An Interview with Yale World Fellow Cristina Velez Valencia
Dr. Cristina Velez Valencia was, until June 2019, the Secretary of Social Integration in Bogota, Colombia. In 2018, she received the “Leaders in Colombia” Award for her work in supporting disadvantaged Venezuelans migrants in Bogota. Velez Valencia also served as Secretary of Women’s Affairs for two years during which the Secretariat, among other successes, reduced teenage pregnancy by more than 30%.
Velez Valencia has also been an adjunct Professor at Universidad Pedagógica y Tecnológica and in the Department of Management of Colegio de Estudios Superiores de Administración (College of Advanced Management Studies) and Universidad de Los Andes (Universidad de Los Andes), in Colombia. Velez Valencia holds a Master’s in History and a Ph.D. in Management.
This year she was named the 2019 Yale Greenberg World Fellow.
We extend our thanks to Dr. Velez Valencia once again for speaking with The Politic.
I understand that you were an adjunct Professor at the Department of Management at two of the most prominent business schools in Latin America. Also, you hold a Master’s in History and a Ph.D. in Management. How did you find your transition from academia to the public sector?
I’m definitely not the poster child for a linear career. I’ve been jumping back and forth all my life. I did a Master’s in History because I wanted to be a historian. When I was finishing my Master’s, I was a little bit tired of university life.
I got a job in a consulting company and it was the most fun job because my job was literally to do everything that didn’t produce money to the senior partners of the firm. They did international trade and all the people sitting around me were working with clients and doing consulting work with them. They were involved in lots of pro bono board. I was the one who would prepare the portfolios for them and go to these meetings. So, I was basically doing everything that did not bring money to the company, but that was bringing political capital or other types of capital. I ended up slowly getting more and more involved in consulting issues, especially those related to the Government. I worked there for a while.
Then, there was a change: the general director of the organization changed. He asked me to be his advisor, and I started working with him. Then, I remembered I was already 30. I had a kid and I remembered I really wanted to get a Ph.D. I really wanted to explore the possibility of being an academic. So, I went back to school and I got a really decent scholarship to go to Los Andes University, in Bogota. I got my Ph.D. there. I was about to sign a contract with CESA (a business school in Bogota), which has a good reputation.
The week I was going to sign my contract the mayor called me and asked me to be part of his team. The reason why he called me was because of three things: I had been working in his transition team, I had been part of the General Assembly of Profamilia (a non-profit private organization in Colombia affiliated to the International Planned Parenthood), and he wanted people from different experiences working with him. So, I ended up being at the right time at the right place.
I started working as Secretary of Women’s Affairs on January 1, 2016. An amazing job. It was really young organization with around 350 people. It was a wonderful place to create things and innovate. It was a lot of fun—it was tough—but it was a lot of fun.
We had to work in gender mainstreaming with other organizations (of the city’s government and private organizations) in order to get partners to work in a subject that is not obvious for other organizations: What does the Department of Parks and Recreation have to do with gender? You have to be really creative. You have to sort of build projects that are interesting for your partner. Projects that, of course, are going to help women live in the city differently and probably reclaim public space and live a life free of violence.
What was the outlook of the difficulties faced by women in Bogota when you started back then in 2016?
I think there’s a bunch of layers to that question.
We still have very high rates of gender-based violence in Colombia. One of our goals was to reduce violence, but it was difficult to measure because there was under-reporting. We still haven’t reached the point in which we have full registration of all the cases. So, if those increase, you don’t know if it’s because you’re being effective in opening more spaces for women to file claims or if it’s actually going up. We decided that the best way to measure was through murders because murders are reported. The number of female homicides went from 132 cases in 2015 to 98 cases last year . And it has been constantly dropping. That’s actually pretty good. We did, however, have an increase of women reporting sex violence also reporting domestic violence. I think it’s also partly because they felt they were able to do it—they were getting legal aid from the city government.
We have an army of lawyers in the city government—and it’s very weird for the government to have that service—but it has been really effective. A city government can’t do much to improve access to justice, but it can have proper infrastructure for justice services, legal aid and representation that will make the situation for women better.
The other thing that we were doing—and this was one of the mayor’s top priorities—was reducing teenage pregnancy. There was a big discussion with many feminist groups: when you talk about teenage pregnancy the traditional way of looking at it is by signaling girls. “You got pregnant.” We are telling half the story because this is something that, of course, entails boys and men too—especially when you see that the younger the girl the older the father of the baby is. We shifted the discussion to early mother and fatherhood. It was also a statement of the focus we were going to have: we were not going to single out girls. This was an issue that actually involved everyone around a pregnant girl—the person who got her pregnant, her parents, her grandparents, her teachers, and everyone around her. We had like a 360-degree program.
In the end, this program was able to achieve an impressive reduction, right?
It’s impressive. It was [reduced by] 34% last year . Teenage pregnancy rates in the region are either rising or stagnant, except for Colombia. The reason why Colombia is doing a good job is because of cities, mostly because of Bogota. Of course, this has other long-term things going on. It’s not only because of what we did. Bogota has changed a lot. Bogota is quite a progressive city if you think about it.
You later served as the Secretary for Social Integration in the Mayoralty of Bogotá. Did you feel a big shift in your work as Secretary for Social Integration compared to your work in the Secretariat of Women’s Affairs?
I ended up being Secretary of Social Integration after being Secretary of Women’s Affairs. The former Secretary of Social Integration was moved to run Bogota’s transportation system. The mayor called me one day and he said: “next Monday I need you here at night because you are going to be the new secretary of social integration.” That was amazing. It was the weirdest promotion ever. I was going to get paid exactly the same I was being paid, but I went from having 400 people to 10,000 people—and all of the problems you can imagine in the world. But it was probably the best job I will ever have in my life. This is the organization that runs all the social services in Bogota, so it’s highly operative. Because Bogota is at a different development level, it has a lot of autonomy in its policy. So, we don’t only run the services; we define our own policy. Because the national government is thinking about other regions that have other type of needs and priorities, Bogota can think about having LGBT programs that provide psychosocial attention for people in the LGBT community. Those are the type of things that we can do in Bogota that probably other city governments can’t do because they don’t have the resources and the institutional strength to do so.
In 2018, you received the “Leaders in Colombia” Award for your work in providing support for underprivileged Venezuelans in Bogota following the Venezuelan migration crisis. What was the work of the Secretariat of Social Integration in the face of this significant influx of migrants?
There has been migration of Venezuelans to Colombia since 2007. The first to come to Colombia were the wealthiest Venezuelans. That was a great opportunity for the country; we were able to ride the commodity wave because the know-how of many Venezuelans that came from the oil sector. That was great for the economy. But, as the situation started to deteriorate, more and more people started to come to Colombia because it was closest, it was the only place they could walk to—and Brazil had a closed border. We started seeing a few cases of migrants who needed attention and the mayor’s instruction was to give social attention to these people. He had two arguments. One was an ethical argument: Migration is the issue of our time—it’s probably the biggest issue going on right now after protests and social discontent, but that’s another story—and he and I believe that countries should have open borders regarding migration. There was also a pragmatic argument: Bogota has stopped growing in the past years and, in a way, cities are in an international race to attract the largest number of migrants. We’re also getting old—and this migration influx is a new demographic bonus for the city. They’re giving us a new thing demographic bonus to replace the one we spent poorly in the past decade.
So, what did we have to do? We had to do two things. The first thing was to adapt the services we currently had to be able to give attention to migrants. The other was to open new services for the specific needs that migrants had.
We defined a new protocol for kids to get into nurseries taking into consideration that many people with children did not have documentation. We defined new processes and protocols. We opened three new services for migrants: one was community centers that gave legal aid and psychosocial attention, giving basic health care with NGOs and—something that was opened a couple weeks after I left—a more flexible care center for children, so that migrants could leave their kids for a couple of hours or for one day and so they wouldn’t be in the streets.
What would you advise to today’s young people interested in taking part in public service?
I would love to say that the best thing is to follow your heart and basically do whatever you feel is right. But I know I have had a very atypical career. Most people, for example, in Colombia go through the National Planning Department. They call it like the “kindergarten of technocrats.” I don’t know if it’s good anymore—nobody wants to be called a technocrat anymore. But that’s where you get trained as a public officer because that’s where you see the inside of government.
I think that you have to look for where the equivalent of that is or somewhere you can actually learn how things work. The other thing is to be aware of your blind spots. It’s really easy to think you know everything because you went to a conference or because you read a paper. That doesn’t mean you know about everything. You have to be aware of your blind spots.
The other thing is—you can’t be scared about having a nonlinear career. You can jump around. You always have to be good at what you do—and being good at what you do entails being responsible, committed and passionate. But you can jump around—that’s not a problem.