by Ana Elia Ramón Hidalgo (Spain, GESA 2014 alumna)
Ana Elia co-organised the first Regional Academy, a Global Environments Network event, in Latin America. She writes about her experience, from idea conception to implementation and beyond. For the Spanish version, click here.
Several months have passed since we convened the first Latin American Regional Socio-Environmental Leadership Academy (ALLSA; Spanish title: 1a Academia Latinoamericana de Liderazgo Socio-ambiental) in Jarabacoa, Dominican Republic, from November 13 to 22, 2015. When I remember that gathering, I get goosebumps. With the passage of time, the dust that was stirred up has started to settle and now, in the awakening of another Canadian spring, I have the opportunity to reflect on the experience of ALLSA. My intention is that these words serve as thanks to everyone who made this experience possible. I also hope that these words, together with the testimonials of participants and mentors, inspire you to organize a regional academy in your corner of the world and help develop regional networks of young people concerned about the socio-environmental injustices in their communities.
Here’s how it all started: in 2014, four alumni of the Global Environments Summer Academy (GESA) were moved by their experience. Conscious of the need to transform socio-environmental pedagogies and paradigms at a glocal level, we became engaged in organizing a regional academy in Latin America. Antonia Barreau, Yolanda López, Daniel Abreu and I wanted to help so that young Latin American researchers and practitioners could meet to collectively explore transformative environmental learning and our relationships with biocultural landscapes.
We aspired to create a dynamic co-learning space and process that would catalyze young leaders’ capacity to act and inspire more people to work toward the great social and environmental transformation, from small communities to international fora. We imagined a bioculturally focused, post-disciplinary  event that would not privilege any single epistemology. Instead, we wanted to create a dialogue among them. As part of the process of co-creation, we drew up a conceptual document in which we locate ourselves close to the wide umbrella of constructivism inspired by Paolo Freire’s liberation pedagogy, which originated in Latin America. In this document, we emphasized that we do not consider leadership as an institutional position, but rather as an adaptive social role for mobilizing consciousness to promote social change for the common good.
Our objectives for ALLSA were the following:
After a selection process from among over 100 applicants, we invited 25 finalists from 12 countries with exceptional socio-environmental leadership experience and motivation in the academic world, civil society, private sector and government to join ALLSA. For finalists who needed financial support, we provided partial scholarships. We also encouraged them to seek funding autonomously, providing information to do so. Merelyn was funded through a solidarity campaign on Gofundme. This is how she remembers her experience:
I remember how excited I was when the list of ALLSA finalists came out. It was such motivation that I was able to raise money through social networks to cover my travel costs. It gave a collective meaning to my participation in the academy, as I felt the care of all those people, known and unknown, who supported me. (Merelyn Valdivia Díaz, Perú)
I believe that one of the keys of the success of ALLSA was the diversity of countries of origin, gender, communities, indigenous and local perspectives as well as the diversity of personal and professional experiences that were represented in the group of finalists and mentors. Merelyn illustrates this well when she said that at ALLSA, one found oneself in the other and that it being such a diverse group helped her reflect on her own identity and responsibility to create similar spaces in the future.
Another key to success were our mentors, experts both at regional and global levels who facilitated co-learning in different spaces through experiential workshops, discussion circles, research cafes and field trips.
Eglee Zent, one of the mentors from ALLSA 2015, recalls:
(…) for me the experience of ALLSA was analogous (not logical) (…) to when, in the Andes you walk to the highest snowy peak, but you arrive in the dark and you have not seen your surroundings. Just as the first light of dawn appears, you wake and come out of the shelter where you slept. With great amazement and enveloped by silence, the light of the shapes and forms of plants, water, spiders, wind and sun are revealed to you. Such essential beauty at once mutes and bewilders. You know yourself to be alive amongst a myriad of elements, with which it becomes inevitable not to create. ALLSA is an explosive hotbed of biocultural conservation. Each person I met there is so genuinely full of potential to care for and love their environment, that makes the experience a space where motivations and projects are explored. (Egleé Zent, Venezuela)
Having witnessed in past GESAs the potential of an academy structured around the combination of fluid co-learning spaces, together with mentors and participants, we designed an agenda adapted to our needs as a community in progress. For example, Daniela Biffi led one of our creative preludes and taught us how to play the Peruvian Food Chain Jenga, a fun methodology she invented to facilitate reflections and conversations around the connections that exist within a complex system and inspired from the Jenga tower game and marine ecosystem modelling.
Before I thought that knowledge meant reading and having experience in one’s own field, yet with the amazing experience at ALLSA, I discovered that knowledge exists within the simple acts of breathing and sharing love (…) it’s a small world and we are all affected by changes, even the smallest changes that we make. (Raquel Lourdes Guallpa Rivera, Ecuador)
The dynamic at ALLSA was extraordinary, it had something that many academic spaces still struggle to create: a collective spirit. (…) We had spaces to re-connect with nature with closed eyes, to find ourselves through ecopsychology in the contemplation of nature and education, to be frustrated, to race against time trying to share readings and prepare presentations, to philosophize with hermeneutic practices to discuss a text and generate reflection and discussion, to learn different strategies and policies through play (…). If something was missing from this space, it was time. The days felt too short to bring this process to a close, to laugh, to listen to each other, and maybe to sleep. (Merelyn Validivia Díaz, Perú)
The co-learning methodologies used surprised some and helped some of us to learn by leaving our comfort zones. As Antonio Sánchez explains, “[at ALLSA], I have been able to leave my comfort zone as never before. I’ve come to understand that the abysses between science, leadership and philosophy are not as deep as I had previously thought (…) I feel committed and strengthened.” Antonio Sánchez, El Salvador.
This is also reflected in Vanesa’s testimony:
ALLSA was a party, a challenge, unlearning in order to learn, a re-encounter with myself and with my brothers and sisters. It opened my eyes to the world. (…) From the first encounter, it didn’t stop surprising me, breaking my preconceptions at every moment, which was necessary in order to step—inevitably—out of my comfort zone. What came after was letting go and opening up to the experience, to the enveloping flow of giving and receiving. When I think of ALLSA, smiles come to my face, inspiration, connections, as well as a great deal of desire and strength to undertake crazy projects that would make the world a slightly better place for everyone – and always, the warm sensation gives me the certainty of knowing that other brothers and sisters are out there fighting to improve things. (Vanesa Ramos Abensur, Perú)
At ALLSA, we learned from each other and inspired each other to continue questioning our societal models. Alfonso was inspired by “the strength and the energy with which my colleagues are promoting small actions which, connected with others, have glocal effects.” Alfonso Morillo, Dominican Republic.
It is clear to me that the experiences, reflections, unanswered questions, and aspirations were different for each of us. But I also know that no one was left indifferent. One of the ideas and experiences that generated reflections and conversations well into the night was our existence as nature and in constant relationship with everything around us:
ALLSA was an experience that moved me profoundly. It motivated me and opened my horizons. (…) It reminded me that I am working with people and “other-than-humans” who deserve all my respect. It also taught me the importance of making decisions from a place in which I feel safe, tranquil, at peace, and not out of fear. That way, I cannot go wrong. If I had to sum up ALLSA in just three words they would be: ethics, connection, motivation. (Mariana Escobar, México)
One of the most impactful activities was when we had the privilege to interact, second to second, with the elements that enable our lives. To observe our environment and allow her to awaken in me a curiosity for her color, shape, size, sound and movement, and irresistibly, allow my footsteps to carry me to her, to ask permission and interact with her, to feel that Xuquqeem – as I would call it, and let it run in my veins and accelerate the beating of my heart; discover that each breath depends on elements that perhaps I never before imagined, which allow me to be here and now. It is a process of experiencing deep ecology. It leaves me with the hope that this is close to what the old ones used to practice and experience, that my elders have so often repeated to me. When I’ve heard their stories of q’utuneem (to ask permission, to remember and recognize that), this grain of corn has k’aslemaal (a life of its own) and for that reason one must loq’oq’j (respect and care for that life). (Abigail Quic Cholotío, Guatemala)
Another of the recurring reflections among participants was the importance of establishing ties in order to propel future projects.
I take from the ALLSA experience a little piece of Latin America, happy to find that from the south to the very north there are people who believe that change is possible in the world, and that we are not only fighting to achieve a state of harmony between people and Nature, but rather understanding that we are part of her and that we must not think of her as separate (Patricia Roche, Paraguay)
In this world full of injustices and egotism, ALLSA is a space of compartición , which, given the urgency of a better world, shows us that we are not alone in this great struggle and renews hope in our humanity. (Albert Maurilio Chan Dzul, México)
For a few participants, ALLSA even shifted their perspective on life. Antonio Pulido aspires to “be part of a whole and not a whole split into parts; to make myself strong by recognizing that I am part of something larger and stop placing myself at the center in order to share equally with my habitat and co-inhabitants; to do my work in a creative way that helps love flow forth. I recognize my limits and seek in those around me to complement them. I will fight with my whole heart to be happy with those and that which surround me; ALLSA changed my perspective on life. (Antonio Pulido, México)
As a part of the ALLSA program, participants outlined emerging ideas and concepts for future collaborative initiatives. For example:
ALLSA concluded on November 22, but we continue to be in contact through the GEN network, LinkedIn, email, Whatsapp and Facebook. Each one of us has returned to our activities, yet in some form or another, ALLSA remains with us.
I am sure that ALLSA has strengthened my capacity as a social leader, thanks to what we learned during this week with an amazing and diverse group of young people from the whole continent. (Antonio Sánchez, El Salvador)
After ALLSA I feel stronger, more creative and more conscious. ALLSA left me with a ton of concepts and ideas that I am still trying to assimilate, to integrate. But more important still, it left me with the certainty that I need to reconnect myself with nature, that study of the environment must be tied to ethics, and that my academic and professional life cannot be detached from my personal life. (Mariana Escobar, México)
Alfonso Morillo (República Dominicana) has taken from ALLSA “the commitment to inspire and motivate others to take on the work of following an environmental ethic, conscious that it is today when we are building our future.”
The question of how to apply knowledge gained was one of the main questions at ALLSA. Vanesa explained to us how she was doing this:
After ALLSA, I returned to Peru and am now working on research on traditional medicinal knowledge maintained and practised by elders in various regions of my country. During my fieldwork, in a spontaneous way, I applied different things I learned at ALLSA. From very simple things, like the treatment and respect for people and each element of nature, to methodologies used and the dynamic of working as a team (…) At the same time, I’m organising and implementing official paperwork to create the Asociación Pacha Alterna, (…) a multidisciplinary group with the goal of re-valuing and promoting traditional knowledge of medicinal plants through research. The project also provides support to rural and indigenous communities to protect their intellectual property rights over their traditional knowledge and resources. (…) I’m sure that these two experiences would not have been undertaken without the experience at ALLSA. (Vanesa Ramos Abensur, Perú)
In addition to what has been discussed, our recipe required important ingredients like clear vision, perserverance, patience, confidence and human, social and financial resources. It also needed a deep sense of commitment to our habitat and its co-inhabitants. But as with any recipe, each cook adds their own personal touch. Hopefully future regional academies will be nurtured by the experiences and learning methodologies from ALLSA 2015. Hopefully they will improve them and adapt them to their local context. Here I leave you with a few reflections from ALLSA participants on what we could improve in future ALLSAs or regional academies.
I would like to see a greater dissemination of information on this type of event; since I began telling other people about my experiences, many have told me that they had no idea that ALLSA existed nor GESA. I also recommend that the regional academy be longer, between 3 or 4 weeks, to provide enough time to fully experience the theme of the gathering through site visits, and giving space as well to assimilate what was learned. (Vanesa Ramos Abensur, Perú)
Alfonso recommends “establishing a mechanism for following up with and strengthening the network, as well as for achieving the commitments that people have taken on”. The good news for Alfonso and all participants is that through the GEN InterNetWork – an online communications and networking platform – about to be launched, ALLSA participants as well as the more broad GEN alumni will be able to continue collaborations and discussions begun during the academy.
Manuela Fernández from Argentina emphasized the need to listen actively and to analize deeply regional particularities in the face of our current socio-ecological challenges. She pointed out “At ALLSA 2015, we explored a South American perspective of environmental ethics, its origins, its points of reference and its nuances. That allowed us to understand what is is that characterizes the region, to know to which development models this environmental ethic is opposed to, as well as the objects, subjects, values and interests that it defends. This regional perspective helped us be more conscious of who we are and in this way, search for answers that are adapted to and in accordance with with our realities. This exercise requires active listening that invites us to listen to each other, to compare that with our own cases and discover, definitively, that as a region we have a great deal in common and a huge potential for shared proposals and solutions.”
I began by giving thanks and I will end by giving thanks. Thank you to everyone who made ALLSA shine – to the family at Rancho Baiguate, where we were hosted; to the communities and projects with whom we shared beautiful experiences (e.g., Sonido del Yaque and Angostura); to our mentors Egleé Zent, Mirian Vilela, Ricardo Rozzi, Carlos del Campo, Gary Martin and Alberto Sánchez; to our local assistants (thank you Beykel Custodio); to all the participants, and to all the humans and non-humans who welcomed and nurtured us. I also wish to thank the great team at Global Diversity Foundation (GDF), the Dominican Republic National Institute for the Education and Training of Teachers (INAFOCAM), the Faculty of Forestry at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and UNITAR for their trust and support. Without them this would not have been possible. Finally I would like to thank those who are going to take the path of organizing future ALLSAs and regional academies. Don’t hesitate to get in contact with us to discuss future initiatives: email@example.com
 Post-disciplinarity generally refers to “the increasing commitment to transcending [disciplinary] boundaries to understand better the complex interconnections within and across the natural and social worlds” Jessop and Sum 2001
 This is how the Zapatistas refer to their meeting spaces