It all starts with one. One idea. One individual. One community. And one vision for a better future.
It starts with Juan Pablo in Bolivia teaching at-risk youth how to express themselves through sports and culture, developing their own identity so others won't define it for them.
It starts with Martha in Costa Rica or Yelitza in Panama, who found ways to reach the "unreachable” -- gang members, drug users, and school dropouts in whom others had given up hope.
Sometimes it begins with an idea -- teaching robotics to 10-year-olds in a drug-ravaged community in Costa Rica. Piece by piece, with the support of dedicated adults, these boys and girls learn to construct something bigger -- engines, cars, complex systems -- and along the way, they rebuild themselves and their neighborhoods.
These moments of inspiration exist across the Western Hemisphere, but if we can connect them and forge a network of community action, we will have a whole much greater than the sum of its parts. Building networks was precisely the purpose of the Alumni Enrichment Workshop that took place October 2-4 in Costa Rica, where 29 U.S. exchange alumni from 12 countries gathered to share ideas, challenges, and best practices on "Youth Empowerment and Citizen Security."
These alumni from Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, and Peru are leaders of NGOs, government offices, university campuses, and civic organizations. They are passionate, energetic, and dynamic, able to inspire change in the toughest neighborhoods of Latin America.
Over three days, the attendees shared personal experiences and tackled critical issues like drug and violence prevention, gang rehabilitation, self-esteem building, and human rights protection for women and minorities. One thing that struck me as I listened to presentations and group discussions was that these leaders already possess solutions to some of the most vexing challenges our hemisphere faces. The solutions are surprisingly simple: give young people positive alternatives to drugs and crime; provide a safe, welcoming space to express themselves, whether through music, art, sports, or classroom learning; and teach them to believe in themselves and to dare to dream.
The solutions may be straightforward, but multiplying them on a regional scale is where the challenge lies. Cultural differences and simple geography can stand in the way of building communities of practice and enabling aspiring leaders to transform their individual visions into global successes.
This alumni workshop, funded through the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, was a powerful step in the right direction. These men and women of all ages, races, and backgrounds connected on a deep and personal level in a remarkably short period of time. The energy that emanated from the group -- from the first day of spirited discussions to the laughter and dancing at the farewell dinner -- was palpable and magical.
The workshop participants are eager to build on the conversations they started. The group's motto -- “Global Challenges, Local Solutions” -- captures so much of what I witnessed this week in tales of hope and empowerment across Latin America. I hope we can connect more of these local solutions through global networks. If we can leverage traditional and social networks to bring leaders like this together, we can help winning ideas transcend borders. Then the circle will be complete and we can finish as we started: as one.