Empowering young leaders to create social change
St. Olaf College student Pedro Monque ’16 says true social change starts with people in local communities seeing problems and having the resources to address them.
“It’s not about coming from outside the community, but rather finding the people who already care about these issues, are already working on them, and giving them the tools to make this change happen,” he says.
Monque and fellow St. Olaf student Maggie Schenk ’16 worked to provide young people in Latin America with those tools as part of the Empoderando a Latinoamerica (Empowering Latin America) program.
Monque and Schenk served as facilitators during the three-week course in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, this past Interim. The program, which was originally created by alumni from United World Colleges consortium, seeks to empower Latin American students ages 16 to 18 “to become powerful agents of social change” as well as “engaged and effective citizens that… tackle social problems in their communities, their countries, and the region in general.”
The course included nine facilitators and 34 participants from nine different Latin American countries, and included workshops on civic engagement, project development, and peace agency.
Monque led the peace agency workshop and a workshop called Bodies, Identities, and Discrimination dealing with identity-based oppression. Schenk led a theater workshop and also helped out with a variety of workshops on issues like the environment, immigration, and social inequality.
Empowering Latin America came into Monque’s life during the spring of 2014, when he was at a personal crossroads. After hearing stories of friends and family facing harassment for taking part in student protests amidst political unrest in his home country of Venezuela, he reconsidered majors and long-term life goals.
He decided to shift his career ambitions from music and neuroscience to addressing the social issues he cared about — and Empowering Latin America was a natural leap for him as a project in which he could help form communities to tackle these important social issues.
Monque, along with Marcus Schweiger ’15 and Steph Hagan ’16, worked with Professor of Philosophy and Associate Dean for Humanities Corliss Swain during the summer of 2015 to develop curriculum for the project’s peace agency workshop, using insights from peace studies and philosophy such as feminist and education theories. The project was funded by the St. Olaf Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI) program and was the first CURI research project in the field of philosophy. Monque was also able to finance his participation in the project with money from the St. Olaf Piper Center for Vocation and Career and the Johnson Family Opportunity Fund.
Schenk, who was also on campus last summer teaching music to middle schoolers, came to listen to Monque’s final CURI presentation and immediately wanted to be involved. A music major, Schenk started college at a conservatory but transferred to St. Olaf after her first year in part to have the opportunity to take part in programs such as these.
“I wanted to be able to study more broadly, and think about and put into action ways of learning and living that I felt like had a more direct impact on the issues I care about and people I care about,” she says.
“St. Olaf lets you think critically and doesn’t let you rest on just getting a great education, but pushes you to do stuff that helps people,” says Monque, who will begin working for Empowering Latin America after he graduates this spring.
Although Schenk and Monque had a great time at the program, they stress that community engagement and empowering local leaders is intense work — work that is “fun, hard, impactful, and worth doing.”