Networking for inclusion: A story from Colombia


Bucaramanga is a cluster of four municipalities (including Bucaramanga itself and Floridablanca) towards the North East of Colombia. Its ‘red inclusiva’ is an excellent example of the kind of ‘small group of committed citizens’ that Margaret Mead had in mind when discussing how social change is achieved. This is a short version of their story, which I have also tried to capture in photos Image






I first visited Bucaramanga in the Autumn of 2007 as the guest of Gloria (whose daughter Heidy was my Spanish teacher), a school-teacher with a passion for inclusive education. Since then I have visited ten more times and always meet up with this growing network of citizen activists, the core group of which have come to identify themselves as the red (= network) inclusiva.




Over the last five years the red has evolved from a group of like-minded colleagues and friends into a self-organising network plotting a route to a more inclusive city and supporting each other to make a positive difference.




In 2013, this core grouphas 12 members. Four are disabled people: Carlos José, Miguel Jr., Santi and Sonia. Three are parents and one (Maria Paula) a sibling of disabled people. Three are teachers, one of whom, Adriana, directs a small private school, Aldebarán, with an inclusive philosophy. There is a doctor, Miguel Sr., a psychologist, Carolina, and two social workers. Of course, members may have more than one role. Moreover this is not just an association of individuals but also a coalition of ‘inclusive’ agencies. For example, Cecilia directs a local NGO, Fundown, established to support children with Down’s Syndrome. Elia, Lila and Santi are involved with a Catholic Foundation, Guanella, which provides services to people with intellectual disabilities. And Carlos José leads a Foundation which, among other things, provides a rural health centre for disabled children. Not surprisingly therefore, the group’s focus has been on advancing the inclusion of disabled people – but Colombia is a diverse country in which there are many kinds of division that need to be addressed in building more inclusive communities. The group’s ‘strategising’ has had to take account of these multiple divisions and indeed look for issues where there are opportunities to make common cause with other interests in achieving change.




Characteristically, small groups evolve through a process of ‘forming, storming, norming and performing’ (this phrase is not easy to translate!). This has been true of the red. Indeed, the networking in 2007 got off to a false start when the ‘storming’ overtook the ‘forming’ and needed to start again in 2008. Since then the group has expanded and no-one has dropped out. Indeed there has been growing commitment to the network as both a strong source of personal support and a vehicle for advancing the inclusion agenda locally.




It has helped that at Aldebarán and also at the home of Miguel, Cecilia and Miguel Jr. the red has great hosts and comfortable ‘spaces’ in which to meet. The culture has been one where everyone’s contribution is welcomed and people take on different group roles (initiator, includer, questioner, reflector, philosopher, story-teller, summariser….and interpreter) as the situation requires. Relationships have grown through food, drink and music (Miguel Jr. among others is a skilled music-maker) as well as work. Trust has increased through the honest sharing of personal experiences, good and bad. Members have inspired and supported each other’s growing confidence and skills. For example, Sonia, who has a severe visual impairment, has made the personal transition from accountancy to teaching; Cecilia has emerged as a strong inclusion advocate in municipal policy-making.




Most important perhaps, the red has found an effective way of ‘strategising’, simply illustrated in the graphic record shown below. It has come together to clarify a vision of what inclusion and equal citizenship mean in the Colombian context; explore how the current realities measure up to this; look for opportunities to promote constructive change; seek to build wider alliances and infiltrate forums where public policy is made; take action individually and sometimes in small clusters; and use the group to draw lessons from this experience for future action, thus strengthening their strategic capacity.




The major focus has been education. Gloria teaches in a large public school and also now leads postgraduate teacher training in inclusion at the autonomous university in Bucaramanga. She has tried to widen inclusion in her own classroom and help her school do likewise; the university provides a vehicle for engaging many more qualified teachers in this mission. Aldebarán demonstrates inclusive classroom practices and has been generous, especially through Adriana, in sharing this expertise. Working together, Gloria and Adriana are currently leading a programme of training in the whole of Floridablanca’s school district. Sonia has been a powerful advocate through sharing her own experience of surviving public education. The Carlos José Foundation has had a state contract to prepare other schools to welcome disabled children. And Miguel Jr. aspires to be the first local person with Down’s Syndrome to enter University.






Other initiatives supported by the red have complemented this. For example:


  • Fundown has been working with mainstream primary schools to get their pre-school infants with Down’s Syndrome successfully included.

  • Guanella has been widening inclusion in a small local school it sponsors in Floridablanca.

  • Aldebarán has introduced ‘personal futures planning’ using ideas from a tool, ‘Construyendo Vida’, developed in the USA.

  • These ideas have also informed efforts to help Santi and Maria Paula’s brother move from education to employment, in Santi’s case through planning a micro-enterprise.

  • Elia and Cecilia (in Floridablanca and Bucaramanga, respectively) have found their way into municipal advisory groups and thus had the opportunities to inform the wider public policy agenda.

  • The red has also made links with larger advocacy networks, notably the Red Pensar, a Disabled Persons Organisation active more widely in Santander (the state which includes Bucaramanga).

  • Aldebarán hosted a first public ‘festival’ of inclusion in the centre of Bucaramanga and the red has found of ways of using the news media to spread their vision.

  • And some members have created their own opportunities to learn from international experience, including a study tour on inclusive education in England and Germany.




Of course, the red’s vision of sustainable and inclusive communities provides an agenda for a lifetime. It is helping its own members (especially the disabled people and their families) get better lives for themselves, demonstrating inclusive practice in their own work and increasingly seeking to use this experience to promote wider change in policy and public understanding. After five years, the red inclusiva is still travelling hopefully!