Throughout her career, Alisa Del Tufo has believed deeply in the goal of community empowerment. As she states, “We need to get this idea out there: the people in our communities are actually the most powerful engine for change and we need to find effective and ethical and meaningful ways of bringing their participation into the conversation about change.”
Wow. For me, as a young woman interested in community-based activism, hearing Alisa talk about her work was incredibly cool. It was exciting and empowering. She has spent thirty years tackling issues of domestic violence from both a hands-on and policy-based standpoint. She has identified the areas in which government programs are not sufficient, and she has had the courage, spunk and creativity to develop innovative programs that meet those unaddressed needs. With all her experience in the field of social entrepreneurship, Alisa is an invaluable mentor for Middlebury students. But equally or perhaps more important than Alisa’s knowledge is her compassion, humility and dedication to her work. Her mentoring goes beyond strict skills; she models kindness and a commitment to what she loves. For us, as college students who are unsure where our lives lead, this is a powerful example. With a smile, Alisa said, “I made somewhat of a left turn from studying Tibetan Buddhism to becoming a feminist activist. But it didn’t seem like a left turn to me; it seemed completely in line with really trying to understand what made people tick and what their values were – and it’s those ideas that are important to me.”
Alisa Del Tufo is an Ashoka Fellow who has made two trips to the Middlebury campus in the past two months. Middlebury has fostered an important relationship with Ashoka, the world’s largest network of social entrepreneurs. As an Ashoka U Changemaker campus, Middlebury is committed to creating a community of social innovation and collaboration. Initiatives such as the Center for Social Entrepreneurship, the Programs for Creativity and Innovation, and MiddCORE all contribute to a campus-wide dialogue about the potential for change in higher education.
Middlebury’s partnership with Ashoka has allowed Ashoka Fellows and Middlebury students to engage deeply and directly with each other. It is these interactions between mentor and student – where wisdom and inspiration are imparted – that leads to the meaningful and formative learning for which MiddCORE strives.
Thus, in January, Alisa mentored the 2014 Winter Term class of MiddCORE students as they developed social enterprise ideas for a Vermont-based nonprofit. In February, Alisa returned to Middlebury to speak at the Friday lecture series at the Center for Social Entrepreneurship and to lead an afternoon workshop with MiddCORE and the Center for Social Entrepreneurship.
In all these interactions with Middlebury students, Alisa was an engaging mentor. She shared with us her life’s trajectory and then prompted us to think critically about our own goals and hopes for enacting change. Alisa has dedicated her work to surfacing the voice of community members in order to design strategies for change, with an emphasis on combating family violence. In Alisa’s words, “You need to ask the people. Knowledge can be surfaced from people in communities that are always ignored. I’ve developed methods to do just this.” As such, she has created numerous innovative strategies for drawing out the voices of individuals in disadvantaged populations and then using these stories to build community empowerment and bring about substantive policy change.
Reflecting on her work, Alisa said, “I am a serial founder,” and indeed she has founded and led multiple organizations with the purpose of surfacing community voices, including Sanctuaries for Families, CONNECT and Threshold Collaborative. Building something from scratch takes guts and hard work. Alisa emphasized to us that founding an organization and making it a success is by no means easy or guaranteed, but it is satisfying and rewarding when you believe in your mission.
Alisa’s words resonated deeply with my Middlebury classmates and me: she helped us understand that uncertainty and changes in direction are natural, but a sense of purpose should guide all our decisions. Alisa is helping us define that sense of purpose. Our Middlebury education is helping us define that sense of purpose. Through both coursework and experience, we are learning about ourselves and the world around us.
So, we as college students are young and we are hopeful. We are learning and we are growing. We are taking responsibility for our own education. We are dreaming about the future. Importantly, our mentors and peers are supporting us. People like Alisa are launching us into the world with a sense of empowerment and confidence. They are celebrating our energy and hopefulness, and then giving us the concrete skills and networks we need to act upon our visions for the future. Even when the world seems daunting and the problems insurmountable, Alisa offers these words of advice: “There’s so much hope. People have always been doing amazing things. And the key is not to feel intimidated by these great things, but to feel inspired by them and to build off them.” We will try to do just that.