “The teachers and staff don’t know each other. There is a lot of class separation in El Salvador.”

The workshop allowed participants to see each other in a new way, which challenged the discrimination that comes with traditional power roles and hierarchical differences embedded in the school. This change not only positively influenced relationships with co-workers, but rolls over to their classroom and homes.

“From my experience working in schools, staff connections make such a big difference. When you feel supported and appreciated, it impacts the students. The workshop made the environment much more loving,” said Buechel.

By telling their stories, learning the principles of transformative power, and partaking in the light and livelies, participants went from not talking and seeing each other as rivals to gaining each others trust and enjoying each others presence.

For Medina, “this is our contribution: bringing good news to environments that are normally very pessimistic and despair-ridden. We have great challenges, but at the same time many opportunities of hope to build and contribute to the peace and reconciliation of people, including people often excluded,” said Medina.

By the end of the second day, participants started having fun. “It was a real shift,” said Way. “People started laughing out loud.”

Participants felt safe enough in the space to share their stories. The woman who works as a cook shared how she wakes up at 5:00 a.m. everyday in order to arrive in time to make breakfast for the teachers. This means that she walks to work in the dark every morning, which all participants know is very dangerous because gangs are most active in darkness.

“When gangs kill someone, they just bring them to the cemetery,” said Way. “She puts herself at risk every day walking alone at that hour. She lives in fear every morning.”

Sharing this story, and many more like it, helped build understanding and community among group members.

By the end of the three days, “people seemed more like comrades,” commented Buechel. “They wanted to work together. I saw it in their faces, in their eye contact, gentle touches, and hugs.

“For some, you saw the change in their ability to speak out in large groups, especially for the janitor and cook. One woman, who worked as a janitor, looked like she was on mute at the beginning. She spoke but you hardly heard her. She looked down and had her hands in her pockets. By the last day, we could hear her and she was able to address the group. I thought that if she can speak, maybe it signifies that she is opening up to them,” said Buechel.

“This has been very interesting, because it has motivated students, faculty and staff to have better relationships, better ways to communicate and solve problems in more creative ways using AVP tools they have learned in these workshops,” said Medina.

One of the teachers in the workshop commented: “I learned and want to apply in my life to be more optimistic, to see the best in myself and others in order to find non-violent solutions. I used AVP when teaching in 2nd grade, because there was a lot of hyperactivity among students. I used ‘responsible messages’ so the children would rejoin their student activities with tranquility and attention.”

“At the ‘where we go from here talk’ at the end of the workshop, one of the teachers said everyone needed to block out the calendar for Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday because they would be there for the Advanced workshop. They want to continue,” said Way.