Through Art, Diversity Finds a Familiar Face in Colombia

At four years old, Juan David may still be little. His dreams, however, are anything but. "I want to be a painter. I want to paint the whole world," he declares, matter-of-factly. A lofty goal, no doubt. Just a quick look around his comuna (neighborhood) in Medellín, Colombia, however, paints a less-than-lofty reality.

For children in Colombia, and Latin America in general, poverty is the one constant, dream-crushing companion. According to a 2010 joint study conducted by UNICEF and CEPAL (in English, ECLAC -- The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean), nearly 81 million children in Latin America and the Caribbean live under moderate to severe deprivation factors such as malnutrition, lack of access to drinking water and sanitation services, lack of adequate schooling and lack of access to information and modern technology.

Edwin Gil, a Colombian artist residing in Charlotte, NC, is more than a tad familiar with this narrative. Like Juan David, Gil also nursed artistic ambitions as a child -- ambitions that seemed to be doomed forever due to his family's socioeconomic status and the country's shaky political situation in the '80s. "My childhood was filled with bitter moments: poverty, hunger and abuse, which clouded my hopes of ever having a better future," recalls Gil.

Having personally lived through these conditions was a determining factor for Gil's decision to bring his Faces of Diversity program to Medellín. In his native city, the Faces of Diversity project -- whose first installment took place in Charlotte, NC in partnership with Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools -- took on a new focus: socio-economic issues. After Gil and Faces of Diversity Director Brian Cockman took a tour of Buen Comienzo pre-schools this past May, both knew it was a perfect match. So for the next couple of months, they worked to engage private, civic and public U.S. and Latin American entities like ToolWell, AirTight, Clamasan and Sos Paisa to bring volunteer manpower, monetary, clothing and goods donations to help the government-funded program.

The project's art centerpiece, depicting one of the children from the program, required over one thousand children's fingerprints and is now part of one of the centers' structural history -- and the kids' memories. "What better way to recognize these kids' important imprint on the program than to have their actual fingerprints on this piece of art that will be here forever?" says Adriana María González Cuervo, Buen Comienzo's Regional Director.

The Buen Comienzo program, developed by the Office of the Mayor of Medellín, Colombia, has 14 preschool centers and plans on adding many more across the region. It serves children and their families during their first five years of life, providing much needed early childhood education, family counsel and integral development for these children. Its longest-lasting contribution to their lives, though, is not the daily nourishment, the professional care or even the educational structure it provides, but rather the stable, loving shield from the often-hostile environment they witness in the communities from which they hail. "Our aim is for the kids who attend the center to get more than care. We want them to be happy," says González Cuervo.

Which is how Gil and Cockman would define budding artist Juan David, one of the thousands of children the program benefits across the city. Seeing the impact of these type of programs first-hand has inspired Gil and Cockman's to make Faces of Diversity a global project. "Our goal is to complete 111 "Faces" art pieces, and to engage ambassadors in major metropolitan areas and communities around the world over the next three years. The Faces of Diversity art pieces will serve as the platform to launch discussion around the topics of health and wellness, education and human rights," says Cockman.

Their hope is that the program continues to be a "bridge" bringing together the arts, business, nonprofits, Latinos and Latino supporters with cultures -- and hey, maybe even inspire future artists like Juan David -- around the world. "I'm grateful to be able plant these art seeds everywhere, to help people across the world dream of and build a better life for themselves," concludes Gil.

To contribute to the Buen Comienzo program in Medellín, visit their philanthropic arm, The Ximena Rico Llano Foundation.

Collage 1: 1080 children from the Buen Comienzo program added their fingerprints to the art piece.

Collage 2 (left to right): 1) Buen Comienzo participant and aspiring artist Juan David. 2) Mr. Gil and kids at work on the art piece. 3) Over 1000 fingerprints went into creating the final art piece for the project. 4) Buen Comienzo's Regional Director Adriana María González Cuervo. 5) The final art piece. 6) Volunteers of the Faces of Diversity Medellín project and some Buen Comienzo program kids (left to right): Brian Cockman, Edwin Gil, Elianne Ramos, Charlene Valdez.

DISCLAIMER: Elianne Ramos is the Social/Cultural Advisor for Faces of Diversity.