I turned on my Skype and the pixilated haze began to take shape. A young woman with light skin and blonde hair appeared: “Hi sorry I’m late, my Internet wasn’t working so I had to come over to this coffee shop – sorry it’s so loud,” she said sincerely. 

Emily Hedin – Oxford graduate, Jack Kent Cooke scholar, and Fulbright recipient, was perched on a worn wooden chair in a coffee shop in San José, Costa Rica, the rhythmic Spanish in the background serving as a theme song to our conversation.

Hedin, 27, had just finished a long day working with Voices of Youth, a program she created in 2010 to, as Hedin describes, “empower young women to become leaders and change-makers in their communities.”

Voices of Youth originated in Lima, Peru, as part of Building Dignity, a non-profit Hedin and other local leaders founded in 2008 to provide community education, empower local leaders, and support neighborhood-led development.  

The Center for Development with Dignity, a shared community space, was one of the first Building Dignity initiatives. It is run by Building Dignity founders and well-respected local leaders, Jesús Valencia and Martha Huamán, who live on the second floor to maintain the facility and oversee the daily activities.

Building Dignity is dedicated to empowering the community members themselves to be the vehicles of social change.

Last year, eight youth leaders in Lima led a campaign to reduce teenage pregnancy. Supported by a project grant through Building Dignity, the young women organized a screening of an educational film, prepared and distributed information on sexual health, and mobilized young adults to protect themselves against early pregnancy.

Emily talks of the girls with the love of a big sister: “I am always so proud to watch young people identify a problem and work together to propose and implement a solution.”

One of the girls Hedin has worked with, Claudia, 16, expresses how Voices of Youth and Building Dignity have impacted her life: “I feel strong and capable because [the Center] is connected to my community. Before, the neighbors were not so organized or concerned. Now, through meetings with young people and neighbors, the Center has made it possible for us to develop the will and desire to move forward as a community and as individuals.”

For a moment, I’m brought back from Lima to my computer screen as Hedin interjects: “Sorry, hold on,” as the waitress came up to take her order. “chocolate caliente, gracias.” She says with ease. “Okay, so where were we?”

Hedin grew up in Hopkins, Minnesota, and her dedication to community development was inspired during her volunteer experiences at Macalester College, such as working for Habitat for Humanity and teaching English to Somali refugees. During this work she met Professor Paul Dosh, another co-founder of Building Dignity, who introduced Hedin to the La Encantada community when she decided to use the Upper Midwest Human Rights Fellowship she received to go to Peru for three months.

“When I first went to Lima,” Hedin shares, “I didn’t speak much Spanish. I think when you travel to a country for the first time you need to be very humble and focus on learning and observing. I spent the first three months really getting to know that community.”

Hedin carried a little notebook and pen with her everywhere she went, writing down new words. While she says she is “still learning Spanish, always learning,” she was conversational within nine months.

Hedin recently graduated from Oxford University with a master’s degree in International Development, and is thankful for the lessons her professors imparted: “My professors challenged me to think carefully about the implications of intervening in a culture that’s not your own. They didn’t discourage it, but they helped me realize that there will always be ripple effects. It’s important to detect those ripple effects early on so you can judge whether what you are doing is going to be positive or negative.”

Building Dignity is dedicated to developing local leaders so that they can enact the kind of change they know their community needs most.

Betty, a resident in the Lima community, came to Building Dignity with a proposal to put a permanent roof on her neighborhood’s pre-school facility – the previous roof had collapsed during an earthquake, rendering half the school unsuitable for the sixty children. According to Hedin, “Building Dignity provided a chunk of the funding, but we didn’t provide all of it.”

Instead, Building Dignity worked with Betty to write letters, make presentations, and approach the government and private businesses for additional donations.

“It’s not just about developing a proposal, but learning how to marshal support and grow into a community leader,” Hedin says.

Hedin currently does not accept a salary for her work as Director of Building Dignity, and pays her own travel expenses. She hopes that Building Dignity will continue to thrive in Lima and Costa Rica, and expand to develop a community center in the U.S.

The interconnectedness of community building is what drives Hedin, she says.

“I always felt like I was the most fulfilled when I was engaging with a community committed to building something bigger than ourselves. When we contribute to a community, not only are we improving individuals’ lives, but we are making the place better for ourselves and our families, too. That’s what’s so great about community, it’s more than just the sum of its parts.”

To donate to Building Dignity or learn more about their story, visit www.buildingdignity.org.

Isa Adney is a Fox News Latino Education and Community Columnist and the author of Community College Success (NorLights Press, 2012), available on Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com. She advises students across the country on how to break socio-economic barriers and build positive educational communities. You can connect with Isa on Twitter, Facebook, and www.isaadney.com.

For story ideas e-mail isa at isaadney@gmail.com

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