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3 ‘innovators’ from PH join elite list of world’s ‘social entrepreneurs’

Three “changemakers” in the Philippines were inducted as Ashoka fellows in Taguig City on Wednesday night, bringing to nine the number of people in the country who are part of the world’s largest and most prestigious network of social innovators.

The newest additions to the elite group are Amina Evangelista Swanepoel, founding executive director of Roots of Health; Bai Rohaniza Mateo Sumndad-Usman, founding president of Teach Peace Build Peace Movement; and Zhihan Lee, chief executive officer and founder of Bagosphere, who is a Singaporean based in the Philippines. Lee is being honored for his work in the Philippines.

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Ashoka was founded in 1980 by luminary Bill Drayton, who coined the term “social entrepreneur,” and is devoted to building and supporting a community of high-impact problem solvers.

There are 3,500 Ashoka fellows in 93 different countries, several of which have gone on to win the Ramon Magsaysay Award, Asia’s highest civilian honor. One fellow, India’s Kailash Satyarthi, won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2014.

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The fellows are chosen after a highly selective process that involves extensive research, interviews, and local and international evaluations—and the result is indisputable, given that data has shown that majority of Ashoka fellows change national-level systems within the first 10 years of their selection.

This year’s inductees from the Philippines are a diverse mix, recognized for work in reproductive health, peace-building and livelihood education—but in the typical Ashoka mold, their solutions to chronic social woes are similar in their novelty and potency.

Roots of Health, which Swanepoel founded after moving to Puerto Princesa City, Palawan, from New York in 2009, empowers women and girls in some of the poorest pockets of the province by offering a formidable combination of comprehensive sex education and high-quality clinical services.

“What started almost nine years ago as three full-time staff is now 30 staff members serving the contraceptive needs of 17,000 women in a year,” Swanepoel told the Inquirer.

The organization also taught at least 18,000 young people, trained more than 1,000 barangay health workers and prevented over 5,000 unwanted pregnancies in 2017—all in a predominantly Catholic nation where reproductive health is still often treated warily.

“In Palawan, we’re working with some of the poorest populations, and we’ve found that politics and religion hardly comes into play at the very poorest levels,” Swanepoel said. “Whenever I’ve interviewed women who are not using contraception and I ask them why, they always say it’s because they can’t afford it.”

The initial problem Roots of Health sought to solve—girls dropping out of college due to unplanned pregnancies—has given way to a wholesale curriculum that also includes talking about consent and power dynamics alongside the more technical details of reproductive health.

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“We focus on providing accurate information in a nonjudgmental manner, and for some of these kids, they’ve never had that before,” Swanepoel said. The organization is also training local officials to change—and institutionalize—their approach to young people.

Sumndad-Usman, founder of Teach Peace Build Peace, sees herself as divinely appointed to carry out the organization’s mission—making every Filipino child a peace-builder—having been the product of a Maranao Muslim father and Catholic mother, and coming from a family of freedom fighters.

“At the same time, I experienced the Gulf War in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, when I was 7 years old,” Sumndad-Usman told the Inquirer. “So I find a bit of myself in every child who fears the sound of war.”

Her organization teaches peace in schools and communities using formal materials, which include topics like conflict resolution and mediation, but also through music, art, games, sports and service—training children to be “peace heroes.”

The organization’s pilot areas were an interfaith elementary school in Taguig City, a Muslim community in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, and an Aeta community in Porac, Pampanga—areas where she would be asked: “How can we teach peace to our kids if when they leave their schools, all they hear are bombs and gunfire?”

This conflict was made even starker when the organization began working with children in Marawi after the siege—one of whom told Sumndad-Usman that his dream was to be a member of the Islamic State. But correcting the violent narratives these kids grew up with motivates her all the more.

“We want to instill the mindset that no matter who you are, what your religion is, you have a social responsibility when it comes to peace-building,” Sumndad-Usman said.

Lee’s organization, Bagosphere, puts its own unique twist on livelihood training and job preparation programs, working with employers to offer out-of-school youth a direct line “to go from poverty to transformational professional careers in a few months.”

“What we have done is to create an entire framework supporting the journey from education to employment,” Lee told the Inquirer. About 85 percent of Bagosphere graduates are employed within two months.

Bagosphere was launched in Bago City, Negros Occidental, in 2013, and is current headquarters is located in Bacolod City. The organization is looking to expand its footprint in Metro Manila.

“Typically, vocational training around the world has been focusing on technical skills, but our program focuses on socioemotional skills,” Lee said. “There’s more emphasis [now] on soft skills … things robots can’t do, like empathy, perseverance, ability to manage challenges as they come, these things are really integrated in the context of the job.”

Lee had done volunteer work in Laos, Thailand and India, and worked for a startup in Sweden, which all helped fashion him into an individual who thinks outside the grain, looking at vocational programs as “not as simple as just training—it’s a series of support.”

Lee said, “I’m very excited about the whole framework of Ashoka, which is ‘Everyone a Changemaker.’ … I think the whole notion of everyone a changemaker is to empower young people to believe that there is a better future, and to go and grab it.” /jpv

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