(The following post is based on a speech given at conPRmetidos' Kickoff events in Washington, DC, Miami, FL, San Juan, PR, and New York City, NY)
It all started with a conversation among four Puerto Rican Millenials at a dinner last October - a conversation about the dire crisis the Island is facing. Quick, on-the-spot, Google searches for major socioeconomic indicators unveiled the grim reality:
· 45% of the Puerto Rican population lives under poverty (twice as high as Mississippi's 22.4%, the state with the highest rate in U.S.).
· Puerto Rico's murder rate is five times the national average (due in part to an outburst of drug traffic related violence).
· Puerto Rico had one of the slowest growth forecast in the world in 2011 according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.
· GNP per capita in Puerto Rico is roughly $15,000, about one-third of the level on the U.S. mainland.
· Due to these factors, there is a brain drain of those who might play a role in fixing these problems, with total population on the Island shrinking by the biggest percentage loss of any U.S. jurisdiction according to the last Census.
What seemed most troubling to us, beyond the current state of affairs, was the lack of hope Puerto Ricans share when it comes to the Island's future. And it is not entirely unjustified.
In Puerto Rico, social and economic development is deferred almost completely to the government due, perhaps, and in part, to what we perceive as the Island's lack of a strong and organized civil society (for example, less than 10% of Puerto Rico's non-profits have a federal 501(c)(3) status). To make matters worse, for more than 50 years, political opinion and the political parties in the Island have been officially organized around a single issue: Puerto Rico's territorial political status. The result being that debate and public discourse in the Island of traditional "left-to-right" ideologies (e.g. democrat/republican, tory/labour) and possible public policies inspired by these ideologies is often framed within the territorial status issue's limiting context and its political players. As such, when we go to the polls as civil society, we can tend to set aside critical considerations of candidates' possible platforms for short and long term public policy planning and administration for broader considerations on what we believe the territorial status should be.
As we continued to look at the depressing statistics to put a price tag on our current political reality, we realized one thing: We are not only failing to progress because our single-issue political actors are failing us. We are failing to progress because we expect our single-issue political actors to act alone.
We - citizens, non-governmental organizations, and businesses - need to be "comprometidos" (Spanish for "engaged," "involved," and "committed") in our role as proactive, coordinated, and innovative members Puerto Rico's civil society. The real hope and opportunity for Puerto Rico is in filling its civil society void.
How do we move from recognizing a need for a powerful civil society to finding ways to organize and develop it? How do we build much-needed capacity in Puerto Rico's non-profit sector and engage the private sector's infrastructure and capabilities to advance the development of Puerto Rico? The second our conversation turned to finding concrete solutions, conPRmetidos, as a movement and as an independent, non-partisan and non-profit organization, began to take shape.
We knew that to find practical answers and solutions to our questions, we needed to learn from and engage other non-profit, private and public leaders and social entrepreneurs in our conversation. As part of that effort, our new organization took action.
Last February, conPRmetidos participated in the 2012 Harvard Social Enterprise Conference (as the only Puerto Rican organization represented) to learn and get inspiration from peers throughout the U.S. and around the world working in social innovation and entrepreneurship. In March, we hosted a panel on community engagement through technology and social networks at the 2012 Puerto Rican Student Conference hosted by Yale and recruited some of the top talent from the Island and the diaspora. From June to July, we engaged with several hundred Puerto Ricans and friends of Puerto Rico when we successfully launched the organization in Washington, DC, Miami, San Juan, and New York City in an effort to put conPRmetidos, and our shared mission, on the map.
Throughout this initial phase, we came across innovative models and best practices that are currently being implemented in the U.S. and across the world to advance socioeconomic development. We discovered, for example, how the private sector is directly stepping in to educate disengaged youth through education-for-employment programs that create pipelines for economic opportunities that benefit both citizens and firms. How the U.S. and other countries, and even companies, are harnessing the power of professionals in diaspora (like those we have connected in NYC, Miami, and DC) through technology and social networks to fulfill human and economic development goals. We were also inspired by the success of collective efforts of social enterprises working in partnership with the private and public sectors in cities across the U.S. to implement programs to motivate, educate and train underserved youth for jobs in the emerging Green economy and other growing industries.
It is obvious to our generation that Puerto Rico is in dire need of similar innovative and evidence-based models and programs to start tackling the current unprecedented socioeconomic crisis. At conPRmetidos, we are not trying to reinvent the wheel. Instead, we aim to bring successful innovative models, and best practices, to the Island. We have already started to bring these initiatives to Puerto Rico through a number of pilot programs and strategic partnerships.
In just a few months we have grown from recognizing a need over a friendly conversation to developing solutions to accomplish shared goals across Puerto Rican society. However, a critical part of our way out of this crisis is that we, as Puerto Rico's Millennials, family and friends, recognize that we have the skills and knowledge necessary to further our Island's progress. We must recognize that we are Puerto Rico's civil society.
We can no longer allow being told that we are the future of the Island while we stand idle and witness it drowning every day. Our future is today. The time has come to put an end to the pervasive hopelessness, roll up our sleeves, engage as civil society, and work, together, for Puerto Rico. The time has come to get conPRmetidos.
(To learn more about conPRmetidos and how to get involved, join us on Facebook
Follow Miguel Columna on Twitter: www.twitter.com/conprmetidos