Pedro Medina poured me a glass of thick white gulupa juice from his blender shortly after he welcomed me into his apartment. Gulupa is the Colombian word for purple passion fruit. It had a wonderful creamy texture, a delicate taste, and a mass of black seeds at the bottom of the glass. When I started crunching the seeds he said, “Maybe a little gulupa plant will grow in your belly.”
Then he reached behind my ear and pulled out a small plastic dove. “A bird told me that we were going have a great conversation today.” We did.
Click play to listen to Pedro Medina’s audio caption for this photo.
Medina is the founder of Yo Creo en Colombia (I Believe in Colombia), am NGO that sells Colombian self-esteem through research on Colombia’s assets; workshops with companies, civil servants, students and community groups; and talks on Colombian capital and culture.
The 1990s were difficult years for Colombia. In 1993, Bogotá suffered 4,352 intentional homicides at a rate of eighty-one per 100,000 people, making it one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Colombia earned a reputation for kidnapping, drug trade, crime, and debilitating urban car traffic.
Medina began to envision Yo Creo en Colombia in 1999. He was teaching a course in Industrial Engineering at Universidad de los Andes, Bogotá’s most prestigious university. He asked his thirty-nine students how many of them envisioned themselves living in Colombia in five years; only twelve raised their hands. That same year 400,000 Colombians, roughly 1% of the population, made the decision to leave the country. A graffiti artist painted: “The last one out please turn off the lights” on his capital city.
“We were told that we were poor and underdeveloped and third-world, and we bought the story.” Medina has a different story to tell about Colombia, including an impressive set of facts on Colombia’s biodiversity, clean water supply, and proud history.
Creo is the first-person singular for two different Spanish verbs: creer (to believe), and crear (to create). When a person says “Yo Creo en Colombia,” he is engaging in both passive and active and active love for his country.
“In Spanish, embarrar means ‘to muck-up, or to muddy’. We’ve been screwing up for fifty years in Colombia – everyone. The moment when you figure out your part in the embarrada, you can begin to fix it,” said Medina.
At one point in our interview, Medina handed me a log he keeps on his living room floor. It was so heavy, I had to bend down to keep it in my hands. He got the twenty-year-old coffee root on a tour of a farm which is supplier to Starbucks. He picked up the discarded root and asked the coffee farm representative what they planned to do with it. The farm planned to burn the root, but Medina brought it home like Charlie Brown brought home the smallest Christmas tree.
Medina went directly to a Colombian carpenter and ordered a bed frame of Colombian Coffee wood. His bed, now two year old, is beautiful. Nearly every item in Medina’s apartment has as meaningful a story behind it. He believes in the importance of transforming the huge natural, physical and human capital available in Colombia.
When Medina showed me the cactus heart he keeps in his foyer, he said, “I believe in the tenderness of the human heart”. As I was scribbling notes on his definition of innovation, he threw a stuffed animal monkey in my face and said, “Innovation is about how you are able to shock people in to seeing new possibilities.” The monkey landed on my notepad.
I admit, I was shocked into seeing new possibilities in Medina’s two-bedroom apartment. I first learned about the NGO about six months ago while working on a project on urban food markets in Cartagena, Colombia. After three weeks in Cartagena, I couldn’t believe that such an incredible place was hidden behind a one-sided, out-dated story. My friends were planning honeymoons eight time-zones away in Hawaii, when they could have been flying three hours south of Miami to the more imaginative, more delightful Colombian coast.
Most of the places in which I’ve worked suffer from an outsider’s brand that the local people don’t wear. Eastern Kentucky is labeled poor and backwards, but the neat rows of well-kept houses, vibrant music culture, and passionate community development efforts tell a different story. Cleveland has been labeled a declining post-industrial city, but Cleveland’s Evergreen Cooperatives is one of the most innovative green business models in the United States. In my experience, people love their places, have great ideas for their places, and want to stay in their homes. Medina’s concept gives places the space to develop their assets and speak for themselves while simultaneously dealing with problems.
It’s hard to criticize Yo Creo en Colombia because it’s neither absolutist nor ignorant of the challenges. When I asked Medina if he had any critics, he said: “Well, sometimes people think the idea is utopian, or they think it’s rude if I pull a bird out of their ear.”
Watch Medina’s workshop participants in action in this clip from a workshop in el Chocó:
This is the inaugural post in CoLab Radio’s Planning 101 series. This series presents examples of projects and initiatives that places can use to improve themselves. The title Planning 101 implies that this growing collection of examples include the best ideas for the future practice of city and regional planning. Each post in this series profiles one interesting example with a focus on the key idea behind that example. Anyone is welcome to contribute to this series. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org.