Seeing Ashoka’s Mission, Alive in Spain
Oviedo, Spain, the small capital city of the Asturias region, charms visitors with its traditional Asturian sidrerias (hard ciders), rolling green countryside, bustling Fontán market, and a beautifully-maintained old quarter. Those who are currently enjoying Asturia’s charms may also have noticed Bill Drayton, founder of Ashoka, smiling at them from posters and signs across the city, accompanied by a heightened buzz of excitement about the upcoming Prince of Asturias Award Ceremony.
On Friday, October 21, the Prince of Asturias Foundation awarded Ashoka’s founder and president Bill Drayton with the Prince of Asturias Award for International Cooperation. Selected for his significant contribution to brotherhood among nations, Drayton joined the ranks of past recipients that include Nelson Mandela, Al Gore, and Bill and Melinda Gates.
As a former Ashoka at intern, I joined Drayton, Spanish Ashoka Fellows, ambassadors, partners, and other friends of Ashoka when they departed the ceremony to visit two fellows’ project sites: Faustino “Tino” Zapico’s Therapy and Education Unit of Villabona and José Manuel “Pericles” Périz’s Young Social Entrepreneurs program at a local school in Langreo.
When I interned at Ashoka last summer, my exposure to the organization’s mission was like touring the control tower at an airport. From Ashoka’s global office in Washington, DC, we worked from a bird’s-eye view, supporting, enabling, and coordinating social entrepreneurs’ initiatives for global systemic change.
In Asturias, I was invited aboard the plane to see how the pilots worked – but I quickly realized that the best lessons came from the passengers.
Our first stop was Therapy and Education Unit (UTE) of Villabona, a radical new model for prisons that uses prisoner-managed, mini-societies to infuse trust and values into its residents. At UTE, prisoners are involved in every decision about their own education and reintegration into society.
This has produced a thriving community of people who are actually using prison to rebuild their lives. Upon Dratyon’s arrival, the 150 assembled prisoners greeted him with vigorous applause. After brief introductions, Drayton and the residents of UTE Villabona settled into a conversation.
Compared to the prestige, pomp, and circumstance of the Prince of Asturias Prize ceremony, there was something exponentially stronger about the simple act of thanksgiving between the prisoners and Drayton. I watched as men and women who have never spoken in public accepted a microphone with a shaky hand, turning to a man they had never known existed, and thanking him for supporting Zapico and for searching for “the other Tinos of the world.”
As I traded the control tower for a view from the ground, I experienced Ashoka’s mission, boiled down to the earth-bound and powerful level of human experience. Drayton listened to a 41-year-old prisoner say that he has learned more at UTE during the past year than he had during the previous 40 years combined.
Another prisoner added, “It is here that we have started to discover empathy.”
Drayton returned their words with his own thanks: “The work you are doing here is important for people all over the world,” he said. As the sentence was translated, I detected a puzzled in the eyes of the audience.
But when Drayton continued, saying, “There are 12 more fellows in Latin American and California that are working to reform prisons—if you are here, you are involved in the most important part of that goal,” the puzzled look started to fade away. From that moment, my definition of Ashoka grew to incorporate a small, kind man sharing a smile with 150 people in a prison in northern Spain.
Young Social Entrepreneurs (JES)
At our next stop, students at a local school in Langreo were also given the opportunity to share their work with Drayton. They were part of the Young Social Entrepreneurs program, in which teams of students assist international partners in Latin America and Africa to achieve a social objective.
The students drive the entire process, from brainstorming to fundraising. Having received their first dose of changemaking, students proudly recounted their success stories with a sincere sense of ownership.
Drayton had a similar message for them: You have important work to do in the world. “Young people like you are going to have to deal with the rapid change in our society,” he said.
The students had questions, too. The session closed with one inquiry from a young boy: “Why should I want to be a social entrepreneur?”
Drayton gave lots of reasons, but ended simply: “Really, there is just no job that is more fun than changing the world.”
During my one brief tour through Asturias, I watched as the sky-high mission of Ashoka came to life in a few hundred students and prisoners – most of whom had never heard terms like “social impact” or “systemic change.” As Ashoka’s mission takes deeper root in thousands of places like Oviedo, people are contributing to its mission without even knowing it.
The Prince of Asturias Award gave me the opportunity to celebrate the very core of what Ashoka is: We are well on our way to enabling the world’s citizens to think and act as changemakers.
This post was written by Brittany Koteles. Brittany is conducting a Fulbright research project about social entrepreneurship in Spain. Formerly, she worked as a summer associate with the AshokaU team in Washington, D.C.