You Inspire Us, Second Edition: Progressivism in Bogotá, Colombia

You Inspire Us, Second Edition: Progressivism in Bogotá, Colombia

Welcome to our new monthly series You Inspire Us, where we highlight and honor the people, brands, and ideas pushing us to think and do better as individuals, as a brand, and as a human collective.

There’s something about Colombia that elicits a cringe in certain unknowing people if you tell them you’re headed there. A squirm then a comment about the danger, the drug trade, kidnappings. “Well, stay safe. Watch out. Are you sure?” 

In truth, Colombia has come an incredibly far way in a surprisingly short time to shed much of its crime-ridden past and become a vibrant cultural gem (and one of tourism’s best-kept secrets). The change comes, at least in part, from our two You Inspire Us stories for February:

  • How sustainable urban design brought peace and equality to Bogotá
  • How an advertising campaign helped quell rebel guerilla forces

In a period of 100 years, Bogotá (the country’s capital) ballooned from a city of 100,000 people to over 7 million. This rapid influx caused the city to grow up without a real plan, with huge safety problems, income disparities, and one of the worst quality of life rankings in Latin America. “I have never known a [city] where the people hated their city so much…it was a city really without hope and without self esteem,” said Bogotá mayor Enrique Peñalosa.

During his first term as mayor in the late ’90s, Peñalosa set out to change the face and spirit of the metropolis with an urban design plan aimed at returning public spaces to the people as a foundation for social justice. Ranging from increasing pedestrian walkways, adding bike lanes, and overhauling the city’s bus system to create the extremely efficient TransMilenio rapid transit lines, Peñalosa invested in the real, average people in Colombia rather than looking out solely for the wealthy, car-owning upper class.

“Not only those with access to a car have a right to safe mobility,” says Peñalosa, now in his second term as mayor. The symbolism being that the government treats someone on a bike, or on their feet, as equal to someone in a car. It’s been a beautiful equalizer…and it worked. Over the course of 10 years the murder rate fell 70 percent thanks in great part to the mayor’s policies.

Find out more about Peñalosa’s work through this excellent PBS documentary, as well as this article by Citiscope.

On the flip side of Colombia’s internal strife, for over 50 years the government was in active military conflict with a rebel group of guerilla fighters dubbed the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The group was founded in 1964 as part of the Communist Party, banding together to combat inequality through violence that left over 200,000 people (including many civilians) dead and 3.7 million displaced.

In 2006, Colombia’s president Juan Manuel Santos (then the Minister of Defense) looked for a nonviolent solution for demobilizing FARC fighters. His approach: using advertising and communication as a weapon of peace. 

Working with Bogotá-based advertising executive Jose Miguel Sokoloff and his team, they designed a series of campaigns to bring the guerillas out of hiding and disband from FARC. They first shot a series of commercials featuring demobilized fighters, having them talk about the war and why they abandoned it. Seeing a need to reach FARC members or a deep, emotional level, ad exec Joan Pablo Garcia designed a campaign around Christmas, decorating nine huge trees of strategic pathways throughout the jungle with the slogan, “If Christmas can come to the jungle, you can come home.” This campaign was credited for demobilizing five percent of the guerilla fighters.

The company followed up the successful Christmas campaign with a series of ads and fly-over broadcast messages featuring mothers (“Before you were a guerilla, you were my son”), direct messages from villagers, and over 500 localized campaigns focused on reaching out to fighters directly.

Little by little, guerilla fighters returned, laying down their weapons until the FARC eventually entered into peace talks with the government in 2012. Last year, a peace agreement was reached, moving FARC members into designated demobilization zones with the goal of full disarmament by April of this year. 

It is, in part, due to the nonviolent approach of Santos and Sokoloff that the country ended over half a century of war. In our own times of political strife, we are inspired by the power of communication to bring change and understanding.

See the full story via TED Stories on YouTube.

Image: Federico Rios Escobar for The New York Times
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