I went to Caracas, Venezuela, in early May 2015 with an open mind and few expectations. Knowing the country is in deep political and economic turmoil, with one of highest murder rates in the world, I also wondered if I was crazy. And I don’t speak Spanish.
Six months earlier, I was invited to take part in a year-long event in Caracas beginning – after several delays and a sudden requirement to obtain a visa – in May. The event is called “How to Build a Desired City: A Forum 2015,” inspired by a small organization called BackroomCaracas, supported by the U.S. Embassy, and hosted by the Chacao Municipality, the wealthiest and most progressive of the five municipalities that comprise Caracas.
The Forum description read as follows: “Caracas has an urgent need for a place to encourage dialogue and an exchange of views, to have a space where people can learn about new ideas that will have a positive impact on their lives today and on future generations. The Chacao Municipality is… an ideal location to host a forum where five U.S. experts, who have a successful track record on the design and execution of projects that can generate fundamental changes in a society, can deliver a monthly keynote speech to inspire, involve and engage public servants, members of business associations and the community at large to participate in the transformation of their own community.”
Under the circumstances, this seemed like a daunting task. I was to be the first visitor, to spend a week in (and around) Caracas talking about education for sustainability. Four other Americans were scheduled to visit Caracas over the ensuing months to help generate ideas and hope on the topics of food and health; public space; culture of peace; and effective governance.
The moment I arrived, I surrendered to the experience. The fact is, I was not in control. I followed a man out of the airport who held a sign that read, “Forum,” and who I could not communicate with. He led me to a large armored SUV, supplied and required by the U.S. Embassy, in which I was driven at high (often unnerving) speeds to my hotel, where Rody Douzoglou, director of BackroomCaracas and my host for the week, was waiting. As we sat and talked, a renewed sense of purpose and anticipation settled in. I gave a public address, visited some local elementary schools, was interviewed on TV and radio, met with city and state government officials, and addressed a gathering of academics at Central University of Venezuela (UCV). And in the course of that week, while humbly imparting a little experience from the U.S., I learned some lessons:
1- When life gets difficult, our common humanity emerges and we take very little for granted. It took no time to begin feeling a strong, almost familial connection with my daily companions. They were trying not only to keep us on schedule and make sure I ate lunch; they were also trying to keep me safe. And the distractions of modern life – immediate gratification, information, entertainment, devices – seemed insignificant in comparison to the relationships I was developing with my hosts, colleagues, and, by the end, friends. Words from the Earth Charter (2000) rang especially true: “Life is about being more, not having more.”
A question lingered: In America, a country of comparative privilege, material abundance and preoccupation with wealth and status, how can we relearn living is connection and harmony with the world around us? And what does this mean for the perennial question of education: what should students know, be able to do, and value when they graduate?
Anti-Violence Street Art
2- In its current raw state, Venezuela is a place where the core values of sustainability really resonate. It was easier to explain what it means, in translation, there than it is here. In other words, when you have to worry about your safety every day (being held up by gunmen on motorcycles or “express kidnapping”), about speaking out, about the reliability of your electricity, water, and waste management, and about getting enough food and basic supplies for a week – whether you’re a taxi driver or a professor – you understand almost viscerally that for a community to be healthy, it has to work well socially, politically, economically, and environmentally. And you see that all these things are interconnected.
So when I talked about the origins of the concept of sustainable development, the ways in which the 1992 Rio Earth Summit advanced that idea and produced Agenda 21, a blueprint for building a sustainable human dominated planet, the Earth Charter and the UN Millennium Development goals launched in 2000, and UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development that started in 2005 and ended last year, everyone nodded as if to say, “of course.”
In America, it’s much easier to live in denial. Most of the deep and pervasive challenges we face are abstract. In Venezuela, they’re right in front of you. Not so much the effects of climate change, but the economic and political instability, the smog, the litter, the poverty, the tainted water, the violence.
Which raises the question: How do we, as educators, help cut through the cultural denial that makes it so easy in America to think that business as usual will solve our problems? How can we help students and teachers feel the visceral need for a new model of development that is as relevant to Venezuelans as it is to Americans?
“Chávez eyes are watching you” – Bolivarian propaganda
3- I was consistently surprised by the hope and desire to improve the world that I encountered in the Venezuelans I met. In spite of their daily threats and worries, and perhaps because of them, their priority was to work each day to make things better.
These are the lives I’m talking about: I spent a lot of time with a woman who works in the Cultural Office for the Chacao municipality. She’s not concerned so much about herself because she worries about her daughter, a teenager who attends a German school in Caracas. Her daughter wants to go to a university in Europe because life is so bleak at home. A young architecture professor at UCV has seen steady cuts in salary and can only survive because his parents can offer a little extra help. For the moment at least, he is determined to stay in Venezuela because he wants to keep teaching young people and because he believes his country can thrive again. The director of Miranda State’s nearly 500 public schools spends a lot of time visiting his schools and problem solving. He is a member of the opposition Mesa Unity Democratic party (opposed to the other major party, the incumbent leftist United Socialist Party of Venezuela) and travels with a trusted driver. Yet given the prevalence of gang violence in the country, he told me he is more afraid of “random risk” than “political risk.” Why does he stay in Venezuela? He is committed to his country and to his large, close family.
Let me be clear: fear and oppression are not a recipe for hope and hard work. When things get bad enough, we often retreat, we protect our own, we wait. When life is comfortable, we often take things for granted and deny what we do not directly experience. Venezuela is suffering, but it’s not at war. It’s not overrun by the likes of ISIS. And there appear to be enough educated, connected, stubborn, hopeful people there to keep trying to turn the tide. At least so far.
So how do we cultivate, here at home, the sense of urgency that can inspire action? We’re beginning to see it in California, which is in its fourth year of severe drought, where citizens and lawmakers are waking up. As educators, how can we more effectively engage our students, parents and alumni in conversations about real-world problems, and inspire them to help solve them?
In an increasingly globalized world, I often felt at home in Venezuela. We are all part of a larger human family, and we are all struggling (whether from nations rich or poor, free or less free) with the essential questions of how to live good, productive, and healthy lives, and how to help each other, within our communities and institutions, achieve this common human goal.
I returned home feeling mostly inspired. I hope to be part of an ongoing conversation with my new found colleagues about how education can, in its own small way, contribute to building a more desirable and sustainable Caracas and Venezuela. I’m communicating regularly with them: I’m sending them information on opportunities and initiatives that may be of interest; I’m suggesting projects that would cost little and might make a difference for a school or a consortium of universities. Though resources are scarce, people are hungry for positive change.