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Heroes in Juarez: Citizens Challenge a City’s ReputationPosted by: admin on Tue, 2011-08-02 17:37
The border town of Ciudad Juarez may be best known for its problems, but that’s not the only story in town. A new project gathers citizen reports of everyday heroes in an effort to present a more balanced picture of life there.
Famous mostly for drug cartels and serial murders, Ciudad Juarez in Mexico has earned the dubious distinction of being among the world’s most violent cities. But in this city of several million, violence and the drug trade do not define the lives of all its residents. To counter the media’s exclusive focus on Juarez as a bastion of violence, one citizen-journalism initiative is reporting stories of good deeds.
Launched last December, “Cronicas de Heroes” or “Juarez Hero Reports” doesn’t report news in the conventional sense of the term. You won’t find stories about the weather, the government or sports. Instead, “Cronicas de Heroes” seeks to cover stories about ordinary people committing random acts of kindness, bravery and care. For “Cronicas,” important news is a report about neighbors transporting a woman having a heart attack to the nearest hospital. Another is about a nanny who foiled a kidnap attempt. The project abounds with stories about strangers helping people change flat tires or chipping in at the checkout line to help someone buy groceries.
Why good news matters
Yesica Guerra, Director of “Cronicas De Heroes,” believes highlighting the positive happenings in Juarez and the people responsible for them is more than just a feel-good exercise.
“I grew up in Chihuahua and still have family there. While the violence the world media portrays is of course there, there are many positive things also that need mentioning,” says Guerra. “Talking only about the violence prevent tourism, prevent businesses from investing – all factors that don’t generate jobs and make sure that the violence is never resolved.”
In the seven months since it debuted, the project has reported more than 1,000 stories on its website. All reported by regular citizens. Some of the stories are submitted through the “Cronicas” website. But the project’s organizers make sure that people without access to the internet also have the opportunity to contribute. They hold in-person meetings where people can write down their stories on postcards, which are later published online.
Guerra edits and fact-checks every submission. As a safety measure, the site does not identify authors. The stories are published without attribution and lacking any details that might put people at risk.
“Everything on the site is in Spanish and anonymous”, says Guerra. She emphasizes that they are careful about not putting the hero mantle on anyone. “People help because they want to. Anonymity helps not making heroes out of people.”
Problems of access
One of the biggest challenges the project faces, according to Guerra, is the limited internet access in Mexico. While the website’s traffic is growing, sometimes as high as 300 visits per week, the project’s target audience includes many who can’t visit the website.
From a web-based initiative, the project has grown to include activities that involve the public at a very intimate level, with people encouraged to share stories in person. “Cronicas” is employing creative strategies to reach its “offline” audience and build participation in the project. A group of urban street artists paint murals based on stories “Cronicas” publishes. One of these murals was painted as a community event, which helped spread the word about the project. Mainstream print newspapers and journals have begun publishing stories from “Cronicas.” The “Cronicas” team has also been invited to read their stories on radio.
Inspiration for “Cronicas”
“Cronicas” is based on a similar project in New York City that began almost a decade earlier following the attacks of September 11th. The attacks created a general sense of paranoia and fear among city residents. The New York City transport authority put up a webpage where people could report suspicious activity. In response, a student from the Massachusetts Institute for Technology’s Center for Civic Media about created a similar page where, instead of suspicions, people could report acts of kindness. Called “Hero Reports,” the site was promoted through postcards and published 100 or so stories.
The idea was transported to Ciudad Juarez in 2009, when the director of the MIT center, Christopher Csikszentmihályi, visited as part of a delegation sent by the U.S. government to look at ways technology could help the city. He believed that something like New York City’s “Heroes Project” could benefit the residents of Juarez. Meeting Yesica Guerra, then a researcher in urban design also at MIT, led to more discussions about how to make the project happen.
To proceed, Guerra traveled to her native Mexico in November 2010 and met with citizens about the project.
“When people are so affected like populations in Juarez we need to speak to them directly,” she explained. “They are usually suspicious of motives. I gave a couple of talks. From the very beginning we were clear that it’s important to reach everyone irrespective of age and circumstances. There were many positive responses. People were excited to hear the word ‘hero.’ The very first question they all asked was whether this project was an initiative from the government of the U.S. or Mexico. They mistrusted government activity. Being a student helped.”
Expanding the project
Though based in the United States, Guerra travels back and forth to Juarez. Now “Cronicas” has staff in Ciudad Juarez, including Brenda Guerra and Marco Betancourt, whom Guerra says have been a crucial to the project’s success. The project also benefits from the work of a team of individuals at the Center for Civic Media in Massachusetts.
In the future, the project plans to support English and have a presence along other border cities in the U.S. and Mexico. The site’s positive response in Juarez has led to two new “Cronicas” projects so far: in Monterrey and Tijuana/San Diego.
Funded by MIT, money is always tight. Yet Guerra and the team are wary of seeking funding from sources that might undermine the initiative’s core values. At the moment, Guerra is trying to raise donations in order to create a bi-national fund that would support the implementation of the initiative in other cities.
Paromita Pain has been employed with The Hindu Newspaper, Chennai, India since January 2003. She writes for young people on a range of themes, with a special interest in media for young people, health issues, human rights and youth in situations of conflict.
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