Helen Samuels

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow since 1999
This description of Helen Samuels's work was prepared when Helen Samuels was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1999.


Helen Samuels is helping create an international network that gives disenfranchised youth, including gang members, the opportunity to create employment opportunities, gain visibility and respect, and improve their communities.

The New Idea

To address the devastating effects of gang violence, which she has witnessed first-hand, Helen Samuels has developed a network of gang members and and indigenous youth from poverty-stricken urban areas. Based in Mexico, Mexcalibur provides a forum for at-risk youth to share achievements and proposals for community action with one another and young people in other countries. Mexcalibur promotes the formation of young social transformers within a network capable of doing and spreading sustainable projects that enable them to achieve autonomy and self-sufficiency. Rather than trying to "reform" and save youth, Helen trains youth leaders who have recognized that drugs, violence, and crime are not the means of attaining a better life. Helen does not seek to eliminate their problems but to support their efforts while expanding their skills and helping them to become teachers and role models.
Helen is also raising awareness among decision-makers about the need to include youth in national and international efforts to solve youth-related problems. Mexcalibur reaches out to others interested in strengthening youth participation.

The Problem

Projections indicate that by the year 2001 more than half of the world's population will be under 25 years of age, and that most of them will live in urban areas. Many will be poor, socially marginal, and have little educational opportunity or access to health and development services. Growing up in such an environment exposes them to violence, drugs, alcoholism and crime. The scarcity of jobs that is common in urban poverty belts, coupled with the despair of their surroundings, makes it hard for many young people to visualize themselves living over the age of 25. Each new generation seems doomed to repeat the hopeless and helpless lives of their parents.

International conferences have recognized that while youth are a majority of the world's population, they are a low budget priority when government consider programs for them. On local and national levels, benefits offered to young people are typically geared at co-opting them politically, without regard to their needs and goals. Instead of investing in greater educational or employment opportunities, government officials usually address the "problem" of youth by promoting limited sports programs or spending money on more prisons and stronger security forces. Young people are excluded from making decisions about their own future and lack ways to channel their energy into productive means.

The Strategy

Over the past fifteen years, Helen has worked to empower and give voice to leaders of gangs, as well as urban and indigenous youth who live in the poverty belts surrounding Mexico City. Helen began by identifying young leaders from gangs whom she could encourage and support in their quest and development of positive initiatives for themselves and their communities. The initiatives include micro-enterprises, non-formal education, collective art, cultural projects to promote peace, and environmental and human rights activities. Helen and her network of caring adults have enabled young people to express their yearning to be productive members of the community. Helen has encouraged them to open channels of communication with other sectors of society and with young people who confront the same problems of marginalization. These leaders have become replicators of their success by helping others start initiatives of their own.

Helen is helping her youth leaders to expand Mexcalibur through forums, conferences, special events, and cultural exchanges between Mexican urban youth and young people from other countries. Her organization has a multi-part approach. 1) It trains gang members to develop cognitive, artistic, and social skills that enable them to participate in decision-making. 2) It organizes meetings and cultural exchanges among youth interested in national, international, and intercultural linkages. 3) It disseminates the work of young people and 4) it creates micro-enterprises and eco-tourism to support their activities. And 5) it is a bridge to communication and mentoring by members of international environmental and social-justice networks.

Helen is altering the way the media, decision-makers, and others perceive gangs, graffiti artists, and other urban youth, as well as the way the youth perceive themselves. She achieves this through high-profile cultural, educational and media events promoting "inspiration and collaboration, not repression." For example, she helps youth to draft proposals for community action and effectively present these proposals in local and international forums.

Helen and the leaders of Mexcalibur have set four short-term goals for expanding the network. The first is to create links between gangs and communities, at regional, national, and international levels, as the basis for cultural exchanges, forums, and trips. The second is to formalize this working relationship in law and acquire computer capability to put up a website. The third is to construct a model urban Social and Environmental Youth Center (Tierra Viva), constructed from scrap and recycled materials and with a permaculture (edible landscape) garden that will be a learning center. The center will be designed and built by young people with guidance from members of the bioregional and Eco-Village movements.

The fourth and last goal is to organize the first convening of the Fourth World Youth Council (Consejo Juvenil del Cuarto Mundo), in Iztapalapa, a poor migrant area of Mexico City, and in violence-ridden Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl, Mexico state, during the summer of 2001. Held for youth and by youth, the forum will convene participants from all continents who are addressing the problems of poverty, urban squalor, environmental degradation, and violence. As Helen says, "Whether it be in the lost cities within Mexico City or in war-torn areas, youth, without the assistance of institutions and government, are making decisions and taking action in matters that affect their lives." The forum will produce a "Youth Manifesto" and present it worldwide as a statement of intent. It will form the basis of global and local fundraising, dissemination, and information exchange.

Helen has been successful at expanding the financial base and visibility of Mexcalibur by gaining the support of foundations, institutions, and famous personalities from around the world. As a part of her strategy, Helen has enlisted the more socially committed individuals to become padrinos and madrinas (godfathers and godmothers) and directly support Mexcalibur's members and activities. Examples of Mexcalibur's leadership in the international scene include the creation of "Urban Courage," a group of gang youth who became the first to present the perspective of gang members and graffiti artists at the 1992 Earth Summit Meeting in Rio de Janeiro, the Global Forum in Manchester, the World Summit for Children, the United Nations Organization 50th Anniversary in San Francisco, and the New York PREPCOM and Habitat II conference in Istanbul. Urban Courage won many awards and was invited by the United Nations Youth Unit to attend the World Youth Forum in Vienna, where they received a grant to create a community youth center.

Recommendations presented by Mexcalibur youth have begun to affect leading international organizations. For example, the United Nations has changed its approach to focus more on operating in partnership with youth and on improving the quality of life of urban youth.

The Person

After her daughter's best friend was randomly killed by a neighborhood gang, Helen became indignant and spent much time seeking and demanding an explanation as to how young people could kill each other so easily. She began by speaking with the members of the gang involved, their rivals, then the authorities and the community at large. From that moment, she decided to dedicate her life’s work to inspire and support youth at-risk who wish to improve their lives. Helen offers a safe space where youth can gather, reflect on their lives and articulate their own needs to create opportunities for themselves.

Helen Samuels, an actress, producer, publicist and event organizer has gained world recognition for her leadership in facilitating the emergence of youth organizations. She has developed important relationships with supporters and youth organizations beyond Mexico where she has lived for over thirty years. Apart from linkages in the United States, where she was born, Helen has established important connections with youth groups in Kenya, Jordan, Indonesia, Peru, Greece, Jakarta and Norway demonstrating the international scope of her vision.