Giving a voice to people living in situations of poverty. Recognising their knowledge and their worth.

Sandra Sánchez from Colombia is Director and founder of the Oasis Foundation, an organisation based in the Ciudad Bolívar area of Bogota, a neighbourhood with a strong history of discrimination and social segregation. As a child she was sensitive and would refuse to accept injustices, which has led to her committing to seek a fairer world where all people can live in dignity. It is thanks to this wealth of experience that she is currently working on a PhD in Paris on forced immigration issues.
The methodology
of this research made me think of the Colombian sociologist Fals Borda, who created an active-participatory research system in order to create shared knowledge as well as to collectivise that knowledge. The academy does important research work and produces knowledge, but sometimes it is far removed from reality. That poses questions about politicians - if the decisions, studies and professional practice are really consistent with the reality that people are living - about poverty and about other issues. This report encompasses not only a methodology and technical aspects, but also real people. A voice and visibility are being given to people who, in these hidden dimensions, cannot remain hidden. They are expressing what they are feeling, what they are experiencing, and it is extremely valuable that this appears not only in a document or a video, but also alongside the reflections of academics, professionals and politicians. The report says that the long-term objective is for these public policies and institutional decisions to be genuinely aimed at eradicating poverty. To understand a solution and a problem you have to look at the root causes, examine all those dimensions that are not so easy to understand and that would seem, conveniently, to have been hidden.
The central experience, relational dynamics and hardships.
The issue of disempowerment is very evident. When someone has to get up every day and think about how they are going to feed their children, how to survive, which is what happened with the pandemic, which is what is happening now in Colombia (my closest and most personal point of reference). Of course, people have neither the time nor the power to decide about their own lives and it is not easy to get involved in collective decisions, to participate politically, to understand how societal structures work in order to contribute.
Nevertheless, communities have created collective ways to get organised and respond to this situation of precariousness and social violence. Associations, foundations, like what we've been through in el Paraíso with the Oasis Foundation. In my neighbourhood, for example, when there was no drinking water, people would connect hoses at 3 in the morning (because, naturally, it wasn't legal) in places where there was water. What's interesting is that it wasn't one person taking water for themselves, rather they knocked on all the houses, we knew that it was about water and we got our containers ready - they informed us collectively so that we could all have water. And the same would happen with electricity and services. I grew up among the clear efforts of my mum and my dad trying to keep us going, because there are 4 of us children, and at the same time in that spirit of community collaboration. It's important to understand that struggle and that resistance, as well as all the social and judicial injustices (I'm a lawyer, I had a grant from a private university in Bogota). Understand that there are people who are 100% behind this resistance, but that there are also people who in their personal circumstances can't find a way of tackling such situations.
There are sociological phenomena happening everywhere. When you see the outskirts of Paris and the situations of violence, you realise that the feeling of young people not having any hope, not having any opportunities, and not knowing what their role in society will be, generates a huge amount of frustration and a lot of anger and there is almost a revenge against society, against the structure itself, because of not being a part of something, not having a role. This generates many problems involving crime - the problem is how the institutions respond. When you live in poverty it is much harder to have legal representation, someone to defend you, to understand what is happening. But if a person with a lot of money and a lot of power commits a crime, the institutions are not objective and are not balanced. Situations of injustice and re-socialization, as the legal system calls it, do not work because the roots of the problem lie in vulnerability and in the conditions in which people are trying to find their role. There are genuine criminal systems that are recruiting and are looking for such people all the time.
Relational dynamics and institutional mistreatment.
Colombia is an extremely unequal country with quite difficult dynamics. There are other countries where the issue of racial discrimination is clear; for us it is a matter of economic discrimination: “how much you have, how much you're worth”. We have a system of social strata that range from 1 to 6 and where everyone tries to climb the ladder. In my neighbourhood people joked, saying “we're level 0” because we have no service, no transportation. Of course, the neighbourhood has improved a lot and for example we now have a cable car that goes to el Paraíso. But that is the result of a community-wide struggle, organisations that said “here we are”, we're the people who do the domestic work, who work in security, who sell things, and we deserve to be part of this city, you can't continue to exclude us. This system with different positions creates conflicts among the people, who say “I don’t want to be considered in this stratum because they'll discriminate against me trying to get a job, to study.” It's a highly perverse system that has done us a lot of harm.
It is also important to give recognition to the so-called poor communities, for example on environmental matters. I remember that we never used plastic bags because you had to buy them, so people carried a basket or a cloth bag. And the thing is that being poor is very expensive. People would buy food in small portions - oil, rice - because they didn't have the resources to buy large quantities. But financially speaking, if you do the sums, that works out much more expensive than if you can have food reserves. In Colombia it's essential to have a bike, and it's a much cheaper way of getting around than a car. Find a bicycle, fix it up and you can travel around. All of this seems to be kind of invisible because nowadays it's fashionable, people have ecological awareness and it would seem that poor people have already been doing all of these things - in some cases for generations - to show respect for the environment. It's also closely linked to traditions that are anti-consumerism, anti-capital.
The most important conclusion is that the report is inspiring because it gives a voice to people living in situations of poverty. It recognises their knowledge and their worth, as well as how they have had to deal with these situations of poverty. They also make suggestions. When this woman talks about peace, she makes me think that women are in that vulnerable situation and yet they are the ones who have the most hope for peace, in spite of all the violence they have experienced.