Knight Blog

The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Online stories of courage draw Juarez residents outdoors

July 15, 2011, 9:32 a.m., Posted by Annie Shreffler

One mark of a successful online project intended to foster community is when that community finally responds – and extracts the content for its own use.

For the website Crónicas de Héroes, archiving positive stories of the everyday heroes of Juarez, Mexico, this moment happened when a group of street artists asked permission to paint some of the accounts as murals.

It wasn’t easy to get to that place. For six months the tireless Yesica Guerra, a Juarez resident, with the help of two others, talked to small groups and hosted workshops to encourage members of her city to tell their positive stories. As she worked on plans for the project from MIT’s Center for Civic Media, which is funded by Knight Foundation, she sent streams of emails that bore no fruit. Finally plans took off when she visited Juarez in person to explain that she wasn’t working for the government.

“That’s how it is within an affected society. You don’t have trust anymore,” she said. It was only when she stood directly in front of community members that they were willing to try. The site allows visitors to contribute their own stories, but for those without Internet access, Guerra distributes postcards. To date, the site has over 900 stories of good will.

Juarez has become infamous recently for news accounts of skyrocketing numbers of brutal murders, fueled by poverty and a vibrant, border-crossing drug trade. There are a lot of guns and bloodshed, and Guerra describes a pall of fear that keeps children indoors and young people out of nightclubs.

But the Crónicas accounts of neighbors helping each other that appear on the website’s map are read by local radio stations and printed in the local papers, has spread the knowledge that others in the city are trying to lead decent lives.  This has literally drawn people out to participate in the mural paintings and given them courage to reclaim their public space.

Crónicas is a spin-off from an earlier MIT Center for Civic Media project, begun eight years ago as Hero Reports, a response to the post-9/11 New York City “See Something Say Something” campaign. But plans to roll Hero Reports out to other cities sat on a shelf until the center’s former director, Chris Csikszentmihályi, visited Juarez and was told the city had no heroes. A light bulb popped on and Crónicas was born.

The next step for the Juarez project is to become self-sustaining. The Center for Civic Media kept its support of the project behind the scenes, to encourage residents to take ownership. To keep the site active and continue to support community events, Guerra will have to add fundraising to her plate.

Media coverage of Crónicas’ success in Juarez had prompted calls to MIT to spin out the project from Detroit to Kazakhstan. Two other Mexican cities, Monterrey and Tijuana, will soon have their own archives of good deeds as well.

Freelance journalist Annie Shreffler wrote this post for KnightBlog.