Youth Empowerment and Innovation: Fundación Biblioseo’s Model for Sustainable Change

Ivan Triana started Fundación Biblioseo in Colombia with a vision to create a space for youth in the most marginalized communities to innovate and create homegrown solutions to their community’s major problems. Below we share his story and the foundations’ vision for growth in the coming years.

One day about 10 years ago, I came across my estranged childhood best friend living on the streets. It was a pivotal moment for me because it was so close to my heart and I knew that it could have just as easily been me in that position. While I was able to get out of the community and find success in business, not everyone had those same opportunities. In Colombia, many individuals still associate progress and advancement with material things and being able to move away from where they are from. I had been through that process, and in many ways, I became disconnected from my community; yet I knew this was something that I readily wanted to change. 

When I was training to be a teacher, I did my service work in the community where Fundación Biblioseo currently works in Ciudad Bolivar. Years later when I returned, I realized that much had stayed the same for these communities since I was last there—youth getting involved with drugs and many who had dropped out of school. At that time, I was working at a private company in strategic planning and processes while also studying to be a librarian. I started to think about how the successful business processes I was seeing might be readily applied to the non-profit and library sectors. What started as volunteer work on the weekends, eventually evolved into a vision for a foundation that would generate income that could be reinvested in furthering projects benefiting the community—emulating the financial and strategic structures of a large global company. 

Youth leader at Biblioseo

I believe that the way to produce sustainable change is to support the development of tools and skills among youth that goes far beyond one-time resource donations. However, most organizations in this region at the time were focused on providing immediate attention to health and nutrition needs, and I did not often see a process of community transformation at their core. Simultaneously, we were also seeing that libraries were starting to lose their relevance at a national level and many were closing down due to lack of funding and integration into the communities. 

In 2009 Fundación Biblioseo was officially certified as a social organization, and soon after founded its first Library of Creativity and Innovation in Ciudad Bolivar, Colombia. Our intention was to reimagine a library space as one where children could have fun, find common ground, and connect their dreams with their reality and the world at large. Our pedagogical approach seeks to empower youth to see the problems in their community as an opportunity for them to enact change. We employ the following formula for helping youth develop new ideas:

1. Identify a problem in the community connected to sustainable development that angers me most.

2. Mix this with what motivates me, what I am passionate about, and what I am good at.

3. Employ the Lean Startup Cycle (Ries, 2011) to determine what works: Start cheap, test cheap, fail cheap, and try again. 

4. Connect youth and projects to experts in the field to provide mentorship and guidance to scale.

Fundación Biblioseo accompanies the youth throughout this entire process providing mentorship, a coworking space, and small amounts of seed funding. One example of these projects created by youth is the video and marketing production company Ultreia. Their vision is to provide services to the many organizations working in Ciudad Bolivar as a means of getting the word out about what they are doing and incentivizing tourism and economic development for their community. We provide a space in our library for Ultreia to use for coworking free of charge; the intention is to minimize the financial burden for a startup to get off the ground and generate their first points of success. Through this method we hope that our library can become a small Silicon Valley in Colombia. One of Ultrei’s most recent videosoutlines our organizational approach.

Some of our other youth led projects include a program that provides experiential education opportunities through sports (ex. ultimate frisbee) to help develop teamwork and other soft skills. Currently youth are offering these sports development courses to private high schools and University students. Another project focuses on spreading muralism and art to incentivize rural tourism and to foment pride and recognition of community identity. This last piece is particularly important as Ciudad Bolivar is one of the few rural communities still existent close to Bogota. As the threat of developers coming in and pushing out the community has become more prevalent, the youth project AgroLab has sought to tackle this by focusing on making the land more productive and promoting a different type of tourism. By next year they hope that individuals will be able to visit Ciudad Bolivar and learn how to milk a cow and the process of making cheese.

Visitors are invited to participate in Biblioseo’s projects

 hammering bricks made from recycled plastic; tree planting; feeding dozens of homeless dogs

Overall, we want to ensure our work supports a tourism of service and development, not of poverty and handouts. Therefore, as a foundation we shifted our model this year to charge volunteers a nominal donation fee for joining us on site. Onsite, volunteers get to help us construct our new library by laying bricks and planting trees. Then the funds collected are divided between the youth who worked that day, a portion for the construction and foundation operational funds, and also for our seed investment and prototyping money to put back into new projects. Through this model individuals, organizations, and companies who want to get involved can see how their money supports sustainable projects that empower the community. 

There is no doubt that the COVID 19 has greatly impacted our work, however, we are trying to see it as an opportunity to rethink and redesign our approach. It is not possible to turn a blind eye to environmental and social problems because they are currently being thrust in front of us. In our particular community, it is a challenge because many families are not prepared to deal with this, living day-to-day, without any savings or a long-term plan. The reality is, when there is a crisis, it does not matter if you have the best car or newest technology, you are just as vulnerable as your neighbor. We are trying to see this as an opportunity to start a new collective conversation as to what it means to “progress.” While this is still in development, what we do know is that when we finish this quarantine we cannot come out the other side doing exactly the same thing in the same way—it requires a new form of education and development. What we have been honored to see however, is the solidarity and how it has brought the community together; we hope to build upon collective power to continue to push our efforts forward towards creating sustainable and scalable change for all families in Ciudad Bolivar. 

We had the opportunity to see Fundación Biblioseo’s work in action during a recent visit with University of San Diego Master’s students, some of which has been reflected in the images shared above. If you are interested in learning more and following Ivan’s leadership and the foundation’s progress, please visit their website here

Thanks for reading!

Maxie and Paula

Reference:  Eric Ries. (October 2011). “Creating the Lean Startup”Inc. 33 (8): 56–63. 

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.