Putting Puerto Rican Minds to Work with Mentes Puertorriqueñas en Acción

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By: Patricio G. Martínez Llompart

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Image courtesy of Patricio G. Martínez Llompart

Transcending presumed laws of physics, meetings have taken place at the same time in San Juan, New York, Boston and São Paulo – thanks to technology. In our discussions, one single concern drives the conversation: How can university students and young professionals actively contribute to advancing Puerto Rico’s social, economic and civic development regardless of our geographic location?

Our organization, Mentes Puertorriqueñas en Acción (MPA), was born amidst the Puerto Rico government shutdown of 2006. Then, Puerto Ricans at several Boston universities joined students at the University of Puerto Rico to create a space through which they could brainstorm and design tangible solutions to address the governmental and fiscal impasse that appeared to consume the island. They organized major conferences in Boston and San Juan that brought together key public – and private – sector leaders to discuss these issues and present possibilities for the future. But underneath these conferences and the issue-driven conversations, MPA’s impact became two-fold. It began to create a network of young, socially conscious Puerto Ricans to innovate and collaborate on behalf of the island, regardless of cleavages in their location, background and ideology.

The island’s complicated state of affairs in 2006 only got more convoluted during the economic meltdown of 2008 and its aftermath. Around that time, local newspaper headlines began (and continue) to chronicle the exodus of another great generation of Puerto Ricans — including many extremely well-prepared young professionals — who left to pursue a better life in the continental U.S. and abroad; to describe this ongoing phenomenon, fuga de talento, or brain drain, became the public’s expression of choice.

The so-called brain drain needed a plug, yet no public or private sector actors seemed to act upon it. This was a problem and reality many of us lived every day: whether as students or professionals, opportunities in the island appeared more dim and the possibility of leaving ever more tempting. But, being an organization devoted to making young Puerto Ricans active agents in tackling the island’s challenges, we saw this as an opportunity.

In 2010, we launched our Empowerment and Retention of Agents of Change Program, or as we call it in Spanish, PARACa. Entirely designed and operated by us for our peers, PARACa offers university students and young professionals a pioneering opportunity to develop as social leaders and professionals in Puerto Rico. Our curriculum extends for eight weeks during the summer and combines an internship with guided visits and social-awareness modules led by prominent local academics and leaders. The social-awareness modules cover a vast range of topics, from alternatives to economic development and citizen security to the state of gender equity and public education. Each PARACa cohort has 30 participants who work at their internship sites Monday thru Thursday, and who then come together on Friday and Saturday to participate in the modules and guided visits. In the past four years, program participants have interned and supported high-impact social initiatives at organizations such as Grupo Guayacán, REOF Capital, Impactivo Consulting, Ciencia PR, Fideicomiso de Conservación, Centro para la Nueva Economía (CNE), Abre Puerto Rico and Proyecto Enlace.

We believe PARACa contributes to the effort to plug the brain drain along two main dimensions: First, the program’s internship component provides participants with a significant local professional experience and perspective that will serve as footing whenever they pursue future professional opportunities on the island. The internship experience also serves to open participants’ eyes to the robust — yet often unacknowledged — initiatives carried out by the island’s social enterprises, in both the private and public sectors, which are in need of talented professionals like their own. Second, we expect our social-awareness modules and guided visits to engrain in cohort members a life-long commitment to the island. In the long run, we hope PARACa’s impact will translate into a generation of change agents who intertwine their professional and personal lives with Puerto Rico’s social, economic and civic development.

Through PARACa, we have succeeded in attracting many young Puerto Ricans caught in the often blurry island-mainland-abroad limbo as they pursue different academic and professional experiences. This has been our most direct contribution to retaining and reconnecting with some of the young talent potentially washed away by the brain drain. Yet, as we plan for this summer’s PARACa, a new question has popped up in our discussions: How can we not only fight the brain drain, but synergize with the talented, young Puerto Rican brains who have lived elsewhere their entire lives and those who never left the island in the first place?

To answer this question, we need your help. We are eager to welcome you to our conversations and help expand the reach of Mentes Puertorriqueñas en Acción as a space that allows young Puerto Ricans everywhere to work on behalf of the island. Here’s our invitation: ¡Ven PARACa!

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Patricio G. Martínez Llompart is a member of Mentes Puertorriqueñas en Acción’s board of directors. Born and raised in Puerto Rico, he currently lives in New York City, where he enjoys going on long walks and thinking about the history of public policies and urban spaces. He studied history and government at Cornell University. His thesis, entitled “In the Custody of Violence: Puerto Rico Under La Mano Dura Contra el Crimen, 1993-1996,” crafted a transnational history of the hyper-punitive crime control policies implemented in the island during the late 20th century and their impact upon the prison industry and indigent legal aid services. He tweets via @patriciogml and can be reached at patricio@mentespuertorriquenas.org.

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