ARGENTINA – Carmen Hernáez, breaks down communication hierarchies
This is the story about transforming our process of communicating with both children and adults. In 2015, Fundación Caminando Juntos (United Way) contacted us at EDUPAS to conduct a project in childcare centers in marginal areas of Buenos Aires. In these vulnerable areas of the city live families who are seriously affected by economic crises, or lack of social or distributive policies. They are not vulnerable in terms of their ability to address critical issues that affect them. Through the process, we learned important lessons about communication with both children and adults.
In the framework of this project, during the last few years we were hired to work with families and childcare center teams on specific issues previously defined by the government. Based on all these experiences we proposed a change of perspective in the approach of the work for the 2015 program. We were interested in developing a methodology with all the childcare centers that shared a common sociogeographical area to identify critical issues related to the care of the children they serve.
The government allowed us to work with two areas, and with up to 7 childcare centers in each area. Both areas have a strong identity and a great presence of migrant communities from Paraguay, Bolivia, Peru, among others.
The particularity of these childcare centers, which are governmental nowadays, is that they have been adapted from community childcare centers developed by the women of the communties during the economical crisis. They serve around 100 children from 45 days to 3 years old. Most of them integrate in their staff people from the community, who have a deep knowledge of the families and work together with the formal staff: pedagogical coordinators, psychomotricians, psychologists, social workers, teachers, special teachers, among others.
To identify the issues of concern regarding the care of young children, we first conducted a deep interview with all the staff teams of each child care center. Then, we organized a first meeting with the members of all the centers in each area to share the list of issues that had emerged from the interviews. The first thing that caught our attention was that there was a strong coincidence on the topics of interest or concern. We analyzed all the issues together and defined one or two to address through a participatory process. We had meetings every two weeks. Each meeting was hosted by a different child care center. We all had the experience to be both host and visitor Each host center, before starting the meeting, told us its story, its origins. Listening to stories, we got to know more about each other, understanding, empathizing, learning from each other.
We developed a simple methodology we called “puchero.” Puchero is a local stew made with vegetables and beef, and a familiar meal eaten by all social sectors. The name of this methodology can be adapted and translated to any local stew of several ingredients. The “puchero” methodology proposed the exchange of ideas on different aspects of the problem. When the members of the group identify something interesting, we take their idea or concept and “throw” it in the pot, which is imaginatively in the center of the meeting. When we find something very “nutritious”, we call it “the broth,” because it can add the most insight.
As the experience progressed, the members involved began modifying their perspectives on the conversations and their dynamics, the importance of the interculturality issue, and the centrality of hegemonic cultures in the conversations, as well as hierarchies: how all this impacted and influenced the language development of the children who attended the centers. During the last meeting, we invite them to explore new experiences from these shared learnings, to bring this change of perspectives in the childcare centers life.
One of them decided to stop calling the meeting with parents “interviews”. The parents commented that every time they were called to have an “interview” they felt fear of being seen as bad parents, of being criticized or told their children had done something wrong. They began to invite parents to have “exchanges” to know more about their children, to listen to them and to learn from them. The invitations were personalized, calling them by their names (and not by their surnames) and setting up the space so as not to generate distances.
Another center replaced “parent meetings” and instead invited parents to “conversatorios”, spaces specially designed for conversations. They also personalized the invitations with drawings by their children. The space was prepared for a better exchange, including calm music from their cultures and also traditional meals. They tried the “puchero methodology” with parents. The experience was very successful: the change in the way of inviting the parents, arranging the space, including traditional foods and music and inviting parents to bring their meals and experiences modified the participation. They started the meetings sharing personal stories of their life experiences, migration, family, knowledge. Everyone felt invited to be part. Parents who had never came, appeared, those who did not speak at previous meetings, expressed themselves more fluently; they shared more.
One of the issues that emerged from our assessment was the delay in the language development of the children attending the centers. We proposed not to be tempted into quick answers and to allow all the members to participate in the exchanges and discussions, beyond hierarchies or their roles in the institutions. The contributions were varied, deep, rich, reflective. The most nutritious contributions to addressing the language delays of the children were provided by the auxiliary teachers, members of the communities.
In one childcare center, near the “Villa 24”, a girl of Paraguayan origin, showed “problems in the development of her language”. She hardly spoke. She was always quiet. One day, an auxiliary teacher spoke to her in Guarani. The expression of her face changed. She began to talk, first only to this “assistant teacher” who functioned as a liaison so that she could enter into the conversation networks. In another center, a three year boy from Haiti, who has just arrived in Argentina, didn´t speak and interact with his friends. Every day the teacher dedícated some exclusive time to him. She said “hola” to him but he did not answer or speak. One day she said “bonjour”. The boy changed his expression, and from that moment he started a new process of integration.
Both teachers functioned as links, like a train car that allows the other car to connect to it to join the trip. That “coupler” is the security of “the mother language” from which to move forward. The community members have taken on a “liaison” role, as we later called it. They speak both the language of families and children, and the language and codes of the institution. They have the potential to articulate these two worlds, for example, approaching a child who speaks another mother language “Guaraní” or “Aymara” to the networks of conversations that were woven in their socialization and early institutionalization.
Throughout our work with families and children, we put special focus and attention on those community members who were integrated in the staff teams of the centers, understanding the central role they play as mediators and “liaisons” in the process of cultural assembly and in supporting the first steps of these children from other cultures into the networks of conversations (group, institutional), recognizing that they are carrying out this complex process of cultural mestizaje, this early dissociation of cultures that is expressed in language .
Finally, a reflection on mestizaje, or language and cultural mixing: Marie Rose Moro is an important reference in the work with interculturalities and subjectivities. She works in Paris and in different countries with children and adolescents who are going through the complex process of inmigration and social integration. In 2016, she was in Buenos Aires. Having been born in Spain and emigrating to France with her family as a baby, she is like the children she works with. She had gone through this process of an early dissociation between her mother language, in her case Spanish, and the language of the country where they had emigrated, French. She shared with us that when she speaks Spanish, she talks like a little girl, the language of her childhood. When she speaks French, she speaks like an academic.
Each language in which we speak makes us not only speak differently, but think and feel differently. Associative chains are different. Our mother language associates us with our identity, with our culture, with our roots. It is continent and nutrient. To lose it and to submerge ourselves in another language and culture not only means to speak another language, but to enter into a world different from ours, unknown, that frighten us. These “mestizations” of languages are complex dissociation processes that are generally performed later in the life of persons. They have certainly an impact on the subjectivity of young children and in their “language development”. The voice of the mother soothes the baby at the moment of birth and the transition between intra-uterine life and the external world and gives him or her shelter. In the process of adapting to group care, the familiar voice of someone of the community does the same thing: tone, rhythm, language, identity, accompany the coupling to this process of cultural mestizaje. It is also important to observe the configuration and the dynamics of the conversations, whether they are among adults or between adults and children. Do they maintain the same center and circuits that favor some persons, cultures or knowledge over others? Or do they allow all the voices and cutural identities to be expressed?
These stories consolidated many lessons learned on the conversational dynamics of child care centers that transcended children with “language development problems”. Mestizaje is a complex process for children, but if it´s well supported, it can expand their world and bring more information, resources and ability to manage diversity. We need to develop open and flexible configurations that allow the expression of all voices and identities.