(By Tont La Vina, Manila Standard Today, 1 May 2012)
I write this column Sunday evening of 29 April 2012 in the Fressciarossa, the fast train that connects major Italian cities. I had just come from a graduation ceremony in Turin of the Leadership and Social Entrepreneurship (LSE) Program for Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs), a training program of the Ateneo School of Government (ASoG), the Ateneo Center for Social Entrepreneurship (ACSent), Associazione Pilipinas OFSPES (Overseas Filipinos Society for the Promotion of Economic Security), and Social Enterprise Development Partnerships, Inc. (SEDPI). It is supported by the Philippine Embassy to Italy, our Milan Consulate, and the Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO) and the Overseas Workers’ Welfare Administration (OWWA) officers in Italy.
Since the first bach in Rome in 2008, the program has expanded to Naples, Milan, Florence and Turin with a total now of nearly 350 alumni. In this trip alone, I presided over three graduations -- in Rome (which included students from Florence and Naples) Milan and Turin. By next year, with new programs in the aforementioned cities and perhaps in Palermo, Sicily we expect to have 500 LSE graduates in Italy alone. If we raise the money and we find core volunteer teams in other countries, we want to open programs in 2-3 additional countries also next year.
In these past two weeks, I was able to engage in an intense way with our OFW students. Their stories always humble as well as amaze me. The risks they take, the sacrifices they make, and the burdens they carry are enormous. But the successes can also be sweet -- the material rewards earned, lifestyles that they never imagined they would have, and when blessed, the celebration of reunions with their families. Indeed, as I walked the streets of Rome, Milan, Florence, and Turin with our students, while enjoying the food, the conversation and the sights with such an intelligent and passionate group of Filipinos, it became clear to me that migration is not only a permanent phenomenon, but if we manage it well, it is actually good.
This insight that migration is good is counter-intuitive to the stereotype of the oppressed OFW. Indeed, as a country, we should be strategic about migration. We should know why we are exporting workers, where we should send (and not send) them, and how to support those who leave. As a former OFW -- in Italy in the 1980s as a volunteer caregiver for people with disabilities and in the United States from 1998-2006 as an international environmental lawyer -- I know the latter is critical.
This is where interventions like the LSE program make sense. The program involves two training courses (each lasting 6-9 months): first, an LSE Basic Course consisting of 12 full-day sessions covering four sessions each for Leadership, Financial Literacy and Social Entrepreneurship; Second, a Practicum Course which is open to the graduates of the Basic Course who want to implement their social enterprise plans. Both programs include mentoring and coaching by faculty based in Italy and the Philippines.
The financial literacy sessions have had the biggest immediate impact in terms of changes in lifestyles of both the graduates and their families, helping them draw up financial goals, to budget and save and to invest.
Nearly 100 businesses personal or social businesses have been catalyzed by the program, including a magazine for Filipinos in Italy, financial literacy activities, catering services, a couple of sushi restaurants, savings and investment clubs, travel agency services, event management, photography, and document processing and other services for migration and employment. And many LSE graduates are now leaders in community programs and activities, including in Catholic parishes. An Executive Committee of alumni is also now supporting the LSE program in Italy.
I end all my LSE graduation messages with a simple message -- that the Philippines is poised to take off, that change is possible. We do not have to be always complaining about our government and ourselves. To turn around another stereotype, we are not a nation of crabs that pull each other down but of eagles that help each other fly. But this will happen only if many of us become leaders and social entrepreneurs that work together to achieve personal, family, community and national goals. For the latter, this includes making sure migration is good and works for us.