For this month’s Spotlight on Women in Business, showcasing the achievements of women entrepreneurs around the world, The Wisteria Group interviewed Cristina Liamzon, a development consultant dedicated to building a global community of empowered Filipino migrant workers through leadership and entrepreneurship training. 

1. First, let me congratulate you for the award you are receiving from the Global Fairness Initiative (GFI) for your work to empower the Philippine migrant community. Could you tell us a little about that work?

Our work with Filipino migrants and their families really revolves around a training program (actually we call it an empowerment program) called the Leadership and Social Entrepreneurship (LSE) Program for Overseas Filipinos and their Families. We started this program in 2008 in Rome with my husband, Edgar Valenzuela with the support of then Dean of the Ateneo School of Government (ASoG), Antonio La Vina. The idea was to have a leadership and social entrepreneurship training program for Filipino youth in Rome based upon an exploratory study that I did in 2005 which found that our youth were experiencing serious difficulties in integrating into Italian society.  The program has spread to other cities and as of 2016, we now have around 1,500 graduates from 40 batches in 14 cities in Asia, Europe and the Middle East.

2. How did you become interested in working with Philippine migrants?

I lived in Rome from 1990-2011, when my husband worked with the UN Food and Agriculture11245496_10205626994927465_1377720914211022391_n Organization. Italy has one of the largest Filipino migrant communities in Europe with over 120,000 people mostly working in the household sector as domestics or caregivers. As a Filipina woman, I interacted with many Filipinos living in Rome and had a first-hand experience of the issues and concerns they face as migrants. Some of their difficulties include managing their finances, to save and invest to achieve their long-term goals, including for retirement or reintegration back in the Philippines. The high social costs of migration include the loneliness of long-distance relationships between spouses and partners leading to break-ups in marriages; estrangement of children from their parents; dependence on the migrant family member and the remittances they send; the atrophying of skills that happens given the very limited types of employment opportunities open to migrants.

I was then working as a free-lance development consultant with civil society organizations and UN agencies and also doing my doctoral studies. At around this time, I was volunteering with the Filipino Catholic church community together with my husband as well as with a Filipino migrants’ association that we and several friends set up to assist migrants towards economic security.  It was during this period that we were more exposed to the problems of Filipino migrants in Rome and we became active in organizing socio-psychological counseling for couples, parents and children as well as on financial literacy sessions.

3. Your career seems to have evolved over time. You started quite young as an activist in high school and somehow you kept that activist spirit alive over the years. Many people find it difficult to maintain their activism once they graduate and the demands of work and family life take over. Could you talk a bit about your personal path?

The values that I have been trying to live by have always been about social justice, equity, development and progress for all. My religious and spiritual beliefs affirm these and in my older years, it is these religious and spiritual beliefs that motivate me even more to become a person in service of others. This is one major principle and value we try to impart to our students (in line with Ignatian/Jesuit and Ateneo values) – that of servant leadership. It was my exposure to migrant Filipinos during Sundays at church and my various community activities that got me to explore how I might help migrants.

4. What did you learn about how to integrate your personal and professional life? What advice would you have for young women starting out who are committed to social change?

I have always been or seen myself as a trailblazer and I see my role as someone who wants to innovate, to try something different that could make a difference.  I thought, and for some time hoped, that I could have a long term career in development work either in an NGO (international) or with the UN. I realized however that I did not really feel comfortable in a bureaucracy and was not inclined to becoming entrenched in administrative work. I was however very attracted to innovations and innovative thinking and practice that I saw going on around me. For several years, I worked closely with David Korten (People-Centered Development Forum) who exposed me to many development practitioners who were making a real difference in their communities and who were not traditional development workers – innovators like in Ashoka. I drew a lot of inspiration from these people. Because I had some financial independence and that I could also rely on my husband’s income to support me, I was given the opportunity to explore following my passion and to think outside the box.

I would advise women starting out to work for social change – to look beyond the security of the job but to the possibilities of creating something that excites one’s passion and creativity and that could lead to getting income as well…the psychic income one draws from such involvement is often what keeps me going, despite the challenges.

5. In this blog we have traditionally focused on women in business, including business with social impact. Could you talk a bit about the business aspect of your work/life?

There have been many times in the past that I have felt pressure to look actively for consultancies to prove to myself that I could earn substantial amounts and not just volunteer and rely on “psychic income” from the various volunteer work that I was doing. Yet as I focused more on my volunteer work, I also discovered that finances really took second place and I became less insecure about proving my worth by the amount of money I brought in. Today, I would say that my volunteer work takes precedence and priority over consulting work and some part-time teaching. I now feel much more free to do work that is important to me and that has a social impact.

6. We are living in a time of significant political change, in the Philippines, the U.S., and I would suggest globally. What do you see as the role of civil society in this context?

I see two critical roles for civil society: (1) To strengthen the dialogue among groups with different and divergent views, focusing on what unites, rather than divides; and (2) To continue to be a voice for the marginalized and vulnerable.