This profile was published as part of Gandhi’s Be Magazine’s #ProfilesofChangemakers series, uplifting the stories, lives, and work of Changemakers who are being the change they wish to see in the world.
Francisco Xavier Díaz is a social entrepreneur and vegan advocate.
Tell us about your journey. What inspired you along your spiritual journey, and what inspired you to activate your personal mission through social entrepreneurship/activism in Mexico and around the world? What have you learned from the journey and experience along the way? Any unexpected challenges or surprises along the way?
I guess my journey started when I was 16-years-old, it was my first time to visit a poor remote village in Mexico. For a week the families in the community shared the little food they had with us. The walls of their houses were made out of wood planks and had holes between them, their floors were just soil and they all slept in one room. They would make 20 Mexican pesos a day (around 1 USD of today’s prices) for collecting coffee and would occasionally buy a big Coke that would cost them around 70 cents of a dollar, just for the purpose of offering it to us. Their salary was around one third less than the minimum wage. This experience allowed me to understand what it really means to give without expecting anything in return, even to strangers, and that the people “who have the least” can be the ones who have the most love and kindness to give.
The second part of my journey started some months after receiving an offer for “the cherished job” at Google in 2011, a job that would basically free me from all fear of not earning “enough money” and at the same time provide me the status I had “enjoyed” since I was accepted to HEC Paris, the number one business school in Europe. I was having dinner with my mother in a restaurant in Lisbon, which had a view of the ocean, and I told her that I didn’t find any meaning in life anymore and that I felt lost with no real direction to go. I had no idea what it meant at the time, but that feeling started to grow and took different forms: interest in social causes; participation in a charitable committee within Google; collaboration with non-profits; participation in peaceful protests; and a strong interest in philosophy, meditation, the teachings of Buddha, and true happiness.
What happened next was key: I left Google in the summer of 2014. At the time, I wished to study a non-profit management master to work for an NGO and work in fundraising. I was convinced that working in that sector and profession could benefit the underprivileged the most, but in a way I was still attached to money and status, and I hadn’t clearly discovered my true conviction for a specific cause. I was lucky enough to attend a wedding of a friend in India some months after so I decided to go with all my stuff (having already abandoned the master’s idea as I found out it wasn’t necessary) and to look for a job in Asia or Africa in the nonprofit sector. When I left Mexico I told my family I would go back in 10 years, after having achieved the professional and personal growth necessary to benefit as much as possible the poorest people.
So I applied to several types of jobs, ranging from in-country jobs like administration and finance positions in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Haiti, and other African countries. I also applied to jobs like Fundraising, Business Analysis, and Research in locations like India, Africa, Australia, Europe and Canada, but I realized I was still not passionate enough for those causes and that I was still driven by my attachments (money, status and living in exciting places) rather than by my true conviction (which I was yet to discover). I should define the notion of attachment for clarity purposes: to see something as more valuable than it really is or the exaggerated not wanting to be separated from someone or something (the opposite of aversion).
In 2015/2016, I volunteered at two of the best NGOs in India in fundraising: CARE India and Barefoot College. Barefoot College is a school made for the poor, by the poor and for the poor located in one of the poorest and most remote areas of India. It integrates the lifestyle and work thesis of Gandhi. It has 5 programs: Solar, Education, Water, Livelihood and Advocacy. Its purpose is not to mobilize people; however, in 45 years it has been involved in several mobilizations of rural people protesting against rape, wages, land, caste discrimination, among others. The Barefoot Approach is a bottom-up, grassroots, community-managed model that puts the traditional knowledge and skills of the rural people first. Bunker and all the directives and people who work there (more than 95% are rural local people) have made minimum wages all their life. The NGO has impacted 3 million people worldwide.
When I applied to Barefoot College I sent several emails during weeks but received no response. I was determined to volunteer there because I believed my mission was to create a similar NGO in Mexico that could help thousands or millions of people grow out of poverty and at some point be able to mobilize them to help them stand for their rights. I imagined this movement turning into a national campaign to fight inequality and oppression and to advocate for democracy and human rights. So what I ended up doing was showing up at the door of Barefoot with my bags (I thought I had actually found a guesthouse in this remote area) and I explained my motivation to the HR. However, they didn’t let me stay there so I would have to travel 40 km per day to visit the library and talk to the people at Barefoot but after some days they gave me an interview with Bunker and the CEO, Meagan Fallone. I became her personal assistant and helped her on grant-writing, fundraising and administration activities. However, what helped me the most to get in touch with reality was that I got to make friendships with the villagers, meet the children at the rural schools and live like a local. My greatest learning was to know personally the humility, life-long dedication and huge heart of Bunker.
The change that oriented me towards socio-political activism came nine months after having arrived to India. I was in Dharamsala at the time, after having spent three months in Nepal in a monastery, on the top of a hill, where I took Buddhist courses and a Vipassana meditation retreat. We’re constantly fighting against our own attachments, ego, ignorance, and anger in order to find true happiness and that is what I did constantly during more than a year and a half in India and Nepal in order to find my true conviction. The time in Nepal helped me a great deal to fight these obstacles and by the time I was in Dharamsala I was much more free from my own attachments than when I started my journey in Asia. I was determined to fight against the true cause of inequality and extreme poverty and started to research online about it. I found several studies, I was reading the autobiography of Gandhi and I began to understand that the underlying causes of poverty were caused by governments and oligarchs (the richest 1 percent) and that I could impact very little the world by working at an NGO, as compared to what I could achieve by participating in socio-political movements and contributing to mobilize rural communities. This is because there is a huge area of opportunity to utilize the money (taxes) that the government collects from us in a way that will help the disadvantaged the most and because it’s key to monitor governments and corporations so that they respect the law and work for the betterment of society. This is my true conviction.
Most of the developing countries present the same social problems: minimum wages are not respected and are not “living wages”, progressive taxes are not applied on the wealthy people’s income, power elites have too much influence on public policies, basic services are not delivered to the poorest and high levels of corruption. Rising inequality is a problem for all of us – it undermines growth and social cohesion. Yet the consequences for the world’s poorest are particularly severe. Even the IMF has highlighted the fact that inequality can have negative consequences not just for the poorest people but for the overall health of economies.
By working closely with the poorest communities and discovering what affects them the most a collective participatory debate of public affairs of state can be fostered, which will be strong enough to reclaim development, fight corruption and build democracy.
Tell us more about your social entrepreneurship/activism, and what inspired these projects. Tell us a little more about how your work has impacted others through your social entrepreneurism/activism around the world and share some of the successes that have truly touched those involved.
What became the last part of my journey was when I heard of the existence of Aruna Roy, who happens to be married to the founder of Barefoot College, Bunker Roy, a remarkable woman that won the Magsaysay Award – known as the “Asian Nobel Prize” – for Community Leadership and International Understanding. She was named one of the 100 most influential people by Time Magazine and is the main person responsible for achieving the Right of Information Act in India and a government scheme that provides 100 days of work to 20 percent of rural people in India. It was my dream to meet her and when I finally did I was able to focus all my attention, leaving other projects aside to follow a similar path to the one she has taken, one that requires a deep involvement and commitment at the grassroots level to develop policy initiatives that can bring about social justice, participatory democracy, and the biggest impact in the fight against inequality and extreme poverty. This is a paradigm that can serve as an inspiration to other countries.
Aruna has led long walks across India to show the discontent of society and gain support; fasted to protest against the government and the unjust/ illegal acts of the wealthy; survived on minimum wage and done heavy labor to understand the living and working conditions of the poorest; led public debates on democracy; and advocated for campaigns to create/ change/ enforce laws that fight against poverty, e.g. minimum wage laws not respected. She has also shown me that true growth has to come at the grassroots level to find out about the real problems that affect communities and society and that the solutions have to be proposed by the people themselves.
I got a volunteering at the socio-political organization of Aruna, MKSS (which roughly means Organization for the Empowerment of Workers and Peasants), and was assigned the task to research an Indian biometric database called Aadhaar which is a national project to identify the entire population but violates basic human rights such as privacy, right to association and the right to self-determination; and it doesn’t even have the legal support required. It’s a big threat since it could become a central monitoring system of the population, corporations could access it since they’re involved in the collection of data and data mining could be done on the entire population. The research was important at the time because the organization had hearings at court. I found out that six countries and the European Union had similar initiatives in the past but were overthrown as they were considered to be an interference with the right to privacy. The Indian biometric database, Aadhaar, presents the majority, if not all the violations that these countries had encountered in their national biometric ID programs. Furthermore, the program targeted first the poorest people, presenting itself as optional when in reality it was mandatory as people needed it to obtain their rations of food.
My fourth and last volunteering in India was at an independent organization, which is government-funded, called SSAAT (Society for Social Audit, Accountability and Transparency). The director is a former worker at MKSS and she used to do the same job as she does now: audit the government on social schemes to ensure that no acts of corruption or irregularities have taken place. When SSAAT was created, MKSS provided guidance so that they could put in place the methodology that the organization used to audit the government, as it had proven highly effective. For two weeks I visited two rural communities in the state of Hyderabad and audited the government on two welfare schemes: pensions and MGNREGA, a scheme that provides 100 days of rural work (mainly in water conservation) to 270 million poor rural people, or 20% of India’s population. With a team made out of rural people we visited hundreds of houses and made sure that each family had received their pensions and wages. I fell in love with the children of the communities. I felt the suffering of the people of the communities and of single mothers who earn minimum wages and have to support their families. I made solid recommendations to improve the audit process, such as doing an impact analysis to evaluate how the works benefit the community, currently there is no such analysis. I also proposed new MGNREGA works and a website to monitor and display the acts of corruption of government officials.
How has your experience working as a social entrepreneur/activist and the issues you’ve chosen to cover changed your life, your outlook, your interactions with others or the planet? And what do you hope others can learn from your work and experience?
Since around three years ago, I have become deeply passionate about all social causes including politics, environment, gender, gay rights, health, freedom of speech, corruption, inequality, war, racism, refugees, among others. Since I’ve become more aware of global issues that affect human and animal rights and the overall well-being of nature and society, I have sensed a steadily growing need in myself to take action. I believe that to be aware of these issues is the responsibility of all of us and it’s the first step to create social change.
A milestone for me was when I found myself shedding some tears at a Palestine protest in Mexico City and protesting for the Mexicans from Ayotzinapa who had been disappeared/ killed by the Mexican government and the mafia. I also believe that all of us should participate in protests, as we can’t expect our lives to improve by just desiring change, we need to show the government how much we want it. We make so much efforts to improve our lives but neglect the effort that can produce the most impactful results.
When I volunteered at MKSS I gained a better understanding of how a social activist can be more successful, that he should be close not only to the poor communities but also to the professionals (lawyers, politicians, media personalities, etc.) that can contribute the most to the project and be able to help the movement to take bigger proportions.
At SSAAT I developed a strong connection to the rural and marginalized people in the communities I visited. During this volunteering it was the first time I ate all the time with my hands, as a true Indian. I also learned to sleep on the floor, usually over a mat but once directly on the floor, besides my co-workers. Since there were no toilets in one of the communities I had to do open-defecation in a field where lots of people go to, for a man it’s not as bad as it sounds but I understood the feeling that women and girls must have with this experience. But most importantly, I gained a deep understanding of the difficult living and working conditions of the poorest rural people, some working under the heavy summer Indian sun all day, breaking rocks with hand tools for minimum wage, which is definitely not a living wage.
What’s next along the journey?
I have been selected to participate in a global conference called The Hive Global Leaders Program on the basis of my socio-political project. The conference is a leadership and entrepreneurship program for extraordinary purpose-driven leaders. It brings together top entrepreneurs, leaders, CEOs, innovators, and philanthropists who are working to create a better world and solve humanity’s greatest challenges.
Before starting my socio-political project, from which I don’t expect to generate any income or minimum wage, I plan to set up a vegan food truck. I have several vegan ideas that I will pursue in the next years/ decades, such as vegan farms in schools, an app that will allow families to grow food indoors, among others. The reasons I’m passionate about veganism are the following:
It has long been my dream to contribute to the health of Mexicans due to the high indices of obesity and diabetes of society. Almost 33 percent of Mexicans are obese and 70 percent are overweight.
I’ve been a vegan since March 2015 and understand this conviction as a means to protect the well-beings and rights of animals, take care of human health, protect the environment, teach society that tastes are acquired, provide people with cheaper food options and allow them to control their minds more easily.
As Gandhi’s Be Magazine Editor-in-Chief, Missy Crutchfield, wisely pointed out, veganism is an easy-access door for compassion that can lead people to be more conscious about socio-political issues.
After setting up the vegan food truck I plan to meet all the relevant people to my socio-political project in Mexico City: human right activists, economists, intellectuals, philanthropists, lawyers, jurists, environmentalists, labor union figures, righteous politicians, etc.
This will provide me a comprehensive framework of knowledge and relationships to start my next journey: a complete immersion into one of the poorest, most remote and marginalized communities of Mexico with the intent to discover the needs that are affecting indigenous people, women, and the poorest people. The idea is that through grassroots work and understanding, a participatory democracy framework can be developed by the rural people that will be strong enough to advocate for public initiatives.
Do you have anything else you would like to share with Gandhi’s Be Magazine readers?
It is my true conviction that social change is possible and that it’s increasingly necessary, we’ve already seen it happen throughout history multiple times. What we first need to do is believe we have the power to make it happen, be aware of the social injustice issues, understand that together we are unstoppable and take action.
Democracy doesn’t end with the vote, that’s just the beginning. What we need to do to bring social justice is to foster a participatory democracy through public debates and the monitoring of governments and corporations by citizen groups. This will ensure that they are following the law and provide insights to create new laws that will guarantee that the social rights of everyone are respected.
Learn more at: www.facebook.com/franciscoxdiaz/