A couple of years ago, I was part of a student-run international volunteer organization. We were supporting a small village in the countryside of Cambodia, mainly by holding charity events. We started out as a small organization with passionate members, but somewhere along the line of getting more members and being involved in bigger corporate sponsored projects, I often found myself lost in the middle of our bi-weekly meetings, as we lost track of what we were initially set off to do: “to listen to the local’s voice and help bring permanent development”.
This isn’t a rare case for many student-run organizations I have encountered in the past. Many organizations end up pushing their ideologies to the countries they support. However, SLASummit does not fall into this category. SLASummit is a social entrepreneurship non-profit with the vision of changing the discourse regarding international development and becoming an incubator for student-led projects. Currently, its main event is a four-day social entrepreneurship conference and case competition gathering students from Universities all across North America, all the way from Texas to Montreal, to discuss fundamental, social, political and economic challenges affecting Latin American communities and how to work with these communities to face them.
SLASummit works closely with three partner NGOs (Non-Governmental Organization) that are located in specific areas in Mexico, Peru and Ecuador. Each team in the case competition is linked with an NGO and is provided in depth community profiles with information about their corresponding community. The task is to come up with a solution for a problem that has been brought up through interviews with the local communities. The summit also includes TED-style inspirational talks from experienced professionals that work in the development sector of academics, governmental institutions and NGOs. Additionally, the conference also gathers other professionals to serve as judges for the case competition and provide their knowledge and insight during the rounds of the competition. The winning team receives $5,000 and airplane tickets to travel to their supporting community and implement the project.
For Andrea Boza, the co-founder of SLASummit, a high school-organized trip to Senegal sparked her interest in development. While the trip was memorable on a personal note, she couldn’t help but feel that there was something wrong with the whole discourse in the way development was being approached. “I was building houses with an NGO, but the work I was doing could clearly be replaced by a fellow local. I kept wondering whether the locals could be engaged and involved further to allow them to truly benefit from all of this,” she says. After enrolling to McGill University, she learned about development through her economics classes, but found many of her classes were taught in a purely conceptual way.
The Montreal-based summit was originally inspired when a fellow student, Jean-Yves Taranger at the McGill's Spanish Latin America Students Association (SLASA) suggested using the money they had raised from their churros sales to implement a project he had come up with in a rural community in Mexico. The student knew a rural community where children couldn’t go to school because it took 2 hours to commute. He came up with the idea of using their money to go to Mexico, buy 20 bikes and teach the children how to ride and repair them, which would make their commute convenient and motivate the students to go to school. This idea became a visible success and inspired Boza and her co-founders that permanent changes that can impact a community are possible with less than $5,000. Which is where SLASummit’s motto: “How can you permanently change the lives of more than 30 people with $5,000?” comes from.
Vincent Simboli, the Co-Chair of SLASummit, first found out about SLASummit on Facebook when he was studying abroad in Valparaiso, Chile. He had studied Economics and Development as a major for 2 years at McGill University, but was jaded by the gloomy world of development. It was his Contemporary Spanish Literature class, that looked at how notions of development are presented in novels such as One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, that rekindled his interest for development. “The book blew my mind. Here’s a Latin American author who has first-hand experience of poverty saying, ‘Look, it’s a bit more complicated than ‘we need saving’” he says. Being presented One Hundred Years of Solitude in a development class and seeing how development is much more complex than what economic indicators show, was a moment that clicked for him. He decided to take up Spanish literature as a double major and spent a semester abroad in Chile.
While he was in Chile, a major student strike arose and cut 2 months of his semester short. “I was down there in a very important political time and I got to see people taking development into their own hands. I really wanted to translate that back into my academic career” he says. With his experience in Chile under his belt, Simboli emphasizes that “SLASummit is an important chance for us to pay attention to the language around development.”
What makes SLASummit quite different from other student-run organizations is that they understand what they are getting themselves into. They aren’t a bunch of North American students that believe Latin America can simply “entrepreneur itself out of poverty”. They understand that the problem is much more complex, which is why they heavily focus on involving all players in the process of development and always listen to co-create with the communities they support. In their Summit, they include everyone: from the students and the local communities to governmental institutions, corporate bodies and academics. SLASummit, as Boza has put it, “is a beacon of hope for changing the discourse of how development has been conducted.” SLASummit is an opportunity for all players to think, connect, and come together to make “real” changes that will become permanent.
This year’s SLASummit was held from March 17-20. The winning project from this year’s case competition will be implemented in a particular community in Parobamba, Peru. Many women in the community make a living by selling textures, which they obtain from certain types of plants to make the dies. Parobamba is currently facing a sharp decline of these plants, and this could lead to a huge threat to the future of the community’s economy. This year’s winning team came up with solution for the plants to survive by utilizing existing resources such as bees and guinea pigs to help maintain, and grow the plants in more efficient ways.