Conversation with Ashoka Globalizer Fellow Estela Villareal
We recently spoke with Ashoka Fellow Estela Villareal. Estela is one of our Fellows from Mexico and also a 2010 Ashoka Globlizer Fellow. Estela uses public recreational spaces to facilitate interaction between disabled and non-disabled youth to promote mainstream integration for people with special needs. Through her organization, Unidos Somos Iguales, Estela has spread her model throughout Mexico and Central America. Read our conversation below to learn more about Estela, her work, and the critical role Ashoka and the Ashoka Globalizer program are playing in helping Estela go to scale. Enjoy!
Tell me about your work – What does Unidos do?
We try to educate people that don't have disabilities in order to change the cultural attitude of society towards people with a disability. We are trying to do this though the interaction of two groups of people who don't usually interact. We put together people without disability with people with disability. Once people interact with people with disabilities they change a lot.
What motivated you to start this work?
I started this because I have two siblings with a disability. For me and my family it was very hard to go out because people react strongly to disability. So we as a family preferred to stay at home rather than face society’s reaction. That's why I felt that this was a vicious cycle – my family doesn't want to go out but then we increase the gap between mainstream society and people with disabilities. We are in a negative cycle.
In my family my siblings, two with a disability and two without, educated me that we all have the same rights, we are all equal, we should all have the same opportunities. When I grew up I saw the gap between how society treated people with disability and what my parents had taught me. That's why it's a negative cycle- if we choose to stay at home we can't educate society about my siblings and things don't get better.
Does your work cover all disabilities?
Yes, it's all types of disability. It's an internship program and we use outdoor activities to interact. No matter if you have a physical or mental disability, the important thing is that you get young people interacting.
How do you organize the interactions?
We invite young people without a disability to participate in recreational activities, such as a summer camp. At our camp there are 300 non disabled people and 300 disabled young people. They interact one-on-one and in groups. The groups are diverse. The important thing is the process – they interact in a natural way. We want to achieve the final step which is that they make real friends. It is a process. We evaluate the social impact of our process. At first the young people are scared about the interaction. Both groups are scared. The disabled, because it is not normal in our society to interact with people not your family when you're disabled. And for the young people who are not disabled it's unusual to interact with disabled people. They interact and discover the opportunity to learn. They see different qualities in the disabled person. They interact and they discover they have some things in common, as well as some things different. And then they make friends, and forget that the person is disabled. We aim to achieve a deep transformation. But the process takes time. And then they take that understanding into the society.
In our home state 10% of people have a disability. Our focus is the other 90%, who don't have the opportunity to interact with people with disability.
In what way is your approach in empowering disabled people new and different from other organizations?
There are a lot of organizations that work with the disabled. We have a focus on the not-disabled people as we are convinced that the problem is with the wider society and the way they treat people with disability. It's a very different approach from all the other organizations that work with disability. We are working on the cultural issue.
Unidos has proven to be successful in its currently 10 operating cities in Mexico, how do you start in a new city?
In the past we have replicated through alliances and partnerships, mostly people who take the idea and apply it in their community. That's the way we are multiplying the project inside Mexico. As part of the Globalizer strategy we want to find some natural alliances to apply the model in other countries. We think that the disability program will work in other countries as it is a human thing to react this way. So we try to find natural alliances and then to replicate the model through them. When we have a lot of partners, a lot of people with this kind of mental change we work towards. We want to replicate our idea to work on the social issues not just the disabled issues.
We are interested in a social franchise of our model around the world, which we can support. Working with people who are already working with youth and disability issue we can add our model to provide the social side of their work. The thing is, we think that we are a movement. A movement is a way to have a lot of people involved without borders. We need bring a lot of people into this kind of change. We want to support and grow this movement.
What do you hope to get out of the Globalizer experience?
We need to raise funds to spread our model. We also hope to develop alliances through Globalizer. To spread the idea all over the world we need to find natural allies that want to apply this, that work with young people or the disabled, find the resources to support this. Advice on our strategy and our model is very important to us, so we are very happy with the support Globalizer has given us.
Where would you like your organization to be in ten years?
We want to get together the will to make better human societies. The dream is to see this model, this movement, this attitude spread to all parts of our world. Because it's a transformation that our world needs to make to make a better place for all.
Another way we reflect on our model is that it could work for other groups. We are not doing it yet but maybe in ten years? Groups such as the elderly, those with illness, anyone with something that keeps them apart from society.
What is your biggest challenge?
We have the challenge to make our organization sustainable. We are a non-profit but are exploring ways to make money to make ourselves more sustainable, things like training.
What are you most looking forward to at the Globalizer Summit?
It has a lot of meaning for us as we can shout about our cause to the world, it provides a platform. Also to learn a lot of new strategies and the work of other Fellows in other countries. I think we can learn a lot of things.