Violence disrupts ability to trust in people: Activist Sylvia Aguilera García

Sylvia Aguilera Garcia

Sylvia Aguilera García is a Mexican with more than two decades of experience working in human rights and peace-building. During the past 14 years, she has focused her work on developing new ways to approach public conflicts in Mexico, mainly those related to land and natural resource management, as well as those associated with the advancement of human rights, the justice system, and victims’ rights. Part of her work has been focused on strengthening civil society coalitions and in developing collaborative and negotiation capabilities. During the last three years, she has been working with the national Movement of Relatives of Disappeared Persons in Mexico. She is a former Director of the Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights, and from 2012-2018 was the Executive Director of the Center for Civic Collaboration, a Mexican organization focused on the design and development of multi-stakeholder dialogues. She has been a consultant of the Inter American Commission of Human Rights since 2013, working to strengthen its Friendly Settlements Agreement process. She is also part of the roster of experts in mediation for the Independent Consultation and Investigation Mechanism (MICI) – Inter American Development Bank. Sylvia holds a BA in Social Psychology from the Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana, an MA in Peace Studies from the University of Bradford, UK and a specialization in Working with Conflict.

How would you describe yourself?

As a woman who invests her time and energy trying to build a better society. As well as a mother of two little ones who are my biggest inspiration.

I have to confess that at the beginning I was totally clueless, I did not have any role model to emulate. So I just followed my instincts, was patient and was always ready and alert to learn from everything and everyone.

You are a development expert and activist. How did you pick your career path?

Since an early age, I was inspired to make a contribution to change the situation of injustice I observed and experienced around me. I was clear I wanted to work on something that also gave me the opportunity to make that contribution. I have to confess that at the beginning I was totally clueless, I did not have any role model to emulate. So I just followed my instincts, was patient and was always ready and alert to learn from everything and everyone. In that way I got opportunities to advance my education and define my career in social justice. I understood that one builds one’s path on the small and big inspirations from different people and experiences around you.

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You are “fearless” in your current position. Help us walk in your shoes and understand where you get the strength from.

I’m not sure I’m totally fearless. Actually, fear is a feeling that is around me very often. We have become good friends now. Fear helps me to make decisions and to be careful. I think that my strength comes from the ability to have a constructive dialogue with my everyday fears and learn from my past fears. Having a good relationship with my fear has given me the opportunity to be bold in many situations.

What excites you when you wake up every morning?

The idea to make a contribution to a positive change. It can be for a single person or it can be for an entire society.

Share some examples where you have made a difference in your country and community. 

I can say that my ability to be persistent and to work toward objectives, taking special care of the relationships with people, have helped me to make a difference in several processes. In my role in civil society organizations and networks, mentoring and learning with my colleagues, but also, offering my personal and professional abilities to the service of dialogue processes on tough issues. For me, one of the most significant experiences in the last few years, was the opportunity to facilitate a dialogue process between collectives of “disappeared people’s” relatives and human rights organizations with decision-makers, in order to have a General Law about Forced disappearances in Mexico. This experience has been one of the most important for me for different reasons:

  • It gave me the opportunity to understand the level of suffering that a lot of people in Mexico are experiencing.
  • It gave me the opportunity to channelise my previous knowledge towards the service of these people in order to build an environment of trust, dialogue and collective building.
  • Together we developed a proposal that could help them reduce their sorrow and to help the entire society repair this terrible situation.
  • But also gave me the opportunity to understand that even with all the experiences and knowledge, you need to always build something new, that responds to the specific circumstances and context. That above everything, politics is a relationship among persons, then most of the success of a process relies in the ability to build trust within people.

What are some of the challenges you face? How do you overcome them?

I live in one of the most violent countries in the world, without open war. Violence disrupts the ability to trust in people and to develop a constructive vision of the future. The main challenges I face everyday is to work in an environment where people are disappointed with the so called democratic regimes. And tired of having dialogues that most of the time do not go anywhere. An environment where people are looking for stability and their own survival.

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I try to overcome this by being the eternal optimist. I am the one that is pushing to read the possible opportunities in every situation, trying not to be reactive but to observe first and understand the complexities of the situations in order to discover different perspectives. Mostly making questions like “What if”? Have you been thinking about that? Just being the one that is not comfortable having just one view for one situation.

The main challenges I face everyday is to work in an environment where people are disappointed with the so called democratic regimes. And tired of having dialogues that most of the time do not go anywhere.

How do you manage self care? Do you believe in work-life balance or integration? What are some of the strategies you adopt?

Maybe this is one of the last things I have learned on my journey. I have managed my self-care first deconstructing a lot of assumptions about being a woman, being a mother and being a peacebuilder. Most of those assumptions were related with the idea that you have to give your all in order to make the people around you happy. Or even that the “cause” is more important than yourself. With time, I realized that I’m my main cause and that the quality of my contribution to my family, my community and the world totally relies on my ability to be fine with myself.

I believe in a work-life balance. However, it is not something you can get in an easy way. I feel I can’t reach that balance yet, even when I have a wonderful partner and a lot of privileges. It is something that doesn’t depend only on my own willingness but that it is related with the need to make systemic changes, in the role of women in societies and the assumptions that while you are busier and earning more you are more successful.

Do you consider yourself a “Global Girl”? Why?

Sure! Firstly, because I cannot imagine my today’s self without all the knowledge, influence, care and love I have received for so many years from my global family. And thanks to those links I understood so many years ago the intimate link between communities and societies around the globe and the impact that small changes in one area can strike another place or have an impact without even thinking about that.

What is the advice you would give your 16 year-old-self?

Do not judge yourself so hard. You are good, intelligent and important. Trust your inner voice more and be loyal to yourself. Take it easy and enjoy the journey. You will be surrounded by more love than you could ever imagine. And the things you perceive as defects in you, may be your best tools in the future.

What are three values you think are most important for a global leader?

  • Empathy
  • Trustworthy
  • Have Fun

What’s next for Sylvia?

Keep growing, learning and surprising myself every day from the ability of human beings to create a better world for everyone.