Social innovator tackles issues in Ecuador

Climate change. Unemployment. Inequality. Corruption. Ecuador faces a long list of complex issues, says Mateo Tobar, but he has big dreams for transforming his country. With the knowledge and support he’s received as a learner in SFU’s Community Capacity Building program, he’s working to build Ecuador’s capacity for social innovation by empowering its young people.

“I’m trying to close the gap of opportunity for youth to gain access to better education and better employment through social innovation,” explains Mateo.

During the pandemic, Mateo came across the SFU program on social media. He knew he’d found the perfect fit—even though the program is based thousands of miles away from his home in Quito.

“When I saw that you’d be able to make contact with people through live sessions and be able to develop connections, I knew I had to do it,” he recalls. “I have to get to know more people doing this work and share my ideas, so I can see what ideas won’t work and how I can shift and change them.”

Social innovation has long been Mateo’s passion. He not only teaches the topic at a local high school, but also works for a social innovation lab where he develops strategic alliances and engages organizations in promoting a variety of projects and social enterprises.

“I was really fortunate to have a lot of opportunities to access higher education and to learn English,” says Mateo. “But when I began working, I realized the disparity of opportunity between people, and that sparked my interest in social innovation. We don’t have equal access to education here. I want to provide others with the same opportunities I had.”

For the past year, Mateo has been developing a project called Youth Education Lab (YEL). “I dream about an Ecuador where every youth has access to meaningful learning, to experiential learning opportunities through social innovation or social entrepreneurship,” he says. “I want to empower youth to realize they have the capacity to transform their ideas into visible projects.”

Mateo’s pilot program for YEL involves working with youths in three specific communities and providing them with a capacity building process based on their individual needs. He hopes to be able to provide funding for the youths’ projects to bolster their professional profiles and help them access university or scholarship opportunities.

“The Community Capacity Building program has helped me settle on these ideas,” says Mateo. “If you had asked me about my project five months ago, I would have said I want to help youth, that’s all.”

Through the program Mateo has joined a supportive network of learners from across Canada as well as Latin America. “Hearing their visions, I realize I can do so many things in Ecuador,” he says. “I’m learning how social innovation and funding work in the Canadian environment, and seeing how we can replicate those and many other ideas here.”

In addition to making personal connections, Mateo says the program has given him a deeper understanding of himself: “I’m now mindful that I have the capacity to change the world by influencing the people around me. You can build something without great amounts of money—you just need the willingness of other people.

“I really think this program has made me realize my own potential.”

By Kim Mah