An opportunity for social innovators in Latin America

The first step towards creating a model for a business-educational program for at-risk youth has been research. Today I will share with you reserach I’ve done to analyse the most common approaches done in Latin America by social innovators to improve the lives of at-risk youth.

At-risk youth are victims of an exclusive system that perpetuates inequality. I believe youth can be empowered to change their living conditions and aspire to a better life. I believe in the pursuit of justice, equality and systemic change. I believe even though “at-risk youth” is a deeply rooted issue; it is also an area of opportunity for social entrepreneurs. Several social innovators have created powerful solutions to create change. With the help of Ashoka’s Discovery Framework this analysis will present several areas of opportunity to approach the problems at-risk youth are facing in Latin America.

The Problem

In Latin America youth mostly from low-income communities are dropping out of school and engaging in risk activities such as: drugs, vandalism, prostitution, etc.

Root Cause of the Problem


Being an Adolescent is hard in any economic position. Nevertheless if added to the challenges that arrive at that age; poverty, racism, social exclusion, bad influences, insecure neighborhoods, adolescence can become the downhill of a human being. These factors lead youth from underprivileged communities in Latin America to engage in behaviors that can be harmful to themselves and others. Latin America has suffered from this for decades, having now several generations emerged in the same problems. Parents have learned the same from their own parents and cannot teach a way out, they can only teach what they know. Generation after generation has become embedded in a system sustained by social exclusion, as stated by the United Nations; “Social exclusion is produced by systematic and institutional discrimination and other forms of rejection that leave out persons or groups from the mainstream system of economic, social, and political relationships” (Cruz-Saco 2008). Latin America although a group of developing countries, distinguishes itself with extreme economic disparity. A study done by the United Nations revealed “the region continues to have the most severe economic inequality in the world showing that efforts to redistribute income and assets have made small progress” (Cruz-Saco 2008). Of course along with economic disparity, unequal access to education, health and political power are hand in hand:

“Inequality in Latin America is mainly due to the interlocking effect of four things, says the Bank: access to education is unequal; the earnings of educated people are disproportionately high; the poor have more children with whom they must share their income; and targeting of public spending is ineffective” (A stubborn curse 2003).

While many of the policy elite in Latin American have been students in American Ivy Leagues, in most rural families in Latin America, youth are encouraged to leave school so that they can bring an income to their homes. It is not rare that adolescents find illicit ways to obtain money. CEPAL, an organization part of the United Nations published an article showing that “thirty seven percent of Latin American adolescents (from 15 to 19 years) drop out of school before completing secondary education. Almost half leave early, without finishing primary school, but in several countries most leave during the first year of high school”(High Students Drop-Out Rates in Latin America 2002). When these kids leave school whether voluntarily or obligated by their parents they usually become at-risk youth. They become vulnerable to the insecure streets and have a higher probability of engaging in conflict, substance abuse, prostitution, and homelessness.

Defining at-risk youth:

“At risk’ youth in urban settings include all those young girls and boys whose living conditions, health and circumstances or behaviors place them at risk of victimization and/or involvement in crime. They include, but are not limited to, youth already in conflict with the law, those living in urban slums, street children, youth gangs, school-drop outs, unemployed youth, substance abusing youth, those who are sexually exploited, war-affected children, and those affected by the pandemic of HIV/AIDS including orphans” ( n.d.).

One of the worst situations that an adolescent has to face is having “absent” parents. When youth at such a vulnerable time in their lives lack family support, the feeling of loneliness can be atrocious. A study done by the United Nations stated that “the intensity of rejection and intolerance can create emotional and physical harm to excluded persons” (Cruz-Saco 2008). Human beings have a tendency to create communities and a need of inclusion. Therefore, it is only natural that adolescents try to “find their place” in the streets of their communities. Without school and parental guidance youth will get involved in risky activities simply to “fit in”. A study done on Latin America by the World Bank demonstrated that:

“As many as 25 to 32 percent of the 12- to 24-year-old population are suffering the consequences of at least one kind of risky behavior. These young people have dropped out of school, are young parents, are not employed, are addicted to drugs, or have been arrested(Cunningham, et al. 2008).”

Without the right guidance not much can be expected from this kids. Can education be blamed or judged in Latin America? Government institutions, policy makers, educational reformers, have all been focusing their efforts in educating the elite to become wealthy professionals. Nevertheless they are leaving millions of children with poor education or without any. The same study mentioned before from the World Bank stated that “feeling disconnected from school has emerged from the research as an explanatory factor for all kinds of risky behavior, and some argue that it is the most important factor affecting all kinds of behavior”(Cunningham, et al. 2008).

Latin American Educational System in general (because it changes from country to country) lacks the support of well-prepared teachers that feel a sense of responsibility towards their students: “on average, teachers’ qualifications in Latin America fall short of what is needed to implement and sustain the education reforms under way in most countries (Teacher Training in Latin America: Innovations and Trends 2000).” When teachers are not qualified to teach and engage students in their education they become part of the reason why youth decides to drop out of school. When kids decide to drop out they do not have the maturity yet to understand the consequences that this decision will bring to their future. When the kids drop out of school in Latin America, they will be lucky to even find a low paying job on the streets. The World Bank revealed, “one in four young people in LAC are jobless, meaning that they are not working and not in school (Cunningham, et al. 2008).” The following chart is part of the study done by the World Bank on different Latin American Countries to try to understand the main reasons why kids are dropping out of school:

Screenshot 2015-10-12 18.30.55

It can be observed that the main reason why Latin American’s are dropping out of school is the need for money, followed by and directly related to the need for work.

board-953155_1280 My understanding is that many young girls and boys from low-income community either do not have the access to education or have access to low quality education in Latin America. Even though governments in Latin America spend a large amount of money in education, they are not providing quality education equally. Public Schools in Latin America lack extra-curricular activities for students in order to support and strengthen their skills as human beings. The system perpetuates the exclusion of low-income children therefore creating generations of youth that feel worthless and left out. Education in Latin America does not empower youth from low communities to find and exploit their potential to become successful, secure, self-sufficient adults.

Framing Innovation

How to keep at-risk youth from low-income communities in school and improve the likelihood of going to college and/or learning to be self-sufficient?

From my research I can conclude that the main reason why youth in Latin America are dropping out of school is the need for money. My assumption is that there is a need for programs to better-fit youth from low-income communities. There is a need to create a more personalized curriculum that adjusts better to their schedules and that provides at-risk youth with a safe environment where they can stay longer and feel productive. Also, because they are in need of jobs, they require skills to obtain them and perform better once they become employed. An insight I can make from the research done, is that there is a need for youth to aspire to a better future, to see and understand that the world holds possibilities for them. With the right tools they could have a better standard of living. Genesys Works, a nonprofit organization from the United States devoted to at-risk youth, stated that “we tend to follow the norms established in the communities we live in (Genesys Works n.d.)” Human beings learn from their surroundings, therefore exposing at-risk youth to a different scenario can open up their minds to aspire to a different reality. Youth must understand the importance of staying in school and the tools and benefits that school can provide for their futures.


Part of the Ashoka Discovery Framework is to define the barriers (problems) that we learned from our research and that the selected social entrepreneurs for this analysis are attempting to approach in innovative ways. The Discovery Framework defines barriers as: “The Barriers are core components of a problem that, if changed, could allow for true systems-change…They must be movable, actionable, and specific to the problem (Changemakers 2010)”

Lack of Social Integration

The school system is designed as though everyone’s reality were the same. Curriculum is not designed for those who from a young age have a need to work. Youth from low-income communities live in constant humiliation and fear. From a very young age, kids from low-income communities are separated from high-income youth. Low-income youth do not see the conditions in which high-income youth live in, the education they receive, the luxuries of extra-curricular activities, personalized attention and the tranquility that comes from getting their basic needs covered. The lack of social integration perpetuates a system where not all children play together or learn together, where some children “deserve” more than others, when all youth have the same needs.

Present Education System does not prepare all students for college or the workplace

When the foundations of core subjects are not well understood by all students, the system leaves people behind. Students need to pass core ninth-grade courses in English, math, science, and social studies if they are to remain on track for high school graduation ( 2008) and many students do. However, even though they may be going through high school, some students are not really learning and at one point some will stop caring about school completely. Public schools exclude children because they “do not know” or “do not understand,” making it seem as though it is the student’s fault they are failing, when it is the system that is failing. Low-Income youth especially need to understand the strong relationship between schoolwork and their real-life needs. If they could see that school is important, that college is necessary to become a professional and if they can understand that they can aspire to a better future, perhaps more children could stay in school.


Youth from low income communities believe they “don’t care” about school, that school is “useless” that they are not good at it and that it is not for them. At-risk youth lack confidence, hope and vision for the future. They have no energy to pursue a better life because they cannot even imagine it. Part of the reason for this is that most youth in low-income communities do not have positive parental involvement in their lives. Youth at risk drop out of school mostly because they are not interested in their classes and they have no motivation to attend.

Physical and Emotional Health

At-risk youth could be suffering from abuse, alcohol consumption, domestic violence, violent relationships, pregnancy, low self-esteem, health issues and malnutrition, among other problems. At-risk youth need therapy in most cases, they need professionals to get them through situations like this so they can even begin to look at life in a different way.

Family Disintegration

Usually at-risk youth come from economically disadvantaged families. Nevertheless the institution of family is very important in Latin American Culture. No matter how troubled a family may be there is always a sense of need and dependency, a strong cultural bond towards all family members including uncles, cousins, etc. Family integration is essential for the healthy development of youth in Latin America.

Lack of Prepared Teachers

Teachers are the bond between society’s needs and the educational system. In Latin America this bond is very weak; teachers cannot prepare their students properly since they are lacking the proper training to do so. Teachers are not motivated by the educational system either since they are neither well paid nor respected by society. In Latin America being a professor is not a well respected or admired job.

Design Principles

The Discovery Framework defines Design Principles as: “insights and strategies we distill from the work of leading social entrepreneurs… They are clarifying ideas and insights that identify levers of change (Changemakers 2010)”. The Design Principles that were observed from the social entrepreneurs chosen for this research are:

Extra-Curricular Programs that link school to life


It has been proven by the entrepreneurs analyzed in this project that when students understand that what they are learning has a practical application in “real life,” they stay in school. When students know that what they are learning in school is clearly useful for them outside a classroom, they put more effort into it and become engaged in learning. A great example of this is “Alianza Lima”, where the first strategy to get the interest of the kids was through soccer. Their passion for soccer is clearly greater than any school subject but Sara Diestro uses the space and their engagement in what they love to get them involved in their schoolwork. This way they are not just staying in school but they are actually staying off the streets in their free time and becoming more productive.

Personalized Programs

At-risk youth have different needs from more economically advantaged youth. Not having a healthy environment to live in and needing to work to survive and bring money to their homes puts their mind and interests in places other than school. Providing a place for these kids and a way for them to meet their needs can help them grow. The SES foundation, for instance, has 22 different programs for youth. Whether they want an internship, a job, a leadership position in their community, or to develop programs to get family involved in the community, SES will support and guide them through the process. Fundacion Origen is also a good example of this. One of the ways they provide very personalized attention to their youth is by their holistic approach to education. They know that every child is different so they provide the space and the professors to guide them and find a way for them to express themselves through art, sports or work.

 Mentoring- Teaching by example

Many social entrepreneurs agree that when youth have a mentor they have a stronger chance to succeed. Mentors can be students their age that are doing well in school or that are already working in something they are interested in. Mentors can also be adults that can teach them a particular skill or about a sector that they may be interested in, like in one of the SES programs, Entra21 or Nokia-IYF. Mentors become new role models, and show youth that what they have seen is not the only thing they can aspire to. Mentors present students with real life opportunities and accomplishments, not just theory. Everyone needs support in life and sometimes youth at risk have no one they can trust to go for advice, help and support. Mentors and the youth community formed by this entrepreneurs form a network for life. “Cooperative Popular School” is a great example of using mentors as a strategy. This program is based on mentors alone and it provides a peer-to-peer teaching method.

 Community Engagement

Entrepreneurs in Latin America appear to focus a lot on community engagement to provide safer spaces for youth. When providing a healthy, inclusive, safe environment where students can learn more freely and are taught diverse topics they could be engaged in at-risk youth are able to open their minds to new possibilities. Entrepreneurs in Latin America focus in one way or another in getting the community involved in the projects youth may have so that together they can find a way to be self-sufficient and to create a healthier living environment for all. Julio Moure for example even got the parents in the community to build a school for their children. Although he provides a boarding school, he gives them agricultural and construction tools to work in development projects in the community along with their families.

Teacher Training

Because the lack of well-trained teachers is a problem in Latin America, some organizations train their own. Some, like Fundacion Origen, have both a school for youth and a school for teachers (Natura). EDISCA and Alianza Lima also train their teachers and when they have advanced level youth they give them training to become teachers for the organization as well. Other organizations with a different organizational structure use volunteers as their asset. Volunteers then make up for the teachers they might not be able to afford and in a way as mentioned before, volunteers become mentors and role models at the same time they all create a network.

The following section “Discovery Framework Grid” shows the innovative ways social entrepreneurs have approached different barriers in the field of “at-risk youth”. It also shows areas of opportunity for new entrepreneurs.

Screenshot 2015-10-12 18.35.55

The Innovators

PRECE – Projeto Educacional Coracao de Estudante (Brazil)

Manoel Andrade is the founder of PRECE. This organization has the objective of allowing low-income youth in Brazil receive the education they need in order to go on to college and become self-sufficient. Manoel’s program in based on mentoring, peer-to-peer teaching; he calls it “Cooperative Popular School.” He uses a test to evaluate the retention of information of his students and those that are learning the most become the mentors (retaining 80% of the information they read). The first goal of the program is that his students pass a high school equivalency exam and the second is that they pass the university admissions exam. Those that go on to college are expected to keep on mentoring they younger generations. Because those that go on to college focus on different areas, PRECE has created groups of discussion on a variety of topics. Manoel partnered with the Federal University so that it provides free housing and food to PRECE students that go off to college (Ashoka Innovators for the Public n.d.).

EDISCA-Esc. de Danca e Integr. Social p/Crian. e Adoles (School of Dance and Social Integration for Children and Adolescents) (Brazil)

Dora Andrade prima ballerina, created EDISCA in 1992 in Brazil. EDISCA is an intensive dance program for children living in deprived communities of Brazil. “It uses the discipline of ballet and dance as a means to get street and slum children away from drugs, prostitution and violence and focus their attention on improving their lives (EDISCA n.d.).” EDISCA provides several services besides dance such as: the safe space, support in education (they want youth to keep studying), health and psychological counseling, dental treatment, sexuality and body hygiene. EDISCA also organizes gatherings for the communities and their families. EDISCA asks her older and more advanced students to help mentor the younger generations (Ashoka Innovators for the Public n.d.).

Fundación Origen (Chile)

Mary Anne Müller Prieto founded Fundacion Origen in 1991 as a Hybrid Nonprofit. Mary Anne created an educational model for low-income risk youth in Chile. Fundacion Origen is a complex organization; they are in essence an Agro-Ecological School where their students graduate with a degree as Agricultural and Farming technicians. Fundacion Origen helps low-income youth, but they do have selection criteria for the kids that want to join them. The school provides students with skills to become self-confident, self-sufficient, and responsible as well as to develop their fullest potential. Fundacion Origen has a holistic approach in their learning culture. They believe that youth in order to learn need not only to focus on intellect but in mental, physical, emotional and spiritual aspects. When they are in their last year of school students have to complete an internship where they are encouraged to get a job at. Fundacion Origen has also a school for teachers called Natura. Through a program called Padres EAP they try to include parents in their children’s education. The organization not only obtains government funding and private donations they are also an organic farm. They sell cheese, eggs, bread, they have a hotel so they serve as a tourist attraction and they rent their rooms for special events. The organization develops strong relationships with businesses and foundations where they can provide training to their staff on sustainable practices (Fundacion Origen n.d.).

International Youth Foundation (World Wide)

Founded by Rick Little in 1990 with the aid of $70 million from the Kellogg Foundation. IFY operates in 78 countries (including Latin America), empowering youth with quality education, employability skills, orientation to make healthy choices and building community awareness. They have citizenship, learning and working programs to achieve their goal. Their education program is an alternative out-of-school work to teach their students practical, applicable to real life skills by using technology. The use of technology provides alternative sources of learning not only to the students but also to the teachers. One of the programs they have implemented in Latin America is called “Entra 21”, which “provides disadvantaged youth, ages 16-29, with employment training and job placement services so they can find decent jobs and increase their employability” (International Youth Foundation n.d.). They combine life and technical skills applicable to labor markets; they provide youth with internships and job placement services. Nokia-IYF is another program that covers Latin America, created to improve school performance, increase literacy, finding and maintaining employment, and active citizenship (International Youth Foundation n.d.).

Julio Moure (Mexico)

Moure created an innovative school in one of the most impoverished towns in Tabasco, Mexico. He learned that more than 70% of the children in the area dropped out of school before sixth grade. He then created a school with the objective not only to teach basic core subjects but also to teach them how to be self-sufficient and aid their community. His program is an intensive boarding school that runs from Tuesday to Thursday, for youth from 12 to 25 years old. He relates all subjects to their community work so that they can apply it in real life cases. For example, he uses math to teach them how to measure land, how to build a roof, etc. he teaches techniques such as fish farming, manioc and pig production. Moure integrates parents and students to develop their community, parents even built the school for their children.

Fundación SES (Sustainability, Education and Solidarity (SES) program) (Argentina)
Alberto Croce founded SES in 2000. SES has 22 programs that provide at risk youth with all kinds of opportunities for them to achieve self-sufficiency. They create educational, work, and community participation opportunities as well as credit and mentoring services for youth. They are able to do all this work by partnering with several organizations. One of their programs is called “Studying is the Way”, in which the organizations provides youth with aid to keep up with their school work and do community work at the same time. “Project to Prevent School Dropouts”, is a program used by SES in which they partner with public schools and the government to keep a rigorous control of the student’s absence. They have also partnered with Microsoft to fund social enterprises from Latin America that will support at-risk youth also from Latin America to become self-employed or obtain a good job. SES provides a program called “Foundations for employment and Finishing Education” were unemployed youth that have not finished their education can link real world experience from construction work to core subjects. SES is a big organization but in summary this are the basics of the foundation (Fundacion SES n.d.).

Alianza Lima “A school for Sports and Life” (Peru)

Sara Diestro began the organization in 1996 as a pilot program supported by Ashoka. “Alianza Lima” is an organization that supports disadvantaged and at-risk youth in Peru. The organization began focusing on the love of boys for soccer but now they also run a volleyball program for girls and if they want to play soccer they are welcome to do so. “Alianza Lima” offers educational support, medical and nutritional services. Some of the youth that have participated in “Alianza Lima” run off to become professional-level athletes others have even gone to college. Sara Diestro stated that “the importance of educational achievement is emphasized from the outset, and participants make voluntary but firm commitments to attend school on a regular basis.” The organization’s staffs are volunteer schoolteachers, students in Lima’s most prestigious universities, doctors, psychologists, nutritionists and other health professionals. The youth learn basic occupational skills as well; handcrafts, silk-screening, computer skills, dance, music, instrument playing and theater (Alianza Lima n.d.).

New Opportunities for Innovators


The areas of opportunity have been highlighted in pink in the “Discovery Framework Grid”. It can be observed that in general, even though organizations from Latin America may be approaching the need for teachers with volunteers and mentors these organizations cannot fill the need for well-prepared, trained teachers in all of Latin America.

The section disengagement/teacher training is a red flag for Latin America, but also an area of opportunity. Students do not feel engaged in their classes, and teachers are responsible for a big part of this disengagement. Now, although the effort of social entrepreneurs is keeping some youth in school and with the help of after-school activities and after-school motivation, this does not mean that students are truly engaged in school. Teacher training seems to be a different area of focus for new projects and innovations.

Now, I will approach the link between Extra-Curricular Programs that link school to life/Lack Social Integration and Extra-Curricular Programs that link school to life/Lack of Teachers together. In most cases, youth from low-income communities are still engaging only with their communities. Although they have “outsiders” as volunteers, they are still separated from the rest of society. There is not a program that lets these children get involved in a different sector or area in their cities. Several American entrepreneurs use the idea of teaching youth at risk or youth from low-income communities about business. Some organizations have partnerships with firms and corporations so these kids can do their internships with them, and perhaps one day even get a job with them. There is not this kind of model in Latin America. Most organizations are strongly focused on arts or sports, agriculture and construction, but there isn’t a strong program that can mentor youth to 1. See the infinite possibilities in the professional world and 2. Learn from businesspeople directly. Although the International Youth Foundation has job placements for kids and is extremely helpful, at-risk youth still lack the opportunity to become an equal part of society. The reason I incorporated the Lack of Teachers in this section is because Businesspeople can be great teachers.

Mentoring-Teaching by example/Lack of Social Integration. Alianza Lima is doing an amazing job in Peru. This organization is a great example of the way it is possible to integrate society through sports. The teachers at Alianza Lima are not just former players. Because in Latin America, soccer is in people’s hearts, youth and men from all sectors of society get involved with Alianza Lima. I mention this as an opportunity because they are currently only in Peru. It is a scalable project that could be replicable in all of Latin America. Argentina, Mexico, Colombia and many other Latin American countries definitely have soccer clubs for children. However over the years Alianza Lima has been able to add great value to the association, making it different from any other sports club. Because the founder of Alianza Lima integrates society as a whole, she provides education, counseling, music and dance, among several activities. It is a unique organization with a strong approach to social integration.

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