Verónica Escalante

Special Relationship (Virtual)
Headshot of Fellow Verónica Escalante
Mexico
Elected in 2020
Because of the pandemic, Verónica Escalante was selected by Ashoka as a Special Relationship (Virtual) using an online process.

Introduction

Verónica has designed an evidence-based, scalable methodology to help dismantle the imbalanced power structures that underpin discrimination. Through Fundación SHARE, she equips children and adults alike with theoretical and practical tools to cultivate empathy, overcome prejudice and build genuine connections with people from different backgrounds.

The New Idea

Individuals living in unequal societies run the risk of reproducing discriminatory ideologies and practices—unless they become conscious and critical of them. This insight motivated Verónica to launch a project to help people build critical awareness of prejudice and relate to others in ways that do not reproduce imbalanced power structures. Fundación SHARE approaches these structural differences by fostering empathy, solidarity, and collaboration between unequal societal groups.

Building upon existing work on intergroup contact, Verónica developed an innovative methodology to bring together groups from various backgrounds in a structured manner. Fundación SHARE is the first organization to offer anthropological tools to non-anthropologists in order to develop the ability to be self-critical and find value in differences. Verónica engages schools, businesses and civic groups to implement "horizontal approaches": intergroup contact experiences that meet specific, evidence-based criteria to ensure long-term impact. Through guided reflection and interactive games, participants gain tools to question their own prejudice and be more open towards diversity. Horizontal approaches offer the opportunity to put these skills into practice to build genuine relationships with other participants, based on mutual understanding and collaboration. These experiences foster critical awareness of internalized ideologies that encourage asymmetric social structures and create damaging effects for marginalized communities.

Verónica's project has global relevance, as discrimination has been exacerbated by increased polarization and growing inequality. She has packaged the complexities of effective intergroup contact into a clear and actionable methodology that can be easily adapted to fit diverse contexts, and she is currently training ambassadors who can scale it worldwide.

The Problem

The problem of discrimination lies within the asymmetrical interactions in an unequal society that privilege some while marginalizing others. Research has shown that prejudice lies at the root of discrimination and other forms of violence since it upholds and justifies social hierarchies. Discrimination is deeply entrenched in Mexico, where people are systematically denied access to rights and opportunities due to their geographic origin, religion, race, ethnicity, or language. Despite its pervasiveness, the problem is naturalized and therefore invisibilized.

According to the National Survey on Discrimination 2017 (ENADIS by its Spanish acronym), 1 in 5 people in Mexico report having experienced discrimination in the previous year. This trend is particularly acute among indigenous communities, people with disabilities, religious minorities, women, domestic workers, youth, and seniors. Structural discrimination has led to people with darker skin tones having less schooling than those with lighter skin. In contrast, indigenous people experience extreme poverty rates four times higher than the rest of the population. Additionally, more than 20% of the population thinks that they have been unfairly deprived of their rights in the past five years, including access to social support and medical attention. The study's assessment of prejudicial attitudes is alarming: more than 50% of respondents agreed that greater religious diversity would generate social conflict in Mexico.

Although there has been some progress in recent years, Mexico lacks a cohesive, integrated, comprehensive, and clear policy to combat prejudice and discrimination. The government does not allocate appropriate resources to this issue but instead fragments efforts through agencies that focus on specific groups and offer palliative measures. Public institutions and services often reproduce discrimination themselves: the ENADIS 2017 highlights public schools and medical centers among the spaces where people experienced discrimination most frequently.

Discrimination is one of the critical drivers of social exclusion globally, according to the United Nations. One fundamental reason why the problem is so difficult to eliminate is that social hierarchies are internalized and legitimized; therefore, people are unconscious or uncritical of them and their role in sustaining them. These structures also tend to segregate people, which generates ignorance about different groups and strengthens prejudice. The few situations where groups do engage with others, tend to reinforce unequal power dynamics.

Meanwhile, existing solutions fall short because they focus only on raising awareness and do not provide actionable steps, or fail to change mindsets and behaviors beyond one-time contact experiences. Initiatives tend to center on promoting education on values and ethics, yet this method fails to acknowledge the challenges of putting theory into practice in real scenarios.

The Strategy

Verónica focuses on tackling internalized prejudice by teaching conceptual and actionable tools to build relationships across difference. By facilitating intergroup contact experiences, or "horizontal approaches," participants are given the opportunity to interact with people from different backgrounds, reflect critically on their prejudice, and reformulate their beliefs.

This mindset shift is achieved through a structured methodology that integrates theory and practice. On the one hand, SHARE teaches analytical tools drawn from anthropology to strengthen critical thinking and cultivate an appreciation of diversity. Participants learn to question how their own beliefs have been shaped by their context and examine their prejudice. Understanding the source of prejudice, how they exercise it in their everyday interactions, and how this reproduces systemic discrimination encourages people to rethink how they approach what is alien to them.

At a practical level, intergroup contact allows participants to reinforce knowledge through experience. Different groups come together in activities that build empathy and trust, providing concrete steps to interact and collaborate without reinforcing hierarchies. Critically, SHARE makes sure that contact happens under the ideal conditions defined by Contact Theory, which are empirically demonstrated factors that intergroup contact should meet to reduce prejudice significantly. For example, SHARE experiences are facilitated in neutral spaces and in collaboration with partner organizations to ensure institutional support and equal status. Learning the tools to overcome prejudice and exercising them in a controlled setting reduces people's anxiety and fear of otherness that discourage intergroup contact, motivating them to be more open to meet different people beyond the program.

A fundamental aspect of Verónica's strategy is scalability. She has consolidated the existing idea of intergroup contact into a straightforward methodology that can be easily replicated while maintaining adaptability. Because SHARE does not focus on any specific population or form of discrimination, it can be modified to address different priorities. This versatility allows SHARE to generate impact at local, national, and international levels across various sectors. Since 2013, Verónica's organization has collaborated with 29 schools, businesses, civic groups, and NGOs, reaching more than 2,000 people across Mexico, USA, and Indonesia.

SHARE's most extensive programs are the weekend and summer camps with children, which bring together children aged 9-16 from two schools or organizations that serve children from different backgrounds. For example, they conduct annual summer camps in Miami for low-income children from majority African American and Hispanic communities, who have so far participated in horizontal approaches with peers from foster homes, Native American reservations, and higher-income schools. Verónica has also trained teachers and leaders from these partner institutions to facilitate the methodology in their classrooms.

Verónica also offers workshops for NGOs, civic groups, and businesses. The program for NGOs and civic groups aims to generate spaces for collaboration between their teams and the communities they work with to establish more balanced relationships. Similar to the activities with children, participants come together to build awareness about prejudice and power dynamics, self-criticism, and openness. The encounter closes with a capstone project where team members and beneficiaries define together the needs that must be prioritized to bolster the organization's impact, and commit to further collaboration. In a similar vein, workshops for businesses propose an alternative to traditional corporate community service by emphasizing equal status. Companies are trained in the skills and concepts to reduce prejudice and then work with one of SHARE's NGO partners to develop a joint social impact project, which employees and communities implement together. Both programs seek to raise awareness about the importance of putting people's real needs and voices at the center of social initiatives, rather than imposing a top-down or a "vertical" perspective.

According to the surveys carried out after each horizontal encounter, 99% of participants in 2019 became conscious of their prejudice; 97.8% had the opportunity to change this mindset, and 94.7% developed skills for solidarity. These results are evidenced by the exponential increase in SHARE's volunteer force, which has grown from 9 to over 80 volunteers since 2013, all of whom are former participants.

School partners report that they have seen a marked difference in attitudes and behavior since their involvement with SHARE, to the extent that some parents have approached them to praise their children's impact. Cohorts that have participated in horizontal approaches experience less bullying, violence, and sexism. Some allied organizations have even developed independent initiatives based on SHARE's framework. SHARE's track record has earned its partners' trust and allowed it to build long-term collaborations that give the project continuity.

Verónica has developed a comprehensive approach that will allow her to expand SHARE globally. At a grassroots level, she has recently launched a certification program to build a network of ambassadors who can implement the methodology in their communities. Verónica has already piloted the program in Miami and California, where she trained over 80 teachers to facilitate horizontal approaches in their schools. She is currently training ambassadors to establish branches in Colombia and Nepal, with plans to expand to Haiti and Nigeria.

On the top-down front, Verónica is in the process of partnering with local governments in Mexico and the US to integrate her methodology into the curriculum for public schools. In the next five years, she aims to collaborate with international certification organizations such as the International Baccalaureate to train teachers worldwide.

The Person

As a child, she would actively take on the role of a mediator with friends and family. Driven by her experience of inequality in Mexico, Verónica sought to create more peaceful, empathetic, and solidary societies from a young age. Her involvement in religious community service in school exposed her early on to many in Mexico's difficult realities and spurred her to launch her own initiatives. For example, she organized workshops with her classmates to visit a center for HIV-positive children to foster solidarity and respect. She also created a sexual education program for rural youth, an adult literacy program, and took on leadership roles in her school's community service program.

The people she met through these projects taught her that community service's real power was creating personal relationships that highlighted their common humanity and dignity. Her passion for changing how people view and relate to those they consider different sparked the idea for SHARE.

Determined to build her understanding of the NGO sector first, Verónica joined Ashoka's Mexico City team. She was responsible for launching Ashoka University in the country and an office in the Caribbean. Her experience as part of Ashoka helped her develop a systemic approach to social change and a focus on innovation. Inspired by the social entrepreneurs she met, she decided to pursue a Masters in Anthropology to research discrimination and prejudice in-depth, as well as existing efforts to solve them.

For her dissertation, she piloted the SHARE methodology with Christian and Muslim children in Indonesia to tackle interfaith conflict. What motivated her was the ethical development and conflict resolution that created the recognition of humanity in one another. Based on the success of Verónica's idea in this context, in 2013, she formally established SHARE in Indonesia. Later, she replicated the pilot program with her colleague in the USA before moving on to Mexico.

Seeking to refine the methodology, Verónica completed her Ph.D. in Anthropology, where she had the opportunity to learn from leaders in the field to consolidate her project. The recognition she earned through her research allowed her to collaborate with new institutions and launch the training program.