(Summer ’17) Juan Constain Ramos, G

PART 4. A cultural hub in Quibdo and Reflection

Motete is a non-profit located in a busy street in Quibdo, Chocó. It’s led by Velia Vidal and her husband Rogelio, who are passionate about education, literature, arts and cultural expressions. After many years of working in Medellin, they decided to move back to the region where Velia grew up in, driven by an impulse to work with youth and bring them closer to arts, culture and literature.

We hosted our collaborative mapping workshop here. The space is flexible and cozy. It’s becoming a cultural hot spot in a city where the public offers for culture are limited and few are interested in building the social infrastructure youth needs in order to thrive. Everyone in Quibdó knows where Motete is. The name Motete stands for a basket people in the Pacific Region used to carry the goods bought at the local market. It also works as a basket with books, that you can transport and bring to remote places.

Cultural sophistication

In cultural hubs, it’s hard to tell when people are doing things differently or when they are able to influence on a systemic level. This is not the case for Motete. Despite being small in scale and relatively new, this hub is becoming a major reference in the arts scene in Quibdó. The collective leadership of Velia and Rogelio, as well as the collaborative networks built with other cultural organizations has positioned them to be creative and innovative.

Promoting arts, culture, and literature is no easy task. Youth prefers to stay away from this as the pedagogic model used in public schools fails in engaging them. If it’s hard to engage kids in school, imagine doing it as an extracurricular activity. What is surprising is how much demand there is in Quibdó for a place like this. And how well Motete interprets this to offers programming and lead advocacy campaigns to promote more investment in education is incredible. They are currently running a crowdfunding campaign to establish reading clubs that some folks might find interesting.


Working in the Pacific Region

Working in the Colombian Pacific region has defined my professional practice and has made me aware of the challenges that my country faces when moving into a post-peace agreement scenario. Witnessing the contrast between abundance of human, cultural, environmental and ethnic assets and the scarcity of material wealth has made me reflect about development in general.

In a region where youth has been deeply affected by conflict and has been kept away from opportunities, in many cases intentionally, there are still many reasons to be optimistic. The work of organizations such as Escuela Taller, Robótica Educativa, Motete, Chocquibfilms, Jovenes Creadores del Choco, UrambaLab, and many others, is just a sign of an emerging network of youth organizations with the values, skills and intention needed to achieve long-term systemic change in the region.

Many of this organizations have direct contact with communities at the margins. They hold tremendous knowledge about systemic failure and are better positioned to be innovators. Connecting them to tools, methods and knowledge created in academia and in practice, will advance collaborations that will change our lives.



Collaborative landscapes

Working in Buenaventura and Quibdó made me realize the influence that geography and place have on networks and collaborative projects. This has been the case for the entire Pacific Region, where geographical isolation has been instrumental in perpetuating uneven development patterns. However, the way geography affects network building on a local scale was something I didn’t expect to uncover through this visit.

Understanding the relationship between place, geography, and the areas where youth groups carry out their organizing and activities is valuable information for both Escuela Taller and for the work MIT CoLab is doing in the Pacific Region. By understanding the drivers behind clustering and/or isolation of youth groups, you can be more assertive in program design and reaching out to a broader set of organizations. The location of youth groups is also tied to their rooted understanding of territory and the set of social and cultural values embedded in it.

In Buenaventura, the physical form of the city converges towards a small island where one of the Ports and many of the public and private institutions are located. This means that a lot of youth groups are located here, where access to resources is facilitated by proximity but there is a disconnect with the margins. In Quibdó, on the other hand, youth groups are more tied to territory and the margins, posing a challenge for convening them and building collaborations. These unequal geographical patterns have definitely affected the way youth organizations collaborate and engage with the public and private sectors.

Location of youth groups from workshop in Buenaventura

Location of youth groups from workshop in Buenaventura

Youth organizations in Quibdo

Youth organizations in Quibdo


Unlocking potential and leveraging it.

In my previous post, I mentioned that youth groups were critical in the civic strike in both Buenaventura and Quibdó. This was eye-opening to a lot of people in Colombia given that most of the news that come out of the region focus on showing scarcity and its multiple manifestations. Positioning youth groups such as the ones convened at Escuela Taller as agents of social change is a long process. However, the foundations for that process are well in place and the energy harnessed by youth organizations and collectives will certainly advance such positioning. MIT can play an important role here. By supporting their work, and making it visible, we could position them as grassroots innovators and leverage resources, technical capacities and the capital attached to MIT’s name and core values to advance long-term systemic change in the region.

Participants in collaborative mapping

Participants in collaborative mapping

Youth in training at Escuela Taller

Youth in training at Escuela Taller

The peace process in Colombia opened up spaces for dialogue and inquiry that expand beyond the agreement signed between the government and FARC. In places like Buenaventura, youth organizations have taken on the task of rebuilding communities torn apart by conflict. Media collectives are documenting resiliency and community-led efforts to resist violence and oppression. Organizations such as Escuela Taller are training youth in traditional trades and digital fabrication in an effort to keep them away from conflict and providing opportunities for income generation. Others are using arts, theater, music and sports as vehicles for community building. These are just a few examples of a network that has been weaving for years and is now emerging in places where innovation comes from the margins.

Part Two: Youth and Strikes.

On May 10 2017, the two largest cities in the Colombian Pacific Region major cities – Buenaventura and Quibdó – went on civic strike. The history of social activism, strikes and negotiations with the national government is long and harsh. This recent piece by MIT CoLab’s Mel King Community Fellows provides context on what strikes have meant for the region.

I visited Buenaventura shortly after a negotiation between the Civic Committee for the Strike and representatives from the National government had suspended the strike pending on the design and implementation of a bill that would channel almost 4 billion dollars into development in the region.

The environment in Buenaventura was one of a troubling calm. You could feel there was relief that the strike was suspended but there was uncertainty about what that meant. The strike had not only generated lost revenue for the port but also for local businesses. At the same time, it activated networks of youth organizations that were critical in mobilizing and raising awareness about the importance of standing together in the face of government and institutional neglect.

Buenaventura's Port. Next to it, Escuela Taller.

Buenaventura’s Port. Next to it, Escuela Taller.

This strike was not like any other previous mobilization. There seemed to be national consensus that there was a legitimate claim by Afrocolombian communities and that the government in fact had to be held accountable for it’s abandonment of the entire region. This strike even generated a solidarity movement between the organizers in Quibdo and those in Buenaventura, bridging communities that have been not just physically apart but strongly divided by regional politics, culture and invisible barriers created by conflict.

Collaborative Mapping workshop

Collaborative Mapping workshop

A platform for youth organizing

During a collaborative mapping workshop with youth organizations in the city, it became clear that youth organizers had been at the forefront of the strike. As a result, a new platform that groups 17 youth organization emerged. This platform, ‘United Youth for Buenaventura’ is set to be the space for doing organizing and follow-up to the agreement reached with the national government. Many of the organizations I engaged with during the collaborative mapping process are founding members of this platform.

Campaign ran by youth groups “Add yourself to the Strike” Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XMveZsjV5P0

Engaging with them has introduced me to a new level of sophistication and innovation that is radically different from the traditional concepts of innovation and sophistication used at MIT. There is no focus on prototyping market oriented products or solving high-tech challenges with avant-garde technology. It’s about building the critical social infrastructure for post-conflict, about leveraging social capital for creating shared wealth and changing the long-term conditions for development. I think there are emerging opportunities in connecting both worlds and multiple knowledges.

Youth orgs leaders after the Collaborative Mapping workshop.

Youth orgs leaders after the Collaborative Mapping workshop.

‘Get the trucks out, whatever it takes’

One of the things that struck me the most about the Civic Strike and the confrontation with anti-riot police and military was the urge that the latter had in getting trucks in and out the port. The order from the national government was clear: ‘get the trucks moving, whatever it takes’. Most of Colombia’s foreign trade depends on the Ports in Buenaventura. The road connecting the city to Cali and the rest of the country is a symbol of corruption, municipal inefficacy and extractive development. Decades after the port was modernized and scaled, the road is far from being suitable for heavy trucks. However, the national government’s interest has focused on building the infrastructure needed to export and import things  from and to Buenaventura. Back in January, a fellow DUSP student wrote this excellent piece talking about the logic of capital in Buenaventura.

In their effort for securing safe passage for trucks with imports and exports from Buenaventura, the riot police threw tear gas and injured more than 80 protestors. They even tried smuggling the trucks at midnight through narrow streets which created chaos as they tore down energy lines that left entire neighborhoods without electricity. As Mariam, a young leader in Buenaventura told me: “You could smell their hunger, how eager they were to get the trucks moving”.



Part One: New trip, new approach.

I’ve been working in the Colombian Pacific region for four years now. Yet, every time I start planning a trip to Buenaventura and as soon as I arrive, it feels like I’ve been there for a decade. It is one of those places full of hopeful contradictions as you see wealth and poverty everywhere, except only poverty is rooted in territory and wealth is extracted and headed to Cali and the rest of the country.

On this trip, I worked with Escuela Taller de Buenaventura, the leading civic society organization in culture promotion and job training. They were established in 2012 as part of a national network of cultural hubs and job training facilities coordinated by a central Escuela Taller in Bogotá.

Recently, they partnered with Fundacion Sociedad Portuaria de Buenaventura to launch UrambaLab MakerSpace; a pioneer space for advanced manufacturing and capacity building in technology and civic media. This space offers programs for middle and high-school students in Buenaventura and is structures around a very powerful narrative of peacebuilding that lies at the core of Escuela Taller.


This space is part of two networks that spun out of MIT; the Clubhouse Network and the FabLab Network. Despite the direct connection, there is no current collaborations with students, faculty or labs at MIT. I foresee many emerging opportunities for and learning for MIT as they are young civic innovators working at the margins of an extractive development system strengthened by decades of internal armed conflict.

This visit is part of a collaboration with MIT CoLab, who has been working with leaders and initiatives in the Pacific Region since 2014. In this opportunity, I was joined by Natalia Mosquera, MIT CoLab’s Local Consultant.

One of the biggest concerns about working in the region has to do with the fragile political and social stability that has recently been made visible by the civic strike in Buenaventura and Quibdo. Rather than being a threat to our work, we see this as an opportunity to better understand the social infrastructure and the role of youth in movement building.

Our next step is doing collaborative mapping exercises with Escuela Taller to better understand the youth organizations ecosystem regionally, as we will also travel to Quibdo in a few weeks. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, I recommend reading these posts from our last visit to the region.


Juan will work with UrambaLab Maker Space, a digital fabrication and civic tech initiative led by Escuela Taller in Buenaventura, Colombia. Through this collaboration, he will map out youth community groups engaged in transformative projects in the city and region and explore emerging capacities for community research and action. This collaborative mapping exercise will inform Escuella Taller’s innovative programming and offerings for job training, cultural entrepreneurship and digital fabrication and is framed within ongoing collaborations between MIT CoLab and community organizations in the Pacific Region.

Check back for his updates!

« All Posts