Colombia International Field Program Continues History of Building Beneficial Community Partnerships

Published on September 11, 2015

 
The International Field Program (IFP) is The Milano School’s practicum program abroad that provides students the opportunity for hands-on learning through degree related projects. According to Chris London, Professor of Practice at The New School and Colombia IFP director, ‘the IFP isn’t just a summer study, it’s an integral component of both the learning experience in Milano and in the broader civic/public engagement mission of Milano and The New School.’ Among IFP countries Colombia has been particularly successful – it was featured in a 2014 short documentary highlighting the breadth and depth of what students do there (left) – and has attracted many dedicated students who have continued their work beyond the two-month IFP; some have received awards, delivered reports or even returned to Colombia.

The short documentary above features IFP Colombia students and the projetcs they have worked on (2014).

Click below to learn more about the history of the program and read an interview with Annie Stup, 2015 Colombia IFP participant.

Background:

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London addressing community members

Each year London travels to Colombia with a different New School IFP student group to work in partnership with students from The Universidad Autonoma de Manizales (UAM) who, similar to IFP students, are engaged in hands-on practice that is part of their program of study. Specifically, UAM students partner with the municipal governments in small, rural towns as part of a 4 month program called Paz y Competitividad (Peace and Competitiveness or P&C) to work on projects initiated by former IFP students but sustained by UAM students. The New School /UAM partnership has tried to establish and maintain initiatives that create income opportunities, community organization and provide venues for addressing the traumatic legacies of violence. Students live and work alongside community members in the state of Caldas in the heart of Colombia’s coffee region in towns that are still recovering from the effects of the paramilitary and guerrilla led violence that ended in 2007. Students have worked in 5 towns to date on projects focusing on: the use of sports, cultural activities and life skills education to increase youth inclusion in social development; improving mechanisms for pursuing eco-tourism as an alternative and inclusive economic development strategy; and value added avocado processing to generate income for women victims of violence. The most compelling feature of the Colombia IFP has been its model to create sustainability in practice rather than only in name. At the core of this model is the New School-UAM partnership which ensures a local partner committed to continuing projects after IFP students leave. This has created a platform allowing students to build on the successes of their predecessors and even continue projects once returning to New York City, or after graduating. While there is a long way to go for any of these projects to be truly sustainable, if nothing else the enthusiasm with which New School and UAM students throw themselves into striving to make things a little better has had the cumulative effect that at least some citizens are thinking a little bit differently about the future of their towns.

 

Alumni Successes:

Three Colombia IFP alumni have won New Challenge Grants based on their IFP work. The New Challenge is a New School-wide competition that provides funding to winners giving them the opportunity to act on their ideas and take them to the next level of implementation. 2012 IFP alumna Daniela Talero (Non-Profit Management) won a New Challenge Grant in 2013 for a sewing-based income generation project she started in La Merced to provide income to women victims of violence which she is still working on at the time of writing (Resources: Nuevo Herald article, Facebook page). 2013 IFP alumnae Jillian White (Media Studies) and Jacqueline Rojas (International Affairs) won a New Challenge Grant in 2014 for a Historical Memory project that is the first instance of this national program being implemented in Caldas (Resources: Historical Memory webpage, Project tumbler).

In addition to the New Challenge Grant winners, three alumni have bridged their eco-tourism IFP work in La Merced to the PIA (Practicum in International Affairs), a student-client capstone project that many international affairs students pursue. In 2013 Jessica Tallarico, a 2012 IFP alumna, led a PIA team focused on La Merced that produced a report on improving the wide range of tourism offerings, the policy environment for tourism initiatives and potential marketing strategies that the town might implement. Upon graduating she returned to Colombia to work on a nutrition project in the Medellin, Colombia’s second largest city. A year later in 2014 Jessica Wohlander and Kaitlin Brazill, both 2013 IFP alumnae, produced an IFP report for the Mayor of La Merced discussing obstacles to community cohesion and engagement with the goal of identifying strategies for strengthening a municipal tourism association that the IFP team had helped to inaugurate. These two reports, in addition to three other IFP reports on the same theme, have resulted in a huge body of work produced for La Merced. London is currently preparing an executive summary for the work which he plans to present to the mayor’s office. Finally, at the Observatory in Latin America’s second graduate student conference in spring of 2015, Meg Mszyco (International Affairs) was awarded a prize for her thesis that grew from her IFP work addressing the steady flight of rural youth to urban centers which undermines the economic and social future of towns such as La Merced. These remarkable achievements have set the precedent that current and future groups will build upon the knowledge and work of their predecessors, making the program that much richer.

 

IFP 2015:

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London and 2015 IFP students

The group that recently returned from Colombia consisted of seven students: five in International Affairs, one in Environmental Policy & Sustainability Management, and one in Urban Policy Analysis & Management, Annie Stup. Stup explained that IFP students worked with the mayor’s office (the “alcadía”) of Pácora, in the department of Caldas, Colombia to create a community building project within a new housing development comprised of low-income individuals, some of whom are victims of the armed conflict in Colombia. These individuals entered a lottery to become the owners of free, newly built apartments, which is part of a national policy initiative to provide more quality housing for low-income Colombians. The group gathered information for a social survey of the population by getting to know their history and needs in order to inform the mayor’s office how to better serve this population, as well as empower the community to unite and become advocates for themselves. Stup, who recently wrapped up her two months in Colombia, took the time to answer a few questions about her time there.

 

Interview with Annie Stup 2015 Colombia IFP Participant

 

Why did you choose the Colombia IFP?

I initially chose the Colombia IFP because of the previous year’s avocado project, which was an income generation initiative for low-income women. Even when we learned that wasn’t being continued, I was still drawn to the Colombia IFP—the country’s rich and complicated history, knowing the project would be very hands-on, and the passion that Professor London and the former IFP students clearly had for the country and the program. And although I’m an Urban Policy student, I was drawn to the rural aspect—I’m from a rural area originally but I’ve lived in NYC for more than a decade, so I’ve always been aware of and interested in exploring the interconnectedness and the cultural divisions between urban and rural areas.

 

What benefits have you seen result from the partnership between students on the IFP and those from Universidad Autonoma de Manizales?

The clearest benefit from having UAM’s support is that it lends us the legitimacy of an academic institution that is well known within Colombia. This kind of institutional backing is critical, especially when seeking further support from government and service agencies, and it opens up the potential for the continuation of the project after we leave.

 

What specifically did you work on?

Our client was the mayor’s office (alcadía) of Pácora, within the department of Caldas in Colombia. This area is in the heart of Colombia’s beautiful coffee country, where the economy is largely based on agriculture. Upon arriving in Pácora, we had a few ideas of what we could do based on our experience and interests, but wanted to be as useful as possible to the mayor’s office and especially the community. While we explored many options, it turned out they needed all of us to work on a single project—community building within a new housing development called Mariscal Sucre.

This development was created as part of a large-scale national policy initiative called Viviendas Gratis, which aims to provide 100,000 free housing units to low-income Colombians who otherwise would not be able to afford to own homes. The local government wanted to build some preventive measures to help stabilize the community before any problems arose—understanding who lives there, what their backgrounds are, what their needs might be, and forming a plan for community organizing in the future.

Many of the residents had formerly lived in rural areas and most who are employed work in agricultural professions. While some people knew each other prior to living there, the majority did not, so there was a limited sense of community. So we first went in to begin to understand who they were, just having conversations and asking about their hopes, ideas, and concerns about their new homes. This eventually evolved into a number of projects, including providing recommendations for a manual for living (called a “convivencia manual”), designing and implementing a survey to understand the community’s demographics and wellbeing, holding numerous workshops and meetings to build communication and collaboration skills, and developing concrete ideas and plans for the use of the land surrounding the housing development. Some of us also took time to work with the children and youths of the community, providing them with creative classes and other activities. The kids were really a highlight of our trip—they accepted us immediately, learned our names, wanted to learn English and teach us Spanish, and really helped provide entry into the community in a different way than we’d anticipated.

At the heart of all these activities, however, was the goal of participatory action from the community—we were not so much there to “help” or “aid,” but to discover and develop the innate skills and talents of the residents. We wanted them to understand their rights and responsibilities, then to empower themselves to make the positive changes in their community that they wanted for themselves and their families.

 

How did the first year of your MA at New School help prepare you for the work you did on the IFP? Is there anything you wish you knew before going to Colombia that would have made your work there more effective?

The Urban Policy Lab was an excellent experience for me personally, since we worked in teams with actual clients and produced in-depth policy reports, all within a very short period of time. So that was good preparation for this trip, though I think nothing can really prepare you fully for this experience. During one of those projects I had the chance to research “implementation science” fairly thoroughly, which served me well within the context of the IFP and will continue to do so in the future.

Most importantly, of course, taking the IFP Seminar on Colombia was integral to the experience. At the time, it was hard to comprehend how learning about agriculture, specifically coffee production, the history of the Colombian conflict, and what seemed like a million other topics could possibly all connect and be relevant to our project, especially since we initially did not know what it was going to be. But as the summer stretched on, I think we all found that all the readings and discussions did in fact connect in ways we had not imagined. The seminar really served to provide a comprehensive understanding of a very complicated country, and to help us understand our project’s role within the larger picture.

I only wish I had known more Spanish before going there, but thankfully the rest of the group members were more fluent than me to varying degrees and were able to translate effectively. I very much relied on them and remain incredibly grateful for their help.

 

What successes or challenges did you experience?

Besides being challenged by the language barrier, my personal challenge was living in a small town after being in New York City for 12 years. It was a bit disconcerting to be in such a small place where we were the subjects of many stares at first. But this small setting gave us the chance to really connect with the community in ways that living in a big city simply does not allow.

That leads me to the biggest success, which I think was the community’s acceptance of our group. This honestly has little to do with anything we did personally besides be outsiders who came with good intentions and open minds—but it has everything to do with the culture. Colombia is a country of extreme politeness and hospitality, but it’s not just surface level. The people truly want to welcome you into their homes with open arms. Despite, and possibly because of, the country’s troubled history and ongoing conflicts, the people seem to be incredibly resilient and open in ways we didn’t expect.

We really felt that they wanted us to feel at home, even as they were just settling into their new homes. We were constantly being given coffee and food and being asked how we liked living in the town, what we thought of Colombia, and what we missed about our homes. Even though these people were largely poor, their warmth was overwhelming and their generosity was humbling. I think their immediate openness with our group enabled us to gather information quickly and assess the community’s well being—without the people’s acceptance we could never have been successful.

 

In what ways do you think your IFP work impacted the community and the people you worked with? How will it be sustained?

IFP_students with community

2015 IFP students and community members (Annie Stup – far right)

I think we all hope that our work will enable the community to continue connecting with each other in new and meaningful ways, and most importantly, enable them to navigate larger social systems and advocate for themselves effectively. Some of the IFP team members designed and ran really amazing workshops on communication and conflict resolution that I believe will have a long-lasting impact on the ways that the community works together. Without these meetings they may not have had the chance to really sit down and discuss their needs and ideas in a nonjudgmental and open setting. Giving them a forum to have their voices heard was effective in a short period of time—we actually witnessed a major shift from our initial conversations, where the residents focused on individual needs, to the responses we got during the survey at the end, where they focused on communal needs. It was really amazing.

Fortunately, a number of the IFP students in GPIA are continuing the project during class with Professor London this fall, and they will be able to meaningfully sustain this work and hopefully return to Pácora to further implement the program’s recommendations.

In the end though, we were there to learn, not to teach, and we gained so much just from spending time with the people and learning about their lives. I hope they remember us with the same fondness we have for them.

 

What was the living situation like?

The accommodations were excellent, as we lived in a very nice hotel with two people to a room. We could do our laundry there, had (semi-consistent) wifi, and the women who worked at the hotel were incredibly kind to us. We felt very safe and well taken care of. We also had our meals during the workweek provided by a lovely woman named Doña Marina. Going to her home each day helped add a sense of really being part of the community. You can read more about Doña Marina and other members of the Pácora community on the blog of another IFP student, Arisel Garcia.

 

Are you considering continuing your IFP work via a thesis or another related project upon returning to New School?

Since I’m not a GPIA student, I’m not sure, but I know the lessons I learned this summer will help me in any project I undertake. Designing and analyzing the survey felt like a class in itself and I know I will build upon those qualitative and quantitative research skills in the future.

My GPIA colleagues will be continuing the project-specific work during their Project Implementation class in the fall, however, so our work in Pácora is not finished yet.

 

What advice do you have for students considering going on the Colombia IFP in 2016 or coming to GPIA?

Even for non-GPIA students, I think the IFP experience is incredibly valuable and not enough people are doing it. I know it’s a huge undertaking, but I think a lot of people get caught up in the financial side of things and don’t realize how feasible it really is to do. If you can rent your apartment out, you’re pretty much set. Additionally, Colombia is incredibly inexpensive to travel to and around, so you can live a pretty good life for not nearly as much as you would pay for a summer in NYC.

As far as the benefits of the IFP, it’s a great boost for your professional career in so many ways. International work looks great on your resume, you improve your skills working in groups, you have very clear deadlines that you have to meet, and you have challenges that you must overcome in a short period of time. You have to think on your feet and be open and flexible, while maintaining your focus on the overarching goals—these are all skills that are useful and valued in any academic or professional environment.

 

What do you hope for your second year in the MA program?

I hope to build on my experiences working on the local implementation of a national policy initiative, especially with regard to housing policy and land use planning. I’m also going to continue studying Spanish in the fall and hopefully will improve enough to impress everyone whenever I have the chance to return to Colombia…

 

Did get to do any travel while on the IFP?

I traveled through Colombia for three weeks following the trip. I visited Medellin, Cartagena, Santa Marta and the beautiful Parque Tayrona, and Bogota, then back to Cartagena. Even when I got a corneal abrasion and nearly missed flights and boats, I had numerous friends come down to travel with me and it was wonderful to share the experience of this beautiful country with them. Even with some stress, it was worth every minute and every peso… I would highly recommend traveling to Colombia for anyone considering it.

 

(Article by: Benjamin Ace and Tyler Bird)