PiLA Blog

What do trees eat?

Grace Galloway, Comunidad Connect 2015-2017, recipient of All People Be Happy Fellowship Grant
April 17, 2017


Every Wednesday, I go to preschool. Well, and sometimes preschool comes to me.

The Nuevo Despertar (New Awakening) Preschool of Barrio Nuevo is located just a block away from the Comunidad Connect office. Since August I have been participating with this preschool nearly every Wednesday morning. At first, I would load my backpack with library books and motorcycle to the school for a morning of reading, pointing at the illustrations and shouting what colors appear, and of course, arguing over who gets to read about tractors first.

Since the beginning of February, the 26 preschoolers, accompanied by their fearless and patient teacher Naomi, have been coming to the CC community garden every Wednesday morning. There, we color, confirm that tomatoes are red, and learn about the papayas as they hang heavily from their trees.

Last week, we learned that leaves are the hands of a tree, and that like human hands, they help the trees to eat. My lesson consisted of asking “what do the trees eat?” until I received my desired answer: the sun. Alternative answers included: squirrels and mangos.

Later in the same class, while the students were tracing leaves, the sun went behind the clouds. One of the preschoolers looked up at me and asked, “Grace, el árbol terminó de comer el sol?” Did the tree finish eating the sun?

I stifled my laugh and tears as I assured her that the sun would be right back.

This article was originally posted on Comunidad Connect's blog and has been reposted with permission.

Supporting High-Impact Entrepreneurship in Chile

Malcolm Flynn, Endeavor Chile, Patagonia 2017-2018
April 12, 2017

It was a little less than a year ago when I received Endeavor Chile’s offer to spend a year working with some of the best entrepreneurs in South America. I accepted and was given the choice between offices in the Atacama Desert, Santiago, and Patagonia. Since I couldn’t stand the heat and I wanted a break from the city after four years in New York, the choice was pretty obvious. It didn’t hurt that I had recently watched 180 South, the 2010 documentary that put the mythological Patagonia front and center. Like magazines I had flipped through years earlier, it showed a Patagonia filled with dreamy mountains and endless forests; it was enough to tempt any sane human being.

But something gave me pause. On screen and in print, attention was primarily given to the increasingly urgent environmental concerns facing the region. Conservationists like the late North Face founder Doug Tompkins and the local group “Patagonia Sin Represas” were fiercely rallying against Patagonia’s exploitation by outside interests in an effort to preserve the region’s natural and cultural heritage. Some gringo flying down to the area for a year to help foster economic development was probably not on anyone’s list of solutions. I was conflicted, but the desire to work for Endeavor won out.

Six months later, my tune has dramatically changed. True, the conservation movement and Endeavor’s mission may still seem at odds—after all, we’re pushing for high-growth business in the region they’re fighting to conserve—but beyond the core goals of ecosystem development and economic growth lies one of Endeavor’s great, if circumstantial, values, and one that has proven itself a hallmark of regional offices: the preservation and promotion of natural and cultural identity. By supporting local entrepreneurs, we are creating a unique economy by and for the community; call it an economy of place.

This unspoken tenet holds true especially here, where the entrepreneurs are distinctly Patagonian. Our first—one of Endeavor’s finest—was born on the Carretera Austral, grew up as a fisherman in the southern fjords, and now oversees one of Chile’s largest maritime logistics company. He is omnipresent in the local community, funding cultural works, supporting charities, and passionately expanding the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Our newest entrepreneur—part of that expanded ecosystem—began a revolutionary biotech company with the waste created by industrial aquaculture in the region (a sustainable value he learned from his father). He now is a leading mentor to the young biotech community responsibly utilizing Chile’s abundant resources.

Even in our small-scale acceleration programs, this ethos persists. An American and his Peruvian wife are producing Chilean superfoods but refuse to sacrifice their commitment to indigenous tradition and environmental preservation. A young engineer selling industrial cleaning services to fish farms uses his business to support his impoverished community in the heart of Patagonia. The network of entrepreneurs here proves that when businesses are connected to the people and the places where they operate, economic growth no longer occurs at the expense of preservation, as many conservationists have feared. In many cases, the very opposite has proven true, and locally driven economic growth has lead to a resurgence in conservation efforts.


A week after arriving last July, I rented a car and drove down the infamous Carretera Austral, a two-lane highway that runs almost the length of Chilean Patagonia. It was the middle of winter; the weather was grey and the road was empty. Looking out the windows, I found myself face to face with the two disparate Patagonias I had heard so much about. Eastward towards the Andes, forests and glaciers stretched all the way to Argentina, virtually untouched. Westward towards the Pacific, industrial fish farms dotted the fjords while ocean liners chugged by. It didn’t sit right.  

Now, whenever I get the chance to drive through Patagonia, such qualms rarely surface. Sure, there is still concern over outside investment exploiting the area, but momentum is beginning to move in the other direction. The barges aren’t just barges; they’re transporting local wool, they’re using locally developed software, and they’re even owned by local mentors. The fish farms aren’t just fish farms; they’re testing grounds for local entrepreneurs to try a new oxygen diffusion system, a new aquaculture management platform, or a new net design. After 6 months on the ground with Endeavor, the scene has ceased to be foreboding; now, it is inspiring.

But we can’t get too complacent—there’s still work to be done.

This post originally appeared on Endeavor's blog and is reposted with permission. 

Entrepreneurship in post-Election Mexico

Annie Austin
February 13, 2017


In March of 2016, I received an email inviting me to join the Endeavor México team as their 2016/2017 Princeton in Latin America Fellow.  I replied “Yes, I accept!!” within thirty seconds of reading the email, thrilled for the opportunity to work for an organization that promotes entrepreneurship in emerging economies. In August, I arrived to an overwhelmingly warm welcome, fortunate enough to work in a stimulating and fulfilling role.  Autumn of 2016 proved an interesting time to be in Mexico, however.  Everyone from my boss to my Uber drivers asked about the US elections: What did I think of Trump?  Who would I vote for? I tried to keep my answers optimistic and vague, not knowing how the election would turn out. Today is January 23rd, 2017, and we now know the outcome. Since the U.S. election, I have noticed various changes in crime, tourism, and economic opportunities in Mexico.

Before addressing those changes, some country-specific background.  The peso plunged in value the night of the election, falling to near record lows1, becoming the second most devalued currency in 2016 behind the Turkish lira2. A strong dollar and a weak peso greatly impact the Mexican economy, as 81.2% total Mexican exports go to the US3.  Such high rates of trade between the two nations are in large part due to NAFTA, the free trade agreement between the US, Canada, and Mexico.  Throughout his campaign, candidate Trump promised to renegotiate NAFTA, even considering implementing bilateral trade exclusively with Canada4.  The top three U.S. trading partners, in order, are Canada, China, and Mexico; thus any barriers to trade between the US and Mexico would greatly impact both countries4.  Just this morning, the president signed an executive order pulling out of the Trans Pacific Partnership, which would have included both the US and Mexico7.  Further, on January 1, 2017, the Mexican government implemented the initial phases of liberalizing the oil industry, under government control since 1918, which has resulted in an increase of gas prices by 20%2.  These prices are exacerbated both by the strength of the dollar, since Mexico imports 60% of its gas from the US, and also the rising gas prices worldwide due to OPEC countries cutting production2.  The peso devaluation, rising gas prices, and the uncertainty regarding free trade agreements have joined to cause a perfect economic storm in Mexico.

In addition to the resulting economic turbulence, I have noticed a seemingly parallel rise in crime in Mexico City.  Especially in the economically prosperous areas of Polanco and La Condesa, various friends have fallen victim to armed and violent robberies, as well as "express kidnappings," where the perpetrator takes the victim to various ATMs to max out their credit and debit cards before letting them go a few hours later.  It seems to me that increased crime has accompanied rising prices for gass and essential goods (e.g. avocados, a staple in Mexico, have risen 50% in price since 2014, due to inflation2), as well as overall economic uncertainty.


A few weeks after the election, I visited home for Christmas.  My mom lives in the residential area of Vail ski resort, an extremely popular travel destination for Mexicans in particular, who comprise 67% of the international tourism, representing 10% of Vail Resorts' overall economy5.  Usually the town center is bustling with Spanish speakers, but this year it was empty. My mom is a travel agent who specializes in ski travel, and mentioned that tourism for Christmas was unusually low, suggesting it was due to the election. My Mexican friends and coworkers agreed, attributing this drop in tourism in the US to two main factors: the astronomical rise in prices, and the fear of discrimination against Mexicans that was normalized during the campaign.  “Why would a Mexican want to be in the US right now?” one asked.  Unfortunately, he has a point—right now is not the ideal time to travel to the US as a Mexican.

However, trying economic times often inspire  important innovations.  For example, finding opportunity in the rising cost of gas, Mexican entrepreneurs Alejandro Morales and Eduardo Porta (who are Endeavor entrepreneurs) started E-Conduce, which a ride-sharing program for electric scooters around the city, an alternative to gas-powered vehicles6.  Another Endeavor entrepreneur Daniel Vogel founded Bitso, an online platform that allows individuals to make payments utilizing a sophisticated Bitcoin online platform.  If the new U.S. administration restricts international payments, Bitso may be the go-to company for fast, cheap, and transparent payments6.

The economics behind these changes in Mexico are diverse and complex. Still, I have perceived a shift since the U.S. election, and campaign rhetoric may have played a  role.  With threats to reassess free trade agreements and to build a physical wall, it seems that significant changes are in store for the two nations. Yet, faced with such uncertainty, we might try to identify new opportunities for Mexican entrepreneurs.  As Antonio Osio (managing partner at Capital Invent, and angel investor at Fabrice Grinda and José Marin Investments) recently joked: “Dear Optimist, Pessimist, and Realist. While you were busy arguing over the glass of water, I drank it. Sincerely, the Opportunist”6. 



  1. 1. (early November it was USD$1 = MXN$15; today around USD$1 = MXN$22) (Bloomberg)
  2. 2. http://www.elconfidencial.com/mundo/2017-01-18/mexico-gasolinazo-trump-poder-adquisitivo-inflacion_1317828/
  3. 3. http://www.worldstopexports.com/mexicos-top-import-partners/
  4. 4. https://www.bloomberg.com/politics/articles/2017-01-23/canada-signals-possible-u-s-trade-deal-that-excludes-mexico
  5. 5. http://www.summitdaily.com/news/local/vail-mayor-sees-alarming-mexico-rhetoric/
  6. 6. http://www.huffingtonpost.com.mx/antonio-osio/gasolinazo-corrupcion-y-depreciacion-del-peso-oportunidades-pa/?utm_hp_ref=mx-
  7. 7. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/23/us/politics/tpp-trump-trade-nafta.html

A PiLA Fellow's Journey at Hospitalito Atitlán

Delaine Winn
February 9, 2017
          Maria, age 4, one of our youngest hernia patients for the week, snapped this gem of me and Dr. Juan Manuel Chuc, director of the Hospitalito, when I let her play with my phone before her surgery. She took 376 more pictures, but sadly I only have space for one here.    


              One of the coolest things about Hospitalito Atitlán (HA) is that it’s run almost entirely by Guatemalan staff. In fact, my boss, my co-fellow Haley, and I are the only gringos (in other words, people originating from the US) on staff. The majority of my coworkers are also indigenous Maya from the Lake Atitlán area. This means that local folks can get come in and get care in their native tongue of Tzútujil. (Many atitecos speak little or no Spanish, so going to a “Western” medical practitioner—already an unnerving prospect for a lot of people— would be out of the question if our doctors and nurses weren’t local). I think that this firm integration with the local community and culture is what has allowed HA to grow into the trusted institution that it is today. It also makes it a really special and totally unique place to work, even if I can’t understand any of the lunch table banter most of the time.

                As a hospital, however, we do still count on the support of the many foreign volunteers who come here to donate their time. We get all types of medical volunteers, from OBGYNs to nurses to acupuncturists, who come to contribute their skills and share their knowledge with the medical staff here. This constant flow of medical experts sort of ends up being like a never-ending source of continuing medical education for the staff here, which is fantastic for the quality of care we’re able to offer patients.

                A lot of volunteers come down on their own— docs or nurses who take a month or two off from practice, or residents who can take a “global health rotation,” for example. But six or seven times a year, the Hospitalito receives big surgical teams for what we call jornadas. Jornada literally translates to a “work day” or even a “day’s journey,” which doesn’t quite capture what the rotations are like (although it’s kinda fun to tell my friends here I’m too busy going on a surgical journey to hang out when these jornadas are in session). During these weeklong events, the Hospitalito offers surgical services to as many patients as possible. Mostly, it’s for stuff like hernias, gallbladder removals, sebaceous cysts— non-emergency issues that the patients have nonetheless been ailing from for months or even years.

 The visiting teams come from all over the States (and occasionally Europe), and usually include a full staff of nurses, techs, anesthesiologists and surgeons. While HA has two beautiful operating rooms, we can’t afford to keep a surgeon and anesthesiologist on staff, hence the periodic buildup of patients who really need these routine procedures in the area. Typically, the visiting surgeons subsidize the whole thing, either with personal funds or grants from their home institutions. This is awesome, because no matter what we do to keep costs down (and even given the fact that we’re somewhat outside the orbit of the exorbitant U.S. healthcare system), these surgeries cost a lot—especially for folks here. Because the surgical teams are so generous in funding their own work, we can offer much-needed treatment to a lot of people who could never afford it otherwise.

The entire visiting surgical team, along with some Hospitalito staff, outside HA at the end of the week. 


A couple of weeks ago, we hosted the first jornada that I’ve been here for. We were supposed to have one back in September, but the team had to cancel, and the rest of our general surgery jornadas are scheduled for January-May (really can’t blame all the docs for wanting to come down to sunny Atitlán while it’s winter in the States).

Though we’d had a couple dental and ophthalmological teams come down since I started last summer, I wasn’t really prepared for what the week would be like. We keep a running log of potential surgical patients at the Hospitalito, and in the weeks leading up to a jornada we get in touch with all of them to remind them to show up that first Sunday of the jornada, which is when the surgeons do all of their pre-op evals and schedule all of their surgeries for the week. I showed up with Haley and Jane, another volunteer in our office, at 7:30 am for a long day of translating for the surgeons, who didn’t speak much Spanish. A lot of patients don’t speak much Spanish either, so for a lot of patients we had to use two interpreters. As you can probably imagine, this can be difficult and frustrating for everyone involved, but sometimes there’s just no way around it. Somewhat unavoidably, a certain degree of chaos reigned in the Hospitalito that first day—there were so many people, all hoping to be seen and told that the surgeons could fix their ailment. It was, without a doubt, a taxing day. I was beat when I got to my house around 5:30 in the evening, and I thought, nervously, “How am I possibly going to make it through the rest of this week?” As I soon found out, the long hours of that sluggish first day were totally worth it.

                The next day, I got to the Hospitalito at a crisp 7 am and changed into full OR attire (if only I could just wear scrubs all the time…). Though I already felt exhausted when I walked in, this ended up being one of the most meaningful and exciting days of work I’ve had since starting at HA. My job was, essentially, to translate wherever and whenever anyone needed, which was all over the place and all the time. Because almost everyone on the team spoke little to no Spanish, I was running around—from the pre-op room to the OR and out to the waiting room—all day long to help wherever I could.

 Like any OR, this one undoubtedly seemed like a madhouse to the uninitiated. I was on my feet and scrambling around all day. It was challenging day, but I felt stimulated the whole time. The surgical team was wonderful, and everyone, from the nurses to the surgeons, was willing to take time to answer all of my questions about what we were doing. All of the patients were extremely grateful, and in most cases their relief was relatively immediate (not always the case with surgery, of course). We were at the Hospitalito from 7 am until 7:30 pm that first day, and the rest of the days were pretty similar. By the end of the week I was utterly beat (truly no idea how residents physically survive years of that). But despite the exhausting intensity and duration of the work, I was engaged and excited the whole time. It was, to put it simply, a great week.

Jacinto, chief OR nurse at the Hospitalito, myself, and Juan, Hospitalito maintenance staff in the post-op room.



In general, one of the best parts of my work here is when I really get to connect with the people the Hospitalito serves, whether it’s a kid in the Maternal Infant program I help to manage, or an elderly person at one of our field clinics. At the risk of sounding cliché, it’s what makes the job worth it, especially some of the less write-home-to-mom-worthy parts—the grant-writing, the donor emails, all of the office grind.

 It feels great to actually connect, face-to-face, with the people who are at the heart of this work, and serving as a translator during the jornada put me in a really unique position in that respect. During that week, starting with that first day patient evals, I was able to make a direct, tangible impact in people’s lives. The responsibility of translating patients’ medical instructions, of being charged with essentially all of the communication between the staff and the patients, gave me the opportunity to do much more than just that. Having been here for eight months, I came into the week knowing that many of our patients have scarcely, if ever, seen a western doctor even for a checkup— much less for surgery.

Mustering up the little Tz’utujil I’ve learned, and doing my best to make myself attentive and available to everyone who came in, I tried to provide even just a modicum of extra comfort to the jornada patients; I particularly love working with kids, so it was especially rewarding to help make their experience a little less terrifying (and from personal experience, I can confirm that kids here are just as scared of grown-ups in medical masks as they are anywhere else). At the end of the day, the most important thing is that they’re getting free, often life-changing surgery. But their feelings about their experience—whether the Hospitalito was chilling and uncomfortable and filled with strangers, or warm and welcoming and aware of their needs—are really important too. Being not just present for but actively involved in the intimate moments of people’s healthcare—especially during the often-scary experience of surgery or a loved one’s surgery—was a privilege. 

Dr. Zaida Alejandra, Hospitalito physician, and Dr. Dawn Stapleton, one of the visiting surgeons. The jornada was an awesome opportunity for collaboration between the Guatemalan medical staff here and visiting medical staff from the States.



Fighting for Change in the Dominican Republic

Lorena Martinez
January 20, 2017
Lorena Martinez began her fellowship with the DREAM Project in August 2015. After finishing her year-long placement, she was offered the opportunity to stay on until the end of calendar year 2016.



After a year and a half of living in the Dominican Republic, I feel elated, accomplished, proud and simultaneously contemplative. When I was first named a PiLA fellow, I felt extremely enthusiastic to live in the DR and do "development work". While I realized that the move would be challenging, and my lifestyle would be different, I didn't anticipate the work itself to be challenging mentally and physically.

It has been said, though, that tough times push us to learn and grow the most. After my PiLA fellowship, I couldn’t agree more with that notion. I lived in Cabarete, DR working with the DREAM Project as a Monitoring and Evaluation fellow.  This position enabled me to work on various projects. I concentrated on a holistic youth program called Deportes Para la Vida, which works towards the prevention of HIV/AIDS by educating youth on sexual health through sports activities.

Additionally, I led the research and development of a new project called Luchadores por el cambio, health and gender equality program designed for young men. With the guidance of 2014-2016 PiLA fellow, Madeline Baird, who designed a female sexual health curriculum called Única the year prior, I spent a year researching best practices for educating young men on gender equality, sexual health, self-respect, and consent.  After the administration of a pilot program from January -July 2016, my team spent August-December 2016 writing a gender equality and sexual health manual called Luchadores por el cambio. The purpose of this curriculum is to encourage young men to make positive decisions with regards to sexual health, pregnancy prevention, healthy relationships, and consent.

The program also entails preparing young men to share the curriculum. In order for participants to become facilitators for Luchadores por el cambio, they complete two trainings. The first took place in December 2016. We spent 20 hours training, exploring topics such as the definition of manhood and its meaning for each individual; our upbringings and how they affect our development and attitudes as adults; and finally, the treatment of people, male privilege, violence and gender equality.

Through my experiences, I learned what it means to effectively support an international development project. I experienced the nuances of such work, and discovered the need to live, breathe, and collaborate with a culture to create lasting impact. I was able to embrace the complexities of living in a town known for tourism and its effects on locals, and learning that more often than not, we leave with more than what we take. I am forever grateful for an experience that has broadened my perspective, challenged my life, made me aware of thoughts and ideas that I had no idea I harbored. These experiences are pushing me towards writing another chapter of my life, as I now hope to begin a career in social work.

In the end, Cabarete will always be a home for me! Thank you PiLA for providing this opportunity. It has truly been life-changing.

Lorena Martinez, left, with co-fellows Pranayeta Shroff and Danielle Cooney.

A Letter to my Freshman Year Self

Abyssinia Lissanu
September 14, 2016

September 14, 2016

Dear Freshman Year Abyssinia,

Welcome to Princeton! I know that walking onto campus feels like one of the scariest, most exciting experiences in the world. Although you’re nervous, I can definitively say that the next four years are going to be some of the most fun, challenging years of your life. Over this period, you will be transformed from a small town, Ethiopian-American girl from Kentucky, into someone who has the chance to travel the world and live in so many different places—and you’re going to have an amazing time.

When you are a sophomore in college, you will have the chance to apply for a study abroad program in Barcelona, Spain. You will be initially interested, but nervous about moving to a country where you have never lived before. Regardless, you will push past your trepidation, fill out the mountains of paperwork, and get on the plane, all the while hoping that this leap of faith will be worth it. I promise it will! You will have one of the best semesters of your whole life, as you adventure, learn, and grow to your heart’s content. There will be hard moments—when you cry thinking about the turmoil in the U.S.A. in fall 2014, or you miss home, or you get frustrated by cultural differences. But it will never stop being worth it. Your Barcelona Babes, a friend group that spans different universities, backgrounds, races, and ethnicities will become some of your closest friends, ones you visit throughout college and afterwards. Your mind will be broadened by the rich history, culture, art, and food of Barcelona, and you will be stretched to become even more independent and self-sufficient, in another language (!). But most of all, you will look back on your travels in Spain, both the trips within the country and the trips outside to Portugal, Italy, France, Germany, and Morocco, as some of the most special times in your life.

Junior year will pass, and though you worry that your memories of Barcelona will fade, you remain resolute in your desire to return. You will decide to write your thesis on immigrants and refugees in Spain, as well as the relative lack of political and private xenophobia in the country, issues which are of deep personal and academic interest. You will even be ecstatic about writing your IRB applications and thesis proposals, because that means you are just one step closer to another enriching adventure. And, during the summer before senior year, the travel bug will bite you again. At a networking event, you will be convinced by a Princeton alumna that applying to the Princeton in Latin America fellowship (PiLA) will be a great decision, and that you should try to postpone your graduate school plans for a year to live abroad and challenge yourself even more.

One day in November 2015, you will get the amazing news that you will be returning to Spain. No longer nervous but now filled with excitement, you return back some months later to conduct interviews with politicians, immigrants, and refugees, marveling at how your semester abroad experience has come full circle. And even while you are in Spain in January, you will continue to send off materials for PiLA, prepping for interviews with organizations in Peru and Costa Rica. You begin to envision a future for yourself in Latin America, living abroad for a year in such a completely new context, and smile to think of how this experience can build upon your love of travel and challenge that you first ignited during study abroad.

Graduation will come, faster than you will like, and you quickly realize that the theoretical dream of moving to Latin America as a PiLA fellow is going to come true. You will call your mother, screaming with joy and excitement, when you get your job offer, and you will instantly begin looking up flights to Costa Rica after you have made your final decision. The summer after graduation will not be full of lazy days, but rather as much packing as possible, as you once again fit your whole life for one year into two suitcases and a backpack. Then, impossibly enough, the day will come when you head to the airport and off to San Jose, Costa Rica—again, another country where you have never been before, but this time without the fear of failure. 

Your year abroad will be full of challenges and happiness, in almost equal measure, just as you had expected. Working at the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress will allow you not only to build on your professional and academic interests in human rights, Latin America, and immigrant/refugee issues, but will also permit you to see how an international NGO really operates. You will navigate all the recent graduate challenges, complicated even more by the language and cultural barrier, and finally find your apartment, your gym, and your favorite coffeehouse. You will do inspiring work, from interviewing women prisoners who have been incarcerated on drug trafficking charges to writing reports on citizen security in Belize. And your coworkers will teach you so many things—about kindness, about how to operate through legal red tape, and about how to operate professionally as a representative of this organization. You will make mistakes and have to adjust to working year-round (as opposed to just a summer). But once again, it will never stop being worth it.

Your time with Princeton and beyond will make you a more independent, competent, and worldly person, one whose perspective is much broader than the rolling hills of Appalachian Kentucky. Your Spanish will finally improve, and you will meet some of the most interesting and passionate people in your life along the way. And you will be able to see how your life changes and grows, from the small step to study abroad in Barcelona to the large leap moving to San Jose for a year. You will experience so many wonderful things—I can’t wait to see how it unfolds!

Good luck,

Abyssinia Lissanu’16 *21

Biography: Abyssinia Lissanu’16 *21 is a recent Princeton graduate, who concentrated in Politics with a certificate in Spanish Language and Culture. She is a recipient of the Scholar in the Nation’s Service Initiative (SINSI ) award, and as such will receive her Master’s in Public Administration with the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton, beginning in fall 2017. She is currently living in San Jose, Costa Rica as a fellow at the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress with Princeton in Latin America (PiLA).

CENIT's Second Lung

Sara Torres
September 6, 2016


At the beginning of every CENIT tour I led, I always mentioned to the bright-eyed volunteers before me, “Our community is very thankful for your upcoming service; as CENIT’s second lung, our national and international volunteer program helps keep CENIT alive.” This past year, I had the honor of serving as CENIT’s volunteer coordinator. CENIT (Centro Integral de la Niñez y Adolescencia) is an NGO that offers educational, psychological, medical, and job training programs to the working children of Quito, Ecuador’s market sectors. I provided guidance to the 150 volunteers that danced, sang, and provided tutoring services for CENIT’s at-risk and working children.

As volunteer coordinator, I was tasked with resolving any issues that arose with volunteers as well as improving permanent volunteer policies. Though the role often encompassed managing volunteer projects and routine professional development, it also required responses to emergency situations that I had never dealt with before. One of my greatest challenges was to provide appropriate motivational support and organize professional services for volunteers affected by this year’s catastrophic earthquake that devastated many parts of the country.

            Despite the challenges, CENIT’s volunteer programs are now stronger than ever. This year, at least a thousand Quiteños benefitted from our integrated services. The most gratifying moment of the year was participating in the programs’ closing ceremonies and witnessing the tangible impact of the work of CENIT’s staff and volunteers. Amid the tears of gratitude and farewells that accompanied each ceremony, it was clear that each participant of our programming found a safe space within CENIT’s services and received sustainable resources to help them hurdle through their current and future obstacles.

CENIT’s clients were not the only beneficiaries of the programming. My fortifying experience as a PiLA fellow allowed me to hone my confidence, dive into conflict-resolution on a professional level, and effectively manage leading an active team, all while building long-term trust with Quito’s market communities. Plus, as a future physician, I learned a skill which should come in handy during my medical career: how to successfully ventilate a second lung.

PiLA's First Orientation!

July 8, 2016

Early this month, members of the 2016-2017 cohort of fellows came to Princeton from all over the country to meet each other, learn more about their posts, and share their goals for the year to come.  Though they arrived to campus as a group of strangers, they quickly became colleagues and friends. They also participated in a historic moment for PiLA as the first group to meet in-person for a pre-departure orientation, spending June 3-5 on campus preparing for the year ahead with the help of staff, alumni, board members, and other supporters.

This year, 34 new fellows as well as 10 senior (second-year) fellows will work with 22 organizations in 13 countries. They are graduates of 28 universities across the U.S., with a wealth of academic and professional experience in Latin America. Through PiLA, they will be working with diverse issues,  such as public health, education, microfinance, entrepreneurship and community development. Additionally, as they learned throughout the weekend, they will be living in totally different contexts: some will live in small, rural towns such as Los Robles, Nicaragua, while others will be in major cities, such as Buenos Aires. Each fellow is headed for a completely unique professional and personal experience.

Alumni Michelle Velez, Mario Moreno, Brian Reilly, and Dobromir Parushev speak to the new fellows about safety and security.

The fellows were joined by an inspiring and diverse group of 9 alumni, who volunteered all weekend to share their experiences and speak on their areas of expertise. These alumni work in many different sectors, from nonprofit development to educational tourism to government, but they all share a passion for furthering PiLA's mission of sustainable development in Latin America. For Kaya Ten-Pow, alumna and President of the Fellows’ Advisory Council (Endeavor Chile 2013-14), orientation  "was a chance not only for me to help prepare outgoing fellows for their posts, but also to recharge and get the energy, confidence and inspiration I need to stay true to my commitment to Latin America."

In addition to providing the fellows with professional advice on staying healthy and safe, the orientation program allowed fellows to develop a palpable sense of community across years and partner organizations. Outgoing fellows left the orientation with a new group of lifelong peers and a strong support system; alumni left feeling reenergized to continue working towards sustainable development in Latin America; and our organization left with the confidence that the PiLA fellowship is truly an investment in young professionals of the highest caliber with the greatest potential for impact across the region.

We can’t wait to see what the 2016-2017 fellows achieve and experience in the year to come, and we invite you to join us on the journey. Follow us on Facebook and donate here to support the next cohort of PiLA fellows as they embark on their year of service!

Program Officer Angelica Hicks and 2015-2016 fellow Casey Ward (Aprender con Interés) reunited in Princeton shortly after Casey's arrival in the US! Fellow Ava Zhang (Endeavor Chile), alumna Michelle Velez (Endeavor Mexico) and fellow Karessa Irvin (Developing Minds) hanging out.


A group of super-cool fellows and alumni getting to know each other after a long day of training.


Fellows ask a panel of alumni about their experiences during their fellowship year. Sharing a meal on the first night of the orientation.

The Quiet Strength of Los Robles

Theresa Bailey
May 16, 2016

Doña Ángela, a founding member of the brigadistas, shows volunteers how to dry coffee. Photo Credit: Kristine Wager, http://kwmediaconsulting.com/

Los Robles is a small farming community in the mountains of northern Nicaragua. A collection of rolling hills and bumpy dirt roads, wide-eyed cows and even wider-eyed children, this is the community I call home. As I read on the porch of my host family’s home, there’s plenty of time to observe the going-ons of this quiet town. The one thing that has caught my attention, and continues to amaze me, are the women of Los Robles. I watch women pass with loads of firewood that would make my legs tremble. They carry them with sure steps and determined faces, already envisioning how they will delicately tend the fire and, with it, feed their children. I watch as mothers carry one child on their hip, three in tow, as they make their way to the health clinic across the street. They are the first line of defense, the whisperers in the night, the calmers of fever and the wipers of tears. From my porch I look on as women slowly pass up and down the main road, and my gaze drifts to my host mother.       

She is a member of the local network of health care volunteers, or ‘brigadistas.’ This group of twelve women (and one adolescent male) is the key to our success in Los Robles. Through the network of brigadistas, Comunidad Connect is able to partner with the community to address the needs it identifies. The brigadistas also help us spread preventative health messages and encourage families to volunteer time to better their community. These women are leaders in Los Robles. They have earned the respect of their community and are trusted to make decisions every day that impact the health and well being of their peers. They are an inspiration to foreign and local volunteers who have never seen such dedication and success from a group that is driven not by monetary gain, but by a passion for service. 

The team of brigadistas shows off the new uniforms they raised money to purchase.

The team of brigadistas shows off the new uniforms they raised money to purchase.


My gaze drifts to my host mother and I am struck by her strength. And as she tends to her husband and son-in-law, while cooing to her newest grandson as his sister looks on, I realize that just like Comunidad Connect, my host mother is in the business of empowerment. She and the women of Los Robles have empowered me to focus less on what my body looks like and more on what it can do for my family, my friends and my community. These women inspire me to proudly use my intelligence to reach people in ways that overcome our limited resources. The women in this community assume the responsibilities of womanhood, but challenge the limiting notions of what women are capable of achieving.

Women are mothers; women are givers; women are providers. Women are powerful; women are intelligent; women are leaders. Women are the agents of change and the managers of chaos. Women are the quiet strength of Los Robles. 

Theresa's host mother Doña Alba and her daughter Keyling during a presentation for the brigadistas.

Theresa's host mother Doña Alba and her daughter Keyling during a presentation for the brigadistas.





My Experience with Aprender con Interés

Casey Ward
April 14, 2016

     My experience with Aprender con Interés this year has been more than what I could have possibly imagined only a year ago when I received the news that I had been granted a fellowship position.  In addition to the immense personal growth I have experienced, I truly believe in the mission of my organization’s vision.  I believe that as an organization we are making a real difference to empower young students in Mexico.  Our work challenges traditional ideas of education and encourages students to push the boundaries of what they believe to be possible through the pedagogical model of tutoría.

     The organization focuses on improving public education in rural, marginalized and indigenous communities by operating under the mantra of,  “Anyone can learn, and anyone can teach.”  The central premise of this is that anyone is capable of learning even the most challenging material if they are inspired to pursue true learning that is guided by their own interests.


     My personal contribution to this organization has been at the structural level as opposed to engaging in classrooms.  I have provided structural support by creating the first databases and beginning the first quantitative impact data analysis for our organization.  This is to say that my work is more long-term goal oriented with the intentions of helping to substantiate our organization’s methodology and pedagogical model for the learning process through numerical means.

     Thus far, my preliminary data analysis has helped our organization strengthen its relationship with the Mexican Secretary of Education and in part gain the support of a major donor to help fund a more in depth investigation of the impact of tutoría.  The goal of this work is to assess the state of tutoría in the state of Guanajuato in order to be able to take the next step in conducting an academic caliber research project.  Such a project, upon completion, will help reinforce the potency of our organization’s work.  Ultimately, it is our hope that this work, among other things, will help take tutoría to the next level and act as a lightning rod for garnering further support.

Education, Leadership, and Community Development in Lima

Alexis Álvarez (Building Dignity, Peru)
March 24, 2016

Alexis Alvarez

Working alongside a resilient community in the outskirts of Lima continues to transform my outlook on development.Villa El Salvador, where Building Dignity works, has a proud history of fighting for recognition through movements to formalize its settlements. This legacy continues as community members continue to struggle to access basic amenities from the state, quality education and the now-deteriorating opportunities to participate in Peru’s evolving job market. Building Dignity seeks to address these issues alongside the members of Villa El Salvador through initiatives focused on education, leadership, and community development. As a Princeton in Latin America Fellow, I work closely with the community to carry out Building Dignity’s programs as Program Director.

Following Building Dignity’s pillars of leadership and community development, I worked with community leaders to seek out funding and train them on project implementation. This allows leaders in their community to take action when the local government fails to address the community’s infrastructural needs. As a result, community members planned and implemented a neighborhood lighting project and currently seek to implement similar projects throughout other parts of Villa El Salvador. I also lead a youth group that empowers youth to take action against the injustices their community faces through leadership training and community service projects. We hope to build the next generation of leaders that will allow for Building Dignity to achieve a model of self-sustainability.

Alexis ÁlvarezAlexis Alvarez




In addition to assisting with community development initiatives, Building Dignity effectively executes an innovative solution to the problem of low-quality education in Villa El Salvador. Peru suffers from a high level of teacher absenteeism and outdated teaching methods that hinder students’ learning. In order to address this, I am able to work directly with local students through Building Dignity’s tutoring program that implements interactive and dynamic pedagogical strategies to improve a student’s engagement and cognitive development. The program's success is evident: through the course of the program, students have gone from struggling to read simple sentences to comprehending short paragraphs and discussing them with the class!

    At the moment, I am conducting a randomized control trial in order to measure the impact of the education initiative in order to better inform Building Dignity’s staff and donor base about our work. This impact evaluation allows me to apply my skills in economics while simultaneously learning about new education methods that can potentially transform how development organizations work in the field of education. Building Dignity's work both inspires me and continually shapes my understanding of development. I am especially thankful for the opportunity to become part of such an amazing community here in Villa El Salvador. 

Women in the Workforce in Rural Nicaragua

Grace Galloway (Comunidad Connect)
March 16, 2016

Marta Eliza checking in patients at the clinic

While driving home after meeting with community leaders about a new water project, community health worker Marta Eliza, program supervisor Yarisleidy and I discussed the challenges of being a woman in Latin America and a woman in the work force. In this case, each of us is both.

“A veces creo que se equivocaron conmigo.”

“Sometimes I think they got it wrong with me,” explained Marta Eliza, a community health worker from the rural community of Los Robles in Northern Nicaragua. Marta Eliza confessed that sometimes she thinks she was meant to be a man because she enjoys working – both in the physical sense of agricultural labor and in an office environment. She shared with us that she wakes up early, works all day and doesn’t mind; she is always looking for more ways to give back to her community. She is strong, both physically and emotionally. For these reasons, she wonders if she may have been better suited to be a man than a woman.

Yarisleidy and Grace

Despite my strong feminist convictions and educational formation, I didn’t quite know how to respond to Marta Eliza’s comments. I waited to see what Yarisleidy, a young professional Nicaraguan woman, would say.  Her response nearly took the words out of my mouth. Yarisleidy expressed that being strong and driven has nothing to do with gender. She argued that men in the rural communities do work hard in agriculture for a full 8-hour day, but that women spend before, during, and after the workday caring for their house, children and husband. Often they tend their own garden and farm animals as well.

For a woman in the professional world, regardless of geographic location, sexism and discrimination are parts of everyday life. My female coworkers and I must confront machista statements and decisions on a daily basis. These acts of discrimination are not only perpetrated by men, and this phenomenon is certainly not limited to Latin America.

As the conversation with Marta Eliza and Yarisleidy continued, I had the opportunity to share with them how impressed and excited I am by the female leadership in both my organization and the communities in which we work. By the end of the drive, each of us had learned something new about each other and come to understand that despite cultural differences, we all have something in common. We are striving the increase equality among people – regardless of gender, age, life experience or nationality.  

Marta Eliza will most likely never read The Feminine Mystique or attend a gender studies lecture. I will never thoroughly understand what it means to run a household in Los Robles. Through conversations such as these, she and I can connect and collaborate as a team – of strong, independent women – working to empower rural community members and especially young women to demand and show respect for themselves and those around them. 

Let’s Talk about Sex: Health Education in the Rural Dominican Republic

Rachel Weinstock
March 2, 2016

Liceo CientíficoIn learning the Spanish language, I have always turned to music to gain new vocabulary and practice my pronunciation. How perfect, then, that I find myself in the Dominican Republic as a PiLA fellow. The DR, after all, is the birthplace of so much popular Latin music. In the home of bachata, merengue and tembo, it is impossible to walk down the street, go to the grocery store, wake up in the morning without hearing someone blasting that damn Romeo Santos song that you’ve been hearing non-stop since arriving. On the school bus, the kids plead with the bus driver to blast the radio, and they sing those bachata love songs with more gusto and passion than the bacheteros themselves. They know every word to every one of these songs. I love to sing along to them too.

Music is powerful here, not only in volume, but also in message. Early on, a friend told me that Dominicans love “doble sentido” in their music: double-entendre. I then began to listen for it, rethinking lines like “A mí que me importa/ eso da pa' to'/ eso no se rompe” — “It doesn’t matter, it’s good for everything, it won’t break,” lyrics referring to the female sexual anatomy.

The messages go beyond hyper-sexualization. Indeed, some of the most popular music blatantly objectifies women. Some lyrics verge on violence, while other catchy tunes distract from outright threats of sexual assault: “No te asombres/ Si una noche/ Entro a tu cuarto y nuevamente te hago mía” — “Don’t be surprised if one night I enter your room and make you mine again.”

The voices of pop culture blast messages of hyper-sexualization and hyper-masculinity. It seems that everyone wants to talk about sex. But what kind of conversations are we having?

One of my major tasks as a PiLA fellow at El Liceo Científico Dr. Miguel Canela Lázaro is to organize the annual sex education workshops. This is an important part of any high school curriculum, yet it is highly charged in a country where 25% of young women have had a child by 18 years of age. This number is astounding, considering that adolescent fertility rates of most other Caribbean countries are barely half that of the DR’s.

Study after study has shown that abstinence-only education is ineffective in preventing teen pregnancy and promoting safe sex practices. Hence the need for a comprehensive sexual education (CSE) program. CSE covers information on all types of contraception, lessons on gender equality, and LGBTQ rights. Since it seems that popular music informs the social and sexual lives of teens, CSE is especially relevant here. Even so, as I began my research and planning, the school’s director cautioned me about the potential community response to this curriculum in our schools.

Despite statistics supporting the value of CSE for teenagers, its incorporation into a public high school is not supported by all community members. Curriculum design and implementation is complicated by the deeply-held conservative religious values and beliefs of students and community members. In this social and political climate, for example, Catholic activists recently lobbied fervently against a bill that would legalize abortion in cases of rape, incest, and extreme birth defects.

I have discussed issues surrounding sexuality with co-workers, parents, community members, and students in an array of gendered contexts. Like one hit song emphasizes, women are called “chapiadoras” if they enter into sexual relations in order to improve their economic prospects. Paradoxically, this behavior is popularly condemned even as it is perpetuated by the limited economic and social opportunities afforded most women. Early marriage to a much older man may be a young woman’s most viable escape from a tension-filled family home (as explained to me by my soccer teammate, a newlywed 14–year-old). Personal motivations to engage in sexual behavior can only be fully understood when examined in social-political context, one that often runs counter to religious directives and public health efforts that counsel the delay of sex and marriage.

Of course, themes and images of female objectification and hyper-sexuality are not unique to Dominican music; they are symptomatic of global media trends that sensationalize sex. Still, listening critically to popular Dominican music illuminates social tensions around sexuality. Ideally, young women and men are expected to follow the teachings of their parents and religious authorities: to “save” themselves until marriage, cherish monogamy, honor the reproductive function of sexuality, and sustain the traditional heterosexual family structure.

In actuality, women face a daily barrage of cultural messages and socioeconomic pressures to enter into multiple relationships to improve their economic prospects, undercutting the cultivation of normative familial structures valued in popular belief. According to the previously cited World Bank report, 51 percent of Dominican women ages 15 and up participate in the labor force, but low female income and the prevalence of female-headed households perpetuate women’s precarious socioeconomic status, and thus, the vulnerability of the lives of Dominican women and children.Liceo Científico

Trying to create a culturally relevant sex ed curriculum that is sensitive to the conservative values of the community is an enormous challenge. I am learning in a hands-on fashion just how difficult it can be to implement scientifically informed health interventions in socially appropriate ways. I see how deeply influential the subtle — and not-so-subtle — cultural norms and tensions play out in the complex historical and international context of Dominican daily life. I’m looking to foster a different kind of conversation to address the paradox in which school children belt out popular songs with overt sexual themes, while adults anxiously avoid forthright conversations about sexual health.

Songs Referenced

Eso da’pa’to’--Marino Castellanos

Eres mía--Romeo Santos

Chapi chapi--Farruko con Messiah


Learning and Teaching in Mexico

Isabel García
March 1, 2016

My experience with Redes deIsabel García Tutoría Aprender con Interés A.C. has been transformative. I have learned a methodology that gives students the opportunity to take ownership of their learning, to challenge the traditional schooling hierarchy, and to reflect deeply on their individual processes. My many encounters with tutoría, which range from observing students in a classroom setting, to training educators in the model, to critically discussing the future of the practice with founder Dr. Gabriel Cámara, have left me tremendously hopeful about the future of learning and thoroughly convinced that Redes de Tutoría will continue to make a difference throughout Mexico and beyond.

My role within the organization is multi-faceted and diverse. Most notably, Aron Lesser and I have designed and realized a website for teachers practicing tutoría. The website includes a virtual library with a catalogue of all the lesson plans, an interactive map with contact information to connect our teachers, and a space for participants to share their own tutoría lessons as well as their experiences. For teachers without access to a reliable Internet connection, we have downloaded the content of the website onto USB drives that will be distributed by local authorities.

Redes de Tutoría

Another project has been the creation of materials that will be part of the new curriculum enforced by the National Council for the Promotion of Education (CONAFE). I developed a lesson on spatial relations (ubicación espacial), and trained multiple educators in the pedagogy of tutoría using the lesson I created. As part of the curriculum development, we have supported CONAFE by providing well-written found texts in English that are linked to each specific lesson, to provide even the most low resource schools with access and exposure to English. In addition, there has been a financial component to help secure funding for the future of tutoría, and I have contributed to this endeavor through grant writing and presenting our projects to authorities and donors.

To say the least, these past few months have provided me with more practical and lifelong skills than I could have ever anticipated. Not to mention, my Spanish, both written and oral, has undeniably improved. It has been a powerful experience that has pushed me to re-evaluate my own understanding of learning, and has taught me to truly respect everyone’s capacity to both learn and teach.

Want to support future PiLA fellows' work with Redes de Tutoría? Donate here and send us an email at pila@princeton.edu to let us know that you'd like your donation to go directly to Redes de Tutoría fellowships. 

Same Language, Different Meaning: Context Matters

Shawon Jackson (The DREAM Project, Dominican Republic)
January 6, 2016


Shawon Jackson

“Just because we speak the same language, doesn’t mean we’ll always understand each other.”

At the time, this statement, highly emphasized during my orientation week, seemed rather trivial. Of course, my co-workers might misunderstand me if I awkwardly mispronounce or misuse a word in Spanish. Paraphrasing and asking clarifying questions is the key to effective communication, though – a rule that worked well for me in high school and college. As I began my yearlong fellowship with The DREAM Project, a youth and education non-profit in the Dominican Republic, I planned on following this same rule. Needless to say, it didn’t work. Now, as I reflect on my first six months in the DR – thinking back to that once trivial statement from orientation week – I’ve come to understand why.

Narrowly focused on the clarity of my communication, I often failed to provide adequate context. This lesson became apparent to me while supporting DREAM’s monitoring and evaluation. As an “M&E Specialist”, I coordinated the administration of a 96-question survey to over 150 11 to 14-year-old students across multiple schools. Incentivizing pre-teens to answer questions about their education, community, and personal behavior is no easy task, so I solicited help from local Dominicans, who administered the surveys 1-on-1 to students. Beforehand, I met with the three volunteers to explain the purpose of the survey and walk through the survey questions. At the end of our meeting, I summarized the main take-away points, and all three of the volunteers told me everything made sense.

A few weeks later, I began going through the survey data and realized there was a huge mistake. About 1/3 of the surveys had blank responses for over half of the questions. Those answers were likely “no” but left blank to save time, but ethically I couldn’t assume that. Was I 100% certain that the student answered those questions? Was I 100% certain those questions were even asked? No. Though I was quite sure those survey answers were actually “no”, it was only right for me to leave the data incomplete.  

I spent some time reflecting on this mistake – my mistake. I presumed filling in every question would be a given, but failed to consider why this seemingly small act was only “obvious” to me. My job revolves around data, so it’s easy for me to think about the long-term impacts of leaving survey responses blank. But for someone who hasn’t had the same experiences I’ve had, it’s unfair for me to expect them to think about the larger implications in the same way I do.

SShawon Jacksonince then, I’ve been more cognizant of the varying levels of context people have while working on a project, forcing me to more fully explain what steps need to be taken to collect, analyze, and report data effectively. Being specific allows our projects to get done more effectively, and perhaps more importantly, it allows others to gain new knowledge and important skills.

While it does take more time to explain the “nuts and bolts” of monitoring and evaluation, this time upfront allows DREAM to be more self-sustaining in the long-term, as local staff members become better equipped to manage data on their own. As a PiLA fellow, that’s ultimately my goal – to ensure the organization continues to function well, if not better, without me.


Reintegration of Former Child Soldiers in Colombia

Leah Danze
Leah Danze (Developing Minds Foundation, Medellín)
December 14, 2015


On September 1, 2014, the 28th round of Colombian government-FARC negotiations began in Havana, Cuba.  Two days later, I arrived in Medellín, Colombia to begin my year as a PiLA Fellow at a reintegration house for former child soldiers of the FARC and ELN.   

While the FARC’s commanders and government negotiators were discussing issues regarding victims’ rights to truth, justice, reparations, and guarantees of non-repetition in Havana, a teenage former child soldier of the FARC was giving me a tour of the reintegration house where he and 44 other former child soldiers live. As the Peace Talks between the Colombian government and FARC continue, more and more former child soldiers are arriving to the center to begin their process of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration.

When the teens in the program are not taking their vocational courses or studying at the high school in downtown Medellín, they are at the reintegration house, where psychologists and social workers accompany them in their journey out of the armed groups and into school. I spent my year as a PiLA fellow helping coordinate and host activities at this reintegration house. Among my responsibilities was meeting with local community leaders to program activities for the teens. For example, I met with leaders of the meditation group Montaña de Silencio, who agreed to lead meditation workshops for the teens in the program. Montaña de Silencio has now been offering both meditation and peace talk workshops for the teens at the center for a year.  In these workshops, we have touched on topics ranging from healthy forms of communication to forgiveness, life and death, patience, and the power of resilience. 

As the months have gone by, the involvement of Montaña de Silencio has grown.  Every other Friday, they screens a film and afterwards hosts a discussion about the themes presented in the movie. 

Leah Danze; Developing Minds

I also invited other community and cultural leaders to host dance, improv, and acting workshops at the center. The aim of the workshops is to promote the teens’ personal growth  while they participate in group activities with their peers as well as with people from outside of the center's close-knit community. The teens often smile and laugh during these workshops; our hope is that these activities will also foster self-confidence, self-esteem, trust, and respect for others. 

One of the highlights of my year as a PiLA Fellow was meeting with community leaders to learn more about the armed conflict and the country’s healing process. This year I have attended conferences on art, therapy, and post-conflict Colombia.  I was interviewed by Spanish Public Radio about the projects at the center and I was invited by the Director of USAID Colombia to attend a graduation ceremony for former soldiers of the FARC and ELN at the Museo Casa de la Memoria. I am now working on a proposal to help give a presentation on the relationship between meditation, the arts, and the healing process at a cultural center in Medellín called Casa Tres Patios

I remain based in Medellín as I pursue an art therapy certification and complete a course in printmaking at La Universidad de Antioquia.  My year as a PiLA Fellow has informed my decision to learn more about how art and community can help heal  those who have suffered from trauma.  I am extremely grateful for my year as a PiLA Fellow and I am excited for Xavier Burke, the 2015-2016 PiLA Fellow, as he bonds with the teens at the center and shares in accompanying them on their journey of reintegration into society. 



Grassroots Environmental Education in Bahia

Moriah Smith (Instituto Floresta Viva, Serra Grande, Brazil)
December 2, 2015

Moriah Smith Instituto Floresta Viva

Southern Bahia is known for its stunning tropical landscapes, including some of Brazil’s most beautiful beaches, rivers, and waterfalls. It also harbors a section of Brazil’s Atlantic Forest, recognized for its unusual biodiversity. The Atlantic Forest climate is conducive to an abundance of cacao plantations, a core facet of the local economy and culture. Indeed, the plantations served as inspiration for the sentimental tales of renowned Brazilian author, Jorge Amado. In the late 1980’s, an epidemic of the plant disease called witches’-broom devastated cacao plantings, furthering regional economic downturn in the context of destructive urbanization. Now, the region seeks to redefine itself and recover its cacao industry, responding to global concerns over sustainability and the value of so-called “superfoods.”

In May 2015, I began my PiLA fellowship in Serra Grande, a town in southern Bahia, working with Instituto Floresta Viva (IFV), an NGO concerned with the viability of the Atlantic Forest and the relationship between environmental conservation and human development. Serra Grande is not only a place of striking natural beauty, but also a small town with a plenitude of social empowerment initiatives: environmental NGOs, a Waldorf school that maintains 70% of its space open to rural, low-income students, a permanent circus and circus school for children, a capoeira center whose masters have enchanted the people with their skills and ability to bring the entire community together, and more. Thus, Instituto Floresta Viva’s work unfolds in a context of growing social consciousness regarding equitable human development, situated in an area with a rich history, landscape, and culture.

Moriah Smith Instituto Floresta Viva

My transition into the PiLA fellowship was unique, because I had already lived in Serra Grande and become acquainted with IVF during my Fulbright fellowship the previous year. However, I quickly realized that I still had much to learn, not only about Bahia, its people, and its forests, but also about myself and my potential role working toward social and environmental justice.

I work with IFV’s Escola da Floresta, an educational initiative that offers access to environmental education and professional development opportunities for adults whose livelihoods depend upon the natural environment. I’ve assumed various responsibilities with the Escola da Floresta, including translating documents, researching alternative pedagogies to provide insight into potential teaching strategies, planning curriculum for a permaculture and agroecology course, and advocating for a collaborative network amongst all of Serra Grande’s social organizations. I’ve had to learn quickly about how to take on all of these new roles. While the experience continues to be challenging, I feel privileged to enjoy the opportunity to play a meaningful role in IFV’s activities.

A Day for Renewal

Josephine Herman (Trócaire, Guatemala City)
November 25, 2015


Photo by Josephine Herman

I value myself. I value myself.
I honor myself. I honor myself.
Even when I hurt. Even when I hurt.
I love myself. I love myself.

I sat in a circle with about ten other women as we repeated the words of the therapist and tapped ourselves on the forehead, temples, chest, and ribs. It was the closing activity of a day-long session for a group of survivors of sexual violence who had experienced incidents of violence during Guatemala’s 30–year internal armed conflict that was responsible for 200,000 deaths or disappearances, and that officially ended less than 20 years ago. The women in the session belong to the Maya Quiche group, a population that the Guatemalan military targeted in the genocide against indigenous citizens during the conflict. The women ranged in age from their thirties to their late sixties and seventies. For some, this was the first time they were sharing the experiences of what happened during that time. Many, especially the older women, do not speak Spanish, but rather Quiche, one of several Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala. The day began with a ceremony led by a spiritual guide to invoke the energy of the day. In the Mayan calendar, it was Kame, a day for renewal. As the spiritual guide put it, it is a day “to open a door, drop what you have been carrying and step through that door,” a day that is well-suited for beginning the difficult process of healing from sexual violence.

As a PiLA fellow I was present as part of a monitoring visit with Trócaire, the Irish Development Agency of the Catholic Church. Trócaire’s method is to support local grassroots organizations with financial and capacity building support. As the program assistant for the gender program, I support five partner organizations that are working to end violence against women and girls, including the indigenous women’s group at the session I attended, by doing monitoring and evaluation of program activities. 

These partners work across Guatemala, using a variety of techniques, including prevention education through school partnerships, community promoters, and art activities; support, care and accompaniment for survivors of gender based violence; and political advocacy on community, municipal, and national levels, with the ultimate goal of eradicating gender-based violence. As elsewhere in the world, violence against women and girls poses a significant problem in Guatemala. Public resources for survivors are extremely limited and often subpar, especially for indigenous women, who are often subjected both to blatant prejudice and discrimination, while also being shut out due to language and cultural barriers.

The challenges in Guatemala on this issue are formidable: legal impunity, government corruption, public indifference, high rates of poverty, sexism, and violence. Confronting such overwhelming conditions, moments like the one above are rare, precious, and essential. A moment for a group of women to speak with one another, to care for themselves and each other. A moment to open a door, and to step through it.

Innovative Food Assistance in the Andes

Sarah and friends in Quito
Sarah Balistreri
April 1, 2015

When friends and family from the States talk about Ecuador, they often mention the beauty of the Galapagos Islands and the snow-capped volcanoes of the Andes. Very few think of the prolonged armed conflict taking place in Colombia and its impact on Ecuador. Before I began my fellowship at the UN World Food Programme (WFP) last July, I also knew little about the effects of this conflict on Colombia’s smaller southern neighbor. Since 2000, approximately 175,000 people have petitioned for asylum in Ecuador, and the country currently hosts the largest refugee population in the region. WFP has been active in Ecuador since 1964 and provides emergency food aid to the Colombian refugee population and vulnerable Ecuadorian host communities.

While I had a basic understanding of the logistics of providing humanitarian assistance prior to coming to Quito, I am astonished at how much I have learned at WFP. In Ecuador WFP has taken an innovative approach to food assistance and provides beneficiaries with an electronic voucher that functions like a debit card. In order to recharge their voucher, beneficiaries participate in monthly trainings on subjects such as nutrition, safe hygiene, and gender violence prevention.

As a member of the communications team, I translate and revise publications, donor reports, and fundraising documents. I have also had the opportunity to participate in monitoring and evaluation activities, which has been my favorite experience as a PiLA fellow in Quito. To measure the impact of its food assistance, WFP staff regularly conduct surveys with beneficiaries and partner organizations. In the fall, I spent a month interviewing Colombian refugees about their eating habits and their perception of tensions between Colombians and Ecuadorians in Quito. Many would relate how they most like to prepare cassava root, or about the hardships they have encountered both in Colombia and Ecuador. Hearing their stories has been by far the most rewarding and powerful part of my time in Ecuador. This fellowship has been an unparalleled learning experience, and I am very grateful for my time with WFP.

Background: Sarah graduated from Georgetown University (2012) with a bachelor’s in Spanish and Italian.