Palawan’s New Ashoka Fellow


On Thursday, February 21, Palawan resident and social entrepreneur Amina Evangelista Swanepoel became one of the three latest inductees into the very prestigious Ashoka Fellowship in an elegant ceremony in the Arts Center of  Bonifacio Global City, Taguig.  Her husband Marcus and immediate Evangelista family were all there.

Ashoka was a tyrannical, warlike king in India who, after a particularly bloody war, was so appalled by what he had done that he converted to Buddhism and established  monuments to Gautama all over India, as well as a series of rest houses along road sides where travelers could find shelter and safety as they wended their way across India. This in itself was a social innovation and represented a radical change in thinking patterns – and the Ashoka Fellowship today honors social innovators who achieve their goals first by this same sort of radical reframing of social challenges. These change-makers come up with creative approaches to social problems, from education to health to governance to the infrastructure for living. Kevin Lee, otherwise known as Kiwi, of A Single Drop For Safe Water, is the other very dynamic Palawan-based Ashoka fellow.

Amina is the executive director and co-founder of Roots of Health or Ugat ng Kalusugan, the not-for-profit organization that provides education and clinical health services in the field of Reproductive Health to undeserved communities and schools all over Palawan. The work of this organization has an innovative approach to women’s health in that, first of all, it considers health as a human right, a right which is not based on social privilege or bank accounts. Further, the organization considers women as entitled to participate in and enjoy a healthy reproductive life. (Translation: sex is for women too!)  Roots of Health also holds that women are empowered by understanding how their reproductive organs work, and how to plan, control, and realize a healthy reproductive life. This is why Roots of Health works in high schools through-out the province. The organization rejects the old teaching framework of shame, fear, and silence in abstinenc- only education – because it is all too apparent that this approach does not work.

The approach is new; it is change making. And Asoka’s overriding vision and tagline is Everyone a Change-maker.  All of us can be change-makers; the world is spinning faster and faster and all contexts, situations, and ideas are changing all the time, and if we insist on looking at the world through old glasses, we are doomed to repeating the same stale ideas which have been shown not to work, and are bound not work the next time. We can all reframe and innovate.

And in that context, Ashoka asked the new fellows to name and honor two co-change-makers, two people who took part in, and helped them on their innovative journey. Amina very generously cited her mother, Susan Evangelista (that would be me!) and her husband, Marcus Swanepoel. Nine years ago we co-founded Roots of Health, convinced that a healthy reproductive life IS a human right, a right that should be treasured by rich and poor, young and old, men and women. As an educator I have always wanted to apply education – thinking, learning, understanding – to all problems. Ami brought in the understanding of a public health professional and a strong commitment to human rights. Marcus is our systems man, with infinite curiosity about how systems work – health systems, school systems, governance systems. And from this trio of approaches and interests, Roots of Health, was launched. Amina was executive director from the start, and from a very small organization, she piloted direction and expansion to what the organization is today.

Ami shared the Ashoka stage with two other creative young innovators: Zhihan Lee of BagoSphere, and Bai Rohaniza Sumndad-Usman, of the Teach Peace Build Peace Movement.

Zhihan took his place behind the microphone, looking very unassuming, and told us about going along with his grandmother as she looked for a job dishwashing in the restaurants of Chinatown in Singapore. Zhihan was five at the time, but he felt her discouragement as she moved from restaurant to restaurant. She did find a job eventually – one in which she worked herself nearly to death for some years. She had no skills, nothing to offer an employer except sweat. Through the years this began to bother Zhihan. How could out of school youth, people with no particular job qualifications, be helped to find jobs in dynamic new and emerging fields and businesses? This is what BagoSphere does.  More than 1054 young people have graduated from the BagoSphere program, which teaches not just skills but professional behavior and reliability as well. So far the program graduates have a 90% employment rate, with 9 out of 10 hired within three months of graduation.

Bai Rohaniza is a lovely, slight woman dedicated to peace and peace teaching, and especially concerned with warring groups in Mindanao. Her father is Muslim and her mother Christian but she was raised in a spirit of understanding. When she was seven years old, and living with her parents in Saudi Arabia, she was thoroughly traumatized in a bombing attack. Now she considers the very young the best peace makers, but children need to be taught how to live from a spirit of compassion and understanding and how to build peace. She has taught peace building in schools and to trainers all over the country. She honored her parents as the change-makers who taught her to build peace.

So the night clearly belonged to the three awardees, but we all ended the evening feeling honored and inspired. And it is surely to Palawan’s benefit and pride to be the home of Amina Swanepoel, newest Ashoka Fellow.

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