Kurt Shaw ’93

Before founding Shine a Light, Kurt Shaw ’93 spent almost two years working with grassroots groups in El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, and Colombia, using his Fulbright Fellowship to study the relationship between contemporary French philosophy and Liberation Theology.

During years of shuttling between the academy, think tanks, and grass-roots social movements, Kurt Shaw learned that the real experts on marginalized children didn’t work at UNICEF or Harvard. Though the most innovative solutions to poverty and social exclusion came from the streets and shantytowns of the third world, but grass-roots leaders and intellectuals had few chances to learn from or teach their peers in other countries. Shaw founded Shine a Light to disseminate local, innovative solutions for homeless and working children in Latin America.

Social change networks grow out of personal relations, so Kurt began three years of hard travel. On a budget of less than $20 a day — all of which came out of his own pocket — Kurt visited almost every country in Latin America, meeting with over 300 organizations and learning what works and what doesn’t in services for marginalized children. The resulting research, published with the somewhat ironic title of For a General Theory of the Street, has become a reference for the children’s rights movement in many countries.

Collaborating with the most successful organizations in Latin America, Shine a Light has documented the best practices for working with homeless and working children and their families. Kids from the organizations learn to film and edit movies, showing other people what has worked for them. Shine a Light brings these videos together with interviews, exercises, and lessons into DVD-based courses, catalyzing education and social change on the urban periphery. Since 2003, Shaw has published a dozen of these Digital Workshops on subjects from indigenous education and refugee children to hip-hop.

Before founding Shine a Light, Shaw spent almost two years working with grassroots groups in El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, and Colombia, using his Fulbright Fellowship to study the relationship between contemporary French philosophy and Liberation Theology. For a time, he returned to the United States, first as a Research Associate at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC — where he worked on US-Cuba relations and governance issues in Chile — and then as a graduate student at Harvard. Frustrated with the academy, he left to counsel street kids in New York and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

In addition to numerous publications in Spanish, English, and Portuguese, Shaw was also a commentator on Working Assets Radio. El Túnel, a movie he helped an ex-street boy to make, was selected to close the Argentine National Short Feature Film Festival in 2006, and his first full-length documentary, City of Rhyme, will begin to tour festivals this year. In 2007, Harvard University honored him with the First Decade Award.

This update was received in June, 2010:

The essay on the website continues to be accurate… and, I think, to tell a good story. Fortunately, though, things continue to change, so let me tell you a bit about the last several years, since 2007 when that article was written…

The biggest change is a social one: thanks in small part to Shine a Light (and much more to the hundreds of grass-roots NGOs all over Latin America), the number of children living on the streets of Latin American cities has shrunk dramatically over the last couple of years. Bogotá may be the most dramatic example: in 2007 I helped out on a census that showed fewer than a hundred kids living on the streets of a city of almost 10,000,000 people. In the 1990s, that number was between 10-20,000, depending on the researcher.

So with this amazing victory in Shine a Light’s basic mission, we had to re-imagine what we do. The great thing about the street (I’m not speaking ironically) was that it forced society to see poor kids and recognize, even if in bad ways, that injustice exists. That kids now don’t feel they need to go to the streets, because there are other and better options for them in the shantytowns and favelas is great for them, but not for society and not for social justice, so we began to imagine other ways that poor kids could teach others from their own experiences.

With that insight, we have been focussing much more on teaching film and other digital arts to kids from the margins. We worked with ex-child soldiers in Colombia to make Life’s Roulette, a feature-length fictional film that has been shown around the world and has won an important prize from the United Nations, with kids from the favelas of Recife, Brazil to produce a rap album against violence (which won the Freedom to Create Prize in 2008, honoring them as the best young artists in the world working for human rights). This year, our film projects include cartoons and fictional shorts with pre-schoolers from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro (to promote elementary school reform), a YouTube soap opera by indigenous kids in Bolivia, and a project to recuperate Kuna culture among urban indigenous kids in Panamá City.

I suppose I should also mention that the Williams education was essential to the five books I have written on these projects, all of which depend on the philosophy I learned from Kurt Tauber, Alan White, Jana Sawicki, Dan O’Connor, and the rest of the philosophy department.