Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Letter from Cali Colombia

Dear Colleagues:

Greetings from Colombia where Sue and I just spent four intense, edifying and poignant days at Javeriana the Jesuit university in the city of Cali, a sprawling metropolis of 2.5 million which, to the novice observers, mirrors the complexity of the country itself. I have no illusion of understanding the politics or economy of this country which, by the admission of its own people, is mired in corruption and autocratic rule. My take-away from our time in Cali is simply this: Jesuit education can be an inspiring means to connect the heart and mind and the classroom and the community; and, Javeriana’s mission and work, much like our own work at the law school, can be a powerful tool for the common good.

We came to Cali to discuss possible connections between Javeriana and USF. Our visit followed a visit by the Father President and Provost of Javeriana to USF two months ago. The specifics of that relationship are complicated by dangers that pervade the country (witness our visit to the Provost’s beautiful home where armed guards and tight security ring the compound), language barriers, lack of financial resources, and the questionable availability of faculty given our engagement in so many places around the world. That said, it would be difficult to find a more affirming venue for the value of our mission and the importance of our students’ engagement in the community. There are many stories to tell, but one image is particularly impressive: the seamless connection at Javeriana between the classroom, the scholarly research of its talented faculty and the plight of displaced persons, victims of family violence, and young orphaned children who live in the poorest of conditions in Cali’s Agua Blanca.

I heard about Javeriana’s ambitious clinical programs on our first day here during discussions held at their modern law school housed in one of the many red brick buildings that dot the campus on the southern edge of the city, creating an inspired sense of architectural unity amidst beautiful landscaping (each building is named after a tree that grandly grows at its entrance). All fourth and fifth year law students are required to take the clinic. (In Colombia, legal education is a five year undergraduate program.) However, it was not until we visited the clinic itself and one of the many community organizations with which it works, Paz y Bien in the Agua Blanca, that the centrality of student and faculty engagement became so clear.

The clinic (the Consultorio Juridico y Centro de Conciliation) is in the center of the city adjacent to one of the few remaining colonial buildings in Cali, the Hall of Justice. There, three or four full time faculty work with law students, handling a caseload that exceeds two hundred. The focus of the work often involves conciliation, mediation and arbitration on criminal, labor, housing and commercial matters, among others. The professors and students who hosted us described the more than thirty NGOs with whom they work to ameliorate every conceivable social ill ranging from transparency in government (Cali Visible) to the protection of fundamental human rights (Atencion Inmediata).

Paz y Bien Foundation is one of those NGOs. Its driving force is Sister Alba Stella Barreto Caro who has created a network of programs to empower women, care for orphaned children, provide micro loans to foster financial independence, provide mediation to stem violence, and educate citizens about their legal rights. Paz y Bien operates over multiple blocks in the Agua Blanca where one can visit nine homes that provide care for 500 children, nurseries, a community kitchen, a store that sells used clothing and other items to provide basic necessities, the micro loan ‘bank’, and a meeting place for displaced persons – those victimized by the left and the right and driven from their homes under threats of death. (On Peace Thursdays groups of displaced persons meet to share stories in facilitated support groups.)

Javeriana clinic students support the effort. So do Javeriana faculty in multiple disciplines whose research is frequently dedicated to support the work of Paz y Bien as well as other NGOs. Two professors, Alejandro (law) and Yvonne (psychology), were our guides during our three hour visit. They described student and faculty work tutoring and providing psychological and occupational counseling, holding workshops to educate residents about how to make claims to enforce their rights, and engaging in empirical scholarship to support mediation in the criminal justice system. The list could go on and on.

The most compelling moments during our visit on a rainy morning (punctuated by a 5.6 earth quake that fortunately was buried deep in the earth with an epicenter 25 kilometers from the Agua Blanca – you can take Jeff and Sue out of San Francisco, but …) came from the people themselves. 16 year old Alberto, whose sweet face and beautiful black dreadlocks belie the horrors of his story, described his journey from the violent streets to Paz y Bien. Alberto joined us in our discussions with Paz y Bien staff and, despite his own travails, expressed shock when I described USF’s work to eliminate the sentence of life without possibility of parole for juveniles – proclaimed Alberto in disbelief that such a penalty existed in the United States: “That would be the end of childhood.”

At the displaced persons house a block from Paz y Bien’s main facility, we met with Camilo, Barbara, Edema and Emma who took turns describing the violence that uprooted them from their self-sufficient lives and homes, terrorized they said by the government, the paramilitary and the guerrillas. Relating her story, Barbara, who travels from house to house nightly with her children to find shelter (Paz y Bien does not have the resources to provide housing for all those in need) intoned: “It takes a lot of work to live.” Camilo, in his serape and broad brimmed hat insisted on standing as he described going “from one hell to another” when he was forced from his land by threat of death. Estimates are that there are as many as four million Camilos, Barbaras, Edemas and Emmas in Colombia.

Despite the hardship, a sense of joy and hope pervades Paz y Bien. It was evident in the passion of Fannie who overseas the legal programs, and on the smiling faces of more than one hundred children eagerly anticipating a holiday puppet show and Christmas gifts in a large recreation room in one of the many buildings in the neighborhood devoted to providing social services.

The ultimate shape of any relationship with Javeriana is unclear. What is clear, however, is that the connection between classroom and community is deeply ingrained in the psyche of its students, staff and faculty. It was heartening to realize that the mission articulated on Javeriana’s web site mirrors precisely our own. It was heartening to be able to exchange stories with our hosts about USF’s efforts to make our mission reality and to hear the President and Provost explain how impressed they were with our sense of purpose during their recent visit. At the same time, it was challenging to contemplate how we can continue to achieve our ambitious aspirations.

That’s the report from Colombia. I look forward to seeing everyone after the New Year. Have a joyous holiday season.