Challenges of promoting social change via fellowships

The Ford Foundation’s postgraduate fellows from Brazil, Guatemala and México stand out from their Asian, African and Middle Eastern counterparts for the indelible mark left on them by slavery, exploitation of indigenous people and the United States’ interference in Latin American affairs.

This is one of the conclusions of the recently published study of the Ford Foundation’s International Fellowships Program or IFP, titled Leaders, Contexts and Complexities: IFP impacts in Latin America, that looked at the experience of 657 fellows from those three countries.

The aim of the IFP worldwide is to contribute to social change by turning their fellows into better social change promoters. This is why all 4,305 men and women in 22 countries awarded IFP grants from 2001 to 2013, including Latin Americans, came from marginalised communities and had shown academic and leadership potential as well as commitment to social causes.

In Brazil, 74% of fellows were Afro-Brazilian or from indigenous groups and over half were born in the poor North and Central West regions. In Guatemala, they were recruited from indigenous, Afro-Guatemalans and poor, non-indigenous rural and urban groups. In México, most fellows belonged to 38 of México’s 62 official indigenous people groups.

The Latin American report, as well as the other reports on the IFP, combine fieldwork in the regions and draw on data of a 2015 IFP Global Alumni Survey, released in 2016. Asian findings were published in March 2017; fieldwork is currently being carried out in Africa and the Middle East.

Report readers are warned that in the case of Latin America, the qualitative and contextual nature of the research does not make it possible “to extrapolate the report’s findings to the Latin American or global IFP populations”. It explains that only three out of the five countries with IFPs were included in the study (Chile and Perú were left out) and the fieldwork focused only on alumni living in their home countries.


Mirka Martel, from the Institute of International Education, that produced the IFP studies, says that for her the most interesting findings in the Latin American report are the “nuanced role of the scholarship programmes”.

While fellows were already promoting social change in various ways, she explains, “the scholarship supported these efforts through providing technical knowledge, advance degrees and, in some cases, professional recognition”.

“For some alumni, the scholarship really contributed to their ability to promote social justice in their communities and organisations. However, for others, while the scholarship was a benefit, the local circumstances that stem from economic and political issues or continued discrimination have prevented them from progressing professionally.”

The 2015 global IFP survey found that 88% of alumni from Brazil, México and Guatemala felt the fellowship had given them a better understanding of how to make improvements in their countries and communities.

“If you have more information, of course you can understand contexts better,” Guatemalan Ursula Roldán told researchers from the Institute of International Education.

Others said they had gained general technical or field-specific knowledge or useful tools such as computing, English and writing.

IFP fellows can study in their home countries and regions as well as overseas. As only a few Latin American fellows knew foreign languages, most studied in their own countries or in the region.

Some of the Brazilian, Guatemalan and Mexican fellows who studied overseas became aware of the depth of discrimination in their own countries when observing cultural diversity and pluralism elsewhere, or saw their own cultural roots in a new light, as was the case for Afro-Brazilian fellows meeting other Afro-descendant cultures, the report says.

For some indigenous people, such as Paulo Baltazar, a member of Brazil’s Terena tribe who spent his childhood in the huge Pantanal wetlands but studied in Sao Paulo, the country’s economic capital, the fellowship taught them how to live in an urban world.

Baltazar now teaches at the Federal University of Mato Grosso do Sul and with a fellow IFP student founded the Terena Institute for Intercultural Education, which helps local tribes repossess indigenous lands. Baltazar has also become a link between indigenous and non-indigenous communities.

His example is not unique. According to the 2015 global survey, 43% of Brazilians, Guatemalans and Mexicans who responded said they had created a new organisation or programmes within existing organisations after their fellowship.

Guatemalan Domingo Yojcom Rocché, who studied for a doctorate in educational mathematics at México’s Instituto Politécnico Nacional, founded the Center of Scientific and Cultural Research on Mayan epistemology. In Brazil, an IFP graduate set up the Black Institute of Alagoas which deals with racial issues in this north-eastern state.

Some Latin American alumni are training others to work on social issues. Afro-Brazilian Mabel Assis, for example, now works for the Coordination Office for Gender and Racial Equality in the city of Guarulhos. There she designed and implemented an eight-hour intensive training for health workers and policy-makers on how to serve the needs of the Afro-Brazilian population.

Self-esteem boosted

The report also highlights the fact that the IFP increased their alumni’s self-esteem and many felt more empowered after the experience.

“I am in no doubt that my masters degree had a positive impact on my self-esteem,” Assis, who studied social anthropology and earlier was a social worker at Fala Preta, a black women’s organisation, told University World News.

“Having a masters as well as new and relevant knowledge increased my self-confidence in my ethical, political and professional roles.”

However, as is the case with many other IFP graduates interviewed for the study, it was difficult for Assis to re-enter the work market after she left it to study for her masters: “My competencies shone and opened doors but not enough to be offered an adequate remuneration.”

In addition to difficult labour market conditions, IFP graduates have continued to face discrimination, most often because of their race, ethnic identity or gender, the report adds.

Eventually, most have got a job, though maybe without the profile or salary they aspired to. According to the 2015 global survey, 70% of IFP alumni in Brazil, Guatemala and México who answered it were employed, whereas another 13% were pursuing full-time academic studies or professional training; and 71% were working as professors, teachers and researchers.

Community leaders

The fieldwork for the Latin American study made it clear that many alumni have become community leaders. Flora Gutiérrez, from a remote indigenous community in Zapoteca, Oaxaca, México, returned home after completing her masters in criminal law in Mexico City. She has either founded or become involved with four networks of indigenous lawyers.

One of them is an Indigenous Female Lawyers Network. “Her social project is growing and becoming a reference in the region and in the state,” says a member of another indigenous women’s network.

Serving as an institutional or personal model is a kind of community leadership shared by many fellows, the study highlights. Some 74% of 2015 survey respondents in Latin America said they felt they were role models for members of their home communities, and 66% said others look to them when advocating for social justice.

This is despite the fact that many indigenous alumni from Guatemala and México have kept the fact of their IFP fellowship hidden from their communities and colleagues.

Says the report: “In the view of some indigenous alumni, higher education has sometimes been used as a tool for oppressing vulnerable communities and privileging non-indigenous knowledge and language. As a result, members of indigenous communities might view those who have received graduate training with caution or even suspicion.

“Obtaining a graduate degree – and especially one pursued overseas with the support of a US foundation – can register as a sort of betrayal of one’s indigenous roots.”

The report relates this fact to “the legacies of slavery, the exploitation of indigenous peoples, and colonial rule, as well as more recent US and European influence”.

It notes “the prominent role of Western donors in financing education and development programmes in the region”, which has led some influential thinkers such as the Brazilian Paulo Freire to write about the role of education “in proliferating the power structures created during colonialism and made worse through foreign aid…”.

“In IFP’s case, the link to international scholarship education and foreign funds offered to fellows by an international foundation such as Ford, with its own institutional goals, comes to light,” the report adds.