Interview with Virginia Campo, co-founder of Hecha y Derecha

A native of Cali, Colombia, Virginia Campo holds a BA in International Relations with a minor in Latin American and Caribbean Studies at Florida State University. Educated in Leadership and Social Entrepreneurship by Leadership exCHANGE she currently works putting these skills into action and she is starting her own Non-Profit, “Hecha Y Derecha”. Hecha y Derecha focuses on the empowerment of women in rural areas of Latin America through leadership and social entrepreneurship education, as well as cultural exposure to groups of other women from developed areas like Europe and North America. Virginia just finished her field research that took place in a 2 month trip around the Andean countries in South America where she identified counterpart organizations, rural women leaders and successful women entrepreneurs in the region with which Hecha y Derecha will be working with in the near future. http://www.hechayderecha.org

 

What motivated you to start working for women’s empowerment? Your organization talks a lot about connecting women from different generations so I’d like to hear about the path that brought you to this work. What is the moment or the idea where all of this came from?

I started getting involved with leadership and social entrepreneurship after I attended this program called Global Leadership Program in Prague. I wanted to bring the program to the region – I’m Colombian but I live in Panama.  In Latin America, a lot of the youth have great ideas but have never been trained in leadership – there aren’t any leadership majors or minors in universities. The director of the GLP gave me the opportunity to start the program in Panama and this year in March, we started a program called Women as Change Agents. During Spring Break, we recruited university students from around the world: we had a group from Denver University, Christopher Newport University, from Mexico, Panama and Colombia. All these girls came to Panama and we had this class and part of it was to go back to their community and develop a project: it could be aligned with an existing organization or you could start your own organization.

At the time, I was doing community outreach in this rural community in panama called san Miguel and I worked in the community, mostly with the kids, but I actually didn’t know much about what’s going on with the women there. After the end of the class, I went to the community and started researching and I found this group of women from the District who goes together twice a month on Thursdays with the Ministry of Agriculture and the Institute on Art and Culture to learn how to do arts and handcrafts. I asked the women what they did with the handcrafts and they said they would hang it in their house or store it. I decided I wanted to come in one hour before their class and empower them through leadership training and social entrepreneurship. My goal was that in a month I would get them organized to start making an income out of these crafts they had been learning. Twice a month I would come in and teach them about leadership: personal empowerment, goal setting, for example. These are ladies who thought they didn’t really have a meaningful life besides being there for their husbands and their kids. I started with a bigger group (about 35 ladies) but it depends – that has been one of my challenges, getting them to commit to come to every class.

What inspired me to start this group is that the youngest is 39 years old and the oldest is 85. These women double, triple and quadruple my age. I’m 22 years old, so for me that was so inspiring but at the same time so frustrating. It’s such a huge gap in Latin America: girls ad women like myself in urban areas who speak more than one language, who have gotten the chance to live abroad and travel, read and write and don’t have kids. In rural areas, it’s the complete opposite: they’re still subordinated, they had kids when they’re 14, they have three children, and some of them don’t read and write. It’s been interesting to come up with classes that they can understand and that all of them can learn from.

How did they react to you teaching them, since you’re so young? How was it for you to teach women that were so much older than you were? How was that dynamic?

I was scared at first because they’re old enough to be my grandmother, but they have been the most welcoming people. What worked to my advantage was that I already worked in the community –

So you had their trust.

Yes, I was Community Outreach Director for this sustainability project called Kalu Yala so most of the time I was working wit these women’s children and grandchildren.  I think they saw that I wanted to help, that I was genuine about it, so they gave it a try. What also inspired me was their desire to learn and develop. The ones that have been there every single class are there because they really want to learn and they really believe that they can do something with these crafts and that their effort and their time is valuable. That’s what I’ve got them to think: the time that they spent doing these crafts has a cost and talent can be priced and they can use it to support their families, which is what they care about.

I think at first it was intimidating for me, but I never came off as if I knew more than them, actually every class I remind them that I’m learning more from them. Even though I’m the one at the front of the class, I always tell them it’s a mutual learning experience.  I’m learning as much from them as they’re learning from me. Showing them that I’m also vulnerable and have my weaknesses I think made them feel very comfortable.

Were you using the leadership curriculum from the program in Prague?

I’ve been using a little bit of everything. I’m the Outreach Coordinator for the GLP program and I’ve attended 7, so I coordinated the program in 2008 and 2009. I’ve been taught social entrepreneurship by two professors that have been Echoing Green Fellows – they’re amazing. Plus the leadership classes change all the time so even though I coordinate the program I always sit in the class and learn. The leadership classes are for university and graduate students so they’re too academic: I’ve changed the syllabus to adapt it to the women’s level.  It’s very basic, it’s more about team building and group brainstorming and it’s more interactive.

You’ve mentioned that these women that you’re working with are in a position of subordination, they have a very difficult relationship with men in their community or they’re not considered to be of an equal status. Have you faced any opposition to your program from men?

I’ve been asked this a lot and I don’t think so. Again, I think it has to do with the way I started working in this community. Since I was doing community outreach in general, I was working with men, women and children.  I think they learned to love me and they know I’m genuinely interested in their development. I don’t come here to empower them and create a revolution. The way I entered the community has helped me out a lot in the perception of me focusing on women’s education. Some women have come to me and told me “Virgie I can’t participate in a certain activity because my husband told me I can’t go to the city”.  I approach that situation by saying “OK if he wants to talk to me about it I can give him more details, you can tell him that I’m the one bringing you there and taking you back”. They trust me: since I got the chance to gain everyone’s trust beforehand, it’s been to my advantage. When I start working in other rural communities, I don’t know how things are going to be.

Do you plan to spread to other communities in Panama?

Yes, the idea is to spread throughout the region. That’s how the trip started, the journey of Hecha Y Derecha. After finding that I was very passionate about this, Lizzie and Veronica (my co-founders) were interning in Kalu Yala, they were doing community outreach. I told them I was going to quit my job and focus on this. I found my passion and I want to spread this to the region, not just to Panama. They asked me: “OK, what do you want to do?” I told them I want to go see reality. Have you read the book Half the Sky?

I haven’t read it yet. It’s so embarrassing I feel like I should have!

 It’s like the Bible of women’s empowerment. If you get the chance you should read it.  It’s very harsh. One of the things it says is that you cannot take action to do something until you’ve gone out to the field to see and experience reality. Going into the field made me realize I was passionate about this. However, if I wanted to spread this to the region, if I wanted to talk about women in Latin America, I had to see what was going on. In June I travelled to Central American and I got to see a lot of women in rural areas and indigenous groups. In South America, Veronica and Lindsey joined in. We started a Facebook page, we have a blog, and we started telling people we were leaving and contacting organizations. What we wanted to do is to see what’s out there: what organizations are working on women’s empowerment, what leaders are out there, what rural women, indigenous women and professional women are doing, etc. We went to Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. We met up with different organizations, if you go back to our blog we blogged about every meeting that we had to keep track.

 It was amazing: it was great to see what was going on, to meet women leaders in rural areas – that’s what impacted me the most: the women who had a 4th grade education but were leading a group in their community and got empowered to keep on studying. We got to meet great people, and at the same time it was a great experience. Lindsay, Vero and I have done a lot for our age but we wanted to get in touch with the reality of the world. It was great for us, it was great for Hecha y Derecha, and I got even more passionate.

 One of the challenges that I saw – which is why I really like your initiative and I want to collaborate – is the lack of collective leadership. People have no idea what’s going on in their area. We met with this organization and they told us “we’re working with this group of rural women” and we’d go to the rural areas and they had no idea this organization existed and that they could take advantage of it. That’s what I want to do: create a network of opportunities in which we all work together because we’re all working for gender development and empowerment. I don’t think this is a competition: the more you work together, the more you open opportunities for your counterparts.

For example, we met with a group of professional women, a support network for executives in high positions, and they wanted to start a mentorship program. I told them there was this group of rural women in Peru that I met with, why don’t you start mentoring them? They had no idea, because people don’t have the time to get out there so one of the ideas I had with Hecha y Derecha is to create an online platform in which people (rural and urban women) and organizations can connect. The problem is how to connect with rural women since they’re so isolated.

I think what you bring up is so important because an issue that comes up over and over again is that people are duplicating what other people are doing. I’m sure you saw when you went in what people are already doing and you could see where you fit in. And for us, that’s how we are in Nepal and I like your idea of a database. I think you’re completely right in connecting organizations at the grassroots level but I think we also need to learn from each other on the international level. I don’t want to reinvent the wheel, I’d love to see what you’re already doing and adapt to that in my own context. I have big dreams but there’s no way I’m going to be in every country in the world. I’m probably not going to be in Latin America because I don’t have the language skills, the connections or the personal history. What you’re pointing to is the way of the future and I think as young people when we see development – actually I wanted to ask you, you worked for the World Food Programme? And FAO?

Yes.

I wanted to ask you about it because I think there’s a little bit of  disillusionment about working with big organizations. There’s so much bureaucracy and there’s so much that’s not being done. And I think so many young people are just saying, you know what? I’m going to do it myself because I’m so frustrated. That’s how me and my co-founder felt, we also had this feeling where we have this passion and we absolutely want to go ahead and do it on the grassroots level, and see what people need and see how we fit in. I think it would be fascinating to see what people have already done instead of starting an entirely new program that someone else might already be doing. I’ve really found that there are some areas that are completely untapped. I’m sure what you have been doing in rural areas hasn’t been done. Do you feel that about way about big organizations, about bureaucracy, and young people going at it alone? Because I’ve really noticed that trend.  

 It’s exactly what happened to me. I am very critical of these organizations, that’s the reason I left. I started volunteering for the World Food Programme at 17 after I graduated from high school. In Panama, the UN has its regional offices for Latin America and the Caribbean. I reached out – they’re always looking for help, so that’s great. I got hired and worked for the WFP for two years and a half and in FAO for 7 months. What happened is exactly what you said. I realized that all of my work was going towards papers, I wasn’t seeing the impact of my actions and efforts – which I think is something specific to our generation. We love to see the impact of what we’re doing, because if we don’t we don’t think we’re doing anything. I’m very critical of big organizations after working with them because I knew I wasn’t going to go anywhere just because of how I started. I started as a volunteer, then I became a paid employee but I was still seen as being very young and not taken into account. However, I don’t ever deny the value of the experience I got out of it. If I hadn’t been there I don’t think I would have been able to do what I’m doing right now.  I learned a lot but I also saw that lack of collectivism: I worked in two organizations that were very similar, both working for food security, however they duplicate efforts because they don’t know what the other is doing and they compete. They do the same things with different names. For me to be able to see both sides made me realize it was crazy: why aren’t we working together? But of course I have no say to really do something about it. That frustration built up. Even though I was given the opportunity to work there at a young age, I felt they weren’t really listening to me. I felt that starting my own program I’d be able to do more by myself, and by actually getting out there in the field. The UN is very bureaucratic and has a lot of procedures that don’t allow you into the field. I wasn’t able to get to Haiti during the earthquake – I was reporting about it and I’m glad I had the chance to take part in that, but I wish I could have been in the field helping people.  That got me thinking of going on my own. Our generation has so many characteristics that don’t align with bureaucratic and very big, well-established organizations. We’re very fast-paced, we care about our impact, and we want to create change now – which I think can be good and bad. I don’t think it’s the best – but all these things built up and I thought: yes, I can go out in the world and do something now. I think that everything that I learned there I’ve been applying to what I’ve done afterwards.

It goes back to being a leader in your own life. We’re both talking about helping others lead, but I think a major characteristic of our generation is that we want to lead too. We both share the same idea about our generation – I’m really excited about our generation, which is why I’m doing this blog. So many young women are doing amazing things.

 I’d like to share with you several websites: the International Leaders’ Association. I talked in their conference this year in London about Generation Y and how our leadership is very different. I’m also a great believer that our generation is a generation of change, and I believe it’s the case in Latin America too. We’ve had a history of very bad leadership – that’s why it’s my passion to bring leadership programs here. I believe that women can change this, and our generation is looking for this opportunity to create something, to create change. I think older generations should be made aware of the characteristics of our generation: instead of criticizing, saying we’re too fast paced or unstable, they should see how we can work together.

Right, I think we need to match our passion with people’s experience. Do you plan to work with this older age group of 40 to 80 in other rural communities, is there a specific age group you want to work with or rural groups in general?

 My passion is usually younger people, just because I’m one of them. I tried to get the younger generation involved but it’s harder because they’re still in school, so I haven’t limited it to that age group. One of the missions of my organization is to bridge the gap between generations of women in Latin America: the socio-economic gap, the age gap, the cultural gap. One of the ways I’ve been looking to do this is by bringing young university students from urban areas around the world (the US, Europe) to volunteer, help out and live with rural people.

Could you talk about where you see your organization going?

 Phase 1 during the summer was the trip, seeing reality, getting out there. Phase 2 now is spreading the word. I talked at conferences and universities. One of the main things about social entrepreneurship is to tell your networks what you’re up to and you’ll see how many opportunities emerge from this. I think meeting you was one of them. Phase 3 is going back to Panama – I have a couple of activities with the ladies. Next I’m going to write everything down – I have a lot of ideas and projects that I want to develop with Hecha y Derecha, and to start getting funding.

My vision is to get across the region, starting with Panama. I want to start working with another group in another rural area next year. More short term, we had our first fundraiser for the ladies of San Miguel. We had a yard sale, and we raised 260 dollars, which will be the seed capital for them to start a monthly artisan market in San Miguel. On November 30th, we had our first fair in Panama City where they’ll sell their crafts. My objective was to get them to start selling their talent, and I think that’s beginning to happen. Hopefully I can identify another community to start working with.

In the long term we’ll start bringing groups of volunteers to do different activities.

During the trip, we worked on our logo: as you can see, the skirt is like four triangles, and each one has a meaning: one is young university students, one is professional women, one is poor, rural, indigenous women, and the other is organizations working with women. Right now that skirt looks like four pillars, and if we really want to achieve gender development we have to work together and connect, which is why the logo becomes a skirt.

 

Could you talk about one woman you’ve met who has inspired you?

All of the ladies I’ve worked with in San Miguel have inspired me. I really believe in mentoring, and I’ve had really good mentors, one of them being the Director of the leadership program, Heather McDougall. She’s also very young and she started the program when she was 22. She believes in my ideas and is helping me out a lot right now. Of course, my mother is extremely supportive – both my parents are. I don’t think I could have done anything without them. Another woman, Debbie, I volunteered with her my senior year. She focuses on retraining public school teachers in Panama. She’s amazing; she’s a role model. She’s a great mom, she’s doing a PhD, and she gives a lot of input to her husband’s business. Lastly, Jessalinda Gonzalez, she’s the Director of the UN Public Information Center, she’s a great supporter of my ideas and she’s always willing to help. Those 4 women have really given me the support and guidance to do the work I’ve done.

Mentoring is hugely important for young women leaders; it’s crucial when you go through challenges. What do you think are the challenges facing young women leaders, especially in Latin American? What’s a challenge for you personally?

 I think in Latin America, it’s a double challenge to be a young leader and a woman. I was actually asked during a presentation in a Young Leaders conference in Mexico by a man: “how do you do it? You’re a young woman, Latin American, isn’t it a disadvantage?” I responded: yes, that’s what people think, but you take it and put it your advantage. Being a minority you can be more appealing and inspiring to people because not a lot of people are doing what you’re doing. I’ve taken this as an advantage instead of seeing it as a weakness. I still think, especially in developing countries, that as a girl, my parents are more overprotective of me.  We’re seen as being more emotional, therefore weak. But then again it depends on how you portray yourself; I think all of those can be qualities too.

A challenge for me has been creating local support. I have many friends from around the world thanks to the leadership program who are my support network. However, in Panama itself, very few people know what I’m doing or understand what I’m doing. I think being young is a challenge. Few people believe you’re going to carry out what you say. They may think you have a great idea, but as I said our generation has been generalized. They think you might give up after 5 years and work for a huge multinational because it gives you more money.  I think it is a challenge: we tend to be more devoted to service, working for a community, but sometimes we get so discouraged because there’s no funding, because you need money to survive, unfortunately that’s the reality. I think we face so much pressure: you’ve graduated, you’re out of university, and you quit your job. What are you going to do? It’s hard to get people to understand.

What advice do you have for young women leaders? For people who want to start their own organizations?

 Follow your passion, no matter what. Create your mentor network and make sure they’re always aware of what you’re doing; you can always go back to them for advice and support. Follow your dreams – I know it’s cliché but I’m very into being happy with what I’m doing. Everything in life is hard: it’s important to create a support network. It makes you know that you’re not alone, which is very scary, and that you will succeed. What our age needs is that support.

What we have to our advantage is social media; it’s connecting us to all these people around the world. We need to use it to get support.  It’s a great tool of our generation to create change.

Are there any websites and books that are inspiring you right now that you recommend for young leaders?

Definitely Half the Sky. If you read it, take the time to write down every single name and organization mentioned there. It’s really the book that inspired me.

What does success look like for you? How will you know when you’ve succeeded?

My favorite quote is from Bill Drayton from Ashoka: Social entrepreneurs are not content just to give a fish or teach how to fish. They will not rest until they have revolutionized the fishing industry.

Your short term goals help you stay on track and make you feel that you’re being successful but my ultimate success is when I achieve my vision, which is to create a generation of full-fledged women who are taking on leadership positions, are not discriminated against because of their gender, who have access to health, education, professional growth. It’s so utopian that I don’t know if we’ll ever succeed when we’re alive, but we can try. Success is when I see at least 10 groups of women in Panama starting their own business and earning their own income from their talents that they’re using to empower their children. Success for me would be to replicate this across the region.

That’s great. Thank you so much for talking to me! I think I’ve found a kindred spirit and I think it’s awesome you’re working in a different region and we can compare notes and keep on talking.

 

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