Creating Learning Societies From Colorado's Biennial

When we look at cities connected to Latin America we usually think of Miami, which many call the regional "capital," or New York, or perhaps the less frequently thought of Houston and Dallas, but Denver usually doesn't come to mind. The Biennial of the Americas is changing that.

This year was the third Biennial held in Denver and it was a fascinating blend of culture, arts, ideas, and policy debate. "We tried to organize something different" said Meegan Moszinky, the Biennial of the Americas Ideas Director "where we mix policy debates, with artists, singers, painters, and art exhibitions that are usually not found in the same event."

In Latin America we often take for granted the richness of the diverse artistic and cultural traditions that we have as a region, where every country has its own specialty- whether it's a unique gastronomic history or deep-set literary and artistic traditions. We forget that these components of our culture are integral to our economies and are more than a way to define our identities and unify our countries. Art and culture have the ability to both attract tourists and provide for unique exports and, unlike any event in Latin America where we forget their value, Colorado's Biennial took the economic impact of art and culture into consideration and blended it with ideas and policy.

Some of the most interesting parts of the event were the "clinicas," workshop style gatherings, where leaders from the United States and Latin America, in education, technology, health and economics debated international issues amongst themselves.

The energy in the clinicas was infectious, for example people were debating evolution vs. revolution in education. Among the questions which arose were: should we keep trying to move step by step, adapting to small changes, or is it better to promote innovation more aggressively across education levels, and open the field to any player? This discussion was extremely rich, as US based reformers debated with Latin American ones, and the differences between the systems became widely apparent. In Latin America there is much less philanthropy, stronger national government presence and less social demand for change -but one could see the reformers ideas churning during the discussions.

From a Latin American perspective, the Biennial is also fascinating because of how Colorado's community and social leaders, foundations, and companies were involved in the event from the beginning. Tim Schultz, President of the Boettcher Foundation, the Colorado institution which provided the $2MM initial funding to kick off the first Biennial, says "this is clearly a whole state effort, launched by Governor John Hickenlooper when he was Mayor, but all of us foundations and local corporations got immediately involved, as we saw it as a great opportunity to position Colorado as a North-South hub."

"One of the intentions of the Biennial was to have people in Denver and Colorado think about their community in different ways, to be more global, more sophisticated," said Hickenlooper, who together with Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, opened the event referencing Colorado's importance as a destination in the middle of the country, with connections to Canada and Latin America, and the state's interest in promoting more regional integration.

Several social impact investors, like the Colorado Impact Fund, participated in panels and clinicas, as did the Televisa Foundation, represented by its executive director Alicia Lebrija. Ms. Lebrija focused on the importance of taking advantage of Latin America's demographic bonus, namely those millions of young people that could make a difference if given a chance. Unfortunately, there are more than 22 million young people between the ages of 16 and 25 that neither work nor study. Without better education they won't be able to compete and generate wealth in the global knowledge society.

One innovator trying to find a solution to this problem is Miguel Brechner, who is behind Plan Ceibal in Uruguay; according to him, "The only way to leapfrog and provide better quality education is to personalize it, and current technologies are the best way to do it." The Plan was launched by President Tavarez Vazquez, and to date is probably the most successful one to one program in Latin America, with more than half a million students connected to laptops and online content that should enable them to learn English, computing skills, and math, among other subjects.

Education was not the only topic at the Biennial- trade, business opportunities, even the legalization of drugs were all part of the agenda, and it was different than in Washington, where the US-Latin America discussion seemingly never changes and instead re-hashes the same issues and is driven by the same public policy players. The perspective in Colorado was refreshing. The debate was driven by opportunities, not by crises, it was driven by entrepreneurs and business leaders, instead of always by politicians, and it related a much more positive perspective of the opportunities that exist if the Americas work together in a more integrated fashion.

The event's theme was NOW!, and everyone present bought into the sentiment. Now is the time to take advantage of innovations, technologies and continental integration, and to keep pushing for economic development. Now we need to create learning societies, above and below the Rio Grande, so as to prepare for jobs that we still don't know exist and be able to create those new jobs and opportunities.