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A North American lifts her voice for South American street children

On a sunny Memorial Day in a New England town square in the mid-1950s, a crowd gathers in front of a plain granite statue erected to honor the town's Veterans of Foreign Wars. A skinny third-generation American fourth grader stands with her back to the statue, reciting the Gettysburg Address. Her proud father stands at the front of the crowd of listeners, coaching her on when to take breaths.

"My voice was small and thin and timid and, not unlike today, more comfortable repeating the words and thoughts of others," Kathleen Morrison recalls for a small group of students and staff gathered in the side chapel of Stanford Memorial Church, a few days before this year's round of Memorial Day speeches.

Today, Morrison, the associate director of Stanford's Center for Latin American Studies, uses her voice on behalf of children who will have very different memories ­ Latin American children who work the streets, rather than go to school.

Lest her audience jump to the conclusion that North American childhoods are idyllic in all their details, Morrison switches their view to a summer day in the same New England town's baseball park, where children are trying out for the local team:

"As I began to throw a few pitches, I became cognizant of a commotion in the coaches' circle. Finally, one of the coaches walked resolutely out to the diamond, holding a rulebook in his hand. As he reached me, he thrust the book in front of me without comment but pointed to the words on the page that read, 'Girls are not eligible.' "

The adult Morrison, now coach of her 10-year-old son's basketball and soccer teams, looks over her glasses and says firmly and clearly, "I believe that that day I began to distrust the printed word."

Distrust can come quickly but finding one's voice to disagree with the status quo can be a lifelong process, Morrison said in her talk, which was part of a series at Stanford designed to stimulate discussion among faculty, staff and students on personal values, faith and ethics. The series is called "What Matters to Me and Why," a frightening title, Morrison said with a laugh, when you are invited to give it after having spent much of your life speaking about other people's thoughts. Preparing for it, she said, prompted her to spend many a night trying to recall the steps that she had taken to arrive at a point where she could raise her own voice. She quoted from Eudora Welty's autobiography, One Writer's Beginnings: "What discoveries I've made . . . all begin with the particular, never the general. They are mostly hindsight: arrows that I now find I myself have left behind me, which have shown me some right or wrong way I have come."

In Morrison's case, hindsight comes partly from an adult professional life spent as a teacher, writer, scholar and advocate. In the last few years, she has focused her work largely on research on and advocacy for street children in Latin America. "It's important to me to combine research with advocacy, although you must keep the two separate," she said, in order for the research to be "acceptable to the academic community."

"It was in college that I began what was to become a lifetime love affair with Latin America," she said. In a history of the Americas class, she was "challenged over and over by one burning question ­ why had the two regions of the Western Hemisphere moved in such different directions, and, most significantly, why was one now so prosperous and the other so beset by poverty and deprivation?"

Her search for answers took her first to Lima, Peru, where she taught in the American School for two years, arriving just six weeks before a successful military coup. Later she went to Chile, Nicaragua and Ecuador for graduate-level field research and after that to Brazil, Argentina and Mexico.

For her doctorate from UCLA, Morrison lived in Chile to study how ideological changes in government affected education, especially socialization education outside formal classrooms. Conducting field research during the early and most repressive years of the Pinochet dictatorship, she developed a "permanent sadness" as well as "an enormous sense of survivor's guilt" when she left friends and colleagues behind, some in prison, to return to the United States.

"It was a society that turned against itself, ripping apart families and friendships in the name of politics and vengeance. People of all ages, classes and backgrounds disappeared or at best were imprisoned under inhuman conditions. Torture was openly practiced, and the terror of informants rendered an eerie silence in all public spaces."

The sadness was permanent, she explained after the talk, because "it came from the realization of how inhumane people can be to each other, and I had never imagined that before." Last November, for the first time in 20 years, she went back to Chile, where Stanford's new Santiago campus is located. "It was then that I realized how much guilt I had carried for so many years. It was a healing experience for me to go back," she said.

Having met children who lived or worked on the streets on her first trip to Latin America in 1968, she became aware about five years ago that the numbers had exploded as part of the massive migration of peasants from rural to urban areas over the previous two decades. "The more that I learned of the scope and seriousness of the phenomenon, the greater became my sense of outrage and the more certain I became of my own need to raise awareness and understanding of the plight of the street child."

People in the United States often wonder how parents can abandon children, she said, but most children who work on the streets are not abandoned, and those who are usually have single mothers who care for their other children. Children are often left outside orphanages, she said, by mothers with the hope that their child will be better cared for than the parent herself can manage.

After two years of research, Morrison offered a Stanford undergraduate course called Urbanization, Poverty and Children in Latin America.

"In each of the three years that I have directed this course, my own voice has become stronger. What I never imagined, however, was the extraordinary work that students who have taken this course have subsequently accomplished in the form of senior honors theses, internships, service learning projects and other endeavors. This has been the most gratifying accomplishment of anything in my professional life."

This year, for example, senior Nisha Varia, an anthropology major, went to Guadalajara, Mexico, to do research on the less visible population of working girls. Varia found and interviewed more than 70 girls who were less visible either because they cross-dressed in order to work on the streets or because they were engaged in indoor domestic servitude and "survival sex," Morrison said. Because the girls are more isolated, they have received fewer social resources. "I intend to see that this honors thesis gets published and in the hands of people who design programs, raise dollars and allocate tax dollars," she said.

Morrison also chairs the board of directors for Mi Familia, a Palo Alto-based organization started by a Stanford alum to work on child abandonment prevention and assistance programs in Latin America. The organization just completed purchase of a facility for the first daycare program for disabled children in Ecuador. It will have therapeutic and recreational facilities, Morrison said, unlike the overcrowded church hall they were working from before.

Morrison's research focuses on assessing the types of programs that most successfully address the problems of both working and abandoned street children. She often interviews street children, who tend to be distrustful of adults and therefore difficult to recruit into service programs. "I'm lucky I am small and can blend in," she said with a grin. Services, such as cash assistance or part-time education, can help, she said, but the problems will continue until there is "major structural change. Given the enthusiasm with which neoliberalism has been embraced, I am not very hopeful."

Morrison finished her talk by calling attention to the fact that she is still a North American, sheltered from the problems of the children she tries to help, and quoted Welty again: "A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within."


By Kathleen O'Toole