PICO--COMMUNITY ORGANIZING TO SOLVE LOCAL PROBLEMS
The PICO El Salvador Community Organizing Project is building local
leadership capacity to address local, regional, and national issues in
the areas of environment, public safety and government accountability.
PICO is a national and international, nonpartisan
multicultural network of faith-based community organizations working to create
innovative solutions to problems facing urban, suburban and rural communities.
Founded in California 1972 PICO has successfully worked to increase access to
health care, improve public schools, make neighborhoods safer, build affordable
housing, redevelop communities and revitalize democracy. The PICO model became active in El Salvador
in 2006 where it operates under the name of COFOA Spanish initials that stand
for “Communities of Faith Organized for Action”. Project Salvador supported COFOA with a $10,000 grant last year
and we will renew our support with another $12,000 grant for 2010. Both grants have been used for the training
of community leaders.
The most important objective of COFOA is the “formation of
leaders conscious of the values of their faith who, acting as true Christians
in public life, facilitate negotiation and dialog with the authorities in order
to seek solutions to their problems and avoid intolerance and violence that
only result in pain and resentment”. COFOA is helping engage ordinary
Salvadorans, especially youth, to participate in public life to bring about
The most important tool in organizing for change is “one
on one” or “uno a uno”. The goal of “uno a uno” is to initiate and/or deepen
relationships with families through individual family visits in congregations
or communities in order to understand their needs and concerns - with the
notion that once there is understanding of the needs of their families,
community members will be more likely to join together to address issues in
In COFOA’s congregation-based community organizing model,
congregations of all denominations and faiths serve as the institutional base
for community organizations. Rather than bring people together simply based on
common issues like housing or education, the faith-based or broad-based
organizing model makes values and relationships the glue that holds the
organizations together. COFOA builds community organizations based on religious
congregations, schools and community centers, which are often the only stable
civic gathering places in many neighborhoods.
COFOA helps congregations identify and solve local neighborhood issues
before addressing broader issues at a city, state or national level.
COFOA provides intensive leadership training that teaches
people how to use the tools of democracy to improve their communities. COFOA teaches the art of compromise and
negotiation. As a result ordinary
people, who have learned to successfully use the levers of power to bring
resources and political attention to their communities, lead community
organizations. COFOA brings people
together based on faith and values not just issues or anger. COFOA does public business in public through
large action meetings. As a result, COFOA organizations gain the reputation for
being able to gather together large numbers of people to hold themselves and
public officials accountable.
The preceding describes what COFOA is all about and its
basis of operation. In the following
section I will describe COFOA in action at a community meeting that I witnessed
in June 2009.
This past June COFOA leaders brought together over 600
residents from 7 parishes and two civic organizations to engage with civic
authorities and press them to solve public safety and environmental problems
within the community. One of the
problems is the lack of the enforcement of traffic regulations and the absence
of pedestrian overpasses. During the
past 8 months 8 people have been killed and 39 have been injured trying to
cross the major highway that passes by the community. Another problem is the lack of potable water due to the
contamination of the Pedro River which runs through the community. Improperly disposed industrial wastes and
raw sewerage are the sources of this contamination.
On the afternoon of June 13, 2009, 600 residents filled
the cathedral in the community of Zacatecoluca. Two youth volunteers trained by
COFOA ran this meeting. They introduced
the civic authorities such as the National Police and the Mayors of various
communities. They also presented Bishop
Elias Samuel Bolaños of the Catholic Diocese of Zacatecoluca and 3 members of
the national legislature. The Bishop
gave a brief introduction about COFOA and then the volunteers introduced two
members of the community, representing those most impacted by the lack of clean
water and unsafe highway conditions.
One of these speakers was the father of a young girl killed before his
eyes by a speeding car. He spoke with a
passion that brought tears to the eyes of many of those present.
Each of the three members of the Salvadoran national
legislature presented their reaction to what they heard and spoke about what
they would do to try to solve these problems.
Members of the audience acted with roaring applause when the three
congressional representatives from different political parties agreed to
introduce legislation that would lead to the construction of several pedestrian
overpasses and water treatment plants.
After the speeches the three congressional representatives signed an
enlargement of an agreement indicating that they would resolve the problems
presented at the meeting.
The COFOA youth volunteers did an excellent job in
managing the entire meeting especially by keeping all of the speakers within
the time allotted for their presentations.