Coding for Social Justice in South America

Young girl coding on a laptop, social justice


Lucy Sabin interviews the Founder of Light and Leadership Initiative (LLI) Peru, Lara DeVries.

When I was 19, I volunteered as an English teacher overseas with the Light and Leadership Initiative. It was a life-changing experience that helped me to forge core values and realise my allegiance with the charity sector.

Three years on, I catch up with the Founder of the non-profit organisation that made it all possible. Lara DeVries’ project, the Light and Leadership Initiative, based in Lima, Peru, aims to improve access to quality education for children, teens, and women through community-oriented educational programs.

Lara studied Spanish and History at University and, after visiting the shantytowns of Lima in 2007, she felt inspired to empower local people and provide them with more opportunities. The rest is history.

As the LLI mission statement proclaims, “We believe the women and children of the Ate Vitarte district will become the leaders for change”.

Interestingly, the Light and Leadership Initiative have recently expanded their repertoire of educational schemes to include Computer Programming, alongside English, Art, Chess, and Maths.

I caught up with Lara to find out how things are going now LLI has branched into tech.

Q. It seems a few things have changed at LLI since I volunteered with you in 2013. Most notably you now offer Computer Programming classes. What made the organisation decide to incorporate programming?

A. Our coding, or computer programming classes, started in 2014 thanks to a very cool and very generous volunteer from San Francisco named John. John joined us in February of 2014 and suggested the idea of incorporating coding into our education programs. Light and Leadership Initiative is very focused on listening to what the community has to say in terms of their educational needs. Computer and technology classes have long been on the list of things parents and kids alike were seeking, so we jumped at the chance to expose our kids (ages 7-12 years old, plus teens) to something like coding. Knowing the gender gap that exists in technology, together with the fact that coding can very accessible to any socio-economic background, it seemed like a really great fit for our after-school programs. So, needless to say, we went for it! Since 2014, LLI has officially incorporated coding into our weekly courses offered to kids and teens.

Q. How has Computer Programming been received by the community in Huaycan?

A. Anything technology related is always exciting for kids, I think anywhere in the world, but to offer a specialized course like coding has been truly a blessing to our programs and to our students. Let’s just say we’ve never had a problem filling the classes…! Kids LOVE using the Scratch coding program and app inventor programs to learn the basics and we look forward to their continued growth in the area.

Young girls learning to code as part of the Light and Leadership Initiative (LLI)

Q. How does knowing how to code help empower women and children?

A. The opportunity to learn a skill in a growing field is always something very special and very powerful, no matter what it is. LLI is lucky to be able to offer such an amazing gift to students who really want to take coding on. Knowing that our students can develop these skills throughout their childhood, teenage years and adulthood to then turn it into a career to take them wherever they want, is really very exciting.

Furthermore, it’s important to recognize coding isn’t for everyone, and that’s OK. Yet I still see the absolute value in all of our students receiving the opportunity to try something new and seeing if the shoe fits, so to speak. And if that shoe fits, it could change their lives.  

Q. What programming languages has LLI decided to teach and why?

A. In comparison to other programs, and even other organizations, we are very much in the early stages of teaching coding. We’ve used programs like Scratch and AppInventor, which use their own languages, to introduce coding to kids and teens and will take it from there once they’ve mastered those programs. Our hope is to build up to Javascript, for example, in the next few years with our students.

Young girl being taught coding as part of the Light and Leadership Initiative (LLI)

 Q. Have you felt motivated to learn how to code yourself?

A. Yes definitely! I use some really basic code to update our website when needed, but that’s not saying much! I have long been interested in learning, especially upon meeting John and being introduced to the “coding world.” For me, as of now, it’s just a question of time, but it’s definitely on my bucket list of things to accomplish in my lifetime.

Q. I imagine that your programming tutors will become better at what they do through teaching the subject. After all, teaching is an effective way to consolidate knowledge. Personally, my time with LLI was a period of much personal growth. Above all, I gained confidence in speaking Spanish and in leading large groups. Over the years, you’ve seen many volunteers come and go. Have you observed them change as people during their time with you?

A. Absolutely. Volunteering and teaching, especially when done together, can be a powerful tool for personal growth. We’ve seen hundreds of volunteers (both international and local) pass through LLI’s doors since 2009 and it’s been amazing to see people change their perspectives, careers, life goals

Q. Do you have any advice for women who have a big idea like you did with Light and Leadership Initiative?

A. Research the heck out of your idea and then go for it. Being knowledgeable, prepared and friendly will take you extremely far.

Q. How can our readers get involved in Light and Leadership Initiative’s work?

A. It couldn’t be easier. We’d love to have volunteers who can teach coding, specifically with conversational Spanish skills. If you don’t speak Spanish, we still have opportunities available in programs. We’re a great program for someone serious about social change and educational development. To learn more about our ethical volunteering philosophy, check us out here.

If you’re not too keen on traveling right now, we’d love a remote volunteer to help us further develop our coding curriculum. Please email Lara at lara@lightandleadership.org.

Finally, we of course always accept donations, as every bit helps. You can also purchase items we need via our Amazon wishlist. They’ll be sent straight to our office.

 About the author

Lucy Sabin

Contributing writer and former employee, Lucy Sabin, is a well- traveled, multimedia communicator with a First Class degree from Durham University, including a year abroad in France and Spain. Lucy recently became a coder with Founders & Coders, and runs her own blog Secret Diary Of A Code Girl, to break down stereotypes and get more women into tech. She is an inspiration and a role model to all women in tech.




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