What is social exclusion, where does it happen, and what can be done about it?
Earlier this month people from all over observed World Habitat Day, a celebration lead by the United Nations in honor of the work done by community development organization, Habitat for Humanity. As part of the festivities here in San Jose, Habitat for Humanity Costa Rica partnered with the Ministry of Housing and Human Settlements as well as the Ministry of Culture and Youth to open up a forum on housing-related issues in the Central Valley.
According to Andrea Anfossi, director of Habitat for Humanity Costa Rica:
[pull_quote_center]We believe not only in the positive impact of social coexistence around public space, but in its incentive character to prevent the proliferation of vulnerable populations, inequality and social discrimination.[/pull_quote_center]
The forum, titled #LaCiudadEsMia or “The City is Mine” in English, welcomed several leaders to the CENAC stage:
- Margherita Valle — founder of the “Platform for Citizen Integration”
- Maris Stella Fernández — president of the Integrative System of Artistic Formation for Social Inclusion (SIFAIS)
- Teo Metzger — German architect and urbanist
- Rosendo Pujol Mesalles — Minister of Housing and Human Settlements
All of which seemed to be in agreement with three common themes.
When Maris Stella Fernández first visited La Carpio, she had no idea the level of social exclusion she would find. La Carpio is a notoriously rough neighborhood — the kind parents teach their grown children to stay away from. Just 1km from the Amusement Park of Costa Rica stands a metal wall separating the rest of society from the surely equally unpleasant people inside.
What we fail to realize is that this wall holds nothing on the barriers we put up in our own minds. What we don’t see is that within those rusting tin houses are families with children so eager for life they can hardly contain themselves. What we choose to ignore is the potential for greatness in each individual. Instead, we label La Carpio as unsafe, unruly and and most importantly unworthy.
Yet despite the hanging plywood bridges and roofs that almost certainly leak, when Fernández asked what the ghetto wanted most, a doting mother replied: “an orchestra.”
So in 2011 it was decided that La Carpio was going to get an orchestra. The program began small with Fernández teaching guitar, Johnny Armenta teaching flute and soon another relative teaching violin. Of course, finding the instruments was a different story. According to La Nacion, their first class involved making violins out of cereal boxes.
Nevertheless, Fernández and the rest of the teachers pressed on. After all, in her own words:
[pull_quote_center]Any place is a good place to teach.[/pull_quote_center]
Fernández claims there are three key steps to creating social development:
- Trust in the power of partnership.
- Take action and establish a common language, goals for the relationship between each party involved.
- Persevere no matter how slow things start off.
Since the orchestra’s humble beginnings, the students have gone far. In fact they surpassed all expectations and earlier this year, went all the way to perform at the National Theater.
The dream of an orchestra could have never come true if it wasn’t for the courage of one woman to cross the boundaries of social exclusion. In Fernández’s own words:
[pull_quote_center]There may be precarious neighborhoods, but there’s no such thing as precarious people.[/pull_quote_center]
Creating social change is all about changing people’s projection of life and returning dignity to all people independent of their economic or housing situation. “People in marginalized communities are yearning for opportunities,” says Fernández.
Nevertheless, it seems disintegration happens for a variety of reasons — poverty being more a symptom than a cause. As many in Costa Rica know, San Jose is a unique metropolis in the sense that virtually nobody actually lives inside the city limits. Instead, the Central Valley has become a major commuting region, and neighborhoods with poor access to public transportation tend to have much higher unemployment rates.
Teo Metzger, the German urbanist who Skyped into the forum, proposed a renovated metro system to better integrate the city in terms of transportation. He claimed that poor infrastructure led to social and economic separation.
Minister Rosendo Pujol Mesalles had a different approach to reintegrating the Valley. In reference to the less desirable neighborhoods of the Grand Metropolitan Area, Pujol opened his presentation with the powerful words:
[pull_quote_center]Don’t be afraid of fear.[/pull_quote_center]
“We have to stop being afraid of the streets,” he continued, “of public parks, of our very selves.” Pujol modeled his ideal San Jose after New York City, where 50% of the city’s land is allocated for public use. By contrast, only 10% of San Jose is considered public space. His solution involves making the streets more than just streets since 90% of the time, 90% of the streets within the city are empty.
While Pujol acknowledges that San Jose was not constructed with social inclusion in mind, he remains hopeful that new technologies will reconnect us. That, and the abolition of condominiums. In a radical statement, Pujol claimed that like the walls outside ghettos, the walls enclosing many condominiums create an unnecessary and perhaps even harmful separation between the single body that is the San Jose population.
In the Utopian San Jose described by Pujol, citizens would be able to pass in and out of neighborhoods, parks and streets with ease and comfort. “We are all neighbors,” said an agreeing forum speaker.
Finally, something all speakers touched on at one point in their presentations and reiterated during the Q&A portion is that we are all responsible for unifying the city and making it a better place to life.
A park’s success is judged on who uses it and for what — so get out there and take advantage the public spaces we have. Yes, it’s true that many of the city’s public areas are misused with drugs and sexual activity at night, but what would happened if upstanding citizens reoccupied the space for good? Officers Cristina Montero Esquivel and Arturo Campos Solano explain that the parks of San Jose are often guarded extensively during the day so as to protect school children who come during afternoon playtime, but anyone can contact their unit, DCH4, to request extra coverage for a special event.
When asked what Fernández would would suggest for a person looking to make a practical difference in his or her city, she responded:
[pull_quote_center]Commit to 1-3 hours of community service each week without any expectation of what will change.[/pull_quote_center]
The fact of the matter is that giving to the poor is more than donating money or even constructing houses. That’s why the Costa Rican branch of Habitat for Humanity focuses less on building than other countries’ branches. Instead, the Costa Rica branch has invested in creative community engagement, often with the Ministry of Culture and Youth.
How will you get engaged?
Costa Rica is a popular location for foreigners to come to volunteer, but there is a lot locals can do too. Check out some of the articles below for ideas, then post your own suggestions in the comments!