Creating Change by Acting Upon Frustrations

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Nicaragua protest at Dam Square. From left to right: Fionnuala Davidson, Lisa van Holsteijn, Antonia McGrath (educate.)

From Scotland to Honduras to the Netherlands, Lisa van Holsteijn has been around the block. She is only in her early twenties, but has already witnessed a fair share of the social inequality in this world. Frustrated by global systems and ongoing social inequality, the Amsterdam University College student decided to stop theorizing and take action. In 2016, her ambitions resulted in the birth of educate.: a non-governmental, non-profit organization which works to empower children and young people in Honduras through preventative healthcare and education.

On the 23rd of April, there was a solidary protest at Dam Square following the various violent demonstrations in Nicaragua against the government of the country’s President Daniel Ortega. Standing amid a crowd dressed in the piercing white and pale blue of the Nicaraguan flag, van Holsteijn stands out in her soft gray coat. As soon as she notices me, she exhibits a smile nearly as bright as her sign which reads ‘solidaridad con Nicaragua’. 

Solidarity. It’s a theme that has played a key role throughout van Holsteijn’s life. She grew up in Scotland in a community centered around anthroposophy, a human oriented spiritual philosophy and science. Van Holsteijn describes it as insanely complex, saying that “people spend a lifetime grasping it.” That complexity didn’t prevent van Holsteijn from attempting to explain it. “It is based on the idea that we shouldn’t assume that the only things which actually exist are those things that we can perceive with our five senses,” says van Holsteijn. “There’s a spiritual world which is equally real as the physical, tangible world we see around us, but which we cannot easily perceive. In order to perceive that reality, you have to follow the path of development that the spiritual science has laid out for you.”

The community is built around a school for special needs children. When she was younger, she would always attend schools outside of the community, where her peers either didn’t understand or simply didn’t know about her background. They were often prejudiced against other children with special needs and confused about the non-conventional anthroposophy. She says that this made her feel different and sometimes even ashamed.

“Especially in high school, I went through a phase in which I questioned the underlying philosophy of the community,” van Holsteijn says.

“Fortunately,” she says, “I have always been aware of the beauty of the community and the wonderful things my parents did for the wellbeing of others.” Her upbringing inspired her to think beyond personal advantage and also extend her reach to the needs of others.

Van Holsteijn decided to take a gap year after graduating high school and give it shape by doing volunteering work. So, she signed up for Project Trust, an organization which empowers young people through challenging volunteering experiences. Together with a small group – all aged 17 to 19 – van Holsteijn traveled to Trinidad, Honduras, where she then worked as a volunteer teacher at an orphanage and nine schools.

“Being a teacher is a huge responsibility,” she says. “Even though you’re not that much older, the kids still really want to look up to you.” Van Holsteijn says that she struggled with this, also because it connects to larger issues of short-term voluntary work and what is commonly referred to as the white savior complex. “Privileged people travel from the West to ‘underdeveloped’ countries to offer their help, but often leave too soon to actually create change,” she says.

Van Holsteijn is frustrated by the bad image of Honduras in the media. According to her, the news sheds a terrible lighting on the country. “My view on Honduras completely deviates from the picture the news portrays,” she says. According to her, the issues are highlighted and all the good things are left out.

Van Holsteijn expressed her confusion about the misrepresentation of Honduras to Antonia McGrath, a friend of hers. McGrath also moved to Honduras in the summer of 2014 to work for a year as a volunteer teacher with Project Trust. Even though they worked in different parts of Honduras, they met up occasionally throughout that year. When both of them moved to the Netherlands to study – van Holsteijn a few months later than McGrath – they reconnected and became close friends. “Lisa is an incredibly enthusiastic, passionate and intelligent person,” McGrath says.

Their frustrations caused some heated discussions. Eventually, van Holsteijn and McGrath decided to take the matters into their own hands and do something about these infuriating problems. “That’s when we came up with the idea for educate.,” McGrath says. They asked Jocelyn Vick-Maeer, a close friend of van Holsteijn, to join their team. The foundation for their organization was built.

It took them roughly six months to start from scratch and set up their own organization. It required time and energy, but especially passion. “Seeing where educate. is now always makes me really proud. We’ve come a long way,” McGrath says. 

Whatever will happen next, is still uncertain. Van Holsteijn says that she hopes that her organization will continue to grow bigger, as long as it doesn’t diverge from its original ideals. “I always love a challenge,” she says, “so I’m unsure but also excited about what the future will bring.”

 

 

 

 

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