Listen to Women: A Conversation With Obama Scholar Ana María González Forero

Palenquera Woman in Cartagena, Colombia - by ShonEjai

Palenquera Woman in Cartagena, Colombia - by ShonEjai

Ana María is the co-founder of FEM (Fundación para la Educación Multicultural), a Colombian nonprofit based in Cartagena that works with indigenous and afro communities. Her organization focuses on local women by "listening to their needs, connecting them with relevant stakeholders, and fostering a sense of community ownership over sustainable development projects.”

As opposed to traditional NGOs that frequently impose plans and goals on the groups they want to serve, “since day one, we’ve allowed communities to establish the agenda,” Ana María told Mindful Feminism. “Our intention is and always has been to see what people need us for, and not the other way around,” she added.

This way of doing things has led to fascinating results that Ana María describes as entirely unexpected. “Focusing on women was not a conscious choice at the beginning. But when you’re letting communities establish the agenda, you realize that the people in these villages are women. Men are frequently absent, they work in other cities or have multiple families and live between two homes, thus when we’re talking about rural societies, we’re talking about the lives of women." 

This emphasis has reaped numerous benefits for the people of Cartagena that FEM works with. As an example, Ana María highlighted the positive consequences of focusing on women when it comes to property rights. “Men are 'irresponsible' with this subject, and I add quotation marks because that’s not always the case, but they’re not primarily affected by the lack of a place to live. Meanwhile, a grandmother with a piece of land will divide that same piece seventeen times amongst her children, and the children of her children. In other words, we've learned that  guaranteeing land to a woman is guaranteeing land for generations to come.”

“Involving women in political processes has also been a big success," she mentioned. "Right now, we have places like Tierra Baja, where 12 out of 13 people on the board of the town are women. These female-majority boards are much more organized, and accountability is great because women are willing to report back to their communities."

Returning to the subject of unexpected occurrences that have fueled this project, Ana María spoke more about her personal journey as the co-founder of FEM. “Over ten years ago I went through a divorce, and when that happened, I really wanted to leave my hometown Bogotá. My best friend lived in Cartagena –and I think that has been the most important 'accident' of my life. It was the only place I could go, yet it turned out to be the perfect city to dive into the themes I was interested in.”

Photo by Columbia University, Courtesy of Ana María González Forero

Photo by Columbia University, Courtesy of Ana María González Forero

Since its creation, FEM has grown into a thriving organization with an extensive network of volunteers, and multiple entrepreneurial initiatives that allow it to be self-sustaining. And the best is yet to come.

In 2018, Ana María was selected as a recipient of the coveted Obama Foundation Scholarship. For a year, she's at Columbia University in New York working on taking FEM to a whole new level.

She shared some highlights of the experience so far: “We’ve been treated like royalty here. There is so much knowledge at our disposal, and it's absolutely wonderful. One of the biggest blessings of this scholarship has been getting to bring my kids with me, I have a 13-year-old boy and a 16-year-old girl. My work is frequently dangerous and extremely time-consuming, so enjoying this incredible experience with them has been priceless.”

Oh, and yes, she has met the Obamas! “When I met Michelle and Barack Obama, well, I couldn’t believe it! Barack Obama complimented my blue hair, and I could only think ‘what is happening?!’ This opportunity has been a dream come true,” she said laughing.