“Never fear the difficult circumstances:” Missy Christie’s Journey to Educational Leadership in Colombia

One of the goals of the GlobalEd Leadership website is to feature practicing school leaders from around the world. As we work in different nations and visit schools and NGOs, some of these leaders stand out and we feel they have stories worth sharing with other educators around the world. Here is one of those school leaders doing remarkable work.

Conviventia is a family founded non-profit organization in Colombia which is dedicated to developing community and economic growth to improve the quality of life for those in situations of poverty and vulnerability. Core to their mission is providing quality education from early childhood through technical education. We connected with Missy Christie, the organization’s Executive Director to learn more about how she found herself in this role. 

When I was 2 years old, my family came from New Zealand as missionaries hoping to contribute to dismantling issues of violence and injustice for at-risk communities. My father spent 12 years traveling around the country, learning about the community’s needs; his intention was to spread hope and to alleviate pain and suffering, yet not all groups were receptive as Colombia in the time of conflict was characterized as having high levels of religious intolerance. When I was 11 years old, M-19 guerilla forces stormed into our house and tied up my mother, father, and I, threatening to kill us and accusing my dad of being a spy for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. I watched as they attacked and degraded my dad and beat my mom. I was overwhelmed with fear and would not stop shaking, but my dad was able to take the gag out of his mouth and whisper to me “Close your eyes Missy, soon we will be in heaven.” When the guy was about to pull the trigger, the doorbell rang. My oldest sister had returned home, scaring away the aggressors and saving our lives. 

Pre-school El Pozon, Cartagena

In many ways that event made a mark on me. For a long time I was a fearful young girl, and as I went about my life, traveled, studied abroad, got married, and had a baby girl, my plan was always to migrate back to New Zealand to ensure that I could provide my family with safety. That plan changed, however, when Colombia finally started to discuss peace with M-19. Guerrilla forces started to settle in a part of Bogota called Soacha and my father got closely involved with these communities. He would say, “that is where I need to go to pay back evil with good and to pay back that cycle of resentment, hatred, violence, and poverty by sewing peace and love in the lives of those children to help them grow a good and fulfilling life.” I thought he was nuts and irresponsible, but one day he took me there. I saw him interacting with the people and I was inspired–he was my hero and there was so much love and genuine care to be able to go into a space where his life could be in danger without any fear. 

The next year, we discovered that my dad had cancer. He had a successful surgery in his colon, but 6 months later it had been metastasized in his liver. I took the time to sit down with him to listen to his vision in his last period of time. He believed that we were called to defend dignity and exercise justice to help people develop their talents and take  responsibility for their own lives. Listening to him was a way of training for the job. Some of his last words to me were “God has given you a sensitive heart, and if you accept the challenge, he will give you the opportunity to touch the lives of many more than you could possibly imagine” He left us 2 weeks later. I was 23 years old. 

Before my dad passed, he had purchased a few buildings with the goal of starting high quality schools in marginal areas. My anger towards my father being taken away from me turned into passion and drive and somehow I was able to convince the Conviventia board to let me take the lead. We started to give structure to the newly established schools. Throughout this process, we started realizing that it was not enough just to do good, but you have to do good in good ways. The risk of continued humanitarian aid is that it can begin to take away the dignity of the person by creating dependence. Our aim should be to help each other stand up at the same level to move forward and flourish. To fulfill this aim, we began to look at our education program to provide the community with tools to be able to provide for their own future. 

We started our program by looking for skilled people and exploring different models such as: Escuela Nueva, developed by Vicky Colbert from the Volvamos a la Gente foundation, Christian curriculums, and theological centric models. Yet none of these quite fit our community, context, principles and values. So we decided to create a research team out of our 60 teachers in order to come up with a model that would work best. 

This group created an innovative approach to education that responds to different dimensions that make a person whole. Our model is called Escuela con Proposito (School with a Purpose) because we believe every human being is created with a purpose and vision and that they all have the right and responsibility to develop themselves so their practice will serve to meet the good of the greater community. We have been implementing this model for 10 years now, starting in early primary school and we are seeing the result in those who are graduating. We also decided to become ISO 9001 accredited which was unheard of in the NGO sector. Making our processes compliant with international standards was a huge challenge for an organization with limited resources but we have been blessed to have incredibly committed team members and donors. With a little bit, you can do a lot if you have the willingness, love, and due diligence to do it. 

High school students at CDA Cartagena

When you walk into a Conviventia school, you can see the difference: the way the kids talk, the way they behave, the atmosphere. We do not have the mega facilities, but the children cherish and care for what they have. They respect each other as is illustrated by extremely low rates of violence and teenage pregnancy. By empowering a child we are influencing a family, and by supporting these families, we are transforming a community.

My experiences as an 11 year old equipped me with the strength to hold the hand and dry the tears of little children who have seen their parents be killed right in front of them. It allows me to identify and connect with them. Having lost my father–even though it was by disease not a tragic death–has equipped me with words and tools to support others going through trauma and it has kept me passionate, humble, and sensitive to the needs of human beings. We are all fragile, and we all need each other and faith. We encounter difficult moments and may want to escape them, but those are the ones that build character, equip us in our lives with tools so that we can be more effective in the work that we have been called to do. 

I often tell people “Never fear the difficult circumstances.” We are currently undergoing difficult circumstances with the COVID pandemic, but I know we will come out of this crisis enriched, strengthened–I am very optimistic and hopeful. 

Lindsay & Denise Christie with youngest daughter Missy in 1972

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