Life skills education for youth and families in informal settlements in Panama City: A case study of a cross-sectoral and participatory project
Ksenia Fiaduta and Anna Spezie
‘Gardens of Eden’ is one of 36 informal settlements in Panama City where a strong interconnectedness exists between living in a precarious habitat and inequalities in access to basic human rights, such as education and health, especially for children and youth. Their living conditions are intrinsically linked to problems associated with street-connectedness, including illiteracy, school drop-out, parental neglect, substance abuse, violence and recruitment into criminal activities. Socio-educational support towards these communities remains low. This article describes the Life Skills Education project, a cross-sectoral and participatory approach to developing education projects in informal settlements developed through collaboration between: the non-governmental organisation (NGO) TECHO Panama, specialising in emergency housing and urban interventions; psychologists at UDELAS University; and the community of ‘Gardens of Eden’.
Setting the basis for effective collaboration
TECHO Panama started working with the community in 2014, providing emergency housing and constructing community spaces. Residents reported concerns about issues such as school drop-out, parental neglect, and youth violence. TECHO’s capacity to address these was limited, with no previous experience of relating education with building projects and housing rights. They formed a working group of individuals with previous experience in socio-educational interventions and/or knowledge of the community. They applied TECHO’s methodology – of community assemblies, participatory diagnosis and design – as a framework to develop, facilitate, monitor, and evaluate an education project, encouraging the community to be central agents of their own learning and development.
The first stage of the project involved developing background information about the community and familiarity with this methodology. Facilitators used brainstorming, community mapping and storytelling during two community meetings to conduct participatory diagnosis: helping the residents identify their problems and generate possible solutions. The participants identified pressing concerns including: illiteracy and school drop-out, substance abuse, juvenile crime, cultural and ethnic conflicts, youth violence, lack of values, and parenting skills. As possible solutions, the community suggested organising a workshop for community leaders, parent education seminars, and an intercultural fair.
Areas of intervention
Thematic workshops were created that promoted the development of ‘soft’ skills, such as: leadership and project management; values education and conflict resolution; parenting skills and intrafamily communication; and social inclusion and intercultural communication. This life skills education curriculum holistically addressed a significant number of problems and solutions identified by the community and were suitable for both adults and youth.
To develop continuity, each workshop included a set of routine activities: a footprint activity outlining learning objectives, revision of mutual responsibilities, thematic dynamic activities, role-play games, drama reading, and take-away reflections. The unity of the cycle was reinforced with homework assignments to design original community projects in groups of two or three. Step-by-step design and regular revision of group projects helped participants to put their diverse soft skills into practice, recognise their own capacities and limitations, and track their personal progress. The final versions of the projects were presented to the whole community at a graduation ceremony.
We sought external support for some aspects of the course. Lesbia González (Faculty of Social Education and Human Development at UDELAS University) led sessions on ‘Parent Education and Intrafamily Communication’, and a young community leader facilitated part of the ‘Conflict Resolution’ workshop, reinforcing the community’s active role in the learning experience.
At the graduation ceremony, a semi-structured survey was conducted to evaluate participants’ levels of satisfaction with each workshop, learning outcomes and expectations for the future. Surprisingly, no specific workshop was valued more than another, each one was described as having unique contributions. For example:
What workshop did you like most and why?
“I liked all the workshops because I learnt something valuable every day. The leadership workshop helped me to understand how to be a better leader for my community, the qualities of a good leader and how to listen to my neighbours. The values workshop taught me how to be a good neighbour, to resolve conflicts without fights, and I also learnt how to be a better parent for my children. The intercultural fair showed me many different cultures of my country… And the project management taught me how to make my ideas a reality.”
One of the most significant long-term outcomes of the project was preparing community members to take active roles in the development and implementation of future education projects aimed at preventing street-connectedness. Early childhood development was identified as a crucial first step for preventing future problems, such as school drop-out during primary and secondary education, parents’ neglect, and other issues associated with street-connectedness in informal settlements. A kindergarten, developed by community members in collaboration with a local NGO, Changing Lives, offers support and care services to children under six, and runs workshops on parenting skills for community members to reinforce parent-child bonding.
The parents participating in the workshops also took leading roles in setting up education programmes in collaboration with the local government. Although these projects do not solve all the problems the community faces, they are indicative of the community’s initiative and willingness to continue working on problems facing young people. The Community and Family Centers for Integral Education (CEFACEI) is one such collaborative programme. The kindergarten and CEFACEI centre are both located in the community house built jointly by TECHO and community members through participatory design. Their successful operation results from active engagement of community leaders throughout all stages, from infrastructure design to collaborative initiatives with NGOs and local government.
A significant outcome of the project was connecting people with a bigger picture of their community, surrounding environment, and living conditions. This led to a mutual reinforcement between socio-educational programmes and TECHO’s methodology of community empowerment through participatory design and community assemblies. Given the global context of broader intersection of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, Priorities for Children and Youth, and the New Urban Agenda, this project shows that cross-sectoral collaborations between the urban development sector and education sector are effective. It is an important avenue in developing holistic approaches to prevent children and youth from becoming street-connected, by addressing the interconnectedness of the living environment, their access to basic human rights and improved well-being.
Ksenia Fiaduta is an educator, researcher and collaborator at Architecture without Borders, Spain. Anna Spezie is Director of Evaluation and Monitoring Department at TECHO Panama.
TECHO Panama: http://www.techo.org/paises/panama/
NGO Changing Lives: http://cambiandovidaspanama.org/Blog/ (available in Spanish)
CEFACEI Program: http://cefaceipanamanorte.blogspot.com/2016/02/que-es-cefacei_93.html (Spanish)