Changemaking Where Needed: Santiago's Changemaker Journey

In a conversation with Santiago Mejia, we discuss migration, the importance of being cognizant of one’s identity, life in Colombia, and leadership.
Santiago Ashoka Mexico

This story was written by Hillary Alamene.

Santiago is from Medellin, Colombia, but spent his childhood living in a rural part of Georgia, United States before moving back to Colombia. His experience as a migrant was integral in forcing him to think about his sense of self relative to others. As a Latino, he grew up in a family comprised of Catholics, but he was about 14 years old when he was left to contend with his sexual identity. While his sexuality primarily caused many interpersonal conflicts with his immediate family, it forced him to acknowledge the importance of identity, as well as empathy.

It was not until attending university that he had conversations with his parents to address their positions on homosexuality, but in doing so, Santiago found a sense of reprieve. He understood the reluctance they harbored as their son embraced an identity that was admonished in their community and in so many parts of the world, but being presented with their fears and their concerns allowed Santiago to begin his process of self-acceptance.

Even after completing college, Santiago continued to embrace this theme of identity, but perhaps in a way that he had not previously imagined. He became involved with Rotary International, an organization known for promoting local leadership and service. He joined with the knowledge that it would be important for him to think about his role in society. Rather than upholding the theoretical knowledge that he had gained from his exposure to academic environments, Santiago believed it was necessary to apply his knowledge in real-time, so it was through his Rotary club in 2017 that he and a few club members started New Footprints as an organization that would target low-income communities in Colombia.

Through the organization, Santiago and his team would promote peace and leadership through the creation of workshops, empowering residents to create their own programs and rely upon the use of local government programs and social associations. But starting an organization is bound to cause difficulties, and Santiago recalls that he did indeed encounter challenges. For example, in order to receive funding, it was important for Santiago and his team to rely upon the older cohorts in his Rotary club and doing so required them to remain persistent. However, it was also important for them to appeal to the community they wished to serve, which required focus on how they would craft the narrative and explain the importance of the work they wanted to do.

One unforeseen challenge was Santiago’s departure from the project. He had made the decision to move to Mexico, but making such a decision forced him to contend with the new leadership, visions, and objectives that would emerge. The leadership transition required deliberate preparation, and in particular, Santiago spent a few months establishing relationships between stakeholders and the members that would assume the new roles within the organization.

Although time-intensive, Santiago was proud of the changes that the organization incurred over time, and he found that he was able to speak from a place of contentment. He believes that “being a changemaker is also understanding when your changemaking skills are needed somewhere else.” Although he is no longer involved with New Footprints, he warmly embraced the new opportunities awaiting him in Mexico.

As he is working in a new country and context, Santiago is now activating others to be powerful through his participation in Ashoka’s campaign called Millones de Agentes de Cambio. In this context, changemaking is the identity of interest, and the platform “Millions of Changemakers” strives to help changemakers identify their own support system that spans across the country.

The organization is presented on an online platform that has reached 400,000 people to date, with ambassadors leading efforts on the ground to co-lead and co-design initiatives as they extend their reach towards the rest of Central America and the Caribbean. Today, they have found success in being able to promote the changemaker spirit by establishing team meetings, creating workshops, and curating spaces where participants can connect and articulate their ideas.

The recurring theme in Santiago’s work is identity, but it is evident that one can only champion their identities when their efforts are coupled with a support system. These networks may be comprised of people who listen as you propose novel concepts or people who encourage the first steps towards collaboration. Thus far, Santiago has successfully encouraged others to embrace their leadership capabilities, but when asked about who has consistently supported him, Santiago speaks proudly of his grandfather. Earnestly, when he was growing up, Santiago’s grandfather always inquired about the things Santiago was learning in school and the professions that he hoped to pursue. He goes on to describe his grandfather as someone who is open-minded, never saying “no, that’s wrong”, when proposing an idea such as moving to Mexico. Upon further reflection, Santiago says that “[my grandfather] expected me to create change in the world, but he didn’t know how. He didn’t expect it to be here or there; he just said I know you are capable of great things.”

Having this form of support is essential, as we’re reminded that “sometimes a changemaker just needs someone to listen”. Whether one finds support through their teachers, parents, grandparents, or other external community members, the ways in which we embrace our identities and enact change become testaments of those who uphold us. For Santiago, his journey continues because of the people he has surrounded himself with, who constantly encourage him to take on his next self-actualizing project and invigorating purpose.

This story is part of a series to feature the voices and personal journeys of Ashoka staff. Read more stories here