It was Ana Benalcazar who first explained to me the meaning of “veci.” Vecina, vecino. Neighbor.

Within the neighborhood where we’re working in Quito, Ecuador, you’re “veci” to everyone — the woman in the supermarket, the man who sells bread, the old lady who shuffles past you on the sidewalk.

And it’s fitting that Ana was the one who introduced me to this term. She, more than anyone I know, strives to dig into communities, to plant the values of being a good neighbor.

Outside her day job, she juggles sundry personal projects. One of them is serving as the local contact for MUTA, our multidisciplinary collective that works to revitalize public spaces. Ana has a decade’s worth of experience in this field — from designing public schools to advocating for migrant women selling fried bananas on the street. She has a quietly forceful energy, and she’s often on the move. So please, make way, veci.

You work with tons of different projects. Can you tell me about the one you dedicate the most time to?

I’m a super hyperactive woman. I can’t stop thinking about and imagining projects that can be done, doing them, and bringing people together.

The job that allows me to eat — La Nueva Escuela — is a project where Ecuador has engaged in public design of educational infrastructure. The project seeks to generate cultural belonging, particularly in rural areas.

We started last year with one school on the coast of Ecuador. Never before has the community been asked about how they’d like to see their schools. We gathered all of these people — students, parents, local authorities — and began asking them questions about what they’d like to see in their schools. The educational methodology is the soul of this project. Beyond improving the infrastructure, we believe that this educational methodology can help develop creativity in future generations. Teachers begin to feel like moderators, and children have the capacity to learn from each other.

I’m really happy because four years ago, I thought it was just a dream that you could change things on an institutional level. This plants a seed that the people can mobilize the mega-infrastructure that is the Ecuadorian Ministry of Education.

Imagining alongside a girl in Toctiuco.

Right now I’m also working on a project with women who work in the public space selling fried bananas. These bananas are called maduros, so the women are “madureras.” The project involves mapping — who they are, where they work, where they’ve come from. This is a personal project of mine that involves my greatest passions: gender, public space, informal economy.

And what about Experiencias Urbanas — could you tell me more about this project? 

Experiencias Urbanas seeks to engage people in collaborative civic projects. We’re three women — an architect, a sociologist and me, who looks for different projects and designs the participative methodology. We started last year and applied for grant funding. In June, we learned that with the project we proposed, we were among 12 selected projects within Latin America.

Congrats! You’re now working with MUTA, too. How did you get in touch with the collective?

Within a digital platform called CivicWise, I saw a message from Mati Lastra talking about this tour through Latin America. We’d already received the funding, and I read the message and realized it was a good moment to invite the group.

We’d worked before within the neighborhood of Toctiuco and had a good relationship with the community leaders there. We went together, and the neighbors received us in the best way. When groups come from outside to work in the public space, it’s important to have the work be reciprocal.

When I think of projects like MUTA, I think of a drop of water; it falls into a body of water and has the capacity to move and shake its surroundings. MUTA is that drop of water. Once the group leaves Quito, what’s going to happen to the people in the neighborhood? The neighbors will have the tools to continue realizing changes in their neighborhood.

Mapping out interventions for public spaces within Toctiuco.

In all these projects, what keeps you motivated?

I’m really curious, above all. I like to gather as much information as possible and learn from others.

For me it’s critical to always be connected with the people. I’m not drawn to the idea of sitting alone in an office and designing public spaces. I want to relate with people and know why we’re designing these spaces. They’re the ones who inspire me. They mobilize me and give me hope that, yes, things can change. 

At the end of the day, what excites me is that change comes from residents. They’re ready to design their public spaces. They know what they need, how to report issues, how to generate solutions.

What would you tell someone who would like to develop a business idea?

I think of the madureras. I see them as entrepreneurs. They’re in the public space; they’re the owners of this place. When a man is in the public space, it’s easier for him to enter, to sell. It’s about taking small steps so that when you look in the mirror, you see who you are and who you want to be.

When I work with the women who are madureras, my vision for them is that they form an association. And for this, you need a lot of motivation and strength. Once you begin to visualize things, they begin to happen. Obviously, it’s not magic — you have to work for it. You have to create it.