JESúS ARMANDO ESTRADA ZUBíA

Mexico,

Armando Estrada is reviving failing democracies through a community engagement incubator comprised of leading educators that develop community participation strategies. These strategies transcend age and sector to enable the most disconnected communities to connect, mobilize their resources, and solve their most prevalent problems.

This profile below was prepared when Jesús Armando Estrada Zubía was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2012.

INTRODUCTION

Armando Estrada is reviving failing democracies through a community engagement incubator comprised of leading educators that develop community participation strategies. These strategies transcend age and sector to enable the most disconnected communities to connect, mobilize their resources, and solve their most prevalent problems.




THE NEW IDEA

Armando has assembled a powerful network of top educators to develop strategies that empower and connect community members in any sector or socioeconomic level to implement solutions that meet community needs. The educators that comprise Via Education hail from universities such as Harvard and MIT, and have an interest in reviving democratic values in Latin America, particularly Mexico. The network conceives and guides implementation of ideas, strategies and teaching methods among its target community members, ensuring that they learn life-long behaviors that support democratic values. More than anything, Via Education’s strategies attempt to create a more democratic, just, and equitable society led by communities themselves.

To build a broad coalition behind their ideas, Via Education commits itself to building relationships with businesses, governments, international organizations, schools, citizen organizations (COs), and communities to distribute and implement their strategies. Via Education has established and focuses on four tactics for success: corporate social responsibility, community participation in public policy, citizen education, and education quality. Each institution or entity takes part in one of these tailor-made action lines to ultimately foster democratic values in Mexico from the ground up.

Via Education addresses corporate social responsibility through community alliances, and internal strategy implementation. Via Education links businesses whose corporate social responsibility commitments align with the needs of communities to ensure high impact community engagement. Armando’s organization also implements engagement strategies within businesses themselves. This initiative offers a win-win because management gains a more cohesive staff capable of working together to solve problems, while society gains new leaders who promote and can implement democratic values.

To combat widespread government corruption Via Education attempts to promote community participation in public policy creation, particularly policies that affect the education of those most excluded from the economic system. The program, for instance, has established a working relationship among the Ministry of Education in the state of Nuevo Leon, Harvard University, and local schools to develop an education program that can be applied in the 100 most challenging schools in the state.

The citizen education action line links all the pieces of society to promote a culture of democratic citizenship. Via Education has built relationships with universities to establish courses that train individuals who are prepared to carry out projects that increase civic participation in a wide-range of communities. Through his citizen education program, Armando has a slew of projects including park restoration, community security programs in some of the most dangerous areas of Northern Mexico, and trainings for local factory workers on personal financial management. In all cases, these activities involve local citizens in order to create a culture of civic engagement.

Finally, Via Education believes that improved education quality at early stages of development can help cure the root cause of a disengaged community. To this end, Armando’s network works with schools to develop strategies that boost student participation and meet the needs of the school. For instance, Via Education worked closely with teachers at an urban school in Nuevo Leon to improve the education offered to a significant portion of their pupils who commute over two hours daily to the institution. The teachers learned the latest pedagogical methods suited to their financial situation and restructured the organization to build a student-driven curriculum. 

These four action lines work in concert to achieve Via Education’s objectives. By including all the actors in a system, it has the power to revive failing democracies from the bottom up. Its multilateral approach has enabled Via Education to identify and collaborate with many critical actors in the public and private sectors that not only have influence in Mexican society but have also opened the door for Armando to replicate his success on a national and regional level. Given the versatility of the Via Education model and its powerful mission to address a critical problem in Latin America, Armando is leading an important movement in civic reform.




THE PROBLEM

Despite decades of tireless efforts to bring democracy to many Latin American countries, research shows that youth in most Latin American countries would exchange their democratic freedoms of expression and association for higher personal incomes. This fragility of democracy in many countries, particularly in Mexico, results in a widespread disbelief in the ability to enact social change, which keeps corruption in power. Normally, in instances such as these, three entities can serve as vehicles to revive social development: the education system, the government, and the community. In Mexico, however, each of these entities maintains some major flaw that inhibits their functionality.

Mexico’s failing education system has considerable difficulty in maintaining its normal functions, and thus no room to innovate in the realm of social development. In a system driven from the federal level down, children and local schools are rarely given any autonomy and are forced to adhere to a system that is incapable of meeting their needs.

The systemic corruption of the Mexican government underscores that while the government may identify as a “democracy,” the values and practices inherent to one may not actually be present. For instance, because of the common practice among political parties of buying votes, much of the Mexican citizenry has abandoned voting altogether. Such a disconnect between the needs of the general public and the government’s actions gives way to public policy outcomes that do not meet the needs of everyday life, thereby generating even more public disdain and apathy toward civic engagement. Moreover, government corruption can ignore basic community infrastructure needs for long periods of time when addressing them may not offer the same payback as other projects.

Even with all other institutions unreliable and unresponsive, Mexicans also cannot depend on their own communities. The immense socioeconomic gap between the rich and poor creates a hostility that ensures these populations remain disparate. The lack of mutual understanding and communication results in a fragmented society that is unable to address social issues as they arise, and instead leaves them to fester and worsen.

Without any mechanism in place to fight the social problems of corruption and inequality, and no knowledge of how to engage community members, Mexicans are left with no other method of enacting social development. This results in either aggression or apathy.




THE STRATEGY

Via Education generates opportunities for socially sustainable and democratic development through the design, implementation, and evaluation of educational initiatives. Its methodologies are participative, inclusive, and effective, creating a sense of self-efficacy among its participants. Armando’s organization finds the communities, schools, or businesses that need these services and forms a relationship with them to implement his strategies for community cohesion. 

Though strategies differ for each community’s goal, the community engagement strategy is universal: members of the community are recruited into the Citizen Circle to participate in the community change. The collective’s identity is defined through a series of activities that find shared values, expectations, and visions for the community. The group establishes the collective’s rules and norms of participation. The community being served is defined through research and inventory of all social capital, stakeholders, and influencers available. The group creates a list of all community needs, grievances, and problems that need to be resolved. The list is analyzed and the group is broken into two sides that debate for or against the priority of resolving each issue. The group then comes to a consensus and selects the final problem(s) that will be addressed by the collective. The group then develops a realistic and specific action plan to solve the selected issue(s).

Via Education provides strategic help only. The group must seek out the necessary resources by identifying and reaching out to entities that can provide the support they need. The group then unites all community members, stakeholders, and support partners to present the action plan and receive feedback from the various participants. Once the plan is solidified, roles, and a timeline are assigned. A methodology with success indicators is developed to measure both the impact and efficiency of the group. The action plan is then executed. The group develops a strategy to monitor and follow up on the project after completion. The group unites to celebrate the impact and success of its project as well as their newfound community cohesion. Then, the group evaluates its overall actions and determines future improvements. This approach can be translated from children looking to repair their playground, to an urban community attempting to fix their dangerous deteriorating road. In all cases, the methodology is carried out by, and for, the community that utilizes it.

An important focus of Via Education’s strategies is evaluation to guarantee that projects meet the needs of the community while also giving each member a sense of cohesion and satisfaction in the process. Via Education has measured significant social impact of its programs. The program has reached more than 1,500 facilitators, and over 43,000 community members have gone through the program’s methodologies. In an evaluation of its youth program, 56 percent of youth were more intent on social participation, and 54 percent showed an improvement in their respect for the rights of other individuals. Students also noted that their teachers’ teaching qualities had significantly improved.

Armando has been able to establish alliances with strategic actors that have allowed Via Education to embed itself more systemically and become sustainable over time. For instance, its alliance with the Secretary of Public Education has largely expanded the outreach of Via Education to schools in Mexico. In fact, Armando’s strategy for community engagement was deemed so effective, the state of Nuevo Leon adopted it as their new methodology for teaching civics in the public education curriculum. Moreover, in partnership with FEMSA, the biggest bottling company in Latin America, Via Education is training over 6,000 of the conglomerate’s employees in their community engagement methodology. These contracts, both in the public and private sectors, have made the impact of Armando’s strategy replicable and far reaching.

Via Education has had an extensive reach and acclaimed rise since 2005, receiving praise and funding from a number of organizations. Regionally, Via Education has been recognized for its social mission by the government of the state of Nuevo León. The organization meets with the Education Secretary every three months. Additionally, in 2010 the Civic Council of Institutions of Nuevo León recognized Via Education’s “Citizen Circles” as one of the council’s main pillars. Consequently, the program was introduced to President Felipe Calderón and a federal commission was created to continue the strategy of community intervention on a national scale.

Armando’s Via Education is already widely present in the Americas with specialists now situated in Chile, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, and the U.S. These programs are being formalized as chapters of Via Education. However, the goal of Via Education in the near future is to continue consolidating the program in Mexico, especially in the northern region of the country. 

A year from now, Via Education expects to consolidate the implementation of its various programs. In five years, Via Education will spread its methodology across Mexico’s academic system. It will develop the first Institute of Community Facilitators, to educate new teachers and facilitators to spread its methodology. In ten years, Via Education will further expand the program and create processes of community organization at an international level. The organization will inform and implement public policy to expand the learning opportunities of children, particularly those living in marginalized communities.




THE PERSON

Armando’s interest in community-led change is a direct result of his life experiences. At a young age, Armando lost his father due to violence. He credits his father with teaching him to become a hard working, supportive, and a critical-thinking citizen. Armando’s loss empowered him to want to change the status quo and create a more peaceful society. For twelve years Armando participated in missionary trips to low-income populations working on human development projects, where he realized the systemic traps that kept the lowest socioeconomic classes in their situations. 

After graduating with a degree in industrial engineering, Armando went to work at a maquiladora factory, which exposed him to the injustice and suffering of urban poverty. In his next job, designing leadership and organizational culture strategies for top executives, he realized the potential of well-designed leadership strategies in education to better the lives of the economically disadvantaged. This led Armando to change career paths in 2004 and attend Harvard University, where he acquired a master’s degree in International Education Policy. Armando’s experience provoked him to question and learn more about the theories and policies behind education. He also met others committed to reforming Mexican education, and united them into a network of leaders, together they founded Via Education.

Armando is deeply committed to Via Education, and since 2010 has devoted his full attention to developing it. He believes his project represents the most effective way to build democratic behavior and motivate citizens to engage in building social fabric across Latin America.




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