“Don’t just sit down and keep the seat warm. Do something.” That was what a high school teacher told Francisco Segovia, director of the Waite House Community Center in South Minneapolis. The phrase has stuck with Segovia throughout his experiences teaching in El Salvador, adjusting to life in the United States, and in his role as a community organizer in Minnesota.
Francisco Segovia taught elementary school in El Salvador and was attending university there when a civil war broke out that lasted 12 years and cost 75,000 to 80,000 lives. Segovia fled the country and came to Minnesota where he learned English and went to college (again). At Normandale Community College. he strengthened his language and computer skills and then began working for Pillsbury United Communities, first at the Brian Coyle Community Center and then at Waite House. Segovia discusses his work with youth, education, and the influences that pushed him towards activism.
How did you end up coming to Minnesota from El Salvador?
I was at the university in San Miguel and was studying education. Toward the end of ‘89 the civil war got worse. University students and teachers became the target for the Salvadoran government for our commitment and work with communities and so it was very unsafe for me to remain in El Salvador. I came to Florida in 1990 without documents because there was no time to apply for anything. Then a friend of mine invited me to come to Minnesota.
There is a trauma when you leave your homeland. It was difficult at first because of the language, and then because you’re going from being self-sufficient and holding a job to being dependent. I think that affects your self-esteem. Getting a job in a different area than you studied is okay, but you know how much effort you put into school and then you end up doing something different, and that can be hard.
You recently went back to El Salvador to witness the elections (see video below). How are you involved with the Salvadoran community here?
You know, when I went to work at the Brian Coyle Center—that was 1994 to 2003—I was more involved with the Somali community than the Salvadoran community. I learned a lot from that experience. We have a lot of things in common. They love soccer I love soccer. [Laughing.]
I was working with youth to help them get back to school, and there was one summer where there were a lot of Somali youth—I think it was about ‘95. And the Brian Coyle had mostly basketball courts, but the courts were empty every afternoon. So I talked to these kids and said, “Hey, how about if we make a soccer team?” They got excited and well, what was supposed to be one soccer team ended up turning into 15 soccer teams! and we would play outside of the building and we put together these goals out of rocks. And then it wasn’t only kids watching games, but parents also, so every afternoon was a community event playing soccer over there.
So through these relationships I learned more about myself by getting to know them, and we had many things in common in terms of why they were leaving their home country and their situation. I learned a lot about being more respectful of other individuals different than myself.
Who is your biggest influence, either personally or professionally?
When I was 12 years old, I had an uncle who was a union organizer. I remember that he was once explained to me the type of society we need to have using very simple examples because I couldn’t understand—I’d ask, “What are people in El Salvador fighting for?”
He’d say, “They want a better society.” And I’d say, “What is a better society?” He would say, “Well, when everybody will have shoes and an education.” And I thought, “Oh, that makes sense!” So he kept putting into my head these ideals of what people have to fight for because it isn’t going to come to them.
In my environment—and I’m coming from a very poor family—you always feel like some one is worse off than you. I saw little kids on the street and a lot of kids without shoes, and how many kids lived in houses of cardboard. And those were some examples he gave me to show me that, in some societies, people don’t have to live this way.
So in that teaching moment he gave me the idea that it’s a responsibility to every one of us to ensure education, health…and shoes. [Laughing]. It’s about the well being of the collective in a society.
Francisco Segovia talks about his March 2009 trip to El Salvador where he served as an international election observer. (Some photos in this video were published under the Creative Commons license by Lee Shaver, Pier-Luc Bergeron, rosamarilla, and
What role does music play in your life, especially in your activism?
Oh, I love music. At around that same time there was this song by this Venezuelan band that was forbidden in El Salvador, the Casas De Carton by Los Guaraguao. During the civil war in El Salvador you could even get killed for listening to that music. But I could easily connect music like that with life in El Salvador.
What happens in my kind of work is we want to do so much and we get focused on the results. I’m the kind of guy who wants to see the results, because life is short. It’s funny because we get so anxious to see the results of our efforts, and we lose so much in the process. And the process is where the real learning happens. But life is short and you hope to leave a mark.
But sometimes work can get too overwhelming and we forget the importance of the process and that’s when I have to learn to take breaks. In those moments I go home and listen to music.
During the civil war Francsico Segovia listened to and identified with the song, Las Casas de Carton by the Venezuelan band Los Guaraguao. This video was posted on You Tube.
What about influential moments in your professional life?
Three of the five years I taught elementary school in El Salvador were in rural areas. And in those days you had to walk about 45 minutes to get to school, meaning that you had to be in you had to be in physical shape to go up these hills.
And there I had this transformation, which came from interacting with students and getting to know them and learning about their lives and their challenges.
I had this one student when I was teaching 6th grade (our school was only first to sixth grade) and she came to me and said, “I want to repeat 6th grade again. I don’t have money to go to school in the city, for the uniform and for the shoes, so instead of being home I prefer to be in school.”
But she was really, really smart. I got so upset to know that some one who was really smart wouldn’t have that opportunity. I feel it’s my responsibility to help people and show solidarity with those people who are going through hardship. That’s how I see my job at Waite House. I want to keep building those human assets, because if there are no human assets in our communities then those communities aren’t going to be sustainable.
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