Creating 'Visionarias': CU-Boulder student helps empower young Peruvian women

Earlier this year, about 30 young Peruvian women walked as many as 10 hours to gather in Urubamba, a village located just south of the Incan sanctuary of Machu Picchu in Peru’s Sacred Valley.

The women, whose average age was 18, made the long journey to participate in the Visionary Leadership Institute, organized with the help of Abigale Stangl, a University of Colorado Boulder doctoral student.

Over 11 days, the young women, called “Visionarias,” were exposed to intensive leadership training and each created a vision for sustainable development in their own communities that would be socially and culturally appropriate. The young women learned how to engage community leaders, assess local needs, and then begin building a “mindful and sustainable program from the ground up,” Stangl said.

This year’s institute was the second put on by The Visionaria Network, a volunteer-driven project born out of a deep commitment to service by eight locals. Of the eight, seven are CU-Boulder alumni, including Genevieve Smith who is a consultant with the United Nations Foundation’s Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. Smith, whose earlier travels in Peru inspired this project, is also an alumna of CU-Boulder’s Presidents Leadership Class.

Stangl and five of the other team members also are part of the Boulder New Generations Rotary Club, which is a pilot club for younger adults that was created as a satellite of the Boulder Rotary Club, and the project is supported largely through a Rotary Global Grant.

“We are a group of young professionals who are interested in the mission of service above self,” Stangl said. “We wanted to work with these girls because they were already being supported to go into university through other organizations, but they didn’t have a lot of the leadership skills they needed to allow them to come from these impoverished communities and succeed, both at school and when they return home.”

The idea is to empower the Visionarias by creating a network of local women mentors, professors, and existing nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) with a foothold in Peru and then providing a forum for members of the network to come together and leverage their strengths. The Visionarias then design and implement projects to help their families and neighbors that can be readily supported by those groups.

The types of plans the Visionarias come up with might involve introducing clean stoves that avoid producing harmful smoke; using solar lights in place of kerosene lamps; or providing water filters and using education and communications technologies.

“The girls are creating projects involving those technologies by working in their own communities, discovering what people want, then creating a plan of action and carrying it out by working with various NGOs and mentors that can assist,” Stangl said.

Determining how technology can best be used in developing countries—a task that requires listening carefully to the people who live there—is something Stangl was prepared for by the master’s degree she earned in information and technology for development from CU-Boulder’s Alliance for Technology Learning and Society (ATLAS) Institute.

“We learned to really work with communities to make sure that technology is being placed there in appropriate ways,” Stangl said. “What the communities want determines how the technology is developed and adapted and also how it is designed from the ground up.”

Even with her background, Stangl, who is now pursuing her doctoral degree at ATLAS, has learned a lot from the Visionarias and the experience has shaped the direction she hopes to go with her own research.

“It’s been an extraordinary journey of learning leadership through collaboration,” she said.

Her work in Peru confirmed that she wants to keep studying how technology can help people connect—how it can support them, aid them and allow them to change. Most recently, that mission has translated into a research project Stangl helped implement that prints children’s books in 3-D, allowing visually impaired kids to feel what the book is describing.

The volunteers running The Visionaria Network—which along with Stangl are Genevieve Smith, Marika Meertens, Natalia Azarova, Paul Spurzem, Robyn Hazlitt, Chris Carruth and Kali Basman—are already laboring over next year’s institute, putting in double-digit volunteer hours each week. The program has funding for three more years, and in recognition of the work they’ve already done, the network was recently recognized by the Boulder Rotary Club with its 2013-2014 Humanitarian Award.

“It’s been so great to have the support of this international organization and the Boulder Rotary Club behind us,”Stangl said. “They believe in our dreams and they encourage and support us.”

Photos courtesy of Chris Carruth.