Watching Out for Venezuela

What is Lumen?

M. G. : Lumen is a community social program whose objective is to train teachers, in order to make them front line influen­cers in the fight against visual impair­ment. By nature, teachers are actors of change, but they don’t necessarily know it and they feel powerless. So we chose to put them at the heart of our project, to re-establish the role of pre­ceptor that they once had in communi­ties. By having an impact on teachers, we can impact the whole of society. We also involve universities, medical and optometry schools to create a network capable of taking care of vision pro­blems in the long term.

How do you train these teachers to detect ophthalmological pathologies in children?

M. G. : Each teacher first receives a kit. It is made up of an optical chart that we developed and a brochure with all the necessary information. With this kit, it is possible to renew the detection pro­cess each year. Vision problems are pro­gressive: it is thus imperative to follow the children throughout their time at school. The next step – one of the cen­tral parts of the project – is the visual health roundtable. All the teachers meet to go over the needs of their students and then bring the information to the local government. We teach them to be actors in the situation, to go negotiate with the authorities and the private sec­tor. Be they public citizens or high offi­cials, Venezuelans often confuse charity and social development, while they are two very different things. With Lumen we want to address a societal problem.

How did you succeed in involving teachers?

M. G. : Since we started in November 2012, we have worked with 15 com­munities, in 7 of the 22 states of Vene­zuela. We have gone into 25 schools and have trained 424 teachers, who are now certified Lumen representa­tives. We also work with civil organiza­tions such as Fé y Alegria. This Jesuit network, deeply implanted in Latin America, oversees 175 establishments and over 200,000 children.

How does Lumen fit within the Venezuelan healthcare system?

M. G. : Our healthcare system is very dependent on the welfare state and puts the emphasis more on disease than prevention. It was this situation that pushed me to create Lumen. We offer a different approach: we don’t see health as a problem but rather as an equilibrium to maintain.

Why did you choose to take on vision problems as a matter of priority?

M. G. : Sight is the principal sense that we use in our interactions. Humans can even be defined as visual beings. But visual impairment is just a technical aspect of our project. We have a larger objective: we encourage people to par­ticipate and organize themselves to put their problems on the table, analyze them and find solutions that involve all the actors of society. I did a doctorate in Health Management and developed this concept, which became the basis of Lumen, in my dissertation. Today, it is more than an idea: it has become a method.

So it is possible to apply Lumen’s method to areas other than visual health?

M. G. : Of course. We observe that teachers use the roundtable methodology to resolve other challenges, such as universal water access or the struggle against domestic violence. Sometimes it is enough to identify the difficulty, then go speak with the authorities. Developing people’s skills and spi­rit of initiative is essential if we want to grow socially. They must be able to take their problems in hand without waiting for someone to come and solve them in their place. The solution lies in this cultural change.

What future do you see for Lumen, now that Venezuela is in a violent political crisis?

M. G. : The situation was already compli­cated when we were getting started. So it is proof that with a little willpower nothing is impossible! Lumen will go on, because a whole generation has made it their own. I am 53, and I meet young people around 20 years old who are heavily involved. My wish is for Lumen to become systematic, that every tea­cher would master the kit and test the vision of their students throughout their time at school. I would like our method to give birth to other public policies, not only to prevent vision pro­blems, but also to bring up the challen­ges with which we are confronted. Maybe the project will even be deve­loped in neighbouring countries.

By Perrine Massy