SDG16+ Champions of Change

The youth leaders combatting poverty and exclusion from within


Champions of Change is an initiative started by the Pathfinders to highlight advocates who have made an impact in their communities and helped to create peaceful, just and inclusive societies (SDG16+). It provides an opportunity to feature individuals, businesses, and organizations doing extraordinary things to empower and inspire members of their communities.

104 million people live in slums in Latin America. They are the most visible faces of inequality and exclusion — individuals and families experiencing extreme poverty are living in makeshift homes, without access to basic services, such as clean water, electricity or sewage systems. Resultant health problems, and persistent unemployment plague communities living in these conditions.

TECHO (or Un Techo para mi País — UTPMP) is a youth-led nonprofit organization that brings together volunteers and families living in poverty to transform slums into thriving communities across Latin America, through community development, adequate housing, awareness-raising and political advocacy. Since its founding in Chile in 1997, TECHO has expanded to operate in 18 countries across the region. This summer, we spoke with one of TECHO’s staff members working in Mexico, to learn more about the organization’s work to combat poverty and exclusion at the local level, and how it continues to operate amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

Emilia García-Arteaga Molinar started volunteering with TECHO in 2009 and joined the organization’s staff in 2012. She has a degree in Finance and Business Administration from the Panamerican University, with studies on international entrepreneurship from the Hogeschool in Utrecht, Netherlands. She is also the co-founder of the student-led group “B-Up!” that is part of the university network of disaster prevention and response UNIRED.

(This interview has been edited for length.)

How did you first get involved with TECHO?

They say that, “being young but not a revolutionary is a biological contradiction.” My experience in community organizing began in college, raising awareness [about] sustainability issues and supporting disaster risk mitigation and response efforts at the university. Discouraged by the lack of support to efforts like these, I wanted to do more.

The first time I volunteered with TECHO, seeing so many engaged young people brought me tears of happiness! What I liked the most about the organization was that it helped break down many prejudices. One is often taught that poor communities are lazy and that their living conditions are justified, but you realize they had the misfortune of being born into different circumstances than you, [and] have their own strengths and dreams. I liked the experience so much that by the time I was out of college I knew I wanted to do this full-time, starting by managing projects on the ground and then moving into general management.

What do you hope to achieve at TECHO?

We hope to contribute to making slum transformation a national priority.

We need participation from communities, volunteers, local and federal authorities, as well as construction companies. One in four Latin Americans live in popular settlements and 60% of homes are built informally. That is why we prefer the term “popular” – to emphasize that they result from their inhabitants’ own response to structural inequalities, denying them their right to access adequate housing. TECHO’s programs range from improving access to water, to the maintenance of public spaces, to educational support, to improv[ing] the living conditions in these areas – which are such a powerful, visible expression of the inequalities our societies face today. And we have shown that participation and coordination is not only necessary but possible for a better society.

What are the strengths and challenges of the organization?

What defines TECHO is the magic that takes place when young people’s energy and drive merges with the community’s knowledge — when they come together, they inspire each other… That anyone can participate, regardless of background, education level or skills… Also, our programs have very tangible results in the communities: a home, a running water system, etc. This creates a virtuous cycle of harvesting small wins that bring us together and keep us motivated for the next challenge.

It is important, however, not to idealize community organization because not all is perfect. Our work is not free of frictions between members, or of inequalities within the communities themselves, and this impacts our effectiveness.

How has COVID-19 impacted your work and what are some lessons learned?

In Mexico, the mortality rate from COVID-19 is strongly related to overcrowding — a problem that already existed, but is now a life-or-death matter. Our work, therefore, is now more important than ever. In response to COVID-19, we adapted our programming to fill immediate needs of the communities, including distributing thousands of food kits. In addition, since we cannot rely on deploying volunteers under the pandemic, we are investing greater efforts in capacity-building and temporary employment for members in the communities to implement projects using less volunteers.

Given the urgency and gravity of the circumstances, we need to accept that “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” Not everything will turn out as planned, but we need to act quickly and rely on the communities’ ability to identify the most vulnerable and coordinate among themselves.

What would you want national governments and the international community to know?

We need to strengthen the local level, invest in local governments, as well as in bottom-up, community-led initiatives, in order to truly deliver change. Local governments and communities are often not equipped with the necessary resources, staff and capacities, nor the money to act, even though they are the best positioned to do so. We have to avoid concentrating power and resources at the top and we must distribute them more fairly to create effective counterparts at local levels.

Young people’s engagement is essential to TECHO. What is your advice for young people seeking to make a difference?

As young people, our role is to insist that a better world is possible, especially now when disenchantment levels are so high. I would encourage them to act, because something that you think is small might actually turn to be very big, even if it’s a university initiative. It can go a long way. Also, it won’t be easy. You will face many obstacles and challenges. You will fall many times. But even then, it is worth it.

Finally, I would remind them that we all have something to contribute regardless of our traits, regardless of how we describe or define ourselves. Keep in mind we are all different teachers; treating others with respect will allow you to discover the amazing things there are to learn in each person.