National Impact Community: San Juan, PR
Puerto Rico Community Foundation
One big accomplishment was merging the efforts of organizations that have existed and collaborated for a long time, but had never really sat down and aligned their services to meet a shared goal. We now have a shared purpose and clear goals which has become our north star.””
—Alana Feldman Soler, Community Coordinator Alliance for Peace
Fundación Comunitaria de Puerto Rico (Puerto Rico Community Foundation) was established in 1985 to develop the capacity of communities to achieve social and economic transformation by stimulating community philanthropic investments. The program is an expansion of Taller Salud’s Acuerdo de Paz (Peace Accord), Puerto Rico’s only tertiary community violence prevention program. The Foundation’s goals are divided across six strategic initiatives: (1) Food and Water, (2) Energy and Environment, (3) Housing, (4) Education, (5) Economic Development, and (6) Philanthropy.
The Alliance’s objectives include the reduction of contacts with the justice system; increasing the number of young people with High School Certificates; and increasing the number of youth who are involved in legal income activities. The initiative benefits young people 15 to 30 years old who live in the Pueblo, Medianía Baja and Medianía Alta neighborhoods of Loíza. Program Coordinator Rivera Encarnacion attested that “all of us go to bed, wake up, dreaming of making a better Loiza.”
Acuerdo de Paz (Alliance for Peace)
The Alliance for Peace emerged from community-based efforts to respond to an increase in gun violence in 2009. The Alliance has the collective impact goal of reducing violent incidents in Loíza and providing educational and employment alternatives that help guide youth human development. The Alliance is made up of the Fundación Comunitaria de Puerto Rico (FCPR), the Municipality of Loíza, Nuestra Escuela, and Taller Salud. The program is a local adaptation of the University of Illinois’ CureViolence evidence based public health model, in which violence is understood as a social illness. Violence interrupters are trained to detect grievances and intervene to prevent a violent event from occuring. Interrupters are trained as mentors and carry a caseload of 15 participants who are at high-risk to commit or be the victim of a violent act.
Alliance for Peace successfully led 239 mediations in 2020 and saw a 53 percent decrease in homicides during its first year of implementation and a 90 percent decrease since its inauguration in February 2012. Nuestra Escuela Coordinator Simon Martinez elaborated that “MBK gave them the opportunity to humanize the reality of the systems that at times work against youth from Loiza, and work with them to find alternatives and to re-engage.”
Making it Work: The Power of Relationships, Communication & Trust
“Everything changes, but as Puerto Ricans we are really resilient.” explained Tanya Rivera Encarnacion. “We saw it after Hurricane Maria, the earthquakes, and now with the pandemic…but we continue to work together to tackle whatever comes in the future, even if things are difficult we can make it work.” Coordinating collective impact is difficult, even during stable times. The Alliance’s existing relationships and the foundation of trust was key to success during the pandemic. Feldman Soler shared “we had to be creative, but because we all had a deep level of trust and respect for each other, it made it easier to navigate the different challenges we all faced.”
Regular communication between the different partners was key to success. Partners talked about their weekly meetings where they would come together, define the challenges they were facing and come up with solutions that would keep the community connected and informed. Zinnia Alejandro described the Alliances community outreach strategy that included a mobile loudspeaker promoting peace when community violence occurred. “The bus allowed us to go around Loiza, broadcasting messages and reaching more people than we could in the past.” Another partner mentioned that text messages and What’sApp were critical for staying connected with the young people. She noted that “we thought we would lose contact, but it actually helped us stay more connected because of the relationships and trust we had built with them before the pandemic hit.”
Youth & Community Centered Approaches
One central tenet of San Juan’s Taller Salud’s approach was creating spaces where young people can tell their story. Executive Director of Taller Salud Zinnia Alejandro explained that “often youth are not heard and that can be obviously frustrating. We ensured that the young person’s narrative is validated and not ignored…We are the bridges and aim to inspire hope and love.” Youth participants engaged in a variety of Covid-safe outdoor team building activities that stimulated young people’s critical observation skills such as having groups create their own community asset maps. The Alliance also hosted ongoing community dialogues in order to engage participants in solving conflicts without violence. Alejandro elaborated that “we validate their stories, sit with youth and community, ask what they need and how we can achieve goals together.”
Following the ‘CureViolence’ evidence-based model, Taller Salud assigned community outreach workers to young people in the program in order to provide individualized mentoring and support. These staff members are community residents, whose profile incorporates their own experiences with violence in Loíza. Simultaneously, the organization also had a team of violence interrupters. Taller Salud utilized three Violence Interrupters and three community outreach workers to address and reduce violence in three zones of Loíza: Medianía Alta, Medianía Baja, and Pueblo.
Nuestra Escuela provided high school equivalency courses to high-risk youth from the selected zones in Loíza. Nuestra Escuela is an alternative education project that values and empowers its students in their personal development process. Teachers at the school adapted educational interventions and provided individualized support to youth who were referred to the program. Rivera Encarnacion explained that “everything is love and our young people feel it. Our Alliance is committed to youth and puts them first. Love is what moves us and keeps us working with youth.”
Analog to Digital: Staying Connected
The COVID-19 pandemic complicated ‘business as usual’ at Nuestra Escuela. Rivera Encarnacion explained that “Nuestra Escuela is all about the physical connection,” and going digital demanded more effort to set up the classes, work with the different types of learners and build connections between classmates. “Virtual check-ins were hard, many students did not want to be on camera and it took patience and effort to build trust.” A new culturally responsive curriculum was developed that both reflected the reality young people were facing and could be adapted for virtual or in-person learning. Speaking to the adjustment made to their curriculum Rivera-Encarnacion shared that “many families lost jobs during the pandemic and youth were conflicted with the choice between school and work. We found a middle ground and provided opportunities and flexible hours, workbooks, and virtual classes and with specific support from teachers to make sure they were on track for graduation.”
The efforts paid off. Alliance members celebrated that Nuestra Escuela was able to reach and work with a sizable cohort of students, most having a 90% academic average; and graduating the majority of students with their high school diploma. Rivera Encarnacion noted that youth consistently reported a high satisfaction with the program and recommended the program to others in the community. Martinez shared that “we don’t provide services, we are part of the community. We do everything as a team. We are proud of our students, what they accomplish and informed by love. Even when society is against them, their achievements are great!”
Commitment, Respect & Justice
Over the last two year the Alliance created a strategic plan identifying vision and goals. As part of that process commitment, respect and justice were identified as the guiding values. In an effort to implement their vision, the Alliance designed a campaign called “Problems are Solved Speaking” bringing together Taller Salud, the Municipality of Loíza, and Nuestra Escuela. The campaign kick-off event brought together 300 participants to rally community members to disavow violence and promote community peace.The visibility of the Alliance in the community has helped bring in new partners. Feldman Soler shared that “other organizations have joined and compliment what we do.” The University of Puerto Rico Law School provided 15 certifications in mediation to Alliance frontline staff. One key partnership included a collaborative agreement with the Puerto Rico Office for Courts Administration in order to provide an alternative to incarceration. Rivera Encarnacion elaborated “MBK got us closer to the justice system and [the courts] got to know our programs, reach, and approach. They now regularly refer youth to our program. This referral can transform the lives of our youth. If just one person in law and order knows what we do, we can save one more youth. For judges to know us, and know our impact is a big accomplishment.”
To learn more about the project and hear partners describe their individual and collective efforts on behalf of peace building, democratic education, and conflict mediation among Loíza’s youth, watch Lessons from Loiza.