All MIA and MPA students at SIPA complete thirty weeks of professional development during their two year program. Fifteen weeks is comprised of an internship and fifteen weeks is comprised of a group project referred to as a workshop or capstone project. SIPA offers no summer classes and this allows our students the opportunity to complete their full time internship anywhere in the world.
There are several SIPA students working in the Admissions Office this year. The blog will feature a post written by each of them describing what they did over the summer. The entries should provide a glimpse of the exceptional individuals in our program and the various professional opportunities they engage in over the summer. This first entry was written by Mynor Godoy, an MIA student concentrating in International Security Policy.
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Recreating Realities Through Art
For many Americans, perceptions of Latin America are often tied to violence, corruption and poverty. Many of these views are derived from and enforced by media coverage of the war on drugs, among other things. Colombia is considered one of those dangerous places. The United States and Colombia officially declared a war against drugs in the late 80s. The city of Medellin, Colombia was usually in the spotlight because of its most notorious resident – Pablo Escobar. However, for Colombians, the war on drugs only perpetuated the cycle of violence that had been plaguing the country for years. While Colombia has been considered a perfect conflict resolution case study by some, there does not seem to be much resolution. In contrast, cities like Medellin have experienced a transformation of conflicts characterized by a recycling of violence. What better place to spend summer and put my conflict resolution skills to the test, right?
I decided to attend SIPA specifically because of its International Security Policy concentration and Conflict Resolution Specialization. As an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, I developed an interest in the phenomenon of youth gangs and was able to do research on the transnational gang Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13). Even though I had some experience, I was surprised that at SIPA, I was funneled from a classroom course and into the field so quickly. I secured an internship with Fundación Mi Sangre in Medellin thanks in part to Professor Aldo Civico, who taught “Theories and Methods of Conflict Resolution.” At SIPA, professors are the leaders in their respective fields and are valuable resources for their students. With his extensive experience working in Colombia, Professor Civico knew of plenty of organizations that fit my interests.
Fundación Mi Sangre is a local, arts-based non-profit that was started in Medellin by Colombian musician Juanes. Its mission is to help victims of landmines and internally displaced people in the cities of Colombia. It is one of the leading peace-building organizations in Colombia and it has offices throughout the country. Medellin was not the city that came to mind when I started my internship search, but after talking with the director, it was a no-brainer. Mi Sangre was a fusion of all the things I was passionate about: education, at-risk youth, community advocacy, and art. They were in the process of launching a new program known as “Pazalobien” and they wanted me to assist with their research on the role art can play in the construction of peace.
Due to the years of conflict in Colombia, Medellin has one of the largest populations of displaced people in the country. Since the city is located in a densely populated valley, there was no place for the displaced people from the countryside or coast. These displaced people have been forced to build their homes on the mountainsides. Entire hillsides have turned red, as brick homes have overrun the lush grassy slopes. These areas, known as comunas, are very similar to the favelas in Brazil or the ghettos of the United States. The harsh realities of comuna life are twofold: the residents there have to worry about adjusting to the social problems posed by their new surroundings, and they also live in constant fear of the combos or gangs that operate in the comunas. These groups are made up of guerrilla, paramilitary and cartel influences. They have established lineas invisibles or “invisible lines” that cannot be crossed. Violent turf wars keep residents locked inside their homes. This form of urban warfare has claimed many young lives in the comunas. The combos even threaten parents with death if they don’t give at least one child to the gang. Ultimately, many families end up leaving, resulting in a population of people that have been displaced numerous times.
In this context, Mi Sangre has partnered with a local organization called Circo Momo to help youth living in the comunas cope with the violence and create new opportunities. Circo Momo is an organization made up of sociologists and psychologists interested in the arts, which they use as a means to do social work and help rehabilitate youth who may have been victims of violence or abuse. The technique is simple enough; participating schools have one day dedicated to art in every class, from kindergarten to high school and ranging from literature to science. Staff at Circo Momo implement project-based learning and bring a framework for the day, but allow students to choose the subject. One example was the kindergarten class in Comuna 5 where the students were fascinated with robots. The Circo Momo staff structured their sculpture lesson around robots. Each student made a robot out of clay and was then asked to place the robots in the middle of their table. They would then discuss the robot family that had just been created. Each family was different and students would then be asked to decide who was the dad, who was the mom, and so on. In this way students learned to work together and accept differences. More importantly, they were able to discuss what a family was and the type of relationships families foster. Slowly, these types of projects are helping Medellin heal from the wounds of the conflict and build a generation of students that can tell Medellin’s history from a different perspective. Their perspective will be peace.
These youth groups are also supported by the Mayor’s office on Cultural Affairs, not just Mi Sangre, and the strong emphasis on social works projects seems to be a valuable investment. Yet, these youth groups were not moved into action because of a small influx of funding. Rather, they were working in their communities and trying to change their neighborhoods before the funding even came. They understood that there were alternatives to doing drugs or stealing. However, without the financial support, their organizing efforts would have been limited only to their single comuna and their sphere of influence would be much more limited.
My internship experience helped me to see that working with youth in conflict zones is my calling. During the course of my internship, I would start work at 8 AM in the offices of Mi Sangre, and then head out to interview leaders or visit classrooms in the comunas, then head to youth group meetings, and finally visit hip-hop groups that met at night around the city. I returned to my apartment at 11 PM, exhausted mentally, emotionally and physically, but with an overwhelming sense of fulfillment and accomplishment. The work that I did in Medellin demonstrated that reconciliation and reconstruction are possible in conflict zones. In short, a better world is possible. Augusto Restrepo, a representative from the Mayor’s Office on Cultural Affairs, put it the best, “When you ask me if peace is possible? These kids demonstrate that it is because if it wasn’t, they would not be in the comunas.” It is hard to find a stronger argument for the powerful role that art plays in constructing peace. The youth living in the comunas are leading a revolution; they are recreating their communities and constructing a new reality – all without ever picking up a gun.