Alejandro Martinez Rodriguez
This profile was prepared when Alejandro Martinez Rodriguez was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2000.
The New Idea
Alejandro wants to help children and adolescents capture a place in society in which they can assert and defend their own rights, benefit from active involvement in society at large, and redeem the workplace as a dignified place where they can develop and learn. Though it is true that most children in developing countries such as Colombia who work do so because they have to sustain themselves or to help support their families, Alejandro does not see nonexploitative work on the part of young people as an evil to be condemned and abolished by legislators and other adults. Rather, he believes that for millions of Colombian niños, niñas y adolescentes trabajadores (child and adolescent workers, or "NATs" according to the Spanish acronym)and many millions more the world aroundwork, when it is protected and dignified, is an opportune activity through which youth can learn and grow. Work can also allow them to come together as a social, political, and legal force to "reposition" childhood in society and claim active roles for themselves in an adult-dominated world. The challenges that NATs in Colombia and elsewhere face are various and profound. The children and adolescents are often poor, from single-parent homes that offer little supervision, underserved by the public educational system, involved in dangerous cultures of the street, and utterly unable to assert or defend their rights in societies that subordinate young peopleoften even when they claim to act in the best interests of the children and adolescents. And, indeed, NATs are often exploited and mistreated in the workplace itself. Alejandro combats these challenges with four distinct programs under the auspices of his Proyecto Pequeño Trabajador, or Small Worker Project, whose common element is an effort to empower working children and adolescents to become self-sufficient actors in defense of their own rights. These programs focus on, 1) social development of groups of NATs and their relationships with their communities and their families; 2) the education of these children and adolescents so as to empower them as workers and citizens; 3) the creation of local income-generation schemes that provide dignified work and revenue for young people and their families; and, 4) the development of a large-scale proto-movement of working children and adolescents to influence public opinion and law at the national and international levels.