Dean Takamura, professors and faculty members, my fellow speakers, and to all of you graduate students becoming part of Columbia University’s School of Social Work.

I am truly honored to have been invited to my alma mater and to have the opportunity to share with you my experience since my time here.

It was 20 years ago that I was seated exactly where you are now, full of expectations and uncertainties, but most of all thrilled to have been accepted to what is not only a renowned Ivy League University but also the first school of social work in the United States.

As an international student and having a background as a systems engineer, I felt somewhat different from my colleagues, but I was eager to learn and take with me the skill set to make a difference in my home country, Venezuela.

The sense of feeling different is a challenge that, as the unique individuals that we all are, we must all embrace. Thanks to the support from my loving family and a positive attitude to learn, I was able to take advantage of all the School had to offer: the engaging courses, opportunities to network with people from very different backgrounds and the wise counsel of my teachers. Speaking of teachers, I want to pay tribute to the late Frank Modica, whose immense wisdom and extraordinary skills with people taught me so much during my field practice at Hamilton Madison House, a community center in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

I can tell you without hesitation that my time here allowed me to develop the capacities I needed to undertake the hard work that was to come.

And herein lies a fundamental lesson I learned while at Columbia: for my interventions to make a difference in terms of promoting inclusion, greater opportunities and a healthier coexistence, they must respond to people’s needs, talents and aspirations, so that empowerment can be achieved.

Natural disaster strikes Venezuela

I chose to jump into the fray and apply these lessons in December 1999 after a terrible mudslide decimated a coastal state in Venezuela, taking with it more than 30.000 lives and destroying entire towns and communities. While the entire country came together and mourned this horrible tragedy, with a great many others, I set upon helping and working towards rebuilding.

In a small town called Camuri Grande, which was completely devastated, we set up a small community center offering programs based on people’s needs at the time: health services, a preschool, job training and technology programs.

A key element for success was the development of relationships with, and bridges between, various community members. We acknowledged and embraced the diversity of each group, including:

  • the people who remained in the town and decided to rebuild their homes, almost all of whom were low-income families who had lost everything;
  • a group of professionals who were working at a university (they had all lost their jobs), and
  • a private beach club with high-income members yet whose infrastructure was completely destroyed.

They as a group decided that each one would put their talents to the service of others so that it would become “an encounter to grow together.”

Today, we are proud to say that in these past 16 years we have provided the community with over 60,000 medical consultations, 15 preschool graduations that include a full day’s education and nutrition, more than 1.000 people trained in technology and job skills, and over 200 children currently involved with our Orchestra Music Program.

There is no doubt that both leadership and vision are fundamental elements for success, but true leadership is born from the strength of our convictions, allowing us to inspire others along the way. In our case as social workers, I believe social justice and human rights are the two values we hold most dear.

When I finished my studies at Columbia I felt I was fully equipped with the skills to contribute towards alleviating poverty and promote social justice in my country. I know now that I had undoubtedly much knowledge but very little wisdom. As Mahatma Gandhi would say:

“An ounce of practice is worth more than tons of preaching.

In other words, books can give us knowledge, but it is life experience that provides us with wisdom.

Model UN inspires students

Soon I realized I had to fully understand my people as well as their needs and aspirations across all levels of society. The divisive political rhetoric employed by government leaders for almost two decades has polarized Venezuelan society and brought with it emotions of anger and resentment as well as a sense of impotence. I would argue this has been the most harmful legacy of the current revolutionary government.

Nonetheless, there are always wonderful examples of resilience and progress among such harsh realities. I’d like to talk about one of them. For the past five years I have worked with a group of young kids, ages 15 to 20, who come from very low-income neighborhoods within Caracas.

Based on the Model United Nations program, these kids learn to debate, to work on conflict resolution skills and, more importantly, to respect each other’s opinions.

Working alongside esteemed professors and professionals who volunteer to lecture on history, economics, and international relations, among other complex topics, they develop knowledge and the capacity for teamwork.

It was through this opportunity that a new world opened for them. The daily life full of violence and discrimination within their neighborhoods gave way to self-esteem and a more hopeful future.

The most outstanding competitors are selected to compete internationally, and have been invited for the past three years to represent Venezuela in the Latin American MUN Competition, the signature event of the annual International Conference of the Americas (CILA) conference held in the Dominican Republic.

I have had the opportunity to see up close and personal their often fractured families and inner circles, their humble housing and terribly violent neighborhoods, and yet I have also seen how, against all odds, they shine among their peers from some of the best schools in the Caribbean and Latin America.

It fills me with pride and also humbles me to witness how they have become true leaders in their communities because of their deep sense of confidence in their capacities to be better and to inspire others.

By example, discipline, hard work, and the effective use of resources and opportunities, we can see how social justice is achieved.

Networking while at Columbia

I find it fascinating that in this diverse group before me there are 27 different countries represented, along with 37 U.S. states. What a wonderful opportunity to learn about different cultures and to expand your horizons! I strongly encourage you to have a cup of coffee, or maybe even a beer, with a fellow student of a different background, taking the advantage of this diversity to learn about various customs, religions and perspectives.

In my years at Columbia I made contact with many different groups and organizations, particularly the International Federation of Settlements and Neighborhood Centers, which is a network of multipurpose community organizations around the globe, with more than 10,000 members.

This relationship provided me not only with opportunities to participate at international conferences but also to send staff from my community center to different countries as part of exchange programs. It helped me be in touch with the new trends in community development around the world, meet presidents and high ranking governmental representatives and, most importantly, cultivate wonderful friendships along the way.

Being a social worker is not really a job, it is a way of life. The principles that guide us are present in all we do, from the way we relate with our own families and our friends, to the clients we help, to the communities we work with. Respect, trust and “starting where your client is at” are all values that you share in your everyday life.

Venezuela’s time bomb

As I mentioned before, I come from Venezuela, a beautiful country at the north of South America.

My country since 2015 has had

  • the world’s highest level of violence: 90 homicides per 100,000 people (to add context, the USA has four homicides per 100.000 people),
  • the world’s highest inflation rate: 480% in the first semester of 2016 with a projected number of 700% by the end of the year,
  • scarcity of food and medicines, and
  • a highly polarized political landscape.

It is a time bomb!

But as social workers we do not have the luxury to choose the political, social or economic context within which we work; indeed, the weight of our responsibility is greatest in the most difficult of contexts.

In such cases we cannot ignore short-term needs but must also not lose sight of our medium- and long-term goals.

Given the severity of the crisis we have been forced to come up with projects aimed at alleviating immediate basic needs such as hunger. One example is our schools staying open during the summer so that children can have a meal.

In the medium term, as we move forward in times of crisis, the focus must be on social policy and advocacy. What can we offer towards building a country with more balanced wealth distribution, equal opportunities and stronger institutions that can better respond to the needs of people in areas such as education, health, housing and work opportunities?

It is undoubtedly a challenge to stay focused in an environment defined by crisis, but we must strive to develop new paradigms that redefine how the state, the private sector and the social sector work together to not only overcome our current challenges but also allow us to chart a better future for and with our communities.

Mahatma Gandhi’s ideals of non-violence

Finally, I would like to share with you that this year I am honored to preside over a new organization with the family of Mahatma Gandhi, called Mahatma Gandhi Venezuela. It is the first international branch of the Mahatma Gandhi Foundation in India.

This organization endeavors to promote Gandhi’s pacifist message to counteract the culture of violence in that currently prevails in Venezuela. It seeks to sow seeds of hope throughout the country to harvest a movement for non-violence and peace as a way of life.

The vicious cycle of violence that has spread at all levels of society can be reversed. Important changes within the political and economic framework are required, but our call is from the human perspective. Efforts have to be made so that any positive impact can be made sustainable.

The 2nd of October is the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi and has been designated by the UN as the International Day of Non-Violence. We are organizing a “Week for Non Violence,” when different organizations including international delegations will come together via various platforms including discussion forums, music concerts, and neighborhood events, to raise a stronger voice in the quest for non-violence and peace in Venezuela.

I urge you, in your own way, within your own reality, to always fight for what you believe in with love, compassion, respect and acceptance of others.

It is your time to find and strengthen your talents and put them to good use.

As Mahatma Gandhi said:

“Your tomorrow depends entirely on what you do today.”

Thank you.