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Cultivating the next generation of Filipino leaders

Kelly Salance

In 1967, less than a year before his assassination, Martin Luther King Jr. said, “It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”

While King’s response referred to the daunting circumstances faced by African-Americans in the United States, it’s not difficult to apply the civil right leader’s statement to any disenfranchised community trapped in the cycle of extreme poverty. In the Philippines, for example, more than one-third of children cannot afford to enroll in secondary school, effectively ending their education at grade six. And in a global economy that demands technical and communication skills in order to compete, that struggle to obtain education means diminished prospects for thousands of Filipino children.


However, that’s a fate Gawad Kalinga refuses to accept. In 2014 the NGO established the School for Experiential and Entrepreneurial Development (SEED), which focuses on teaching students character development, enterprise management, communications, business math, and agriculture (and then pairs students with enterprises to further develop their skills). Moreover, the organization has also partnered with Zendesk on the Cultivate program, which augments Gawad Kalinga’s curriculum by offering courses in academic, professional, and behavioral competencies.

“There are a lot of reasons why a huge percentage of Filipinos do not have access to quality education,” says Aya Daisa Babela, Zendesk’s Cultivate curriculum architect. “This does not only happen in the secondary school and college level—some Filipinos do not even get the chance to finish their elementary school years. It is a sad reality, but many of these factors are deeply rooted in poverty. The cost of quality education is too high for most families to afford, and the priority for parents and even children is to put food on the table.”

Aya Daisa Babela, Zendesk’s Cultivate curriculum architect.png

Gawad Kalinga and Cultivate serve to bridge the competency gap between what’s being taught in Filipino schools and what employers need in the workforce, Babela says. “In my years of training adults, there is a huge number of fresh graduates that still need additional training in English communication skills,” she says. “There are a lot of business process outsourcing (BPO) companies here that hire young adults that can speak and write English well to provide all kinds of customer service via different channels such as phone, email, and chat. However, many companies have to implement near-hire programs that bridge that competency gap and teach vital skills in the workplace such as communication and personal development skills.”

While Cultivate targets employable skills, it also serves to help students unlearn poor cultural self-image. “When we talk about personal development skills, I am deeply passionate about leveraging the Filipino identity,” Babela says. “Many Filipino students feel that they are inferior to other cultures, and through personal development classes we try to discover the strengths of their identities as Filipinos and the values that we can bring to the table.”

That emphasis on cultural pride complements Cultivate’s efforts to instill resilience in the students and an overall sense of cultural competency. “Cultural competency, which we define as understanding their strengths as Filipino youths and leveraging them as they work with different cultures, will become a prevalent theme in all workshops,” Babela says. “This is especially relevant to SEED students as they frequently interact with people of different nationalities. They have the capacity to capitalize on Filipino values and excellence to become culturally competent in a world without borders.”

Our first batch of Cultivate scholars on graduation day at Zendesk.

Our first batch of Cultivate scholars on graduation day at Zendesk.

Zendesk mentors have begun to notice changes in the students, ranging from increased confidence in public speaking to improvements in neutralizing their accents in English. The second class of SEED students will start the Cultivate curriculum in August.

“We’re excited to tweak the modules based on the feedback that we got from Zendesk volunteers and Gawad Kalinga,” Babela says. “We are also exploring other partnerships such as Angat Buhay with the Office of the Vice President. At the end of this year, we plan to collaborate with ADB’s Youth for Asia Program. All of our partnerships aim to improve the lives of the Filipino youth with experiential learning.”