“I am not playing with her - she is too small, she can’t run, and doesn’t talk to me!” one EducaFuturo participant shouted. “He only talks to his friends and just because I look different he doesn’t talk to me,” responded another.
Funded by the U.S. Department of Labor, Partners’ EducaFuturo program aims to significantly reduce child labor in Ecuador and Panama, especially among Afro-descendants, indigenous, and migrant populations. One component of the program works with over 1,200 youth to implement Partners’ A Ganar methodology, which focuses on using group sport as a tool to build life skills and employability skills for the future. Overcoming ethnic divides within the groups has proved challenging at times.
The EducaFuturo A Ganar group in Yaviza, Panama was composed of 37 participants, half of Afro-Panamanian descent and the other half from indigenous backgrounds. At the beginning of the program, participants would only talk to their friends who they knew were “just like them.” They sat in different parts of the open tents and during activities would not pass the ball or even glance at their other teammates. The program facilitators soon realized breaking down these boundaries would be key for working with these youth.
Two facilitators, Alida and Nayrobis, took a unique approach to get over this social barrier. The activity was called “Los Zapatos de Otros” which translates to “In Another’s Shoes.” There were two objectives: each participant had to partner with someone they had never interacted with and each participant had to literally wear the other person’s shoes. At first, the activity met with resistance as participants responded, “I can’t wear her shoes, my foot is too big” or “this is impossible, it can’t be done.” It took the participants 40 minutes until they finally realized that they could wear the shoes on their hands, elbows, or any other way to make them fit. After successfully completing the task, the facilitators led an in-depth class reflection. Youth began to understand the concept of putting oneself in another person’s shoes, recognizing the importance of working with other people in order to accomplish a task.
This activity highlights two main, and interconnected, aspects in promoting social inclusion within a program: The role of the facilitator and the importance of intentionally designing an activity for a specific outcome. One of the simplest forms of reinforcing social inclusion within a group is through behavior modeling. A Ganar has always highlighted the facilitator as a key to our methodology. A facilitator (or coach) possesses both leadership skills and the influence to change both the behaviors and attitudes within a group. Facilitators can model desired behavior and thoughts, setting an example for youth to follow in their own actions.
In addition, the facilitator selects and adapts activities in order to bring the group together. Studies suggest that it is helpful to use activities in which there is a common goal, a methodology called cooperative learning. If an entire group is given one interconnected task, they are forced to communicate and work together as a team. While much has been written on the vital role team sport can play in cooperative learning, this is not an automatic process. In fact, the competitive nature of sport can heighten group tensions if the games and activities are not designed correctly.
In the case of the Yaviza, Panama group, this activity was a turning point, with all 37 youth going on to complete the 100 hours of the life and employability skills course. Understanding and working together is the only way forward, in all three of the areas that A Ganar focuses on – sport, life, and work. While the EducaFuturo A Ganar component focuses on life skills and employability skills for the future, we are also breaking down crucial barriers with our participants, helping them to build a stronger, safer, and more inclusive community.