Fellow Since 1996
Duam, Mil Piecitos en el Puente
This description of Verónica Ohlsson's work was prepared when Verónica Ohlsson was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1996.
Argentine Verónica Ohlssen enables children from diverse cultures to come together for face-to-face encounters and, upon returning to their communities, to form local youth groups and work in projects of their own invention.
The New Idea
Motivated by a strong conviction that children can generate fresh new ideas for solving important problems of global dimensions, Verónica Ohlssen has created a youth program that is designed both to facilitate the generation and implementation of such ideas and to promote international harmony and cultural and racial tolerance. In her initiative, young people come together to dialogue with one another on topics of their own choosing, and upon returning home, they work in ways that they devise to translate their ideas into action in their local communities. Young leaders, aged seven through fourteen, from diverse national, ethnic, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, are identified through a system of nominators. The young people selected, be they Aymara, Quechua, Mapuche, Tibetan or Zulu, come together in yearly meetings where they join in activities that foster a deep connection with and understanding of the natural environment, and tolerance and respect for one another and their cultural differences. Following such gatherings, the children return to their communities and form local groups. The local groups then develop new ideas for addressing important problems in their home communities, decide upon projects that they will undertake to address those problems and generate funds to sustain their activities. Far more than yet another cultural exchange, Verónica's initiative, and the groups of young people that it helps empower, are important new and independent sources of creative ideas and actions. Each participating group of young people is part of an extensive network of similar groups who share their ideas and experiences through regular communications and meetings. The adults associated with the program act as mentors and technical advisors, but the ideas come from, and the groups are directed and managed by, the young people themselves.
Verónica believes that many, indeed most, human beings are "disconnected" from what she sees as humanity's defining traits-gentleness, loving intelligence, generosity and care and respect for life itself. She is also persuaded that, as a consequence of that disconnection from their humanity, most people are inattentive to matters that are vitally important for their very existence. They are all too often content, for example, to leave it to faceless national and international agencies and well-meaning nongovernmental organizations to address the problems of poverty, violence, neglect, environmental destruction, greed and hate. And in the absence of committed action by massive ranks of "connected" human beings, those "inhumane phenomena" persist. There have been many attempts to mend this estrangement of human beings from community, family, spirituality and self. Spiritual groups, organized religion and "self-realization" schools have been formed throughout the world to help unite people with their "true essence." But most such groups adhere to a strong dogma and prescribed method for reaching "enlightenment" and true potential. There are also countless numbers of youth groups, organized by churches, schools and communities, to engage children in busy, purposeful activities, including sports, drama, art and job training. But there are very few opportunities where people, and children in particular, can be free to work from their intuition, in a natural and protected environment, and develop new ideas for solving humanity's most complex and vexing problems.Children's organizations have been formed throughout the world, but they usually follow a "top-down" model in which adults plan things for children to do. Very rarely are the children themselves asked what needs to be done to improve the world around them. Even more rare are occasions when the children's suggestions are taken seriously and the children are encouraged to translate their ideas into action. And not infrequently, in Verónica's judgment, the missing creative elements in attempts to address major social problems are the ideas of young people.
Veronica has organized a simple but effective network of committed individuals to assist in the many tasks associated with an effective and smoothly functioning global initiative. In Argentina, she has assembled a group of such people, from universities, embassies and other sectors, who assist with the logistics of the young peoples' groups in Argentina. She also draws on an international and otherwise diverse group of nominators, including Ashoka Fellows Juan Carlos Antezana (who works with environment-focused youth groups) and Mauricio Canedo (whose field is environmental education).In 1995, eighteen children from Argentina, Costa Rica and Mexico spent 25 days with a group of 33 exiled Tibetan Lama children at a monastery near Katmandu, Nepal. Another gathering was held in the fall of 1996, on a mountainside surrounded by waterfalls in the north of Brazil, with children from Latin America and Tanzania and a group of Tibetan monks from the monastery in Nepal. And in 1997, Verónica and her colleagues are planning a meeting in the mountains of Costa Rica in which children from indigenous communities in Argentina will come together with children from several other Latin American countries and from India, Iran, Mozambique, Tanzania and Tibet.Each group that Verónica and her colleagues assemble consists of girls and boys, is racially diverse and includes a substantial number of indigenous children. There is strong emphasis on shared experiences, taking full advantage of the natural settings in which the meetings are held and using art and sharing views on the spiritual matters as vehicles for promoting communication, trust and deep and tender affection among the group. Those bonds, forged over almost a month in one another's company, enable the children, upon their return home, to form strong, lasting local groups. These local groups generally meet once every two weeks, and older children serve as their coordinators.The international meetings occur once a year. The network of potential (or nascent) "social entrepreneurs" who have participated in the international meetings is kept alive by periodic regional meetings with participants from neighboring countries. The network connects the groups and assists them with their projects, and adults who have participated in the international encounters also help with the implementation of the projects initiated by the children.This is not a project reserved for the wealthy. The children themselves earn much of the money needed for their trips and all of the funds that their projects require, and their air transportation is fully subsidized by the airlines used and other businesses. In Uruguay, the children have established their own micro-enterprise (in food production) to fund their group activities. Other groups sell art work and homemade bread and pastry. The groups put the proceeds of such activities into a common fund and decide how it will be used. In Argentina, the local group held an encounter with a group of children in a rural indigenous community and decided, on the basis of that experience, that the main social issue that it wanted to address was the promotion of literacy among children and adults. The children then formed a "brigade," and during vacations and summers, with backpacks full of books, they walk from community to community and teach children and adults how to read and write. Verónica is promoting the project through a documentary video filmed by Marcos López, a book of drawings and paintings by the children and herself and a book with photos by Lucio Boschi and writings by the children. In addition, she recently established contact with an organization in San Francisco, California, that is interested in producing a television show about the international children's network and the ideas that they are generating. Verónica has also made presentations about her project at the World Congress of Education for the Future and for Peace in São Paulo, Brazil, and the Holistic Congress in Bahia, Brazil.
Verónica was born in Sweden and grew up in a well-to-do Argentine-European family with an unusually strong service ethic. Her father, the director of a Swedish paper company, was president of the Rotary Club and widely honored for his community service activities. For several years, her mother helped raise four orphans from indigenous communities in the Argentine province of Salta. At a young age, Verónica joined her mother in working as a volunteer at a local children's hospital and thus initiated a lifelong commitment to working with poor and abused people in the community. She also manifested and honed her leadership skills in the Girl Scouts and student clubs throughout her school years.In her adult years, Verónica has engaged in a wide variety of pursuits. Having studied in Spain, the United States and Mexico, she has continued to engage in international travel, and she resided for a period in Kansas, where she helped manage a dude ranch. In Buenos Aires, she has organized a new school with her own distinctive approach to children's education. She is also an artist, and her work has been displayed in numerous international art exhibits.