When Personal Actions Transform Communities

In early March right before Covid-19 started to spread across the global, I had the pleasure of taking a group of masters’ degree students from the Kroc School of Peace Studies at the University of San Diego to Bogotá Colombia. This is the second of three blogs from the class that I want to share with you. This blog was written by Nicole Muñoz-Proulx a master’s degree student in Peace and Justice Studies. 

Nicole taking the graffiti walking tour in Bogotá, Colombia

Empowered People Empower Others

Mariposas (Spanish for butterflies) have historically symbolized transformation, growth, and resilience; all essential qualities when cultivating peace. I have personally sought comfort from their symbolism in my own journey and was pleasantly surprised to see vibrant murals of them throughout Ciudad Bolivar – a community situated on the edge of Bogotá, Colombia. Like many communities in the country it is navigating a postwar existence with the desire to thrive despite its deeply rooted challenges. My visit to Ciudad Bolivar was a mere glimpse into the resilience that begets innovation, which begets hope and hope is a powerful ingredient to transforming communities. 

A Street in Ciudad Bolivar, Bogotá

In the years that followed Colombia’s pivotal Peace Accords, some communities have struggled to navigate the complexities of the government’s re-allocation of resources and the economic disparities that persist between stratas (i.e., social classification system in Colombia). At each site visit I recognized the emergence of an unexpected tool to address these pervasive inequities (i.e., personal reflection and the notion that one is connected to many).  Intentional self-reflection can lead to self-empowerment; and most importantly, empowered people empower others. I was particularly inspired by this re-occurring theme throughout the field-practicum and it was exciting to see that personal development was at the epicenter of these transformative changes. 

The Power of Purpose  

Fundación Biblioseo, located in the fringes of Ciudad Bolivar, is focused on empowering the region’s youth. The organization addresses the notion of mental poverty, resulting from systematic failures that have repeatedly mismanaged opportunities for its residents. By addressing and subsequently dismantling themental poverty mindset, Biblioseo equips youth with the necessary tools to harness positive opportunities. These opportunities are varied and illustrate the depths of their programming (e.g., library access, music, art, dance classes, recycling, animal welfare, and bike programs).  At Biblioseo the children are given a space to dream, they are given the tools to create, and overtime they establish the skills to innovate. The representatives we met are entrepreneurs utilizing their skills to build opportunities for themselves, their families, and ultimately their community. 

The music room at Fundación Biblioseo

In this case, self-refection leads to self-determination. Biblioseo provides leadership engagement and activities that are single-handedly developing the next generation. The youth are reimagining the world and recognizing opportunities that were previously rendered invisible. Although donations have long been integral to the survival of rural residents, Biblioseo youth are developing alternate means of survival through earned income endeavors that foster self-sufficiency. While a spark of inspiration paves the way for change, vital tools and skills that accompany a spark is essential to contribute to the redistribution of power in a community.

Nicole Muñoz-Proulx planting trees with Fundación Biblioseo

Wealth Reimagined 

In regard to the next organization the old adage money is power comes to mind. Colombia is recognized as having one of the highest economic disparities in Latin America.  Investing Hope helps children from Ciudad Bolivar learn how to make money through entrepreneurial gains and save their money accordingly. Ciudad Bolivar has lacked opportunities in the past leaving youth susceptible to violence. Investing Hope realized the saving potential of community children and sought to help youth invest in the future. 

Kroc Students purchase baked goods from Investing Hope youth

I was very happy to see Investing Hope tackle such a pervasive issue. I am hyper aware of the inequities that prevent financial upward mobility, and admittedly this lack of equity frustrates me deeply. This resounding truth illuminates the need for financial education for children, especially for those that have historically lacked economic opportunities. Though their business model is constantly changing, Investing Hope has excelled in its adaptation – meanwhile growing its scope to help an increasing number of children. Fundación Biblioseo and Investing Hope have created business models that centralize youth and their development by offering activities that both inspire creativity and cultivate pertinent life skills. These organizations and others like them prepare youth to engage with the world around them; they are educating young leaders that will pour this knowledge back into their communities in an effort to disseminate peace.

Cultivating Community Cultivates Peace 

A butterfly is not always a butterfly – a simple fact that brings my message full circle. There are multiple stages required for its transformation, and some take longer than others. I believe that resilience in the wake of peace is much like this process. It requires patience, determination, and flexibility as it adjusts to its circumstances. These communities are actively participating in each stage of the peace process and they are initiating personal and communal practices to transform injustice into opportunity. 

Though my time in Bogotá was brief, I recognized something familiar in my interactions. I recognized courageous people with the ganas (i.e., having the desire to do something) to endure until peace is fully realized. I recognized dreamers and doers working to transform their communities. These people are in it for the long haul and they are in it together. I was reminded that peace is a collective effort. It was a humbling experience and a reminder that peace, no matter how inconsequential, can persist and must persist.  

Kroc Students during the cable car ride into Ciudad Bolivar, Bogotá