Mi Voz, Nuestra Historia (My Voice, Our Story): Cultivating Social and Educational Inclusion in Colombia

Mi voz, nuestra historia es un proyecto audiovisual que promueve inclusión y conciencia en la educación popular colombiana || Mi Voz, Nuestra Historia (My Voice, Our Story) is an audiovisual storytelling and teacher training project that promotes inclusion and awareness in Colombian popular education.

The official “Mi Voz, Nuestra Historia” documentary can be viewed and shared here. It premiered on October 20th, 2017 at the UNICULTURAL event in Bogotá.

What does it mean to feel heard? Can you recall an experience where you felt truly listened to?

Envision that moment: Who were you with? Was it a small, seemingly unimportant moment, or one you knew could change your path? How did this person validate your story and elevate your voice?

Activists Julieth, Angela, and Neris traveled from Cali, on the Pacific coast of Colombia, to the capital of Bogotá (population 8 million) to share their stories with the future educators of ÚNICA.

Sharing the Mi Voz, Nuestra Historia project’s message of inclusion and popular education with students, colleagues, and friends over the last few months has been the impetus of an ongoing conversation and collective knowledge sharing, providing a framework to ask big questions about the role of the teacher as listener.

After filming the documentary in September, director Leonardo Rua and I communicated daily to ensure the film would be ready for the October premiere at ÚNICA. We enlisted the help of Pacific Coast native DJ Charly, who wrote original music for the film that included the traditional Pacific sounds of the marimba with a modern hip-hop beat.

I arrived in Colombia for the second phase and UNICULTURAL Mi Voz, Nuestra Historia workshop the week of October 16th. That week, I met every day with Carolina Abello, UNICA’s Director of Student Life, as well as Charlie Buenaño and Laura Vacca, the two UNICA students who facilitated the workshop. My goal was to stay true to the goal of the project by making the workshop as student-driven as possible. During these planning sessions, we developed Laura’s presentation on an Introduction to Digital Storytelling as a Methodology for Inclusion and drafted questions for the panel on popular education that Charlie would moderate with the film participants. We made sure the corresponding technology was in place to air the ÚNICA student video interviews, presentations, and the official Mi Voz, Nuestra Historia world premiere. I also attended a meeting at the Fulbright Colombia offices for an interview about the project and met virtually with Leonardo to finalize the film for its debut.

The day-long UNICULTURAL workshop explored the project’s central questions: What is the role of the educator in building equity and inclusion in a new era of peace? How can I apply digital storytelling and principles of popular education to build a more inclusive classroom?
A joyful reunion dinner the night before UNICULTURAL

Julieth, Angela, and Neris reunited in Bogotá on October 19th for the first time since their days in the Escuela Ciudadana, bubbling with nervous excitement for the following day’s event. At dinner, we reviewed the structure and agenda for the day, and Neris, a storyteller through and through, regaled us with the stories from his life and his rural informal education that he planned to share on the panel. To kick off UNICULTURAL the next morning, ÚNICA Director María Lucía Casas welcomed our guests and spoke about the invaluable knowledge and understanding gained from listening to someone’s story, emphasizing that it is the most truthful way to forge lasting human connection. By the end of the day, María Lucía even fondly beginning to refer to Neris as “profe” (teacher) and joked that they were going to hire him in Bogotá as the newest ÚNICA staff member. Students and future educators, Laura and Charlie, facilitated the workshop and panel as we premiered the digital storytelling project. There was listening on both sides as students processed how this framework could impact the climate of their classrooms. The university’s student committee planned a lunch to chat with the guests in a more intimate setting. In the afternoon, classes performed short skits, musical selections, and mingled with the activists.

Sarah introducing the ÚNICA student presenters and Mi Voz, Nuestra Historia invited panelists.
ÚNICA Director María Lucía Casas kicked off the day by welcoming guests. “Este concepto de la voz, este concepto de contar historias, de que significa poder contar, es la manera de que se tejen puentes, es una relación que va para siempre. Hoy van a ver como muchas cosas que parecen que nos diferencian, al contrario, nos unen como colombianos, en nuestra sentido de ser docentes…lo que estamos diciendo es que quiero estirar mi mano y quiero prestar mi voz para que estemos todos juntos y para que nos encontremos.” [This concept of voice, of telling stories and what it means to be able to tell them, is the way we build bridges. It’s a connection that lasts forever. Today, you’re going to see many things that at first seem to show how we’re different, but it’s really the opposite. These ideas unite us as Colombians and unite us in our quest to be educators. What we’re saying today is: I reach out my hand to you and I lend my voice so that we can find common ground, together.]
The “Mi Voz, Nuestra Historia” workshop team (L to R: Neris Obando, Charlie Buenaño, Sarah Cohen, Angela Angulo, Julieth Balanta, and Laura Vacca)

The best part of the day, for me, was witnessing the effortless connection that formed between the ÚNICA community and our invited guests. After the panelists shared from their own experiences — including Neris’ admission that he never thought he would be recognized in a formal education setting, given his own informal education — several ÚNICA students and staff were inspired to take the floor and tell their own story. One professor even shared that she too grew up in a rural community and never attended primary school. Participants sent notes of reflection and gratitude after the event, sharing that this experience renewed a great deal of strength to continue on in the fight for recognition. I also collated the data from the workshop exit ticket and found that we met the goals stated on the proposal’s Performance Monitoring Plan of 95% or greater agreeing with the statement, “I am confident that today’s sessions will help me build a more inclusive and culturally responsive classroom.”

The exit ticket after the workshop asked students to give a personal definition of “popular education as a tool for inclusion.” This one reads: “[Popular education] is giving a group of people the opportunity to get to know and express themselves to others. It’s sharing stories and knowledge through the voice of another, regardless of color, race, or gender. [In popular education] Words hold power and they are treated with the same potential and equal weight by and for everyone.”
ÚNICA student Charlie Buenaño and “Profe” Neris Obando exchange stories over lunch.
Julieth, on the panel “What is popular education?”: “La educación popular es: dar vida, dar voz, dar un espacio a esas historias que casi no figuran en nuestro diario de vivir. A mi me parece bastante poderoso la idea de que mi historia, mi experiencia, pueda ser fuente de conocimiento. Es una educación que no tiene arriba ni abajo, no tiene fronteras, sino que es bastante ‘tu a mi’, que conecta.” [Popular education is giving life, giving voice, giving a space to those stories that are basically unheard in our daily lives. It seems exceptionally powerful to me that my voice, my story, can be a source of knowledge. It’s a non-hierarchical education without borders, connecting us directly — me to you.]

After returning from Colombia, I stayed in close contact with Leonardo to edit the final version of the video by adding English subtitles and audio masterization, and we are proud to share the final result. It has led to several profound conversations in a variety of settings around inclusion, the universality of searching for a voice, and what it means to feel truly listened to. In the last few months, I gave a presentation to my colleagues on the Instructional Coaching team at Academy for Urban School Leadership. Julieth shared about the project at the United Nations while participating in a Fellowship for People of African Descent living in the diaspora. I also met with the lead member of an Afro-Colombian musical group in Chicago from the Pacific Region, who came to the U.S. as a result of the armed conflict, and the final line of the film has inspired the group to compose a new song with the same theme of “taking a stand to say: our people deserve respect”. Fellow U.S. Alumni TIES alumna Jessica Peng and I are collaborating on a paper entitled “Imagining New Forms of Knowledge Production: The Role of Visual Communications in International Educational Practices”, which was presented in March at the Comparative and International Education Society’s annual conference in Mexico City.

This project has taken on many shapes and forms in its short life, leading me to believe that this is just the beginning of the conversation. I remain extremely grateful to the U.S. Department of State and World Learning, and I look forward to continued dialogue as the message of Mi Voz, Nuestra Historia continues to spark conversations around the world.

The official “Mi Voz, Nuestra Historia” documentary, which premiered on October 20th, 2017 at the UNICULTURAL event in Bogota, can be viewed and shared here. For ideas on how to structure conversations around the film within your classroom or organization, reach out to Sarah at mivoznuestrahistoria@gmail.com.

Alumni Thematic International Exchange Seminars (Alumni TIES) are regionally focused seminars for alumni of U.S. government-sponsored exchange programs.