Ahh, Colombia. The country that is. Most Americans, I would guess, think of drugs, guns, and violence when the name Colombia is brought up. There's certainly some of that there, but U.S. mainstream media is quite good at presenting reductionist pictures of Latin American nations which are "in crisis," in "need" of U.S aid, and/or are "sliding towards socialism" - not so subtle code for "enemy territory."
I, on the other hand, tend to think that mixed in with a level of stability and struggle, there is a hell of a lot of brilliant societal change going on in many Latin American countries, and Colombia is no exception. Consider all of this, done under the leadership of former Bogota Mayor Enrique Peñalosa:
In just three years, 1998-2001 (term limits prevented him from seeking a second term) Peñalosa’s administration accomplished the following:
Created the Trans-Milenio, a bus rapid transit system (BRT), which now carries a half-million passengers daily on special bus lanes that offer most of the advantages of a metro at a fraction of the cost.
Built 52 new schools, refurbished 150 others, added 14,000 computers to the public school system, and increased student enrollment by 34 percent.
Established or refurbished 1200 parks and playgrounds throughout the city.
Built three large and 10 neighborhood libraries.
Built 100 nurseries for children under five, and found permanent sources of funding.
Improved life in the slums by bringing water to 100 percent of Bogotá households, and buying undeveloped land on the outskirts of the city to prevent real estate speculation and ensure that it will be developed as affordable housing with electrical, sewage, and telephone service as well as space reserved for parks, schools, and greenways.
Saw the murder rate fall by two-thirds. (This was almost all conventional crime; contrary to expectations, terrorist acts are rare in Bogotá.)
Reclaimed the sidewalks from motorists, who traditionally saw them as either a passing lane or a parking lot. “I was almost impeached by the car-owning upper classes,” Penalosa notes, “ but it was popular with everyone else.”
Established 300 kilometers of separated bikeways, the largest network in the developing world.
Created the world’s longest pedestrian street, 17 kilometers crossing much of the city, as well as a 45- kilometer greenway along a path that had been originally slated for an eight-lane highway.
Reduced traffic by 40 percent with a system under which motorists must leave cars at home during rush hour two days a week. He also raised parking fees and local gas taxes, with half of the proceeds going to fund the new bus transit system.
Inaugurated an annual car-free day, where everyone from CEOs to janitors had to commute to work in some other way than a private automobile.
Planted 100,000 trees.
These efforts in such a short time should make a lot of North American's blush and perhaps cringe. Blush because we waste so damned much. And cringe because while other places with far less cumulative wealth are making REAL, substantial infrastructure decisions that are both better for the planet, and also improving people's overall quality of life.
Some people question my deliberate linkage between spiritual practice and social action, but one of the main reasons I believe it's imperative that more people step out of the zendo, out of the yoga studio, and into the public sphere is that the kind of visioning and intelligence needed to create massive changes like those in Bogota only comes from people who can tap into the flow that much larger than themselves.
I believe this ability can come from someone of any background, secular, religious, or spiritual, but I also think that practices like yoga and meditation are directly grounded in opening people to that flow. Furthermore, I think that having a deep awareness of the inter-connectivity of all life can lead to less possessiveness around any particular idea or effort. And in my view, the ability to actually manifest large-scale social change is directly tied to the number of people involved - especially at a leadership level - who aren't attached to power and control narratives, or a desire for great fame and wealth.
There are many more examples like Bogota, including in some places in the wealthy Global North. I'm planning on examining more closely how people are coming together, what lead them to their insights, and how those insights are turned into action.
Have a good weekend!
*Image of one of Bogota's Car Free Days.