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Innovators

Some of our hemisphere's emerging leaders in politics, business, civil society, and the arts.

In this issue:
Luis Antonio Vilchez watches a performance in April 2011. Photo: Kevin Tyson.

Arts Innovator: Luis Antonio Vilchez, Peru

Kate Brick

Watch a video of Luis Antonio Vilchez dancing in Times Square below.

Passing through New York’s Times Square one winter day in 2010, Lima native Luis Antonio Vilchez noticed a group of street percussionists playing a familiar Afro-Peruvian rhythm—and immediately decided to join them. Soon, a large crowd gathered as Vilchez, wearing a button-down shirt and a winter coat, burst into a dance performance that was so impressive even the drummers watched in awe.

The same kind of impromptu creativity dominates Adú Proyecto Universal (Adú Universal Project), a nonprofit arts organization Vilchez founded four years ago to re-imagine Peruvian identity through dance, theater and percussion. Financed by money the group earns from its performances, Adú (which means “friend” in limeña slang) encourages its 20 members—all dancers—to combine different dance and music genres, crossing back and forth between tradition and modernity.

That sums up Vilchez’ approach to his art. A dancer since the age of four and a graduate of the Escuela Nacional Superior de Folklore José María Arguedas (National Superior Institute of Folklore), Vilchez has performed all over the world. He specializes in zapateo, a traditional Afro-Peruvian dance that involves intricate rhythm patterns executed through footwork and upper body clapping—which Vilchez makes his own by incorporating American tap shoes.

The 30-year-old dancer’s innovative style is further influenced by marinera norteña (Peru’s national dance), flamenco, hip hop, and even Michael Jackson. Exploring and mixing different styles has helped Vilchez explore his own identity, along with that of his multi-ethnic country.

Peruvians are often raised with racial and ethnic stereotypes that are difficult to overcome, Vilchez says. “Dance—and Peruvian dance in particular—demonstrates that different cultures can be integrated,” he explains.

Although he is not Afro-Peruvian, Vilchez says he’s always been drawn to music and dance from the African diaspora. “In this music, there’s…an element of an ancestral quest for freedom,” he adds. By expressing his deep pride in Peru’s diverse cultural heritage, Vilchez also hopes to inspire self-discovery, inclusiveness and openness in his audiences.

Adú’s first production, Sigo Siendo—a blend of theater, zapateo, American tap, hip-hop and musica chicha, (a type of music brought to Lima by rural migrants)—premiered in Peru in 2009 and addresses the lack of identity and low self-esteem that many Peruvians suffer because of racism and classism. The piece has been performed at dance festivals around the world. On December 4, Adú’s En Trance premiered at the Alianza Francesa de Miraflores in Lima, starring Vilchez alongside guitarist Ernesto Hermoza, pianist José Luis Madueño, percussionist Leonardo “Gigio” Parodi, and bassist Omar Rojas.

Meanwhile, Vilchez is reaching out to a younger audience. In 2014, Adú will teach youth in Vilchez’ old Lima neighborhood of La Victoria how to zapatear, with financial support from the United States Embassy. He hopes the workshops will help a new generation of Peruvians build their confidence and find their identity amid the many cultures that make Peru unique.

Watch a video of Luis Antonio Vilchez dancing in Times Square below.


Politics Innovator: Rashida Tlaib, United States

Mari Hayman

Rashida Tlaib is used to overcoming obstacles—just like Detroit, the city she was born in and now represents in the Michigan State Legislature. The eldest of 14 children born to Palestinian immigrant parents, and the first in her family to graduate from high school, Tlaib (pronounced Ta-LEEB) is the first Muslim woman to serve as a state lawmaker in Michigan.

Elected in 2008, Tlaib is now serving her third term as a Democratic representative for the 6th District (Detroit). But the 37-year-old former attorney never expected to get involved in politics. After obtaining her law degree, Tlaib worked for the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS) in Detroit, where she was an impassioned advocate for immigrants’ rights and civil liberties.

But in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks, Tlaib grew concerned about the rise of anti-Muslim profiling and anti-immigrant backlash across the country. While organizing around Michigan’s state DREAM Act, she met State Representative Steve Tobacman, who was impressed enough to bring her into his office as his senior policy advisor in 2007. Several months later, he suggested that she run for his seat, which he was required to vacate because of a state law limiting state representatives to three terms (six years).

Tlaib considered herself a community advocate, not a politician, and wasn’t sure she wanted the job. “It took about seven people to convince me to run,” she recalls. “My friend said, ‘The community needs you. People like us never think about running for office, and that’s the problem.’”

In fact, Tlaib’s background in community organizing has proven to be a huge advantage as she takes on Detroit’s challenges, including entrenched poverty, a more than 17 percent unemployment rate, industrial pollution, and constant turnover in city government. Soon after she was elected, with over 90 percent of the vote, Tlaib set about raising money for a Neighborhood Service Center to respond to her new constituents’ requests for help completing tax returns, paying their utility bills, getting unemployment benefits, and finding immigration services.

Financed with about $40,000 a year from hundreds of individual donors, the center now serves about 60 families a week. One important function has been to help families budget to save their homes from going into tax foreclosure. “Eighty percent of the issues I hear about in my district are local city issues, not state issues,” Tlaib says. “Getting people direct service is more important than passing any bill in the legislature now.”

Tlaib has also launched the “Right to Breathe Campaign”—an environmental justice campaign in her district, where one in four children has asthma—and recently sponsored a bill to combat scrap metal theft, a major problem in Michigan, where lucrative construction materials like copper piping can be sold for quick cash. She’s also guest-blogged for The Huffington Post, and is a big fan of social media to get people’s attention. “A lot of my colleagues rely on the fact that people don’t know what they’re doing here and no one is watching them. But I’m watching them. It’s the community organizer in me,” she says.

Tlaib has learned from personal experience not to be quiet. In May 2013, she wrote a letter to the Washington D.C.-based American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) expressing outrage over the civil rights group’s failure to investigate sexual harassment charges against the director of the ADC Michigan office, Imad Hamad. Tlaib worked for Hamad for five months in 1999, and said that watching other women come forward inspired her to finally break her silence about being harassed. After at least 15 former female employees filed complaints against Hamad, he “retired” from the ADC in November 2013.

With three sccessful political campaigns behind her and plans to run for the Michigan State Senate in 2014, Tlaib is glad to be a role model for other women in politics. “Even as a female attorney, my other [female] colleagues were constantly looking for permission to seek” elected office. For those who want to enter politics, she says, “Believe that you can run. You just have to do it.”

But she is most passionate about her community and her city. “Detroit is like a mother: she takes in the sick, the unemployed, and the poor,” she says. “One thing that makes us special is surviving the obstacles.”


Business Innovator: Ruth DeGolia, United States

View a video interview with Ruth DeGolia below.

Ruth DeGolia, 31, is living proof that an idealistic college student can make a difference.

As founder and executive director of Mercado Global, a Brooklyn, New York–based nonprofit now in its ninth year, DeGolia and her team have earned the respect of both businesses and philanthropic organizations for connecting rural Guatemalan artisans to the mainstream fashion market in the United States and for pioneering a high-impact, fair-trade business model that addresses the causes—not just the effects—of cyclical poverty.

The concept was born when DeGolia, then a senior at Yale, was writing her thesis and volunteering in Guatemala in the early 2000s. While spending summers in Quetzaltenango working with economically disadvantaged women’s cooperatives under a program operated by the national Asociación Mayalan, she met many Guatemalans who had survived the brutality of the country’s bloody 36-year civil war only to be faced with extreme economic hardships. Some could not afford to feed their families, much less send their children to school (even public school is not free in Guatemala).

Meanwhile, international aid to Guatemala was drying up. The signing of the 1996 Peace Accords had reduced the urgency of donors to assist with the rebuilding of Guatemalan civil society. DeGolia knew that scholarships or a “one-time charity give” would not make a long-term difference. Guatemala’s world-renowned Indigenous handicrafts offered a path out of poverty, but sustainable income would only come from expanded market access.

So DeGolia filled up a suitcase with her new friends’ handicrafts and headed back to Yale. Within days, her fellow students had bought enough of the beaded bags, jewelry and scarves to provide income for 30 of the artisans for a full month—with enough left over to send 10 of their daughters to school for a year. DeGolia quickly saw the opportunity for scaling up the concept through formalizing connections between the rural craftspeople and retailers in the global market. In 2004, she drew up a business plan. Mercado Global was born.

Today, the business helps employ over 400 artisans across 30 highland communities in Guatemala, and is rapidly expanding. The majority of the women working with Mercado Global never went to school and are illiterate; yet all participate in community-based training programs led by Indigenous women that focus on financial literacy, business management, self-esteem, and family health. The programs help the women manage and legalize their cooperatives, set up bank accounts, manage cash flow, invest in tools and technology, and design products for a U.S. market.

Ninety-two percent of Mercado Global artisans now send their children to public school with the income they earn through selling handicrafts. That has contributed to a near-30 percent increase in school enrollment rates within two years for artisan families that have partnered with Mercado Global. One woman, using her earnings as collateral, obtained a small loan from a local bank to build her family’s first home.

In contrast to other fair trade models, Mercado Global is working with volume on a global scale, directly connecting these rural women to the market. Today, the bags and jewelry crafted by women in the Guatemalan highlands are being sold to high-end retail stores like Anthropologie, Bloomingdale’s and Lucky Brand—and in cities like New York, Tokyo and Montreal. The trendy jewelry and accessories cost between $20 and $350.

After covering base operating costs (roughly 50 cents for every $1 sold), all profits from the merchandise are returned to the Guatemalan women’s cooperatives. DeGolia’s team in Guatemala helps each cooperative set up a pricing system for its products, pay its taxes and create a savings account.

Today, Mercado Global is aggressively building new Guatemalan cooperatives and multiplying the number of international retailers selling its goods before it moves forward with plans to expand its model to the rest of Latin America.

“Focusing on partnerships for long-term and sustainable income for Indigenous artisans in Guatemala does good,” DeGolia says, “But more importantly, it does well for the women.”

View a video interview with Ruth DeGolia below.


Civic Innovator: Rolando Humire, Chile

Mari Hayman

Rolando Humire Coca, the political representative of approximately 4,000 Indigenous atacameño people in Chile, is a busy man. The 32-year-old biochemist (and beer brewer) serves as president of three local organizations, including the Consejo de los Pueblos Atacameños—a political body of 17 local Indigenous communities known as ayllus.

Humire’s activism was fueled by his achievements as a scientist. He left his Indigenous community in Atacama at the age of 19 to study biochemistry at the University of Chile in Santiago, where he conducted genetic research on strawberries to see how they could be adapted to grow in the desert. He welcomed the opportunity to learn how to succeed in a Western culture, which gave him the chance, as he put it, to “see life from two points of view.”

But when he came back to Atacama, Humire was struck by the gulf between his home and Santiago, which he attributes to corrupt local leaders and government policies that “keep Indians in ignorance and segregation.” Motivated to run for election as president of his local ayllu, he was elected president of all 17 atacameño communities in early 2013.

Humire’s greatest challenge as a community leader—and one of his most cherished dreams—is to diminish the education gap in Atacama. “To come to the University of Chile was a bridge—but you can’t get a good education in Atacama, Antofagasta or Copiapó,” he says.

That’s why Humire hopes to develop a contract between the University of Chile and the pueblos atacameños (atacameño people) to create “a university in the desert” that would bring high-quality education to his community. He’s also in talks with a local mining company to secure their investment in high school education for rural children. Although Humire concedes that mining firms have traditionally provided little help to his community, he hopes to persuade them through examples overseas—such as Canada and Australia, which have provided funds to develop Indigenous companies and industries. A veteran of multiple dialogues and roundtables with mining companies to “recover trust,” Humire says companies could significantly improve community relations by supporting local economic autonomy.

As part of Humire’s drive to expand educational opportunities for young atacameños, he has taught biology classes at an elementary school in Toconao, is securing funding for a boarding house for 55 rural kids to attend high school in Calama, and has negotiated university scholarships for five promising young students, with hopes for more. He also wants to train local youth to run the proposed $20 billion reconstructed Museo Arqueólogico R.P. Gustavo Le Paige, which features a major collection of Indigenous atacameño artifacts.

Humire sees himself as a role model for children in the community. “They can see that you are a scientist in their classroom—and you can look like them and think like them,” he says. “There is so much talent and richness [here] in terms of human capacity that must be guided and supported.”

Raised by his mother, aunt and grandmother, Humire owes his college education to the women in his family, who pooled their resources to pay his tuition. Proceeds from the family properties in San Pedro de Atacama—an ecotourism mecca in northern Chile—also gave him the opportunity to learn English and French. He credits his wife, Claudia, with whom he has a 20-month-old daughter, for his continued success. “She’s so understanding that I make so much effort and I get [paid] nothing,” he says.

Meanwhile, Humire is continuing his own scientific work. He’s working on a PhD in ecosystem management, and plans to start a scientific research company run by Indigenous people that studies the properties of medicinal plants and the geological features of the desert, like geysers and salt lakes, to better manage the fragile environment. “Instead of producing raw material, I want to produce knowledge,” he says.

And then there’s beer. He recently signed a contract with the E Sun Festival to produce and sell 10,000 liters of his line of craft beers (which incorporate local medicinal herbs) at the festival. “I use what I learned in biochemistry to brew beer,” he explains.

Humire hopes his unique combination of skills will inspire other people in his community. “If people see that someone like them is doing something new, they will believe in themselves,” he says. 




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