Why All of Our Children Belong to Us: And What We Can Do

Carolina San Miguel holds a Doctor of Design (DDes, 2019) from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. She is a community researcher and innovation strategist whose work is targeted at designing human-friendly ecosystems to support children and families in neighborhoods across the Americas. csanmiguel@alumni.harvard.edu

Why All of Our Children Belong to Us: And What We Can Do

by Carolina San Miguel


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Carolina San Miguel draws and laughs with children

Over the past decade, as part of my work, I’ve had hundreds of inspiring dialogues with children at risk across South, Central and North American cities. These interactions changed the course of my life. I could no longer keep my eyes shut nor pretend to ignore these children as if they weren't my concern.

It’s not as if I’d never been exposed to poverty or racism. I grew up in a violent, poor and highly vulnerable neighborhood in southeast Brazil. However, my starting point did not determine who I became. I learned languages and cultures, met people from multiple nationalities and lived around the world. I became a pioneer, as the first Brazilian to get a Master’s in housing studies at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) and last year, the first Brazilian to get a Doctor of Design at Harvard. I overcame my circumstances, breaking barriers. This is why my life today is focused on helping and supporting children and families, to make sure that other children coming from similar circumstances as mine, overcome them, and instead of being the exception like me, become the norm, and succeed.

Some of these poignant interactions with children, as I illustrate here in conversations from three different moments while I was working with them, have helped me to understand the world of endangered children throughout cities in the Americas better:


Dialogue 1 with a toddler in Boston (USA, 2018)

Me: What's your race?

Anonymous Toddler: I'm human...


Dialogue 2 with a child in Cancún (Mexico, 2015)

Me: If you could choose one thing to have in your home, what would it be?

Anonymous child suffering eviction: The beach.

Me: Why? You live in Cancún. There are beaches everywhere here.

Child: Yeah. But... I never get to go to them.

Me: Why Not?

Child: They don't let me in.

Me: They Who?

Child: You know, the Gringos, and the Hotels...


Dialogue 3 with a teenager in Belo Horizonte (Brazil, 2012)

Me: What is it about this action that you like so much?

Anonymous teen foster child: The students of Architecture that come to visit us.

Me: Why? What are they doing?

Teen child: Because they are helping us.

Me: How?

Teen child: Well, they talk to us. They listen to us. Like we listen to hip hop together. We dance...that kind of stuff...

Me: That's it?

Teen child: Yeah, professor. They care...about us.


As these dialogues subtly reveal, children in the Americas are victims of structural violence. In part of my work, I sought to find out some of the reasons for this, along with positive examples of micro action-based community practices I 've been doing to independently support children in need in neighborhoods. What I have found through my research practices is that social accountability to our children is a responsibility that belongs to all of us Americans, from South to North, and that every child belongs in.

One out of two children in the world are suffering violence in the shape of physical, sexual, or psychological maltreatment, according to a 2018 report by the World Health Organization. This violence is affecting our children's well-being everywhere we go. While working as an innovation strategist for local nonprofits supporting children and families in Boston at the Harvard Center on the Developing Child, and in the meantime getting my expertise certificate on child protection from UNICEF and the Harvard FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, I had found that one of the main factors that hinders children's development and sense of self-worth is the violation of their basic rights. According to the recent groundbreaking report A Familiar Face published by UNICEF in 2017 on violence in children's lives, today about 300 million children throughout the world between the ages of two to four suffer maltreatment of physical punishment or psychological aggression by their parents or caregivers. The same report shows that one out of every four children under five have mothers who are victims of domestic violence, and that teenagers are three times more likely to die violently. The report also shows that girls are not even safe in their own homes, where in 90% of the cases of sexual abuse against them, the perpetrator was someone the victim knew.

In Latin America it is no different. The report shows that every seven minutes, a child is murdered in the world, victim of homicide, armed conflict or collective violence. Most of these homicides are not happening in war zones but in the Caribbean and Latin America, which have the highest rates of homicides against children in the world, in proportions four times higher than the global average. These are in fact, the only areas in the world where homicides against children are increasing. Just in Brazil, for example, homicide rates against children have doubled in the past 20 years. It is today the country with the fifth highest rate of homicide against children from 10 to 19, with higher rates found in Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia and Venezuela, according to UNICEF. The global humanitarian organization World Vision in a 2017 report ranked Brazil as the most violent country against children in Latin America for maltreatment, physical and psychological abuse, child labor, child marriage, online threats and sexual violence.

You may be asking why I am bringing these numbers. I'll tell you this if I can be brief and straight to the point: picture in your mind a four-year-old child, barefoot, in the middle of some slum in Mexico or Brazil, carrying an assault weapon produced by the United States and sold to drug dealers down south, while another tiny child collects the money of some rich privileged guy to trade it in heroin, an illicit opioid drug made out of morphine that is found in opium poppy plants produced in Mexico or Colombia, then transported illegally to the United States through Mexico and to Europe through Brazil. Picture these opioid drugs, all made out of the same morphine, getting chemically manipulated by North American and European pharmaceutical corporations to be transformed into painkillers also made out of addictive opioid substances, painkillers that are strategically advertised and mostly targeted at teenage users, and consumed by millions of North American and European citizens who become addicted, mentally ill and at points criminalized in unfair juvenile justice corporative systems which profit exactly out of the incarceration of these teenagers. Now picture a young girl forced into child prostitution or human trafficking to attend a market of consumers of mostly white males living in the United States and Europe. Wouldn’t you say that the problem of violence against children involves us all? Wouldn’t you think we are allowing and sponsoring these trades to happen?

I bring these sad yet realistic scenarios here to show that violence against children does not start in South America to end in North America or the rest of the world. It is a structural and interdependent social problem that is happening both ways, caused, and shaped by multiple complexities that involve each and every one of us. The opioid crisis, to give an example, is a public health emergency happening not just against Latinx children crossing U.S. Mexico borders to escape from this perverse drug war but a direct threat happening against the children in the United States right now as well. Apart from the fact that 14.1 million children are living in poverty in the United States and out of those, 5.3 million at extreme poverty levels (Save the Children, 2018), the United States has reached a number of almost a million opioid users just in 2016, an increase of a 100% from 2006, with most of these users being teenagers and youth (NSDUH, 2018).


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Intervention with the teenage foster children in the shelters in Belo Horizonte


However it is possible to intervene against this crisis, and gradually change things. When I designed a participatory community-based action of intervention with foster children and architectural students in shelters while I was a professor a couple of years ago back in Belo Horizonte, my hometown in Brazil, I didn't know we could build this incremental change. I just knew I had to do something. The emotional distress of reading an article in the local newspaper on child abuse and the subsequent placement of these children in foster care, led me to find several experts to work together with my students, intervene in the renovation of five shelters across town, scaling the work to 15 later on, and being hired as an architect by the town hall to redesign one of them.

I led another social action of participatory planning in a low-income neighborhood in Cancún, Mexico, with the children from a community at risk of eviction, when I was working as a teaching fellow and assisting a group of students from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. While the students worked with the community at a workshop we designed, I engaged at the same time in an experimental workshop with the local community children.  At first, the idea was to take care of them while the parents were working with the students. However, I soon realized that my non-academic yet empirical micro-intervention there allowed the kids to express their concerns and bring an even deeper understanding of the community’s problems in a fun, relaxing and positive environment. We hung out, ate tacos and developed a sense of collectiveness.  In both Brazil and Mexico, the experiences made the children feel loved, connected, cared for, accountable, heard, part of and belonging to a place. They are not design interventions, but community-based participatory actions, that is, design as a process.


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Workshop with children at risk in Cancún


When I go to youth shelters in Greater Boston to play with young children, talk with the youth, share my background, struggles, and accomplishments, I try to silently intervene and transform things, even if in a very micro yet effective and incremental way. When I was working in one of the shelters in Boston, the five-year-old blond child with startling blue eyes, who told me she was human while we were playing together with dolls, later hugged me when I left, saying she loved me and she missed me. The girl was a victim of domestic violence and under foster legal care. I carry such moments, their eyes, their drawings, their voices, their innocence and their love always with me wherever I go. And I know that if I can do these little things with very limited financial resources, anyone of us can as well.


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Mexican kids’ drawings from Cancún, which San Miguel keeps in her living room


We are spending our efforts and economies as nations in programs of mitigation of mental and physical health problems affecting our children when we should be structurally investing in universal child care and education to all of our children to effectively combat this situation—virtually a war against our children. When the United States as a nation decides not to ratify the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the main legal global instrument to advocate and reassure the implementation of children's rights on the ground in our neighborhoods, it is somehow telling us that these scenarios are ok and that political lobbying combined with corporative interests matter more than our children's wellbeing. Shutting our borders to children and our eyes to these numbers, and to the structural reality of violence and, at the same time, denying our responsibility to change this at the neighborhood level will not help us as society.


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A sign declaring "free range children" in Arlington, MA


Sometimes we think it is hard or impossible to change things but my own simple experience working with children across the Americas has shown me, that simple non-governmental interventions can be possible if we collectively work together to build community. These interventions can incrementally change the outcomes of a child's life forever, bringing her the basic rights that she deserves, taken from her at some point during her childhood. The social accountability to our children is a responsibility that belongs to all of us Americans, from South to North. We must immediately, and urgently unite our forces to achieve better outcomes for all of our children if we want to live in a better world for them than the fragmented one we live in today. It is our duty, as citizens of the world, and as human beings, to give our children of the Americas the best opportunities, with the safest and most loving borderless homes, where they become part of and finally belonging to, no matter where they come from.