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Valor Publico: Translating youth leadership from Mexico

By Pamela Larson Nippolt

On a trip to Mexico a couple of weeks ago as a participant in National Extension Leadership Development, I had a chance to see a community health organization that is still going strong 20 years after being founded by a group of youth. As a youth development educator, I was struck by the power of youth when they are engaged as leaders in their community. As an program evaluator, I got to thinking about factors that play into sustaining a program and its overall value to the public over time.

Our hosts, a family of five, warmly oriented our group of three Extension educators, despite our limited Spanish. We quietly sat with the matriarch of the family in the courtyard under the rock "gate," a formation that crowns the nearest mountain and creates an opening to the sky. The eldest daughter Lety greeted us as she returned from the Atekokolli clinic in the village that she helped to found on communal land.

As a child, Lety was at her grandmother's side as she treated community members. Lety  learned where to find the healing plants, how to harvest them, and how to use them in treatments. When she was a teen, Lety and 20 other young people in Amatlan started a project they called Atekokolli - the Nahuatl word for the conch shell used in religious ceremonies. "We got together and talked
about what we could do to help the community," Lety remembers.

They agreed to create a place where traditional healing is provided to everyone who needs it. Over the years, the group grew and shrank in size and worked together through times of growth and uncertainty to realize the original plan.

Eventually, they secured funding of 35,000 pesos / US$3,000 from a competitive funding source, which allowed them to begin building on a designated site in the middle of town. The considerable time Lety spent at Atokekolli took away from the kitchen, leading to tension with her mother. Despite this and other obstacles, Lety notes that when the project sat dormant for a period of time, it was her mother and her grandmother who told her that she should see it through to completion.

Twenty years after Atekokolli 's inception, Lety leads the clinic with two colleagues. The three founders who continue the vision for the clinic prepare the herbs and plants for use, oversee the temascals (a healing ceremony similar to an American Indian sweat lodge), offer massage, and chiropractic services. Their clinic is busy and clientele draws from a large area. Lety is especially focused on diabetes prevention as obesity and less active lifestyles are taking a toll on the health of community members.

Back at my desk in Minnesota, I am reflecting on the success of this "program." In Extension, we strive to demonstrate the public value of programs for youth. The Atekokolli model lacks the typical trappings of a program, yet accomplished what we hope to accomplish with youth through programs. 

What did these 20 youth leaders bring to it, and how did the community that they lived in contribute to make Atekekolli so valuable to so many? What examples can we point to of similar youth-led development efforts that have staying power in US communities?

--Pamela Larson Nippolt, assistant Extension professor

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  1. Pam,
    Great example of how authentic work is sustainable. The degree to which this met a clear need and was supported by the community then and now speaks to some of the factoors necessary and helpful for success.

  2. Thanks for sharing this. I hadn't considered this while we where there. It seemed to me that many people beyond the direct participants where benefiting from their work, especially in the ways they changed perceptions of what was possible.

  3. Pam Larson NippoltMay 5, 2011 at 10:47 AM

    I think Neil hits on something important - the young people created a vision, plan and reality that changes perceptions of what is possible not only in Amatlan but in any community. The community members did not immediately incorporate the clinic (even though there was enough agreement to provide the space for the building), Lety says that it took time. How have young people changed perceptions about what is possible in communities you are involved in? Was this a long or slow process?

  4. Thank you so much for sharing a special story from your experience in Mexico Pam. It seems to me that the youth involved in this health clinic had ownership, community/family support, and a passion for their work from the inception of their idea. They were able to carry it out (for 20 years now) because it not only served as a learning experience for them but it also provided tangible (health treatments, etc.) benefits to the larger community (public value).
    This is a great example of true youth engagement in which youth lead, participate, have a voice, and collective action, while supported by others within and outside the organization. It is the interactions of social and cultural elements that allowed for the program to be sustained for all these years. I would even add that Lety and her colleagues were probably able to navigate structures (social and cultural) in order to achieve their goals (creation and sustainability of the clinic).
    Here in MN, The Garage in Burnsville comes to mind as a youth led sustainable program. It has been going since 1995 and despite threats of losing funding, etc. it seems to overcome all the barriers they've faced. Youth (who are also staff) have a great deal of ownership on how things are done at the Garage; they are invested in program activities, and lead various elements of what takes place at the program on a daily basis.
    Thanks again for sharing :)

  5. Pam,
    Thanks for sharing this real story of successful youth development in a place that may not have labeled it as such. In my past youth development work I saw a wonderful example of a youth program that generated public value and had stay power. YAR - Youth As Resources. Even today some 10 plus years after YAR was created by youth, it continues to involve youth in leadership and community engagement and provides an enormous amount of public value. Your story would be especially welcoming to our Latino youth and families here in Minnesota.

  6. Pam --
    Thanks for describing how Atekokolli was developed and how it has been sustained. It is intriguing for me to think about how Lety and the group of young folks had the confidence to step forward to do something meaningful for their community .. which involved stepping away from traditional roles and expectations you described. Lety's competence as a natural healer was nurtured by her Grandmother who saw something special in her. She also possessed interpersonal skills (conflict resolution, etc), and cognitive competence (decision making, etc) as a leader moving these efforts forward. The support and connection to the other young leaders was extraordinary as they developed the vision, sought funding, built the facility, and have been providing services to the community. Their connection to their community is also extraordinary ... identifying a need and working to fulfill that need. I think the connections between the young leaders mirrors what we often see with other groups here in the States ... leaders often times come and go within a group as their life circumstances change ... but there often times are a few who remain and persevere to carry projects forward. Lety also displayed amazing character -- a respect for societal and cultural rules in her community while introducing a concept/service which was slightly different than the norm. Lety seemed to have an amazing support system in her family -- through her Grandmother, Mother, & others ... those who cared about her and encouraged her to move the project forward. In turn, Lety was able to show caring and compassion for those they served in the community. Your example clearly includes examples of all 5 C's of Positive Youth Developpment -- competence, confidence, connection to others, character, & caring/compassion.