Connecting Youth Voices for New Ways to Approach Drugs and Education

What does it mean to educate young people about drugs and the War on Drugs? For anyone growing up in the 1980s or 1990s in the U.S., it likely meant programs like D.A.R.E. This educational approach to drugs and the impact they have on societies has often involved vilifying those struggling with addiction and offering a simplistic solution of “just say no.” In many countries in Latin America, education about the role of drugs in society follows a similar narrative. The outcomes of these kinds of educational programs are both controversial and heavily criticized. Offering a productive alternative, a group of educators and activists from across the Americas has developed a complex and innovative educational organization, Catalyst, to examine the War on Drugs and the role drugs play in our societies. For this interview, we spoke with Atenea Rosado-Viurques, a cofounder of Catalyst, and Diana Rodríguez-Gómez, the lead curriculum developer and head facilitator of Catalyst’s summer program.

The idea for Catalyst emerged from conversations between a group of four friends from across the Americas. Mexican-born Rosado-Viurques and her Canadian friend and colleague, Theo Di Castri, met in high school at a United World Colleges (UWC) program in India a decade ago. The original team also included Benjamin Fogarty-Valenzuela (Guatemala) and Nataya Friedan (US) who met Di Castri while studying at Columbia. All four shared frustrating experiences as youth encountering education about drugs and came to study different aspects of the War on Drugs during university to gain a better understanding of the conflict.  The four began discussing a project that would bring together drug education, the War on Drugs, and a complex response to more “traditional” educational programs about these issues. They knew that they wanted to create an educational program for youth that involved storytelling and explored personal relationships in light of structural issues. Though they had established these pillars, they did not know what specific shape such a program might take. They only knew that while many people in health and legal fields have begun addressing these issues, there are not yet enough people explicitly working on education or with youth.

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The Catalyst team. From left to right: Theo Di Castri; Atenea Rosado Viurques; Nataya Friedan; Diana Rodriguéz Gómez; Benji Fogarty Valenzuela; Camila Ruiz Segovia. Photo Credit: Benjamin Fogarty Valenzuela.

Gradually, the idea for “a program to bring together youth from across the Americas to discuss the War on Drugs” took shape.  Catalyst received organizational support from UWC to develop a program to help extend UWC’s “values and mission to a wider audience.” By including Catalyst as one of its programs, UWC aimed to “bring its unique approach towards international education to confront one of the most pressing conflicts facing the Americas at present.” Adding to this support, Rodríguez-Gómez’s curricular vision helped shape what the program would look like on an everyday basis. Finally, after months of courting the Open Society Foundations, Catalyst secured a generous grant that allowed the program to launch.

With financial and organizational support in place, the team began recruiting youth participants to attend a summer institute in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Using local networks, word of mouth, and NGOs, the team received 160 applications, though they only had the funding to offer scholarships for 20 people. In order to identify these 20 participants, the Catalyst team ran through a selection process that included essay writing about drugs and community organizing. They then conducted interviews with 30 finalists before selecting 20 participants. They also had to create a preparatory curriculum to help the kids, the vast majority of whom had never traveled outside of their home country, navigate boundaries like passport applications, financial issues, and customs.

Having assembled a team, recruited participants, and mapped out a curriculum, Catalyst launched as an 18-day summer program in July of 2017. The inaugural session involved 17 adolescents from 6 countries across the Americas and took place in  Cuernavaca, Mexico. The program was fully bilingual and made use of simultaneous translation to facilitate communication between exclusively Spanish speaking and exclusively English speaking participants. Catalyst maintains an overall purpose of gathering youth voices whose lives have been impacted by drugs and the War on Drugs and providing them with a foundation to conduct a  critical analysis of the conflict. In accordance with this overall aim, the curriculum is structured around 5 specific principles: identity, diversity, critical consciousness of history, justice, and social change.

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In the Catalyst classroom. Photo Credit: Benjamin Fogarty Valenzuela

Premised on the notion that “the personal is political” the Catalyst curriculum guides students through an exploration of their own identities and the ways in which the War on Drugs has shaped them. From there, students begin exploring the ways in which their personal narratives fit into the wider historical narratives that underpin the conflict. Throughout the program, the students are encouraged to link their personal perspectives and experiences to the social, economic, and political dimensions of the War on Drugs. Youth-led, interactive activities form the bulk of the daily work at Catalyst. Rosado-Viurques described one such activity, in which youth “placed themselves on a map of the Americas” as a way to start telling their stories about the ways in which the War on Drugs  drugs had impacted their lives. As they conversed with each other, it became clear the ways in which the violences of the War on Drugs are distributed differently and asymmetrically across the hemisphere. Through such conversations, participants developed a transnational perspective on the War on Drugs and learned important lessons about the complexities of drugs and drug policies.

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A bilingual curriculum: live translation at Catalyst 2017. Photo Credit: Benjamin Fogarty Valenzuela.

Each day, students also heard from a different guest speaker. Guest speakers included journalists, activists, academics and artists from Mexico, the US and Colombia. The goal of these talks was to expose students to a broad panorama of different perspectives and to show students how theory can be translated into practice. Over the course of the program, the students were tasked with creating artistic projects that conveyed what they had learned at Catalyst, and on the final weekend, students exhibited their projects at a public exhibition in Mexico City.

Catalyst Guest Speaker

Guest speaker, local activist Pietro Ameglio, speaking to the students of Catalys. Photo Credit: Benjamin Fogarty ValenzuelaA Catalyst student presents her final project at the exhibition in Mexico City. Photo Credit: Benjamin Fogarty Valenzuela.

In contrast to traditional drug education programs, Catalyst moves beyond the dogmatic repetition of the “just say no” mantra. Instead, it opens a space of curiosity and nonconformity in which students can formulate difficult questions and connect apparently distant phenomena through an examination of the structural conditions that undergird the War on Drugs. The program equips students to think critically and transnationally about drugs and the strategies that have been employed to eliminate them and their users from society. Both Rosado-Viurques and Rodriguez-Gomez expressed the importance of fostering a new transnational network of young people who are committed to ending what is ultimately a transnational conflict.

Catalyst Cohort

The inaugural Catalyst cohort. Students came from the US, Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, Peru & Ecuador. Photo Credit: Benjamin Fogarty.

From the inaugural summer program, Catalyst has begun expanding its work. The youth participants have taken the lessons of Catalyst 2017 back to their home countries where they have each been assigned a local mentor to assist them in getting involved in drug policy reform activism their communities. Some members of the Catalyst team recently spoke at the Institute for Latin American Studies at Columbia University as a way to “continue to generate an open and evolving curriculum” . Similarly, team members have spoken at various forums in New York City, Mexico City, and Florence as a way to spread the word and open space to expand the program and curriculum. Catalyst 2018, another iteration of the same program, will also begin accepting applications early next year. As Rodriguez-Gomez puts it, the 2017 summer program was “a seed for continuing work.”

Catalyst’s spirit comes from a desire for a more robust education about drugs and the ways in which the War on Drugs impacts peoples’ lives. It’s founders believe that all young people have a right to a comprehensive drug education so that they may join the conversation about drug policy reform drug as well informed, critically thinking stakeholders. As the Catalyst website reminds, the program specifically opens up a space for youth voices who have so often been the target of drug education without “granting them space to speak for themselves.”

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Flavio (Peru), Isaiah (US), Ricardo (Ecuador) sport temporary Catalyst tattoos hand-drawn by Ricardo. Photo Credit: Benjamin-Fogarty Valenzuela.


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