María Gabriela Arenas
Ashoka Fellow desde 2014   |   Colombia

María Gabriela Arenas

Fundación TAAP - Taller de Aprendizaje para las Artes y el Pensaiento
Gaby Arenas is breaking the patterns of violence at home, school, and in communities. Through her TAAP Foundation, she manages to promote peaceful coexistence, generate projects for social…
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This description of María Gabriela Arenas's work was prepared when María Gabriela Arenas was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2014.


Gaby Arenas is breaking the patterns of violence at home, school, and in communities. Through her TAAP Foundation, she manages to promote peaceful coexistence, generate projects for social development, and ventures that increase the welfare of communities. Gaby uses play, imagination, and art as tools to develop critical thinking and understanding that changes how individuals see and respond to their environments.

La idea nueva

Gaby Arenas developed the TAAP Model for Learning (Arts and Thought Learning Workshop) for training children, teenagers, parents, and teachers in peaceful living. The workshops help generate social development projects as well as ventures that improve the wellbeing of communities, and even effect public policy. She is changing the way people think by teaching dialogue for conflict resolution, mediation skills, and skills for protecting basic human rights. For Gaby, visual arts are a shared language that allows us to communicate and understand each other. The written and spoken word is not enough when seeking dialogue in such polarized contexts and she believes that by creating a visual representation/image, you have a takeoff point from which to reach resolution. Without a tool for negotiation, people fail to reach an agreement but they can find a common solution by working together on an image.

The TAAP method approaches violence from five angles: anthropological, cultural, learning, social, structural, and biological/pyschological. Gaby first identifies “detonators” of distinct types of violence and then develops activities to deactivate them. Through workshops, participants learn how to identify the detonators of their violent actions, alternative ways to act, and the consequence of both the initial action and the alternatives. The individual discovers, develops, and practices social skills such as tolerance, empathy, respect, perseverance, and teamwork. In addition to working on dialogue, the workshops cover creativity and solidarity. Gaby’s work goes beyond traditional teaching methods and peace-building programs in school and communities. TAAP causes active reflection and experiential learning, not telling people what to do but inviting them to be conscious, and think about the myths and challenges associated with violence, and how to overcome them.

The integral nature of Gaby’s work comes from involving the entire community. It begins with children and young people as they are the primary victims of violence and the most vulnerable. Children learn to share, respect their peers, know their rights and duties as citizens, and they participate in the search for peacebuilding activities in their community. Adults get the chance to express themselves, experience alternatives to violence (cultural, structural, or social), and participate in activities to improve coexistence at home, school, and in the community. Parents, community leaders, and teachers learn the tools for managing solutions and creating projects that improve quality of life (additions of streetlights, etc.). All of this Gaby links to policy change to ensure a decrease in violence longer term. One of these is a proposal for the Law for the Promotion of Peaceful Coexistence. She is also working with the Chair of Social Commitment at the Andres Bello Catholic University (UCAB) to develop a program called Autonomy that will be taken to five elementary schools in Caracas. She is already spreading beyond Venezuela to Colombia, with partnerships on the ground to help her translate the TAAP workshop to Colombia’s context, and TAAP materials have been adopted across Venezuela, Colombia, and New York.

El problema

Violence in Venezuela continues to rise, and especially violence affecting children and young people. According to a report by Cecodap (a Venezuelan CSO working on children’s rights), over 3,200 of that age group were victims of some type of violence in 2009. Those statistics point to a lack of policy and integrated solutions, for both short and long-term, that enable the prevention and resolution of violence. In Venezuela, child protection laws and international agreements that do exist are difficult to apply because of holes in the judicial protection system for minors. The System for Protection of Children and Adolescents, a collaboration of organizations and policies implemented after the 1989 Law of the same name, is unable to coordinate programs, tools, and resources sufficiently or permanently – its effective intervention is usually limited to dealing with single cases.

Official statistics report that between 1999 and 2010, the country had over 136,000 violent deaths involving fire arms. During that same period, homicide was the leading cause of death for young men between the ages of 15 and 24 years-old.

Part of the issue is inadequate training among professionals in various disciplines in violence prevention. Also, a lack of integration among assistance and prevention teams makes care difficult. These professionals, and other people and institutions, tend to have a set of beliefs and misconceptions about violence. Add to this the Latin American education system, designed to teach mathematical logic and verbal skills, which omits training in skills that develop healthy social habits and a culture of peace.

La estrategia

In 2003, Gaby Arenas began to research social development and communication from the perspective of social management and corporate social responsibility (CSR). Part of her inspiration was meeting her husband six years earlier who taught art classes in elementary school. Gaby wanted to know more about the relationship between art and peaceful coexistence, and she understood that no kind of development is possible when violence blocks a community’s advancement. She found examples all over the world – New York, Brazil, Sierra Leone, and Argentina – which she studied and used as a base for her TAAP (Arts and Thought Learning Workshop) Foundation, founded in 2009.

Gaby is particularly concerned with violence that affects children and young people, and by consequence, the role of the family and community in their protection. The steady increase of violence in Venezuela has begun to normalize the problem. Dynamics of interaction in families, at school, and in society have become tolerant of and even conducive to aggressive behavior. Gaby sees the importance of demystifying violence and eliminating erroneous beliefs that can block attempts at resolution. According to the United Nations, successful public policies, programs of prevention, care and rehabilitation of perpetrators and victims of violence develop "holistically, simultaneously considering the risk factors operating at both the individual level, and at home, in the community, and in society in general "(UN, 2006).

The model Gaby developed comprises a learning process that leverages more than 60 activities, each designed to address equality, respect, diversity, bullying, tolerance, teamwork, etc. In the activities, participants observe, get to know themselves and express their ideas without feeling constrained. By sharing their views and seeing that each person is different, the individual learns to tolerate different ways of thinking and is encouraged to put himself/herself in the place of another. Through the activity, each person’s potential becomes evident, and the participants can begin thinking of appropriate projects to work on together that benefit the community as a whole.

In the work with children and young people, participants reflect on appearances, coexistence, public space, and the relationship that each person has with this space and the other people that share it with them. This process allows the young person to understand that his or her reactions form part of learned behavior that influence (positively or negatively) themselves and those around them. In turn, the young people can identify violence in themselves and their environments. Once the recognition occurs, Gaby provides tools to think about other alternatives to violence. For example, a group of 13 to 17 year-olds without any sort of future plans, began to take photography workshops at TAAP. Through taking snapshots of their daily lives, they began to look in a new way at how they lived. They realized they were surrounded by drugs, kidnappings, homicides, and they did not want that lifestyle; they wanted a future. Today, none of that group of young people are involved in those activities, and instead they are all studying on art scholarships from the foundation.

Gaby’s TAAP method is comprised of three stages of learning: i) Observation, ii) Creation and iii) Reflection / Action. It is a new way of teaching that transcends the school environment and begins by recognizing and fully developing the skills, interests, and potential of each individual, creatively through visual arts. To the extent that the individual learns these skills, rather than rote practices as memorizing or copying, the individual begins to take time to understand his or her own thought process. Experience with this learning model has allowed Gaby to learn different approaches to violence and its application in social contexts and through these experiences has been able to assess different situations of violence in the country, segmenting characteristics and consequences into different groups. Gaby does not include art therapy in her approach; the individual is not expressing their psychological needs but instead is using art as a tool for dialogue and a new creative skill set.

The approach incorporates four important elements that ensure community involvement and replication:

i) Community Control: TAAP Foundation specialists work with children directly, and educators (teachers trained by TAAP) observe and give feedback.

ii) Educators: TAAP trains teachers in the methodolgy and gives them teaching materials for them to continue working with children in the community.

iii) Artists: Supported by the Foundation, trained artists participate in the workshops with the communities.

iv) Research and Documentation: TAAP continuously systematizes and distributes its model to guarantee its replication in other communities.

Gaby knows it is important to generate advocacy and share experiences so that others in similar conditions can both enrich and learn from the TAAP methodology. Gaby and her team, with the help of artists, made a 15 minute presentation with the testimonies of communities, pictures, and videos to show the reality of the communities and schools they work with. She showed the video at a meeting with three governors (one from the government two from the opposition party), not saying anything, just letting the story and voices speak for themselves. After that, all three called her to work with her in solving these problems.

Currently, all of Gaby’s time is dedicated to workshops and research. The primary TAAP activities include:

1. Permanent training programs in communities for children, teens and teachers. Weekly workshops related to art and thought development. To date, performed in Turgua Row (Miranda) and St. Augustine South (Capital District). Workshops for children last for one school year, and those for teachers are 32 hours of theory plus tutorial support throughout the school year.

2. Art, coexistence training, and crafts for elementary school children, adolescents and youth. Training program for 1 year to identify skills, strengths and weaknesses and to plan their future. They recieve training in visual arts and information and communication technology so they can be elegible for scholarships at the Andrés Bello Catholic University, the Center for Photographic Studies, and PRODISEÑO. To date, over 300 children and 200 young people have participated in these workshops, and 11 have scholarships to continue their studies.

3. ArteTecas for Peace, for parents and teachers: The main objective is to train teachers to encourage the development of cognitive skills of children participating in TAAP projects. Allowing them to increase their interest in school and promote knowledge about art, peace and human rights. The training lasts 5 months and then self-replicates in the community in a train-the-trainer model.

4. Sensitive Teaching for children and teachers: Since 2012 the Foundation has participated the pedagogías sensibles (sensitive teaching) project that takes place as part of the Iberoamerican Art Fair.

5. Community Development Programme in Turgua: A program comprised of ArteTecas methodologies -- arts and coexistence and Social Entrepreneurship Program. After training mothers and community leaders in peaceful coexistence and how violence limits and impoverishes, workshops enable them to carry out social projects in their communities. Workshops are 16 hours of theory and then 3 months of mentoring alongside community projects.

The introduction of this type of learning is an innovation in education and an opportunity to promote community participation. One of the key achievements of TAAP was to expand their social impact from being a project with only 200 beneficiaries located in a rural community (Turgua Row), to delivering workshops benefiting more than 7,000 children, adolescents, mothers and educators across the country. Other collaborations that have increased spread include a joint project with the government of Miranda, a Project with the CSR branch Beiersdorf, "Nivea caring family", and support from Chevron as part of an award in the 2013 Ideas Competition in the category of Social Entrepreneurship. In addition, Gaby was twice a finalist for Social Entrepreneur of the Year in Venezuela from the Without Boundaries Foundation and the Schwab Foundation (2012 and 2013). Ongoing programs in these communities involve more than 900 children, 300 adolescents, 200 teachers, and 200 families. Gaby also conducted a project with 2,000 teachers in the state of Miranda, where in addition to the TAAP workshops, they worked with mothers to develop entrepreneurial ideas related to school.

Gaby sees it essential to continue training and impacting as many parents and potential teachers as possible. She plans to train over 20,000 people and benefit more than 60,000 children and adolescents in the next three years. She sees the training of mothers and teachers as the best way replicate the experience. To contribute to TAAP’s financial stability, she sees the development of social enterprises and commercialization of products developed in the community as well as financial support from businesses.

Fort the last three years, Gaby has been working on a draft law for the promotion of Peaceful Coexistence, which she has presented in several public events (the Presidential Commission for the Control of Firearms, with the Mayor of Sucre, with the state government of Miranda, and the Mayor of Hatillo). Gaby has also published two books: Unarmed Communication: Contributions on the role of communication in disarmament (2012) and Recommendations for the development of a communications policy (2012). Since 2014, she has been working in partnership with the Secretariat and the Directorate of Education of the government of Miranda to develop a policy to for teacher training on issues related to the reduction of violence and peaceful coexistence.

In parallel, Gaby works with the Andrés Bello Catholic University (UCAB) of Caracas to conduct research, diagnostics, and systematization of the TAAP experience, through the Center for Communication Research (CIC-UCAB) and the Social Communication post-graduate program. She is also developing a proposal for modifying the current Teacher Training curriculum. To do this, Gaby is in talks with UNICEF and the UNDP to get their support in the development of assessment tools and a training platform, not only in Venezuela but also in the rest of Latin America.

TAAP Foundation partners with other CSOs such as the Network for Peace, the Network for Human Rights of Children and Adolescents (REDHNNA), and the Network of Peacebuilders. Gaby is already spreading her work to Colombia, and learning about how to translate the TAAP solutions there, through collaboration with Ashoka Fellow Vicky Colbert and other CSOs.

Her corporate partners include Monaca (a food company) and Nivea (international skincare products company) who have shown interest in collecting statistics related to family violence in certain communities of interest, and to partner with TAAP to develop a program especially for mothers to correct these patterns, given their successful experience. In one project, TAPP trained 1,200 mothers in the human rights of children and offered accompanying solutions. After 6 months, the Council for the Protection of Children (UNICEF) assessed the work and found that 90% of mothers stopped beating their children, 98% stopped yelling, and over 70% are now working. Of the 1,200 women, 300 are in drug rehab.

La persona

Gaby grew up in a family of researchers and professors, from whom she gained a passion for discovery, but also social consciousness. Raised on the patios of her parents’ universities, she was taught to question and learn continuously. She especially enjoyed time in her father’s lab, using his microscope. A family tradition at Christmas was to give presents to others, a philosophy of showing thanks by giving.

Gaby studied in a community school, in an open classroom model. The students were expected to contribute to the village community, and coexist with them considerately. Her experience there showed that it is important to respect what each community and individual has to offer, along with its social and cultural dynamics and learnings. As a young adult, she taught music and theater classes to children whose mothers were incarcerated, and she taught reading to both children and older adults.

At university, Gaby studied social communication. There, she became involved in a theater group as producer and actress. Gaby’s professor asked her students to give community theater workshops in low income areas. There, Gaby began to learn the basics of community development work and was exposed to social entrepreneurship, seeing the difference it makes to go beyond assistance to ennabling communities to solve their own problems. Each day, Gaby’s mission is reaffirmed as she sees the trust that children, parents, and community leaders have put in TAAP foundation to do just tha

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