Nueva Esperanza is born out of the legacy of Mercedes, who organized tirelessly to create spaces for trauma healing and leadership development among young people and women in her community. As a single mother of two, Mercedes moved into what is now the Casa Mercedes Youth Action Center, in 1986. At the time, the community was being constructed from the ground up by families who had been forced to leave their homes during the US-funded war that had resulted in the killing of many of their family members, among the 70,000 Salvadorans killed. Despite the challenges she faced, Mercedes used her time outside of work to organize for collective healing and liberation. She and her husband Rick started a youth group, several of whose members attest that they would not be alive had it not been for this space of belonging and guidance. Though Mercedes left the community in 2009, the seeds she had planted continued to blossom.
The Nueva Esperanza (New Hope) Community Action Program (a continuation of Mercedes's legacy) was officially born in 2013 when its founding sponsors, Scott and JoAnn, encountered the dreams and dedication the young people who had become community organizers in Mercedes's youth group, and who were still actively engaged in uplifting their community. Scott and JoAnn witnessed how these young leaders were barred access to higher education due to economic injustice, and they chose to steward their privilege to create a pathway of access to higher education for these community leaders.
This opened the doorway for others to engage in the practice of wealth redistribution, returning resources from places where they had been accumulated through systems of inequity, to places from which they had been stolen by structural violence and economic exploitation. Soon enough, Nueva Esperanza Community Action Program was born.
The program is designed to support young Salvadoran community leaders in enriching the grass-roots community initiatives they have begun, by offering pathways for continued purpose-based learning, trauma healing, and community leadership. Nueva Esperanza recognizes the power of youth change agents working in the context of their own communities, doing the work that they are uniquely positioned to do as community members themselves, and seeks to ally with and support them in deepening this work.
Program Takes Root
The program began accepting applications in 2013, with the goal of providing access to higher education and continued leadership development to young people actively engaged in strengthening the social fabric of their communities. The first six Nueva Esperanza scholar-practitioners began their studies in 2014 in diverse degrees.
Though access to higher education is a challenge throughout the country, this program focuses on a specific community within San Salvador, to enable Community Healers to support one another and collaborate on community-building initiatives. This allows for the creation of a close-knit community among the Community Healers, which is essential when doing peacebuilding work in a militarized context, while adjusting to the demands of higher education.
Despite the community's close proximity to many universities, the Community Healers are the first group of students from the community to have been able to pursue higher education. By forming a "critical mass" of young people with a purpose-based education, the Community Healers are encouraging young people in the community to re-imagine what is possible for their own futures. Many youth now aspire to take on leadership roles in their community and to continue their education and are beginning to achieve these goals, having seen how their peers and mentors have paved the way.
Fruits in Abundance
Nueva Esperanza has four program graduates and nine current Community Healers who continue to work towards their own transformation and that of their community. In 2020, the program shifted gears to accepting only female-identified scholar-leaders, (called Community Healers), to create a safe space for a "sisterhood" of young leaders to heal collectively from experiences of gender-based violence.
The Community Healers carry out their learning with the youth group, children's group, and women's group which they lead. They are committed to investing in their communities and using the gifts they are discovering and refining in themselves at the service of their communities. It is our hope that with continued support, the program might grow and partner with more youth leaders as they work to create healing and life-giving spaces amidst the harsh realities of unresolved generational trauma, criminalization of youth, and social and economic marginalization.