The students from the Latin American Leadership Academy and their mission to change the world

By Jordan Jones January 3, 2019
Co-founder David Baptista along with LALA students. (Photo by Jordan Jones)

The deadline for final presentations was the following morning and several groups had yet to finalize their project proposals. These high school students had spent the entire week from December 9th to the 15th learning about collaborative leadership models and this last session was to be the culmination of all of their hard work. Group leaders were a bit worn down and the program’s co-founder, David Baptista, was worried that there wasn’t going to be enough time for each group to present. After hosting seminar upon seminar about social equity and fairness, to curb the student’s final presentations would be a slight on them and to the week-long boot camp.

After lunch, the thirty students formed a wide circle in a conference room at Medellin’s Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana. Despite the rigorous schedule and sleepless nights, they were punchy and enthusiastic, seeming genuinely happy to be in each other’s company. The walls of the room were decorated with multi-colored sticky notes and poster paper where words like “gratitude,” “empathy,” and “community” had been scrawled in marker. Spontaneous chants erupted into full participation as everyone stomped their feet and yelled “We are LALA!”

LALA students sit in front of the “gratitude wall,” awaiting further directions. (Photo by Jordan Jones)

This was the fourth boot camp hosted by the Latin America Leadership Academy (LALA), which is based out of Medellin, where thirty students between the ages of 14 and 18 from across Latin America were hand-selected to participate.  With a mission “to promote sustainable economic development and strengthen democratic governance in Latin America,” LALA aims to build a network of “socially innovative leaders” early in their career.

LALA co-founder and CEO, Diego Ontaneda, spoke to The Bogotá Post about how he hopes growing the LALA model will trigger change in Latin America.

“Latin America has been hurt by the poor quality of its top-level leaders. Presidents, congresspeople, CEOs—who have been corrupt, incompetent, hyper-self interested. And what worries us is that we don’t know how we’re going to get a different kind of leader. Systemically, where are these leaders going to come from?” Ontaneda asked.

According to this year’s boot camp, they’ll come from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, Mexico, and Peru. Since the first LALA bootcamp in 2017, eight different countries have been represented with the goal to have a LALA student in at least thirty countries in the region.

“We’re finding students who are closest to the problems who, through their history of actions, have demonstrated their life’s mission around those problems,” Ontaneda said. “Our hope is that by finding these kinds of kids early, we can bring them together around these values, this vision, and this purpose, helping them realize that they can actually make a difference.”

This was evident in the deliberation over the run time for the finals presentations, a decision that could have easily been made without input of the students, but one that nonetheless would affect everyone in the program. More remarkable than relinquishing autonomy to the students was the decorum of respect and empathy that the students abided by. In what world are teenagers expected to make sound decisions as a group? In what world are they given the opportunity? In this one, says LALA founders.

“My hope is that we can attack big systemic problems through a diverse, grassroots movement,  but also place people at the top and have them all be a part of a community that is diverse and collaborative,” Ontaneda said.

Baptista works with a student group preparing for their final presentation. (Photo by Jordan Jones)

One way the Academy attracts diverse representation is through need-blind admission and by offering need-based financial aid. Over 70% of students who attended this year were on scholarship. Additionally, LALA hopes to break down the language barrier by encouraging participants to speak whatever language they feel most comfortable in, most often Spanish or Portuguese. That said, intermediate English proficiency is a prerequisite for LALA students and also the lingua franca for the program’s activities and instruction.

The question of language is a perplexing one, admitted one of the program’s facilitators, Alisa Pererez. To create a pan-Latin American consciousness around leadership also has to take into account all of the ways that each country and the realities within them are different. For that reason, the program constantly encourages each student to work within their respective communities to create change.

“It’s an ongoing question and I think they’re answering it by being open to constant improvement and in the curriculum, honing on the idea of community and what it means to work with the community from within rather than as an outsider. ” said Pererez.

Beyond the organization’s well-intentioned mission, the admitted students are the life-source behind the program’s success. Esteban Gomez, a volunteer and LALA alumnus of last year’s boot camp, spoke about his experience and his decision to return to support the program.

“This spirit of giving back that I felt last year has helped me tremendously and I want to give back,” Gomez said. “When I was a participant the feeling was the same as it is this year. The idea is to feel more like a family and generate a chemistry of trust. From there, it helps us collaborate on our projects and generate empathy for others.”

Gomez also emphasized that one of the most pivotal parts of his experience was telling his story and in turn, hearing the stories of his peers.

“I believe that what happens in these boot camps is that by hearing each other’s story, we expand our idea of what it means to be part of the same Latin American family,” Gomez said. “We identify these things that affect all of Latin America and at the same time, we tell our personal story, and the story of our communities. Those two ingredients are fundamental to creating this feeling of family within LALA.”

LALA students in a group hug. (Photo by Jordan Jones)

Ultimately, the LALA model exists for what the students are able to do with this feeling. One of the goals at the end of the program is that each student proposes an actionable project that they can return home with and continue to work on. Some standout ideas this year ranged from a women’s mentorship network, a collaborative platform for like-minded NGOs, and an initiative geared towards destigmatising mental health issues in Latin America.

Perhaps more importantly than the outcomes of these specific projects is the network that LALA establishes with these young people. In just a week’s time, the program creates a support system for each of these students who commonly feel isolated in their desire to create change. Both co-founders reiterated the importance of the program in creating solidarity for the young leaders.

“These are kids who are already on a mission to solve a problem. They’re already compassionate. They’re already willing to take risks to change the world,” Onatenda said.

And while changing the world is a big task for any one person, the bonds formed at LALA are proof that in community, anything is possible.