Informing Human Rights Leaders: The Center for Research and Learning

I started trying to learn Spanish five months ago. I used a free, online, game-style program that organized lessons into different levels and let me amass internet points that had no value but were nonetheless exciting to receive. After three months, I was feeling pretty good about myself and my level-ten accomplishments. According to the game, I had mastered things like “phrases,” “food,” and “household objects.” This whole Spanish thing was really quite simple!

Then I moved to El Salvador, and everything changed.

It became immediately apparent just how useless those internet points were. I couldn’t understand simple conversations, or order food at a restaurant, or ask for help in the home goods store. The game had changed, and I had to re-examine everything I thought I knew. What I had learned before wasn’t wrong— there were just thousands of nuances in an actual Spanish-speaking reality that my online game couldn’t simulate.

In the next couple of weeks, this blog will explore Cristosal’s Center for Research and Learning, or CEA (from the Spanish Centro de Estudio y Aprendizaje). The people in CEA go beyond traditional research frameworks to gain and share meaningful knowledge.


CEA Director Jeanne Rikkers believes the results of research are only as relevant as the voices that inform them. Consequently, Jeanne makes an effort to seek out perspectives that are often ignored or marginalized. Research that will drive positive and lasting change must consider the experiences of people from all sides of an issue. “We don’t think cycles of violence will change unless the human rights of each and every person are respected,” she says. “Even if we disagree with them, their experiences must be taken into account, or policies won’t change and the cycle will continue,” says Jeanne.

This approach has led Jeanne to spend much of her career studying and working with gang members. Jeanne has facilitated life-skills trainings with prisoners, lived in communities in gang territory, and developed relationships with ex-gang members. As a result of this, she sometimes gets requests from other researchers for interviews.

“Sure, they can talk to me,” she says, “but how much can we really say without talking to the actors involved?”

CEA’s goal is to build meaningful solutions by identifying and elevating the voices of actors from a number of vulnerable groups, including prisoners, members of the LGBT community, and Central American asylum-seekers. CEA’s Participatory Action Research approach ensures that the impact of this work will go beyond a detached understanding of a topic—it will include the thousands of nuances that only the actors involved can contribute.

Check back next week to learn more about the transformational effects of Participatory Action Research.

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Hannah Rose Nelson