Female Empowerment for Medellín’s Future
In the second-most biodiverse country in the world, one organization is giving young women the skills they need to help create a more sustainable future.
Colombia is a beautiful country with a complicated history. During a 50-year civil war, many people were displaced and ended up in cities like Medellin. However, poverty, domestic violence and a lack of education and opportunity has made it difficult for the refugees to settle and flourish, especially the women. Women make up over half of the population in Colombia, yet unemployment among women was 70% higher than among men in 2019 (International Labor Organization).
According to Inger Andersen, IUCN Director General, women make up 43% of agricultural labor in developing countries but only 1% of landowners. Despite the women often holding knowledge about natural resources and the environment, they are left out of land-and-resource management discussions. Colombia is not an exception.
However, the CBD Programme of Work on Protected Areas found a correlation between management effectiveness and the participation of locals, stating, “Local people who benefit from conservation and who are better able to meet their needs and achieve their development objectives are more likely to change any behaviours that damage the environment through overexploitation.”
However, in Colombia, the second-most biodiverse country in the world, cities are ringed by make-shift neighborhoods covered in trash, with no way to properly remove it or recycle, and deforestation by farmers just barely surviving threatens many species found only in Colombia.
It is in empowering women and giving them the ability to protect their home and environment that the answer lies. With this connection in mind, Erin Colton Enberg has started an organization to help give women the skills they need to move toward a more sustainable future.
What is your foundation and how did you start it?
The name of my project is Proyecto Florecer, which translated means “to flourish” or “to bloom”. Originally, the idea came about as a combination of my passion for education as well as self-development.
I moved to Colombia in 2015 and I worked in a public school for three years, teaching English. I noticed that there was an obvious lack of opportunities for young women, especially in terms of leadership and in creating the futures that they wanted. I decided that I wanted to start a project here and this was the base of the idea.
How did your background in Education help you develop the project?
It’s an interesting question because I think if someone had asked me if I would have ended up in Colombia starting an organization, I would have said, “No, no way!”
I studied Spanish and Cultural Anthropology at university and I consider myself an educator as a teacher. I think these subjects brought a lot into looking to help young girls with their future.
In Medellin alone, there aren’t many opportunities for women in terms of these types of organizations that are specifically focused on ages 11-18 and we really wanted to start at a young age; to start building up the confidence and self-esteem of those girls, to give those girls the skills and the tools that they need to break the social-economic barriers that have held them back.
What does the foundation do specifically to address these needs?
We started doing workshops in January of 2020. Right now, we have a series of four workshops. The first one is focused on identity; the second is focused on communication and interpersonal relationships; the third one is focused on self-care; and then, the last one is focused on setting goals and planning for the future. They can all work independently but the idea is that the girls that we work with build a community together and have a safe space to participate openly.
Aside from offering these workshops, our goal was also to generate employment. Many of them work in the informal sector and lack the educational and financial opportunities to go to university or get a better job. We were envisioning creating a workshop-teacher-training program also, to train women to do workshops; generating employment, benefitting future generations, and having a continuous project.
Since we’ve been in quarantine, we’ve realized the limitations of having things online, which is not realistic with the population that we are working with, and so have been focusing on the more immediate need of giving food to families. We’ve identified single mothers, many of whom have been displaced or are refugees, and are supporting those families so that they can focus on other things (like schoolwork). We’re also starting a community kitchen and employing young women and single moms.
The goal of the kitchen is to be run sustainably. So, we will teach these women how to compost, recycle, etc, while also generating sustainable employment where the women are no longer dependent on us for assistance. We’ve already planted a garden that will be used to supply the food kitchen and the women who work in the kitchen maintain it.
This is more of a long-lasting project, and we are realizing that, as an organization, we have to be fluid and really adapt to the needs of the people.
The focus of your project has changed, just due to physical limitations; where do you see it going moving forward?
As a teacher, it started off as a more educational space; now, rather than focusing on self-esteem and identity, those more soft-skills, we’re focusing on building employability skills: interview skills, being on time, all of the things that go into being employable. We’re also trying to generate employment through working at the community kitchen, and offering workshops.
As this project grows, we want to teach skills related to growing your own food and reusing/recycling to get the most out of what these people are consuming. Building these habits at a young age and bringing them into the home is how we foresee this having a long-lasting impact.
Obviously, the corona virus has been a challenge; what other challenges have you come across in realizing this project?
Like any non-profit, funding has been an issue; right now we’re just going off of private donations. We are currently registered as a business in Colombia, which has its benefits and disadvantages. Just registering a foundation here is very complicated, as well as in the United States.
Right now, we’re doing our research to see whether we’re better off as a social enterprise, a foundation or a corporation. In the future, we would like to partner with businesses and get sponsorships or be able to apply for grants, but that will come with having a status as an organization.
Also, doing all of this in my second language has been a challenge, as well as building a curriculum with creative content and creating that community of consistency with the population that we’re working with.
We’ve been really fortunate to partner with an organization in the Center who have identified the single mothers and girls that we’ve been working with. They provided a space for us to do the workshops, as well. So, as many challenges as there have been, there has also been a lot of collaboration and help and support from Colombians and foreigners alike, people who have been super committed and excited about the project.
What advice would you give to people who want to start an organization for overcoming challenges or learning a helpful skillset?
My advice is don’t hold yourself back from doing something because you don’t think you have the skills or you don’t think you have something to contribute. If you have the vision and the passion, you can make it happen. I could have thought of probably a thousand reasons about why I shouldn’t do this but I didn’t; I just dove in and never looked back.
Identify the needs of your community- you might have one idea going in of what the project looks like and once you start talking to people, it may develop into something else. Don’t be afraid to change your idea.
What do you feel like has been the most rewarding part of this experience for you?
For me, it’s been the community that this has built. I have been connected with some beautiful, passionate, intelligent people, not only in Colombia, but all over the world, because of this project. It’s been really inspiring, how willing people are to support leadership for women; it’s really exciting to see the potential that the project has.
Is there anything you would like to add for people wanting to start a project or enter a career in conservation?
I want to stress the importance of this type of work. I think a lot of people also feel like they can’t make a difference, especially if you’re helping a small population. It can be completely overwhelming if we really take the time to think about all of the problems that there are in the world.
However, just seeing the impact that we’ve had on the few people that we work with, that makes it worth it; and just realizing that those small changes add up to bigger changes ultimately. If you have that ripple effect with the work that you’re doing, then it’s going to be rewarded tenfold.
If you would like to find out more about Proyecto Florecer or get involved, you can go to proyectoflorecer.org.