Just Keep Swimming: An Internship Reflection

One year went by and I was still struggling to find an internship. The quest to land a professional opportunity in the communications field as an international student tested my nerves and shook my confidence deeply. Up to this point, leaving my home, entering a shark cage without knowing how to swim, and jumping out of a plane had been easier endeavors compared to navigating the job search in the U.S. Little did I know that this part of the process was just another reminder to persevere and continue believing in myself.

My intentional approach to pursuing companies that aligned with my values led me to Avid Core, a place that embraced my background and perspective. Here, I was not only given a chance to practice my skills but the freedom and support to explore new ones while regaining certainty in my strengths with every project I participated in. Getting my internship extended for a second term was one of the most assuring moments of my academic journey; I discovered that listening actively, researching eagerly, and collaborating enthusiastically could really benefit the team.

Members of a work team sitting around a table in a restaurant sharing drinks and wearing Christmas-themed headbands.
Members of the Avid Core team celebrate at The Wharf (December 2023).

Looking back at this experience, I’m thankful to have supported communications, public outreach, social media, and marketing solutions for a variety of local, regional, state, and federal clients while learning valuable lessons from a committed group of individuals. Whether it was crafting written and audiovisual content for community planning, manufacturing consulting, or period-positive messaging, the premise of considering the voices involved and keeping your audience at the center of an open and accessible conversation, remained.

Naturally in this learning process, there were moments in which approaching a new assignment or tool proved challenging to me and I was hard on myself for not delivering things fast or accurately enough — (hello, anxiety, my old friend).

Like most new interns, I would put myself under a lot of pressure and had to fight my perfectionist tendencies constantly. However, as I engaged with the team in virtual and fun in-person events, I felt comfortable enough to ask more questions and seek support to navigate multiple learning curves. Those clueless moments led me to experimentation, creative problem-solving, and brainstorming with supervisors who kindly reminded me that my capabilities were not limited by my tenure or position and that my ideas were valued and heard.

As this adventure comes to an end and I prepare to graduate soon, I see with gratitude how my time at Avid Core has helped me feel better equipped to step into the next chapter of my life trusting my ability to learn and adapt to diverse environments (while also expressing myself through gifs on Slack).

If you come across this blog and ever feel the self-doubt creeping in, remember there was once a girl from a small town in South America who managed to “catch” a job in an ocean of uncertainty, without knowing how to swim.

Avid Fans Of: Podcasts

Avid (adjective) – having or showing a keen interest in or enthusiasm for something. It’s more than just our company’s namesake. Passion for our work and for the things we love is part of our core values. In this recurring series, we’ll share some of the things we’re Avid Fans of with you.

In this latest installment of Avid Fans Of, we’re thrilled to dive into the world of podcasts with members of the Avid Core team. Get ready to uncover a treasure trove of audio delights as our team members reveal their top picks and share the stories behind their podcast passions.

Rossana Gonzalez When it comes to podcasts, I have two favorites that I always turn to: “We’re All Insane” and “No Chaser.”

“We’re All Insane” – This podcast is truly exceptional. With each episode, the host invites a different guest to share their personal journey through a traumatic event. The conversations aim to shed light on these experiences, discussing how individuals navigated through them or found resilience. It’s a profound exploration of human resilience and the power of storytelling.

A cover image for a podcast called No Chaser, featuring the four male hosts.

“No Chaser” – This podcast is like a cozy conversation among friends, perfect for when I’m getting ready or winding down. Its laid-back atmosphere and occasional special guests create a welcoming space where you can relax and enjoy the banter. It’s the ultimate no-pressure podcast experience, ideal for those who might not consider themselves avid podcast listeners but still crave engaging content.

I highly recommend both podcasts, especially those new to the podcast scene or prefer a more relaxed listening experience. Give them a try – you won’t be disappointed!

Jasmine Buford – “Show Me the Meaning” is my favorite podcast. As a lifelong movie enthusiast, I enjoy dissecting and discussing film plots. “Show Me the Meaning” delves into both mainstream hits like The Dark Knight and cult classics like Fight Club, offering a diverse range of cinematic analysis.

A podcast logo reminiscent of the Looney Tunes title card, with text that reads Show Me the Meaning!

What sets this podcast apart is its hosts’ backgrounds in philosophy, adding depth and intellectual insight to each episode. From dissecting the score to analyzing themes, cinematography, and script, the podcast provides a comprehensive examination of each film.

One of the reasons I adore this podcast is the diverse and humorous dynamics among the hosts, who often hold differing views on the director’s intentions, embracing the “Death of the Author” philosophy. Perfect for multitasking, I enjoy listening to it while doing chores or doing desk work. Though the podcast sadly concluded in April 2022, its legacy lives on, leaving behind a treasure trove of thought-provoking discussions.

For those seeking similar content, I recommend exploring podcasts like “New Rockstars,” “Deep Dive,” and “Wisecrack.”

Stephanie Mace – “Smartless,” hosted by Hollywood stars Jason Bateman, Will Arnett, and Sean Hayes, is a delightful exploration into the lives and minds of guests from various fields. What sets this podcast apart is the effortless banter and genuine chemistry between the hosts, creating an atmosphere that feels like eavesdropping on a lively conversation among friends.

A cover image for the podcast called Smartless, featuring hosts Jason Bateman, Sean Hayes, and Will Arnett.

“Smartless” stands out for its unique format where one of the hosts invites a surprise guest, unbeknownst to the other two. This element of surprise adds an extra layer of impulsiveness and excitement, keeping listeners engaged and eager to discover who will join the conversation next. Whether seeking entertainment, inspiration, or a good laugh, “Smartless” delivers.

Virginia Arroyo – GirlTrek’s “Black History Bootcamp: The Walking Podcast” was recommended to me by a sister-friend at the beginning of COVID-19. It is a 21-day walking meditation series that reflects and celebrates Black stories.

A cover image for a podcast called GirlTrek's Black History Bootcamp, featuring Black women marching with signs.

The storytelling feels like a conversation between friends, helping gather strength for the road ahead. The stories on this podcast also highlight lessons that can help navigate daily life and uncertain times.

Around the Table with Shelley Scalzo Brown

Welcome to Around the Table, a regular series where we talk to fascinating people in our network and share the incredible work they are doing in their community. Pull up a chair and join us for conversation and connection.

Name: Shelley Scalzo Brown, Operations and Risk Management Leader,
specializing in Corporate Safety, Environmental Management, Business Analysis, Governance, and Sustainability

Where to find you: LinkedIn

What drew you to working in the safety field? 

I was drawn to the safety field by my parents. My father ran operations for a maritime shipping company, primarily tugs and barges, where safety was a social and business imperative. My parents kept sailing, fishing, and enjoying the natural beauty of the Pacific Ocean. As a child, I observed the maritime industry’s response to the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince Williams Sound. I went on to pursue Environmental Studies and Political Science in college, then started my career working for an Oil Spill Response Organization (OSRO). I was exposed to OSHA’s Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response Standard and regulations enforced by the U.S. EPA and the Department of Transportation. Over the years, helping businesses navigate complex regulatory frameworks for worker safety and environmental protection has been central to my work in safety. 

What do you think is the biggest challenge regarding worker safety today?

The biggest challenge today in workplace safety is the rate at which workers die at work. The rate at which workers die at work has remained largely unchanged for at least the past 10 years. The causes of these deaths are known as OSHA’s “Fatal Four” (falls, electrocution, struck by and caught between) have remained largely unchanged in that time period too. There is clearly a disconnect between what we want to achieve in reducing workplace fatalities and what we currently do, which doesn’t take nearly enough advantage of safety gains in the development and design phase. Getting better at connecting upstream planning to in-field execution of work will be essential to our success in making progress on reducing workplace fatalities. 

What were some of the projects you worked on when you were on the board at the National Safety Council?

Working with the National Safety Council has been one of the highlights of my career. When I served as a Board member, the NSC was developing strategic initiatives that would carry them forward into the future. This included discussions about integrating technology into the organization’s work and how technology would affect major societal safety issues such as roadway safety. I was very impressed by NSC’s leadership’s instinct to embrace the challenges of the future, remain data-driven in selecting initiatives, and know where their impact would best deliver value.

You’ve also been heavily involved with the National Safety Council’s Women in Safety Division. What was some of your most important work in that role?

Very early on, probably before 2010, NSC recognized they needed to engage a broader audience, particularly on the workplace safety side. NSC brought together a group of women leaders within their membership to form a Women’s Division. Some of the early activities included forming the Marion Martin Award, which would recognize the career of an accomplished woman in safety. We gave visibility to all our nominees as more role models were needed to inspire other women. Another aspect of the Division’s work I learned a lot from was a deep dive one of NSC’s historians did on the legacy of Women in Safety. In addition to Marian Martin, I learned of the work of Francis Perkins, Elizabeth Dole, and other women leaders in government and private industry that completely shaped the protections many of us have at work today.  The Women’s Division continues to work with NSC to ensure that women and others are included as speakers, moderators, authors, project leaders, and nominees and can participate fully in NSC’s important work. My proudest day was handing the Division Chair role over to an incredibly talented woman I never would have met had it not been for NSC’s Women’s Division. 

National Safety Day, observed annually on March 4, is a significant occasion to promote safety measures and raise awareness about workplace safety. What would you be if you had one tip to share with workplaces? How about with workers directly?

Stay connected to your purpose. When you are connected to your purpose for working, you stay engaged with your personal well-being because you have a sense of the future you want to create through your work. 

Of all the roles you’ve fulfilled, from operations to risk manager, auditing to process improvement, which resonates with you most and why?

They all have some resonance for me. Early in my career, I would check- out our HAZMAT Response Teams to ensure their supplied air equipment, gas detection instruments, and communication systems were in place and working before sending them into what we call a “hot zone.” I still wonder whether we’ve considered all the possible outcomes and are prepared to respond.

How often do you apply lessons learned from past projects to your current work? Can you share an example?

I am frequently applying lessons learned. They are central to making improvements in safety last for the long term. Lessons learned can be challenging to arrive at because we tend to believe the ‘lesson learned’ from an injury or incident isn’t always the case. We tend to insert our own bias and judgement. To ensure that lessons learned are accurate and add value, I lean on some kind of team-led cause mapping or root cause analysis process to evaluate all failure points in a chain of events. It takes an objective team of people, and a tool to evaluate to arrive at a good lesson learned. So, my lessons learned: have a strong process for developing them and never go it alone. 

What’s some of the best advice you’ve received in your career so far? What advice would you give to someone starting out in the safety field?

I have had the privilege of working alongside some immensely talented safety leaders in my career. With that in mind, my advice to someone starting out is to stay curious, work on developing a growth mindset, and learn how to motivate others. There is a lot of technical safety information that you will learn with time if you take on new challenges. The human side of safety management is a separate and equally important endeavor that needs development. The changemakers are great at both. 

You’ve been guiding some of Avid Core’s work with OSHA as a subject matter expert. Is there anything that’s come out of the project that’s surprised you? If not, tell us about something that didn’t surprise you at all.

I don’t think this is a surprise to me, but what is exceptional about the work with Avid Core is the ability of the team to bring together and coordinate a large group of people with varied perspectives, talents, and motivations and shape all those messy things into something meaningful and informative for the future. 

When you’re not working, what do you like to do?

I’d be on a boat somewhere. 

If we were literally “around the table” right now, what food would you have brought with you to share? 

I love a good charcuterie board.

Brilliance, Achievements, and Partnerships in Year Four

By Virginia Arroyo & Amanda Roberts

As Avid Core marks the completion of our fourth year in business, we can safely say we’ve laid the foundation for a solid business and have experienced tremendous growth over the last year. In 2023, our team doubled, welcoming experts in project management, environmental planning, and systems integration. We’ve also furthered our team’s communications, engagement and outreach expertise capabilities and expanded our geographic footprint, bringing on new staff in Illinois.

Our team proudly earned accolades, including the prestigious Hermes Creative 2023 Gold Award for design and the esteemed title of Best Government Contractor in Prince William County—for the third year in a row!

Avid Core’s journey of success continued with key partnerships, starting with our first 8(a) contract with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Our focus on outreach and communications involved crafting meetings and outreach strategies for OSHA’s Solutions Share initiative, which fosters collaboration with OSHA and among essential industry stakeholders to better prepare for future emergencies similar to COVID-19.

We also brought in projects with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), steering stakeholder engagement services for the agency’s Infrastructure Portfolio. Our expanded role includes environmental planning outreach, ongoing dialogues with federal, state, and local agencies, and coordination with Tribal governments and local communities. We’ve teamed up with Northwind for GIS support and our partner, Dawson, provides archaeological and environmental expertise for seamless interagency coordination.

Avid Core, in partnership with Infinity Conference Group, is currently researching, planning and executing logistics for the Food and Drug Administration’s 2024 Compounding Quality Center of Excellence Annual Conference. This important event provides an opportunity for drug outsourcing facilities and associated stakeholders to learn and engage on emerging trends and drug compounding best practices.

In collaboration with Cogstone Resource Management and Kearns & West, we supported Los Angeles County in crafting a groundbreaking land acknowledgment and policy. Working closely with a Tribal advisory group, we cultivated strong relationships and facilitated effective coordination between county departments and local Tribes. The team’s dedication resulted in adopting the first formal County-wide Land Acknowledgment. The acknowledgment and the accompanying partner toolkit, now in production, will help the County appropriately honor and pay respect to Native Tribes.

We’ve grown our local community engagement work this year. In a successful collaboration with ONE EIGHTY and ATCS, we helped PlanRVA address disaster recovery for the local business community.

Working with the City of Fairfax, we helped with the development of a Title VI plan, ensuring that their transportation work does not discriminate on the grounds of race, color, or national origin.

Avid Core staffed local pop-up events, facilitated open houses, and designed easy-to-understand and culturally responsive materials for the Alexandria West community, supporting the development of a planning process that will help guide the community’s long-term priorities and goals for decades to come.

We also provided multi-lingual outreach to support the creation of a new Eastern Silver Spring Communities master plan for Montgomery County. Our efforts focused on increasing participation and feedback for the plan in underserved and historically marginalized communities.

We are incredibly proud of our team’s achievements, our clients, and partners over the last four years, and we’re looking forward to the exciting journey ahead!

Around the Table with Patricia Macchi

Welcome to Around the Table, a regular series where we talk to fascinating people in our network and share the incredible work they are doing in their community. Pull up a chair and join us for conversation and connection.

Name: Patricia Macchi, National Infrastructure Economics & Grant Advisory Practice Lead, Senior Principal

Company: STV Group

Where to find you: LinkedIn

What drew you to studying economics?

The pursuit of studying economics is for me a unique and personal journey. The roots of this academic passion extend back to my childhood. A captivating influence on my early interest in economics was my grandfather, who played a significant role in shaping my intellectual curiosity. From a young age, he initiated a tradition of sharing weekly economic news articles with me, creating a special time for us to delve into discussions on these intricate topics. His genuine passion for the subject became a guiding light, illuminating the profound impact economics has on shaping global affairs and individual lives.

What particularly resonated with me was not just the subject matter but the way my grandfather artfully translated his enthusiasm. He didn’t just share economic news; he instilled a sense of wonder and curiosity, transforming our discussions into intellectual adventures. Those formative experiences laid the foundation for my deep-seated interest in economics, illustrating how a shared passion and mentorship can profoundly influence one’s academic trajectory.

In essence, my choice to study economics is not merely an academic pursuit but a continuation of the legacy of shared wisdom and enthusiasm that my grandfather generously bestowed upon me. It’s a tribute to those early conversations that ignited a flame of curiosity, leading me to explore the intricate tapestry of economic principles and their real-world implications.

How did you go about combining your knowledge of economics with a career in transportation?

As a student in Argentina, I attended a relatively small university where my fascination with trade economics took root. The intricate dance of global economies and the profound impact on societies captivated me, even though there were no specific classes on transportation economics. Trade economics, however, proved to be the closest nexus to the world of transportation, offering insights into the movement of goods and the interconnectedness of markets. It was during this academic exploration that I began to recognize the fundamental role that transportation plays in facilitating trade and shaping economic landscapes.

My transition from academic curiosity to practical application took a significant leap when I joined the Latin America Chief Economist Office at The World Bank. Here, I found an opportunity to contribute to theoretical papers that delved into the critical intersection of infrastructure and economic development. The allure of understanding how transportation infrastructure underpins economic growth became evident, setting the stage for my deeper immersion into the transportation arena.

A pivotal moment came when I joined the South Saharan Africa (SSA) Transportation Unit, where my focus shifted towards studying transportation costs in five African countries. This experience provided a firsthand understanding of the intricacies and challenges faced by regions in optimizing their transportation networks. It was a transformative period that solidified my commitment to the transportation sector.

Over 10 years, I have dedicated my work to the transportation landscapes of Latin America and SSA, delving into the nuances that shape these regions’ connectivity and economic vitality. In the last decade, my focus has expanded to encompass the intricate tapestry of transportation dynamics within the United States.

What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve encountered working in the transportation infrastructure industry?

Navigating the intricate landscape of the transportation infrastructure industry presents a myriad of challenges, and I’ve come to view each obstacle as a unique opportunity for personal and professional growth. One of the most prominent challenges we encounter is the perennial issue of narrowing funding gaps. The financial intricacies of developing and maintaining robust transportation systems demand innovative solutions.

Embracing these challenges, I’ve found that they serve as catalysts for creativity and strategic thinking. It’s not merely about overcoming obstacles but about envisioning opportunities within them. Every funding gap is a chance to explore alternative financing models, engage in public-private partnerships, and advocate for sustainable investment in transportation infrastructure.

The recent enactment of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) has ushered in a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape the transportation landscape. This transformative legislation opens doors to unprecedented funding streams, allowing us to lay the foundation for the transportation system of tomorrow. It’s an exciting era where challenges are met with forward-thinking solutions, and collaboration becomes paramount.

In my journey, I’ve witnessed how overcoming funding challenges requires a holistic approach. This involves fostering partnerships with governmental bodies, private entities, and community stakeholders. By cultivating these alliances, we not only secure financial backing but also ensure that our projects align with the diverse needs and aspirations of the communities we serve. Ultimately, the challenges in the transportation infrastructure industry have become waypoints in a larger journey of progress. Each hurdle surmounted contributes to the realization of safer, more efficient, and sustainable transportation systems.

What are some of your current projects at STV Group?

At STV, I have the privilege of leading the National Infrastructure Economic and Grant Advisory Group, a role that involves spearheading various impactful projects. Currently, our team is actively engaged in supporting Zero Emission Transition plans for prominent transit agencies such as HRT, CATS, and MCDOT. This involves comprehensive assistance in developing and implementing plans that align with the imperative shift towards sustainable and environmentally friendly transportation solutions.

A significant focus of my efforts has also been directed towards the DFW Airport Modernization Plan and Zero Emission Roadmap. This involves strategic advisory services aimed at modernizing transportation infrastructure and seamlessly integrating zero-emission solutions into the roadmap. It’s a testament to our commitment to fostering advancements in transportation that are not only efficient but also environmentally conscious.

One noteworthy achievement is our collaboration with the New York City School Bus Umbrella Services (NYCSBUS) in securing a substantial $29.5 million through the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean School Bus Grant Program. My team played a pivotal role in this success by providing comprehensive advisory services throughout the application process. Our contributions included project review, application development, schedule management, technical writing and review, as well as overall strategy development for a robust grant application.

Can you speak to the unique challenges in working with transportation agencies at a state level or a local level?

At the state level, the scope and scale of projects often bring forth challenges tied to managing numerous competing initiatives. Coordinating and prioritizing among these diverse projects requires a delicate balance. Additionally, engaging with multiple stakeholders, each with their own priorities and perspectives, adds a layer of complexity. Successful navigation at the state level involves strategic planning, effective communication, and the ability to foster collaboration among diverse entities.

On the other hand, the local level introduces a different set of challenges, primarily centered around resource constraints. Local agencies often grapple with limited budgets and manpower, making it imperative to address the most pressing needs efficiently. Balancing immediate requirements while providing long-term guidance necessitates a strategic and nuanced approach. This involves not only solving immediate challenges but also laying the groundwork for transportation solutions that benefit the community over the long term.

Despite these challenges, the work at both state and local levels is incredibly rewarding. The impact of transportation projects is felt directly by communities, influencing their accessibility, connectivity, and overall quality of life. Contributing to the improvement of transportation infrastructure at these levels provides a tangible and positive influence on people’s daily experiences.

What is some of the best career advice you’ve received so far? What would you say to someone starting out in the transportation infrastructure field?

Throughout my career, I’ve been fortunate to receive some invaluable pieces of advice that have shaped my professional journey. One powerful mantra that resonates with me is, “Women can have it all; just not at the same time.” This profound statement encapsulates the essence of managing goals and expectations over the course of one’s career.

In the dynamic realm of the transportation infrastructure field, where challenges and opportunities abound, the advice I would extend to those starting out is to embrace a strategic approach to their career. It’s essential to set realistic expectations, recognizing that career progression may not always follow a linear path. Instead, view your career as a series of chapters, each presenting its own set of challenges and accomplishments.

Another crucial aspect is fostering a strong network within the industry. Building connections with mentors, colleagues, and professionals in the field can provide valuable insights, guidance, and support. Collaboration and mentorship can be instrumental in navigating the complexities of the transportation infrastructure sector. Furthermore, stay informed about industry trends, technological advancements, and regulatory changes. Continuous learning and adaptability are key in a field that is constantly evolving. Seek opportunities for professional development, attend conferences, and stay engaged with relevant publications to stay at the forefront of industry knowledge.

If we were literally around the table right now, what food would you have brought with you to share?

In this virtual feast, I would proudly present empanadas, a beloved finger food from Argentina. Picture golden, flaky pastry pockets filled with a flavorful blend of meats, vegetables, and spices. These delightful empanadas are not just a snack; they are a culinary representation of the rich and diverse tastes of Argentina. Personally, my heart lies with the savory delights of the beef-filled empanadas, the sweet simplicity of corn-infused ones, and the tantalizing combination of tomatoes, basil, and mozzarella in another delightful variation.

Embracing the Unknown

When I came to Avid Core, not only was I starting a new chapter in my life, but I was also at a crossroads. I had just started my first semester of graduate school at American University working towards a masters in a completely different field than either of my undergraduate degrees. I started living in D.C. by myself with my dog Ozzy. And I started at Avid Core, another foray into the unknown.

At Avid Core, I hit the ground running. On the first day, myself and the other intern that started that day were given an overview of all the projects Avid Core was working on, the style guide for the company, as well as best practices. We met the team over a virtual lunch and then were given our first tasks. At Avid Core, I learned about environmental planning, community planning, community engagement, Title VI, event planning, making slide decks, story boarding, and so much more. All of these experiences I have never had before, and I tried to take each new task in stride.

On the academic side, I was adjusting to graduate school and the workload that comes with that. My life became a balancing act between school and internship and personal life. Eventually, I fell back into the normal school pattern of studying, reading, and writing. My personal life fell into place soon after with friends I had made at school and finding a new favorite walking trail with my dog. My internship, however, never quite fell into a pattern.

Two people holding microphones sing karaoke in front of a TV screen.
Elizabeth (left) and Melissa Gomez, at an Avid Core karaoke event. Both joined the team as 2023 winter communications interns.

Since Avid Core offered an abundance of new tasks, a lot of my time was throwing things at a wall and seeing what stuck. As a recovering perfectionist, this came with a lot of anxiety. But Avid Core was a safe place to do this. When I was tasked with designing a flyer for a project, I put together a few different variations for my team members to review. I received constructive feedback and tailored the flyer to their specifications. Then rinse and repeat until we were all happy with the final deliverable.

When I was asked to put together a slide deck about a topic I knew very little about, I followed the same steps. When I proposed procedures for database management, we followed the same process. Even when I was tasked with making an animated video, something I have never done, I dove in headfirst, throwing out ideas, making a schedule, and asking for feedback. I relied on the skills I had developed before coming to Avid Core and the ones I learned during my internship. I started to embrace the unknown and enjoy the ever-changing nature of the tasks assigned to me.

As I progressed into my academic semester and was exposed to more opportunities in the field, I realized my five-year plan may not be what I want anymore, and I was met with a crossroads. When I first started at Avid Core, I thought I would get my master’s and then move on to get a Ph.D., but as I learned more about the homeland security field, I realized I did not want to go into the world of academia nor did I absolutely need a Ph.D. to do the jobs I am interested in. This left me unsure of what the future held.

It wasn’t until an in-class activity that I felt more comfortable with the unknown. In my Causes of Terrorism and Political Violence class, we were tasked to develop a strategy to handle misinformation in Ethiopia in an hour and a half. During this time, we had to develop a pitch to present to a guest from the Department of Homeland Security. Obviously, this is quite a lofty task for anyone, let alone a group of students. So, we started throwing out ideas to see what stuck. I had the idea to put together a toolkit for community leaders to use. I cannot take credit for this idea by any means—this is something I learned about from Avid Core.

A core value in Avid Core is to meet people where they are so they often create toolkits as a way for leaders to personalize messages to their community. Given the task at hand, this seemed like an effective solution, and our guest from the Department of Homeland Security agreed. He was impressed by this suggestion and our pitch ended up being selected over the other group.

As inconsequential as this in-class activity was, it gave me a lot of hope for the future. Though I may not know what the future holds, I have gained experiences and skills from working at Avid Core that I can use in creative ways in any future position. I also, and more importantly, learned to embrace the unknown and to continue to throw things at the wall and see what sticks.

Around the Table with Victor Gonzalez

Welcome to Around the Table, a regular series where we talk to fascinating people in our network and share the incredible work they are doing in their community. Pull up a chair and join us for conversation and connection.

Name: Victor Gonzalez, Director of the Mica Sonrisas Foundation

Company: Mica Sonrisas Foundation

Where to Find You: @mytorvg and @mica.sonrisas on Instagram

How was the Mica Foundation born and what motivated you to create an organization to help disadvantaged populations in Colombia?

Mica [Me.ka] is short for “Mi Cámara” (My Camera). Mica began in a photography studio in the city of Bucaramanga, Colombia. As a group of photographers, we wanted to capture the candid smiles of children with our cameras, but more so, we endeavored to show the interesting realities of our country seen through a lens.

During our photographic explorations in coastal towns, we focused on the curious fact that despite not having much, children were constantly smiling. Even though they lived in very vulnerable and poor conditions, these kids remained hopeful. We wanted to preserve and strengthen this hope represented in their warm smiles.

As a photographer, I realized that my camera could be utilized in a different way and so could my hands. I learned that my heart could beat strongly toward people I didn’t even know and that through my actions, I was able to instill optimism in someone in need.

I went from just being a photographer to becoming a philanthropist with the purpose of demonstrating to the world that everything is an equilibrium or a balance and that we need to redistribute. Just as life had given me the opportunity to have it all, I could also give back to someone who truly needed it.

Victor has been visiting Wayuu children and families in La Guajira since 2013.

In what ways has the Mica Foundation benefited people in need and what causes and groups do you focus on?

Mica’s slogan is “Living, feeling, and sowing a passion to help.” We seek to show the world that helping others is one of the best ways to transform society for the better and that lending a hand is how we evolve as human beings.

Among the groups we have helped are different indigenous tribes in La Guajira and the outskirts of the Sierra Nevada in the North of Colombia. We have also helped natives who arrive in our city of Bucaramanga. These populations particularly struggle with malnutrition and dehydration issues and lack infrastructure and government support.

Some of these tribes are located in arid regions where national and international big-scale coal and mineral extraction takes place. Despite the significant royalties these operations yield, they don’t receive adequate care and protection against the environmental consequences of open-cast mining and overall poverty in the area.

We strive to provide them with food, water, and other necessities. Moreover, our core project is donating mobility for education, which means facilitating bikes for children to go to school. During our visits to indigenous and other low-income areas, we discovered that kids had to walk 10 kilometers or more to reach the nearest school. This long trek under the scorching sun made their access to education quite difficult. We set out to mitigate this problem and reduce transportation times by bringing them hundreds of bicycles, which also served as a means of green transportation for Wayuu families in the Guajira peninsula.

“A blue bike can change the world” – Mica has organized 17 expeditions to remote desert areas in La Guajira bringing aid to disadvantaged families for the last seven years.

In terms of communication, marketing, and public relations, what have been the most successful strategies to engage with the public, promote your cause, and raise funds?

Social media is our main channel of communication. Particularly, we have focused on strategizing via Instagram which is our most powerful social media network. We use influencer marketing and seek collaborations with celebrities and local brands, as well as partnerships with national companies. We directly appeal to them publicly and also send requests privately to invite them to join our cause. By establishing connections and having honest conversations about our passion for helping others, we have had a great response from actors, singers, community organizers, small businesses, and brands.

We are proud to say that all our campaigns have achieved positive results. Despite not having any type of government or religious affiliation, we continue to reach new goals as a small nonprofit through organic engagement. We get people to fall in love with our project not just because of the energetic and passionate attitude with which we approach every activity, but also because we have reached a high level of transparency and credibility that allows people to trust in our mission.

A Latino man wearing a megaphone and a bike helmet smiling next to a homeless young boy after sharing a meal with him on a street in Bucaramanga.
The Mica Foundation helps unhoused individuals in Bucaramanga, beautifies low-income streets, and fundraises to benefit other local non-profits.
A man wearing a motorcycle helmet stands atop an all terrain vehicle holding a megaphone, with his back to the camera.
Victor actively documents Mica’s activities on Instagram and uses a megaphone during his outreach events to engage with people in the streets.

What lessons learned and advice can you share with other nonprofits from developing countries that seek positive changes in their communities?

My advice to anyone who wants to engage in philanthropic activities is to correctly administrate the resources they gather. For any social entrepreneurial endeavor, one needs to turn the projects into self-sustaining initiatives. We don’t seek personal profits, but also don’t want to generate losses because we need to continue helping people. Therefore, being frugal with resources, seeking volunteers and support, and believing in the impressive power of the work we do are lessons we have been learning along the way.

Additionally, to all the people who want to help their community, I tell them that they are never alone. There will always be hands to help and doors to open. Sometimes we may feel discouraged because social work is hard, but I guarantee you that there is always someone willing to help.

I feel like humanity is designed to help, but we need to foster and stimulate that altruism in others for it to be manifested in actions. I encourage everyone to never falter, to bring that message of selflessness everywhere they go, and to practice empathy and tolerance. This is the best way to transform society and evolve as conscious human beings. If you hear me or read this blog, please continue helping others in any way you can. The world needs people like you and me, willing to make a difference and spark positive change.

Indigenous Wayuu boys and girls from the North of Colombia riding bikes.
The Mica foundation has gathered support from individuals, local celebrities, and companies in Colombia to bring nutrition and green mobility to disadvantaged indigenous children, low-income nurses, and other populations in need.

What impact do you expect to have through your work and how do you see Mica in the future?

From the people I help every day, I expect nothing in return. However, there is an undeniable satisfaction in being able to contribute and I would like to be recognized as a “social rock star.” I am working to help the biggest amount of people possible and would like to position Mica as a reference for individuals and organizations pursuing philanthropic initiatives. I want people to think of Mica when they think of supporting others. My biggest aspiration, however, is to instill this message of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others into as many individuals as possible.

In cities like Bucaramanga, it is quite challenging to see results with social projects that don’t have governmental or religious support. Nevertheless, I have transformed the way to gather aid and I have been rocking this way of helping for years, taking our non-profit to the next level. I look forward to sharing this ecstatic vibe with the world and seeing more people fall in love with our projects.

A big group of children and adult volunteers smiling for a picture in a low-income area of Bucaramanga, Colombia.
Mica fundraises to combat children malnutrition in impoverished areas of Bucaramanga.

If we were literally “around the table” right now, what food would you have brought to share?

I love fast food! Especially burgers and pizza. However, my absolute favorite food is the one I share with my friends who do not have a home. Preparing warm meals and bringing them to those in the streets who long for love and hope is my favorite way to enjoy food.

A group of unhoused individuals share a meal sitting on the grass.
A group of unhoused individuals share a meal sitting on the grass.
Given the significant homelessness in Bucaramanga, Victor organizes picnics and other activities to bring food to unhoused individuals.